THE POWER OF WORDS: ONE #EPITOME @ A TIME

Tweet, Tweet #soyouthinkyouknowaguy?!

My mother once told me a story of a young boy we shall conveniently name “Gareth”.  Gareth was friends with my youngest brother. He loved coming over to my mom’s house to play with my brother and often slept over. He ate meals at our house, he treated my parents with respect.  My brother  and he would play for hours with the toys he hauled to the house every time he slept over. He was practically family.  One day as my mom was driving around town doing her errands with Gareth, my brother and others in tow she stopped at a  set of traffic lights near the local taxi rank.  Suddenly Gareth became panicked with fear and started screaming while pointing at the crowds of people crossing and milling about the street outside “Black people! Black people!” He shouted “Quickly, quickly close all the windows, lock all the doors” he shouted frantically.  Bewildered my mother asked everyone to close the windows and lock the doors just so he could calm down, after which she began to laugh heartily at the irony of Gareth’s outburst. He was the only white person in the car.

On the Other Hand…#canblacksberacists?

Many years ago I was on a fellowship in the US and it included a two day trip to Atlanta, Georgia. While there we visited the slave market to shop for souvenirs. I found leather wrist bands that fit my arms perfectly. I had been searching all over Jo’burg for them and these were just the right fit and texture, they  were perfect. But the guy who sold them was not  at his stall and after  waiting with me for a while, my group decided to head back to the hotel without me, they couldn’t wait any longer.  I waited for the trader to no avail until I too decided to go back to the hotel because it was getting dark. So I gave the lady manning the next stall  the money and took two the wrist bands with me. When I got out it was dusk and for the life of me I couldn’t remember the name of the hotel we were staying at. I couldn’t call my people because I discovered to my horror that I had no money left on me. What I had was for a cab back. But I didn’t know where or how to get one. So I walked around the city in the dark trying to think of a solution, I ended up near the station filled with homeless people, most of them on wheelchairs, many were drinking out of brown crumpled paper bags, most were smoking, some were chatting, others were sleeping in what was to me then  a large congregation of  forgotten people. It felt as if I had  stumbled into someone’s open house and I was the intruder. The majority of them were black. So naturally, I panicked  because I was afraid of them and didn’t know what they were capable of even though almost all of them  were in wheelchairs,  had missing limbs or were using walking sticks to get around. I  started walking  as fast as I could while looking straight ahead as  if I knew where I was going,  even though I was completely lost. Because there were hundreds of them and it was pitch dark. I followed the glimmer of street lights on the horizon until I emerged in an area of town full of white people all of them walking in the same direction towards the stadium. There was a famous rock band playing that night.  As I was walking among the crowd of white people under a very bright street light I stopped cold and began  to freak out, because I realized  where I was. In Atlanta, Georgia, in America, the only black among  a crowd of white people! Images of the Klu Klux Klan appeared in white hoodies among the crowd like a mirage so I ran across the street feeling afraid and uncertain of what to do.

I promise I’m not crazy  #AngaziButImSure

I saw an Irish bar and went in and used my last money to buy beer while I thought of a way out. I noticed that the bartender, who was completely white was also queer so I struck up a conversation. She gave me a paper straw to drink the beer and listened to my  story. She then  told me of a mixed bar around the corner. She met me there after her shift and then, she  took me to her house to meet her beloved cats and her housemate she then took me to a  go-go bar which featured 80 year old strippers of all races.   I have never seen anything like it in my life. The sun rose with us having coffee and picking at breakfast at one of the local diners like typical Americans trying to figure out how to say goodbye and thank you for one of the most unforgettable nights of my life. She dropped me off at my hotel in time for me to pack my bags and catch the next flight out to New York with my group.  I did not sleep a wink.

But then Again, What is a #pantyprenuer?

