TJOVITJO: I’M SORRY, WHAT?

Featured

The recent exchange between ‘the people’s bae’ South African Member of Parliament and Economic Freedom Fighter (EFF) spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi (PhD) and a candidate for the SABC board  Rachel Kalidass, got me thinking about the politics of representation, race and class in the country.

During the interview ‘the people’s bae‘ leaned into his mic and asked, ‘what do you think about Tjovitjo?” The respondent Kalidass, a chartered accountant and former SABC board member evidently flustered by his question, batted her eyes lids behind clear thin glasses and then answered the MP with her own question “I’m sorry, what?”

After a few rounds of clarification, Kalidass who is included in the final list of 12 names recommended to serve on the SABC board,  eventually answered that not only does she not know who or what Tjovitjo is she is, in fact, more inclined to watch SABC 3 which is a channel geared towards urban metropolitan South Africans – who are global citizens, well read, well-travelled and earn on average over 17 thousand rands a month (LSM 7-10). Tjovitjo is aired on SABC 1 which targets the often-rural peri urban working class South Africans, with some primary education and earn between one thousand and 6 thousand rand a month (LSM 1-6).

The question and her answer were laughed off by the parliamentary panel. But it got people on twitter tweeting on opposite lines of the fence. Some argued that she is not a board member of the SABC 3 channel only and should rather stay home while others countered that she can’t possibly be expected to know all programming on SABC’s numerous platforms.

Be that as it may. I sight this incident which is possibly innocuous in the context of everything else that’s happening both within government and at the SABC, because it speaks directly to what concerns me the most about the state of our nation.  The jarring,  growing and consistent disconnect between those who are elected to serve or work for the public’s interest and the actual public.

Kalidass and her colleagues are faced with a mammoth of task of restoring the  image, reputation and credibility of the public-state- broadcaster from a long history of scandals, mismanagement, corruption, undue political interference and censorship which led to the firing of its most controversial  Chief Operations Officer (COO) to date, Hlaudi Motsoeneng,  the purging of the SABC board, the firing of SABC8 journalists who blew the whistle against  increased censorship in the broadcaster’s news division. Censorship which later led to the untimely death of SABC8 journalist Suna Venter three months ago.

Viewed in this historical context, Tjovitjo a 26-part drama series about the lives of a group dancers amatjovitjo, who live in peri-urban-poverty-ridden-opportunity-less squatter camps who use dance as way to not only express their frustration with their lives but to overcome them – is the only good news story to have come out of the SABC in recent months. The drama series drew more than 5 million viewers for its first episode breaking the SABC’s own records since Yizo-Yizo, a popular youth drama series which aired in 1999-2004.

While watching episode three of the series it felt so real I cried real ones when one of the protagonists – a young unemployed school dropout and mother who pays for her child’s transportation to school with sexual favours – broke down crying saying, “I’m tired of this life, every day I must hustle, hustle, hustle for everything.” Her mother who sat quietly by responded: “don’t cry my child everyone is living this life.” Everyone must hustle.

Despite the positive reviews which praised the producers and actors for their brilliant artistry. I realized how exhausted I was by this seemingly never-ending story of black poverty. I began to think to myself  –  if I never see another inspirational story of South Africans dancing and singing their way through the dusty streets of some township, ghetto, crime ridden, corrupt, poverty-stricken, hungry smiling, disease laden squatter camp – it will be too soon. Too soon indeed.

Despite the many misgivings I may have about the stereotypes which persist in the series and questions of whether we are not in some ways continuing to monetize the anxieties and suffering of black people. I also know this:

TjoviTjo is about the 30 million South Africans who are currently living in poverty, the majority of whom are black (women) people who watch SABC1 for entertainment. It depicts in real and tangible terms what the government and the ruling party ANC have failed to do and still need to do. This is what Tjovitjo represents. The lived experiences of more than half of the country’s population.