This race story in South Africa could well be some kind of Hegelian Dialectic aimed at ultimately restricting free speech.Opportunistic, coincidental, you decide.  Because what has it done? It has birthed calls to criminalize racism, which on the surface sounds perfectly justified, but wait. What would be the appropriate punishment for someone who compares black people to monkeys or a child-like Gareth? How does one explain “Gareth?”.   It clearly must be something he got from his parents, that’s what they normally do when they pass areas were black people are in large numbers; they lock their doors quickly and drive off fast. I know of black people who won’t venture to certain areas in town or anywhere near the taxi rank, including  historically black townships because they too are afraid of black people. Call it crime.  How about me in Atlanta Georgia, afraid of poor blacks with disabilities and other whites? Should Gareth and I be arrested? Jailed? Are we racists? Or is that not a function of our (societal) conditioning; what we’ve read, heard, seen how our parents, friends’ people we admire, trust and adore behave when they relate to people who are different from them? My mother’s response seems to be the most appropriate in this case.  Laugh. All I can think to say, using Trevor Noah’s voice when he mocks  black South African accents is “Fun-nnie  Guy!”:  Because if my idea of freedom conflicts with  your idea of freedom then neither of us can be free until everyone agrees to be a slave. Of hoe?

Come on Gooi, Gooi it! #letstakeitbacktothebeach

Unfortunately this post has no conclusion(s). But perhaps the story of the newscaster who belittled the education minister for failing to properly pronounce the word “epitome” is a perfect example of a possible solution to our problem.While he criticized her for her poor English he didn’t realize that he too had failed to properly pronounce the minister’s seSotho surname.  SeSotho is one of South Africa’s 11 official languages. The education minister could have easily delivered her speech or address in it,  her mother tongue or any one of the 11 languages she is most proficient in – and let the  news channels do their  own perfect translations. She is no longer forced nor compelled to speak English and if she chooses to do so, she must accept correction when she fails to pronounce certain words right. The same goes for newscasters (anyone) who mispronounce people’s names and surnames. As for the monkey saga; we all know who cleans the beach. Check? #Mate.