Like Kalidass I myself am inclined towards the upwardly mobile educated lifestyle populated with people who are travelling the world and read books for leisure, who isn’t? Except that I have been there before. I have lived among those people who reside in the forgotten wastelands of our rainbow nation and together we met the glare of hopelessness in the eye and danced sePansula by candle light until midnight to while away the time. We danced, rehearsed every chance we could to stave off hunger or the desire to do something more damaging to our prospects. We danced against despair and we danced for survival.  I know how significant it is to shout or hear screams of tjovitjo!!! Amid whistles and claps of appreciation from friends as we fall into step together. So, I cannot afford not to know. I cannot afford to look away and as a public representative, neither can she. Because the only hope we all have of changing this particular story is to face it. Otherwise, what’s the point?

“To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try to understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”

― Arundhati Roy, The Cost of Living

 

Advertisements

IF WE DON’T TELL THE TRUTH WHO WILL? – ZOLA NTUTU

Featured

It’s difficult. I am at a loss for words and a piece of me is still hoping that it’s not true.  My former SABC Radio News Assignment editor and Veteran  Journalist  Zola “The General” Ntutu has passed away. Found dead, in bed, alone in his flat on Sunday the 20th August 2017. I was talking to him just the other day, about work. I wondered if what I was proposing was worth his time he said no, he doesn’t think it would be worth his time. I agreed with him and wished him well. Just a few days ago. How could he now be no more? Yes, my Facebook timeline was often filled with regular updates regarding his health. He was frequently in and out of the hospital, I would comment on his thread at times; “Strength to you Zola” or “Get well soon  General” (a name he got for his struggle days in Port Elizabeth). But lately he had been posting cheerful stuff, jokes about women, men and soccer fans being sore losers.  So I assumed all was well. After our conversation, I had no reason to believe that those would be the last and final words I would say to him. Stay well. You see I had a vested, selfish interest in his survival, in his life because I was hoping to eventually give him a copy of my book one day, a book inspired in part by him and journalists of his generation. I had hoped that he would open the book and read about himself, through my eyes.  Read about how he was such a strong and ever-present dependable influence and character in my tenure as a radio journalist at the SABC.  It was my way of thanking him for teaching me how to write, how to tell a story, a great radio story – more importantly he taught me how to think, how to defend, clarify, argue my positions when we debated stories in diary meetings or when he’d call me to sit by him while he edited my stories. Think Jedi…. What do you mean by this….  Nooo man Jedi but this does not make sense, what are you trying to say?  I can still hear his voice loudly in my head as I write this. What am I trying to say? Gosh it was meant to be a surprise.

To be honest there was something stinging about his last words to me.   When he replied that it wasn’t worth his time.  I mean I knew it wasn’t worth his time, I was surprised by his interest. But I still felt a tinge of sadness, I wanted to know what he was busy with instead.  I didn’t want to pry into his private life yet I  knew  I could trust him to be honest, to always tell me the truth even if I didn’t want to hear it. Like when I returned from my first international assignment. He didn’t mince his words, “You f***d up” and he was right. Or when I refused to get married “you must light other people’s candles, don’t be selfish” or when I was job hopping “You’re all over the place, you need to settle down”

Why didn’t I think to say thank you then while I still had his attention, why hadn’t I told him then that I thought he was one of the best editors/journalists I knew?

Why hadn’t I told him that despite everything, I respected him?

Because I thought I had time. I thought I would walk into the Johannesburg SABC radio news office, my second home for close to ten years and still find him sitting there, at the corner wearing his black leather jacket or an African print shirt, a black beret, or rolled up woollen hat on his head, editing radio scripts or asking yet another radio journalist what they meant by this sentence – place the book next to him on his desk and say thank you. Enkosi. Check.

Ours was a largely professional relationship. I met him when I was 20 while still an intern, lost and confused at the World Racism Conference in Durban, 2001. He was loud, boisterous, argumentative, playful, witty, dark, broody, moody, his laugh was lyrical, loud, and foreboding all at once. I didn’t know what to make of him. He put the fear of God in me and I was a born-again Christian. It took a very long time for me to warm to him and relax. Because I didn’t know how to deal with I treated him like a distant father figure, an elder, a strict, wayward but favourite uncle.

And yet Zola Ntutu was no respecter of titles, positions, hierarchy, social class, power structures he was, for the most part, the most irreverent person I knew. I was curious about him and found him simultaneously open and closed off to me. I stalked him in other ways, by listening to his archived radio stories, in particular, those he produced around the TRC, and I caught glimpses of him in Antjie Krog’s book of the on the TRC hearings, Country of my Skull.  He reported extensively on the pre-election violence in the early 1990’s in various townships, particularly on Johannesburg’s  East Rand. But for a large part he remained a mystery to me, a Pandora’s box I was afraid to open. I didn’t know about his background in photojournalism, though he liked my photojournalism after I had left. He seldom spoke of himself. And so for years, he remained to me an elder and boss but never a peer.

Until he showed up one day after a group of us (women) journalists while off-duty had been robbed at gunpoint at   Johannesburg’s’ Zoolake, he drove out to the scene to make sure that we were all still breathing. I saw how unbelievably tender his heart was. I got a glimpse of what was hiding behind his loud, witty and brooding often hung-over face. He was a softie. Tender and kind. A man who cared deeply about life,  he was perhaps a closet idealist. I found a new fondness for him and in my heart, he became more than a comrade, more than an editor and more than my boss. He was a Kindred. He made a fuss. He cared. He was passionate, compassionate, loving.  Even when he barely grunted a hello on Monday or weekend mornings walking past my desk, or when shouted where’s your script or bellowed my name at the top of his voice from his office, even though at times I dreaded it when he was the editor on duty because he would (not) let things slide; he would interrogate you, send you to stories you didn’t want to cover or make you write about subjects you didn’t think were newsworthy because he had won the argument about why that story was important. He was intellectually rigorous.  Could debate you on any subject.  He was tough, stubborn, relentless and often difficult, he challenged me and sometimes this made him seem impossible. But despite all of that I knew that he was my comrade.

He was with us in the trenches. He defended us at Line talk. He was a journalists’ ally.

Before I finally left the SABC for the second time, post-Marikana we had a difficult conversation. About Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder amongst journalists an underlying theme of the book,  I’ve been working on. He said it was a huge problem in South African newsrooms. One which both editors and journalists neither dealt with or were prepared for.  I was trying not to lose my temper and argue with him.  Because he was not well.

It’s hard to describe a  journalists’ relationship with an editor. It’s personal, intimate, often vacillates from love to hate in a matter of milliseconds. Sometimes frustratingly hostile, bitter, competitive, tearful and at other times joyful, funny, sarcastic other times endearing, full of tension, admiration and mutual respect. It is also at the same time distant, detached. Alien, foreign, clinical.  More than that though the editor knows things about you. They know all the unedited parts of you. They see you every day, raw and unpolished and like a parent, they clean you up, show you how to do it, and hope you can one-day do it yourself and surprise them, in a good way.

It’s hard for me to describe my relationship with him and for all these reasons I couldn’t for the life of me ask him. I couldn’t get the question out of my mouth. What I wanted to know the most during our interview.

There was so much that was left unsaid.

What I know for sure though, is that Zola Ntutu always had time for me. He had time for me and my fellow (former) Johannesburg Radio News Journalists.  He fought with and for us, he forced us to grow. He pushed us even when he himself was weak and, barely breathing.  He made the time for each and everyone of us.  My words, our words mattered to him, not because he was paid to look at them, but because we shared the same belief about the reason many of us had become journalists.

“Our job is to tell the truth if we don’t who will?”

And for that, I will be forever grateful. I never thought I’d see these words so soon.

Zola Ntutu,51, has died. Checked.

Out and I am heartbroken.