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A BLUE MONDAY: THINGS FALL APART BUT THE CENTER HOLDS

It is perhaps a little ironic that the statue of Cecil John Rhodes should fall or more aptly be removed from its pedestal in the same week that South African journalist, writer and cultural activist Peter Makurube passed on. As the University of Cape Town students staged protests on campus grounds demanding that #RhodesMustfall, I was busy writing a proposal applying for the second time for the annual Ruth First Journalism Fellowship hosted and adjudicated by Wits University.  Applicants for the fellowship were required to write a one page research proposal on how conversations about race in the country have progressed.  While I kept one eye on the racial bigotry disguised as debates making headlines on all major news media outlets and resulted in the suspension of SABC Newsroom Anchor presenter Eben Jensen for losing his cool while interviewing an EFF member of parliament on the same issue, I attempted to do the impossible and write a compelling one page proposal on race relations in South Africa with the other. In another corner of the same universe Bra Peter as he was affectionately known by those who knew him, was struggling to breathe. You may be wondering just now how these three seemingly unrelated events are connected.   It was never my intention to comment or write about the #RhodesMustfall campaign here.  I was hoping that my thoughts on the subject would find their voice through a public lecture at Wits University after becoming the recipient of the 2015 Ruth First Fellowship.  My aim was to begin the conversation where it ended with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and work my way to where we are today.   The TRC hearings were meant to promote reconciliation and forgiveness among perpetrators and victims of Apartheid by the full disclosure of the truth.  Perhaps the dismantling and removal of the symbolic and concrete structures of Apartheid should have been part of the recommendations and actions taken back when the idea of freedom was still fresh and real to our minds.  But my quest to achieve this failed as I sat at our dinner table and listened while my sister read to me yet another thank you rejection email. I went on Facebook to seek some relief for my bruised ego only to be met with rest in peace acronyms with Bra Peter’s name next to them. It always seems like just the other day we were together debating how to get out of this mess we find ourselves in in this  country,  when most of us can’t even afford to keep a roof over heads let alone afford to pay for our own funerals if we were to die today. It was 2013. The year I had a one on one conversation with God for two months isolated in a foreign country, the year I ended up sleeping on Johannesburg’s streets after a close friend chased me out of their home at 3am in the morning without prior warning. It was the year I tasted real poverty not only of material things, but of hope. It was a year I discovered the continuation of the dual mandate which informs South Africa’s economic policy, a policy which has left most of Africa and Africans quenched. When I saw he was gone I was speechless but had no intention of writing about him. I didn’t know him very well. But the last time we were together he said ” keep writing”. We were both up in the middle of the night, I on my laptop writing and he with his papers in the kitchen. He made me coffee.  It was the first time I had a silent conversation with him. We were both trying to stay alive in our own way. So here I am, still writing. I had long known about the legend of Bra Peter Makurube. All the artists living in Beryl Court, Troyville told me about him every chance they got when I moved in there years ago.” A prolific journalist who once worked for the Mail&Guardian who lives on the top floor of the building, in a corner flat”. I was a young radio reporter working for the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) at the time. We never met in all the years I lived in Beryl Court, he remained an elusive character for many years until some years later when a friend suggested I show him my writing. I was shocked by the mere suggestion because I had written not a single word. But I was more amused by the fact that people assumed I was a writer in the literary sense of the word when all I was doing every day was writing radio news  and current affairs scripts. Though I harboured a desire to make the transition – to one day write a book as my predecessor Antjie Krog did, following her teams’ award winning coverage of the TRC hearings for the SABC. Even though I wanted to write a book on the TRC from a different perspective, I had written nothing then. So I avoided him. This solitary, lone figure, always dressed in dark, black clothes, his hair kept short in loose unintentional dreadlocks, chewing on a match stick or with a cigarette in hand.  He had a serious countenance with creased lines on his face so that he looked as if he was permanently in the depths of deep, formidable and life changing thought.  To tell the truth I was afraid of him, intimidated by his very presence.  I knew that he was someone way above my league. He was not my peer. And by extension he was someone whose respect and time one had to earn. And one night in 2013 through mutual friends I found I had earned enough respect to be in his company.  To share however minimally stories of our common struggle. I was disarmed by his gentleness, by his kindness which occupied his internal space just as easily  and as comfortably as his defiant, angry, spirit.  I didn’t know how the two could co-exist peacefully but in him they did.  At times I observed that he had  so much more to say, so much more to share but found no place worthy of his mind, there was no place to  hold him,  his words and ideas away from the cold  piercing sun of  a Johannesburg winter.  I heard him listening, intently to us the younger generation as we tried to make sense of our new South Africa. He had been there before. In the 20 years of our democracy we had not saved up enough reserves either because we did not have enough to save or because we thought we didn’t need to, but our resources were running out. The façade of a rainbow nation was starting to crack, revealing the truth of the state of our nation. The invisible signs of apartheid had been removed by law. But South Africans still remained chained in their minds. We were caught unawares. Some of us believed the myth of a rainbow nation and acted as people who were free would, some of us knew a new nation will take years and a conscious persistent effort to rewire our minds, still some of us were knee deep in the muddy past trying to resolve and or conclude past puzzles abandoned in the euphoria of the morning sun. Most of us though had no idea how to combine the past and present to create a future we want to live in. His thoughts on the current systems of oppression were disparaging. Perhaps this is why he has remained on the very edge of  the cultural discourse in South Africa, perhaps this is why his views were unpopular and maybe too risky for the establishment. But he found a way to remain relevant in the public’s mind and provided a platform for hungry young minds and old souls to express their divergent views on the state of the nation in poetry and performance at the popular  Monday Blues sessions held in Melville, Johannesburg for a while there was excitement in the air.  They were always packed. The point is Cecil John Rhodes’ statue may have fallen, but his ideas still stand tall and prominently in the hearts and minds of millions of his black and white students who occupy positions of power and leadership in academia, government, economic, social and cultural sectors of our society.  Students who still believe and use western ideas and culture as the gold standard for progress and development despite evidence to the contrary.  It is a dangerous dogma that dresses itself up as progressive forward thinking policies.  But with the independence of Zaire came the fall of King Leopold the II’s statue which occupied a prominent yet despised place in the minds of the people. But its removal did not result in peace. It birthed the formidable character of Mabutu Seseseko, whose fall from grace also saw everything he had built during his totalitarian presidency vandalized. Yet these actions however empowering and symbolic in the moment did not result in the destruction of both King Leopold the II and Mabutu Seseseko’s  legacy of insane brutality.  The people forgot to also change their minds, their language, their writing, their thinking so that all the dismantling of the physical structures – however symbolic and necessary – had left no lasting positive material changes of any significance in the lives of the citizens of the DRC, a country which has struggled to remain stable since the assassination of its first Prime minister Patrice Lumumba.  Regardless of who is the target of our current wrath or who we blame for our lack of progress, it is not the statue of Cecil John Rhodes that is attacking African foreign migrants in Durban KwaZulu Natal and other parts of the country. It is not the statue of Cecil John Rhodes that is in government today. Whatever change we are able to attain in the moment will not last unless we change our minds about who we are and who we want to be, and then be prepared work and stand for it. I mourn for Bra Peter Makurube today not because he  died, but because we could not hold him. Because we let him go with his archive of knowledge, history, and experience. We didn’t value him enough to give him a place in our collective table to share what we had with him to make what we had larger and richer.  I mourn for him because he is not here to place a bandage over the wounds of indoctrination, to make the fall of a concrete figure meaningful. His voice is not here to speak its own brand of reason, of truth to help us heal in all the ways and in all the places we never thought were wounded. Perhaps the worst of what the oppressive governments have done is to make us blind to each other. To see no value in another human being or their particular struggle. I mourn bra Peter because I can find no place to read him and share him. I mourn because right now I think his voice would make sense. I mourn because we are in such a state as this. Perhaps it is indeed true that one cannot dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools. Yet since this is our house why aren’t we building? On that last and same night we spent together a group of us talked about money and what we would do with it if we suddenly had lots of it. Some of us said we’d buy land and build our  own homes, plant our own food. He said he would pull together all the city’s emerging artists and have a massive cultural festival where artists were paid what  they are  worth. I suppose in some ways, in a small but meaningful way, tonight his dream will come true. “They thought they buried us,  but little did they know that we were seeds” Mexican Proverb. Long Live Bra Peter. Thank you for holding me.