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN

Featured

I’m sharing something I wrote three years ago about censorship at the South African Public Broadcaster (SABCNews) which was initially published on IPS  in 2013 as I am thinking and reflecting on the bravery of SABC8 Journalist Suna Venter who  died from Heart Break Syndrome. I didn’t know then that the state of emergency in our country would escalate to a point where one of own journalists would be harassed, stalked, assaulted, isolated, hounded and victimized to the point of death. I don’t think it’s fair that one person, a single individual has to  die  before we all can realize how pervasive the power structures in all state and or public institutions have become. It’s not fair to sacrifice people at the alter of your lust for power,  money, influence or the vote. Yes,  principles might not pay your bills but not having them will certainly kill the conscience of this country. Can you live with that?

In the Public Interest

In this blog for World Press Freedom Day 2013, journalist Jedi Ramalapa shares the pressures journalists often face from State institutions to censor their work, and the emotional toll this can have on both the journalist and the subject.

In the Public Interest    

by Jedi Ramalapa

The South African Broadcasting Corporation or SABC broadcasts news and current affairs daily to more than 48 million South Africans, through 18 radio stations in all the 11 official languages and has three television channels which can be accessed even in the remotest parts of the country.

 

It is more powerful than any of the local South African broadcasters put together in swaying public opinion and, more importantly, with winning votes.  Having control over the public broadcaster is having control of the country.  Businesses and politicians understand this fact all too well.  If it’s not on SABC, it can’t be completely true.

 

I was busy editing an interview with one of the Marikana widows, whose husband was killed along with 50 or so other mine workers on the 16th of August 2012.  It was the kind of interview I had done a thousand times before, speaking to grieving relatives about their loved ones.  It was in my opinion nothing out of the ordinary or controversial.

 

But this time and for the first time in an eight-and-a-half year public broadcasting career at the SABC   they, the executive producers, asked to listen to the final cut of the interview which we planned to air later that day.

 

They listened as the widow spoke of her grief and her anger. “I blame the government, the police, the unions and Lonmin for what happened,” she said on tape.

 

Play that again, said the executive producers. They listened and said, “Cut out that part.”

 

“Which part,” I asked?  Like a naïve little girl.

 

“That part where she says:  ‘I blame the government, the unions, the police and Lonmin for what happened.’”

 

“Why?”  I asked.

 

“Because there’s no one to blame, we don’t know who is responsible, and we just don’t want to have to deal with questions.”

 

What questions, I asked myself in disbelief thinking that even in her grief the widow had managed to be impartial in apportioning blame to everyone involved in the Marikana massacre; not many people were able to do that.

 

But I couldn’t fight it.  I had woken this woman up at 6am to do the interview, which had taken me at least three days and a string of phone-calls to convince her to speak to me.  We cried together during the interview- in which I tried to convince her that life was still worth living. She had trusted me with her heart.  I was not going to let her down.  So I did as I was told and cut out the offending parts like a surgeon saving a life.

 

The widow had been censored in the most subtle of ways, by omission and not only was I not prepared for it, I became an accomplice.

 

Even today I don’t know who to blame for that moment in my life, myself for doing the interview in the first place? Or for failing to defend her or my work when I was told to cut out certain parts? I don’t know.

 

But I am writing this to honour the Marikana widow who in a moment of great loss and pain managed to do what I and the public broadcaster failed to do, speak truth to power and remain impartial.

NEWS: PRINCIPLES CAN’T PAY THE BILLS

Featured

I’ve heard it being said a million times in the blue corridors of the embattled public (state) broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). Journalist after senior journalist and editor after senior editor giving us newcomers, the young ones, sage advice. Lay low, do your job, keep your head down and let the storm pass and it will, we’ve been through this many times. We have worked under Apartheid and under different chiefs; Mandela, Mbeki, Mbeki again, and now Jacob Zuma. We have been here since Barney Mthombothi, Matata Tsedu, Snuki Zikalala etc. They all come and go, like the revolving door.  Each one comes with their own policies and rules, but we’re still here. Unless you’re a trust fund kid, have wealthy parents or loads of money stashed away somewhere for you, a nest egg of a lifetime, unless you’re connected to powerful people in powerful positions who can intervene on your behalf  – you just better keep your mouth shut if you want to keep your job. If you make a noise, you are on your own. Stay.

There are other ways to fight the demon of censorship. Leak the story to the outside media. Call in anonymously on 702. But don’t make yourself a target. The media space in South Africa is pretty small, everyone knows everyone and sooner or later you’ll have to knock right back at the door you slammed a few hours ago. Unless you are a media demigod, insert a name of your choice here.

Are you a member of a union? Are you an ANC member? Do you have connections? So, don’t let other people’s battles become yours. Mind your own business. It doesn’t matter, you have here an opportunity to do wonderful work, to contribute to the archives of our history, to tell stories like no other organization can.  To be a voice for the voiceless.

Your story will be heard in 18 radio stations across the country, in all 11 official languages. And if you work for TV, your work will be screened in all four Television stations broadcasting in four, five or more official languages. 

SABC’s market share for audiences is still very large, even though the higher income earners in the LSM 7-10 bracket have moved on to other free-to air and or private media such as E-tv and Mnet, Multichoice and the internet. The majority of the nation still listens to SABC channels whether it’s Television or Radio. Don’t let them fool you. If you want to do real work that matters, if you want to speak to South Africa today.  This is the place.

While the actions of the SABC8 journalist who are now sadly fired are commendable they will join a long line of former SABC journalists who also stood up and took up a principled decision to walk out the door instead of doing what they were told. Some never returned, some left only to return again and again.

The SABC8 were vindicated with the SANEF Nat Nakasa Award for showing exceptional courage and integrity in their work. Donations are pouring in to assist them to weather the storms of unemployment while they fight for their jobs, in a show of unprecedented compassion for those who were brave enough to speak truth to power. Maybe the SABC8 will win their case in court and get their jobs back, maybe they won’t. Who knows, anything can happen.

But in the meantime, censorship still continues at the SABC. At least 3 thousand employees will wake-up and go to work tomorrow. Someone will fill in the vacant positions from inside, someone will pick up where the SABC8 have left off and act in their positions until the situation is normalized and the storm dies down and the current Chief Operating Officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng is replaced by someone else. A woman this time.

Because in this game called life…

 iJob iJob.  Local elections are around the corner, there are other stories that need to be covered, soapies to broadcast, Somizi’s new radio show to put on air, advertisers need to be billed, programs need commissioning, slots must be filled. At the core of it all, it is about power and influence – and these potent but  invisible things are not easy to give up. 

 So then, life will continue as it does even after someone we once loved deeply, like freedom, dies. The grief subsides and the pain slowly fades away. And we find ourselves laughing again, because we must.

Nothing will change at the SABC until the day that principles can pay the bills.  Then only will the entire staff or at least the majority of it, down tools, stage an internal black-out or stay away from work in a form of protest. Just take a cursive glance at the recent events in Zimbabwe.

Until then, others will continue to live off the sweat of a few who dare to face the heat and are now faced with a future of eating principles for lunch.  This is true for most media houses across the world. Nothing new there.

Didn’t you know? That’s how democracy works. The majority rule.

Well that is,  until further notice…

 

JUNE 16: ” Entitled”

Featured

The issue of  “title” or “entitlement” takes a different tone during the month of June in South Africa with cries by media commentators, politicians, business leaders, social activist and others claiming that today’s (black) youth has an attitude of “entitlement” and they are not willing to work for a living.  I think it is useful to remember that there is  a difference between knowing what you are entitled to, claiming it and being lazy.  But  all too often these attitudes are either confused or used interchangeably and the word “entitlement” has become a synonym for laziness. The youth of 1976 would not have stood against the Apartheid regime on that fateful day if they did not believe that they were “entitled” to learn in a language of their choice. No one can say with a straight face that black youth took to the streets because they didn’t want to be educated or that they were lazy. I think it’s important that we are careful not to discourage citizens from claiming what is rightfully theirs when those claims threaten the status quo. In this week’s blog post constitutional court journalist Candice Nolan writes about the ongoing struggle for land title in South Africa with a test case being deliberated by the highest court in the land, the constitutional court.  In this story she asks:

Who is “entitled” to this land?  