Picture Credit: Muntu Vilakazi

CAN YOU SEE ME NOW?

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So many people who consider themselves progressive  have their own weird notions about the native, but they all have one thing in common. They want to decide who the native is and they want to do good things for him. You know what I mean. They want to lead him. To tell him what to do. They want to think for him and he must be accepting of their thoughts. And they like him to depend on them. Your Zuma makes an excellent “good native” for progressive folk. That’s why you like him”  – Frederick Cooper, Conflict and Connection -re thinking Colonial African history  ( Abrahams 1963,68)

I wrote the following piece “Un-begging to be white” in  2011. I continue to think deeply about  many of the issues raised in my piece since and more so now that I find myself re-listening to archive testimonies from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1996-1999). Testimonies from which South African writer, poet and journalist Antjie Krog (whom I deeply admire) wrote her most famous non-fiction book Country of My Skull.  The bubbling racial (sic) tensions in South Africa today and around the world make this piece more relevant.  I would like you to keep these words by  Nobel Laureate, Political activist, professor novelist and former Auschwitz prisoner and survivor – Elie Wiesel,  in mind as you read. Prof Wiesel believed strongly that indifference is the  epitome of evil. And offered memory as an antidote to it. Below is his answer to the question on how to fight indifference, he said:

Through memory.  Memory may not be the only answer but there is no answer without memory. As a writer I have always been tempted by silence. I have tried to introduce silence into every word of mine. I have tried to surround my words with silence. And yet I know that  though the memory of silence is important, the silence of memory would be scandal. ( Wiesel 1988,19).

UN-BEGGING TO BE WHITE. (sic) Recently I  had a matter of fact conversation with a dear friend. It was matter of fact because it was what I assumed to be a matter of fact tale of (my) life. The on-line conversation revolved around my progress in securing accommodation. I was looking for a one bedroom flat. My dear friend was assisting me by finding links to places she found thousands of miles away from Johannesburg the city I inhabit.  And here’s the matter of fact part, I found myself typing this: In this situation I wish I were a white, rich woman, because I think it would make the process of finding a place easier. She responded by saying, being a  “white South African is not easy. It’s hard, because you’re always looked at, judged at face-value, assumed to be a bad person (racist)”. I brushed over her comment by saying yeah but there are pros and cons (to being black or white) and in this case I think it would be a pro for me as I would be able to eliminate all other possibilities.  She said she didn’t think it was a racial thing. I agreed with her in part. But instead of telling her this I continued by saying that two of my friends ( white expats) were also looking for accommodation  and while viewing a cottage in Brixton they were told that they were only considered because they were white . The landlord  didn’t want black people living in their backyard.  At that point she said she didn’t want to have a black/ white conversation and promptly logged off.