An all too familiar narrative is playing out on South Africa’s rural landscape. People are being pitted against their traditional leaders in a battle over land ownership. Numbering some 350 thousand households, the Bakgatla-Ba-Kgafela people live in 32 sub villages in the Moses Kotane Municipal Area in the North West Province. The chief, Kgosi Nyalala Pilane successfully won a land claim on behalf of his people, approved by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform. That was back in 2006 and some nine years later the people say they are yet to see the benefits of that land claim. The people unanimously chose a Community Property Association as the vehicle to manage that land, setting them on a collision course with their chief. This battle has reached South Africa’s highest court – in a case  testing the validity and  authority of Community Property Associations (CPA’s). The court is yet to make its decision but government officials and indeed the Bakgatla Chief had a tough time answering questions during the hearing. Bridgeman Sojane the Secretary General of the Community Property Association says  the land sits on rich platinum deposits on which the Chief concluded mining deals with Anglo-American Platinum. Sojane complains that while the land is said to be owned by the Bakgatla community, they are yet to see any of the proceeds. “They are in the direct control of the Chief and his traditional council,” says Sojane, “they are the people who now, at the end of the day, decide what to do with the finances generated from this”.

Tara Weinberg, a specialist researcher on Community Property Associations at the Centre for Law and Society says this is one of the very few cases that gets to the heart of the land reform dilemma in South Africa.   Weinberg says there seems to be a general shift within government policy away from democratically elected structures in which people have chosen to hold land (such as CPA’s) toward traditional council’s or traditional leaders. She reckons that this may be because it is far easier for investors to negotiate with a traditional council or a Chief, than to have mining deals considered by democratically elected structures which are beholden to the will of the people. The Bakgatla CPA was never made permanent due to admitted bungling by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform. The argument now,  is that the provisional CPA expired after 12 months and that it therefore cannot hold land. Tara Weinberg says the people are now looking to the Constitutional Court to give the final word on the matter.  Kgosi Pilane asked the Constitutional Court to order that the matter be sent back to the vote by the community. This despite the fact that a previous vote was unanimously in favour of a community property association as the vehicle to manage the land. The Department of Rural Development and Land Reform backs the legitimacy of the Bakgatla CPA. But they insist that Kgosi Pilane must be part of any decision on who should manage the land. There was a spirited debate in the Constitutional Court on how to resolve the present impasse. Justice Bess Nkabinde pointed out an age-old African adage “Kgosi ke Kgosi ka morafe” or the King is  king by the will of his people. Certainly, Kgosi Pilane would argue that this does not mean that his power is subject to popular vote. He maintains that he is the rightful administrator of the land on behalf of the people. The Constitutional Court has reserved Judgment – meaning its judges will deliberate the issue and announce their decision on a date yet to be determined. Candice Nolan is a senior constitutional  court reporter with the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). Her stories can be heard on SAfm 104-107. Follow her  @Candice_Klein on Twitter.

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

“Surreal But Nice…”

 

rare moments of genuine laughter - more to come.
rare moments of genuine laughter – caught unaware

Romance Could Happen to YOU too…

These days finding reasons to smile and laugh can be as hard as trying to find a needle in a hay stack. Luckily through my younger  brother, Immie, – bless him – I have a copy of  Nottinghill (1999)the movie starring American actress Julia Roberts and British actor Hugh Grant, and regardless of my mood or how many times I’ve seen it, which has been many times, it still makes me laugh and laugh out loud. The dry British humour never fails and its interplay with its rival Americanese makes me laugh each and every time.

I like romantic comedies. I am coming out.  I won’t hide it anymore. Romantic comedies are a reminder to me one who is always so concerned about matters ever so serious that life is also equally if not  more importantly about play, enjoying life and having fun with laughter being the main essential ingredient.  The happiest people are those who have fun 80 percent of the time.  Fun is possible in Politics, in real love. Romance is just as possible.  I love romance.