The conversation left me with an uneasy feeling in my stomach. It left me pained,and I had to really take a long, hard look at myself. I wished  I  could take what I said back because just like my flat hunting experience, I wasn’t sure if the conversation had ended because she really had to go or because I had hurt her feelings and she wasn’t willing to  engage with me anymore. I had said to her that I wish it were simple; either the place I was looking for had already been taken or that I couldn’t afford it.

But I found myself thinking that perhaps there is more. After the conversation I had to question whether as a black South African, race is my default answer to all my problems? If I don’t get what I want – do I always assume that there must be a racial rationale? Why had I thought to even say that, why was that the uppermost thing on my mind?

Even as I write this I am finding it hard to pin down my thoughts, my reasons, my position. Why was  her response to what I thought was part of my normal so disturbing for me?  Did it disturb me because I had never  thought of what being a white South African must be like, feel, like taste like? Is it because I did not have a white South African view to life,  my vision is skewed by my skin colour,  my skin  colours how I look at life, defines how and when I move. I tried to think about her statement: How hard it must be to be a white South African; a descendant/beneficiary of a white racists regime, carrying the guilt of privilege, the burden of wealth on your skin; – despite what your actual personal circumstances may be. The assumption that you are racists, just because you are white.

It does sound hard and harsh. Just as hard and harsh as being black. So where do we find common ground. How can my statement not hurt my friend whom I love dearly who is also a white  South African woman? How can I be sure that race has nothing to do with my difficulty in securing a place to stay, in one of the richest, leafiest suburbs of Johannesburg?

The conversation reminded me of an experience I had in Cape Town a few years ago. I had been in the city  on a work assignment when it was finished I decided to stay on for a few days to experience  more of the city.  I decided that booking into a backpackers would be the most affordable option for me since it was after all a last minute plan. Cape Town’s long street was central, and offered a host of social venues where I could meet new people as I knew no one in the city.  That night accompanied by a friend and colleague I walked down Long street  and  knocked on  every backpacker  – there were many of them.  Most of them were full, others  didn’t answer the door. Eventually we arrived at one where the door did open. They had  room(s) available and I could  afford it.  There was just one problem. I was South African.  They had a policy that explicitly  favored, preferred  foreigners over locals.  I asked why in exasperation and fatigue and the man replied saying something I didn’t quite hear because the I was thinking of where the hell I was going to sleep that night.  Yes, my race was the last thing on my mind.

But on re-telling the story to friends and colleagues they found it a veiled racist’s rejection. They found that whatever reason he had given was hard to justify in a country where racial segregation shaped every part of our lives. Then in 2004, I could not  sleep at a backpackers  which  had  a room I could afford because I was South African. But Cape Town is another country – or is it? Do other countries reserve accommodation only for foreigners too? Where locals are not allowed? Maybe. But I have come to define that incident as being a racist one  even thought I didn’t think of it those terms initially. And wonder to this day,  if the story would be different had I been a  white female. Of course I have no way of knowing this for sure.

Did that experience raise my antennas? To  label anything I could not understand as being racist?  Am I a walking talking racist person?  How can I have a colour-blind outlook to life? What does being colour blind mean, where do I draw the line… when is it acceptable to take issue? When is it not? Is my assumption that life must be easier for South African (rich) white women or white people in general true? Is  it fair?

When thinking about this, Antjie Krog’s book, Begging to be  Black – comes to mind. Perhaps I may be subconsciously begging to be white also, as she is begging to be black. To be under a white woman’s skin, to  think as  a white person does, to feel & smell as a  white person.  Maybe I have white person envy.  My black friends often remind me, tell me, state it as a matter of fact  whenever they can, that I LOVE white people. They say it as if it were a crime, something bad, that I should be ashamed of. I cannot count how many times I’ve had to count how many black friends I have to justify the number of white people I hang out with. It is an interesting subject. I think it  really would be  more interesting for me to  say that I am begging to be white.  I would be the embodiment of the the oppressed, who Frantzs Fanon described thus : “Having judged, condemned and ignored their cultural forms, his language, his food habits, his sexual habits, his way of sitting down, of resting, of laughing , of enjoying himself the oppressed flings himself upon the imposed culture with the desperation of a drowning man”  Frantz Fanon.

That would be a logical  and easy assumption to make. An automatic logical expression of my oppression would be to hate  myself, my heritage, my identity, my background.  denying the past.  I would be and probably am  no different to  those  people who bleach their skin in order to have a fairer complexion, who loved their masters more than themselves,  who devised ways to straighten their hair, so that it’s lighter, softer and gentler to the touch. Those among us who dated and married white men so they could have nice brown and light-skinned children who would by extension have a better or easier hand at life. In this world which favours lightness – the closer one is to the Aryan race the better.   But I have never until that point given much thought to what being white must be like, except for the fact that I think the experience whatever it may be, must be generally easier than being a black woman.  I guess I never had time to think about how hard it must be to be white  – because I was busy trying to survive. Live.

Or perhaps my begging to be white could be an equally condescending and patronizing exercise as found in Krog’s  analysis of black culture  or ethos …” how they think”, her musings in orderly, efficient  Europe about the missed  benefits of Ubuntu. I could wonder how Europeans rationalize and justify their ideas  of “civilization” and if they are proud of the civilization (s) they have achieved so far in Africa and in Europe. The African continent should be by now a bright shining example of white innovation, intelligence, supremacy. After years of practice in Europe their systems, machinery,isms, education,  industrialization etc should have been easier and faster to implement here. How then has their efficiency, precision, logic, analytical mind (s) , all the “good” and genius that has  always been their birth right benefited anyone?

I am not begging to be white or black for that matter.  What I am doing is begging to understand why it is that I should (must) understand, how hard it must be to white – when the very  white people have not tried to understand what it must be like to be black – and their only reflection on the matter is only in response to their own guilty feelings about what black people must think and  feel about them? Why is it that I must be asked to constantly  measure, balance my experience, be polite, nice, not hurt any one’s feelings, to hear all sides before I can say something which is  my experience – not a feeling, but a fact. When it might reflect badly, upset, offend a white person?  Why must I understand that all black people are lazy, that we have never invented anything, that we are thieves, corrupt, diseased, as a matter of fact and  that the only way I can succeed is with some assistance or sponsorship, the AID of white people, why is it that I should be asked to understand that I am who I am, know what I know, live the way I do, speak the way I do, am because of my colonial saviours, because if they hadn’t  saved me  – I probably would be living in a rural mud-hut dressed in nothing but cow skin and breeding millions of children for  an old abusive patriarch if not dead?

Why must I understand that most things about my life have nothing to do with race actually, when they don’t understand that everything about their life is about race, because of race? On a more personal level, why is it that I cannot speak about my experience without being a racists ungrateful and disrespectful person. Why can’t we have a conversation?

I would love to live in a world, where I didn’t have to sell my DNA/My soul/My dignity in order to have a roof over my head. I would love to live in a world where my house is your house; my land is your land, where community is community. But I don’t and that is largely because Europeans, thought it  backward, uncivilized, uncultured, primitive and un-educated  to share. So they took that away centuries ago, made sure that any semblance of equity  was thoroughly destroyed. So yes, for me right now, in this country it is a matter of fact that it would be easier for me to find a place had I been white and rich. I look forward to the day when this would not be a matter of fact. 

” Historians of economic thought should be heedful therefore, not only of what gets said, but what is left unsaid.  And what in a sense cannot be said in arguments and articles meant to be heard and paid attention to. By considering the relationship between power, interests, and rhetoric among the elite producers of economic knowledge. Historians of economic thought may be able to further illuminate the nature and history of story-telling in economics. But in connecting these accounts historians of economic thought (must) should recognize that they themselves are storytellers, building partial accounts of the partial accounts written by economists. To the extent that the storytellers of economics however have been selected and socialized  to believe in and to have a stake in stories of individual objectivity and the free market place of ideas, these storytellers will continue  to present themselves as authoritative agents of truth. And as long as the rhetoric of the discipline in enforced thought and intellectual hierarchy resistant to transformative challenges, the telling of dissonant stories remains  fraught with professional peril.Diana Strassmann; The stories of Economics and the power of the storyteller (1993)