Anyway  Julia Roberts pretty much plays herself in the character of a Hollywood A list Actress Anna Scott, who walks into  Hugh Grant’s  unassuming  character William Thacker ‘s travel book shop and purchases a book while Thacker deals with a petty  shoplifter who hides a book down his trousers: “ excuse me bad news… there are cameras in this bit of the shop”   is just one very polite line with which he persuades the shoplifter to return the book without him ever having to admit that he had in fact stolen it . As destiny would have it the two later bump into each other on the street – literally. Thacker spills orange juice all over Scotts’  white t-shirt and persuades her to go to his house to clean it off  saying ‘ I’m confident that in five minutes we can have you spik and span , in a none prostitute way obviously“;  referring to Julia’s role as a prostitute in the movie Pretty Woman. For a wanna be actress – the movie keeps me glued, in stiches; it’s well written and superbly performed by each actor, Spike, Thacker’s lodger being my most favourite character by far.

These are just a few of my favourite lines:

Spike to Thacker: ‘There’s something wrong with this yoghurt”

Thacker:” It’s not yoghurt it’s mayonnaise”

Spike continues eating “oh alright then”

Anna to Thacker after she kisses him “: Probably best not to tell anyone about this”

Thacker: “Right, right no-one, I mean I’ll tell myself about it sometimes but don’t worry I won’t believe it”

Thacker to Anna: “It was nice to meet you, surreal but nice” then after he closes the door berates himself wincing “surreal but nice, what was I thinking???”

My favourite part of the movie has to be the part where Thacker is invited to see Anna at the Ritz Hotel where she’s staying.  What Thacker does not realize when he gets there is that he’ll have to fall in line with a group journalists waiting to interview Anna Scott on her latest movie, which he’s never seen. He thinks he’s been invited to a private date with the star. Asked about which publication he’s from, he blurts out “Horse and Hound” the name of a magazine within eye shot. He brings her flowers, and walks into the interview room full of large and expensive bouquets of roses, embarrassed he launches into an excruciating mock interview in the presence of Scott’s publicists who huffs and puffs in displeasure – it’s hilarious.  He’s later roped into doing more interviews with other cast members without having seen the film which has a few gems such as…

Actor to Thacker: Did you enjoy the film?

Thacker: Yes Enormously

Actor: fire away then…

Thacker; “right did you enjoy making the film?

Actor: Yes, I did

Thacker:  “Good any bit in particular?”

Actor:  “You tell me which bit you enjoyed the most and I’ll tell you if I enjoyed making that bit”

This scene reminds me of a similar interview I did with Bollywood mega star Amitabh Bachchan in the early years of my career as a journalist, needless to say I knew nothing of Bollywood other than the dancing, let alone Amitabh! I mean the entire movie is full of great lines.  Anna later offers to accompany Thacker to his sister, Honey’s birthday dinner party as his date. Honey on meeting Anna gives the most droopingly impassioned fan monologue. .. Which is -just Classic!

Honey to Anna: “OH holy Fuck! Oh god this is one of those key moments in life when it’s possible you can be really genuinely cool and I… I’m going to fail just a hundred percent. I… I absolutely, totally and utterly adore you, and I just think you are the most beautiful woman in the world! And more importantly, I genuinely believed, and I have believed this for some time now that we could genuinely be best friends! What do you think?” then later adds “Oh marry Will, he’s a genuinely nice guy and then we could be sisters!”

On a morbid note, just to illustrate my point – and not to spoil the fun, during an interview with SABC’s veteran journalist Sophie Mokoena, notorious–serial killer Joe Mamasela said he coped with the trauma of killing and torturing people, through humour.  “Humour helped me deal with it” he said.

This basically means, no matter what you’re going through ( Mamasela’s example aside) – if you can laugh about it, you can get through just about anything!

If you love literature and movies, go watch the movie!  Again. Doctor’s orders.

Notting Hill is one of my most favourite Romcoms by far!