XENOPHOBIA:  SOWETO FROM HERE?

There's strength in Unity.

There’s strength in Unity.

True freedom therefore is a courageous act, a brave decision to face the unchangeable fact of your past and present. It requires  fearlessness to confront the hurting parts of you, your most delicate wounds, scars which run as deep as the roots of a Baobab tree. True freedom is choosing to forgive yourself and others for your role and theirs in creating the hurts that can never be changed.   It is the courage to weave together from torn and worn out garments and stories a tapestry of forgiveness, a blanket  that will cover future generations in their moments of cold, dark, loneliness because none of us are immune. True freedom is in the words of Thomas Sankara, a dare to invent the future, to imagine something new. To move on and thrive, love and give regardless of how much has been taken or stolen in the past. True freedom is when you give yourself a chance, a little chance, with the knowledge that after a while, you have a choice, a decision to make. You can choose how you want to live, you can choose the contents of your heart, and once you’ve made that decision, take the responsibility to act on it, to fill it with things that will make you stronger. You can decide to dust it off, mop the floor and enjoy the space. True freedom is a process, an individual private journey that we must all begin collectively with immediate effect. I have written pieces of my journey in this blog over the years, but this one I hope you will  spend a bit of time reading. Because  ultimately it is about our future together –  when we become an us.

It’s Saturday Night, the 26 of April 2014.  The suns’ glow which lit up a clear blue sky was highlighted by wisps of  white clouds, shone for a few hours before traveling west. The air is starting to bite, clinging to my clothes, shoes and linen. I remind myself that I love April with its changing hues of orange, brown and yellow. Autumn, there’s a scent of freshness in the air that comes with the changing season.  I am grateful. I am sitting outside on the balcony of Brown Sugar Backpackers in Observatory, a suburb on Johannesburg’s East Rand. It is now my temporary new home.  I arrived here just a few hours ago from Curiosity Backpackers,  downtown Johannesburg’s central business district (CBD).

Curiosity backpackers is in the newly gentrified tourist location for tourists seeking alternatives to the usual wildlife Safaris which continue to draw thousands of tourists to African countries. The new district is called Maboneng Precinct, a seSotho word which when  literally translated means where there is light. “It’s a place meant for you, so you can be inspired to create” says Lunga, a slickly dressed 22-year-old property agent as he ushers me into vacant flats (apartments) at the Artists’ Lofts building.  “I’m not selling you a dream, I’m telling you reality” he says showing me the views in a New York style loft apartment still under construction. It has its own private lift as an entrance. “This one has already been bought” he adds.  Lunga “the charming hustler” as he calls himself works for Mafadi Properties a subsidiary of companies owned by Johnathan Liebman, the man who is currently breathing new life into what used to be a no-go area for middle class South Africans, who hid safety behind gated-communities, high walls and electric fences  not so long ago now.

The Artists Loft buildings’ entrance is on Albertina siSulu Street, recently renamed from Market Street: rewriting history in honour of one of South Africa’s anti-Apartheid struggle icons and a heroine of the African National Congress women’s league.  As we walk out of the building I glance across the street and I come face to face with Jeppe police station. And I realize as if I had been lost in time, that this is the Jeppe’s town.  Pieces of my fragmented history start to converge.  My memory is returning to me vividly as we walk briskly through the coolness of the grey morning clouds with paper cups of coffee in hand.  Smiling from ear to ear. My lips stick to my teeth as if frozen in time.

This is where I walked alone, breathlessly seeking direction to the scene of the crime(s) four years ago. It was here when I answered my bosses’ impatient call. “Where are you?” he demanded.  “I’m here, downtown” I responded in the blurred vision of the familiar. “Where in town” He asked again. Then I noticed the police station and answered with some relief “I’m here, at Jeppe’s police station, there are many people here”.  It was Monday the 12th of May 2008. The day after Xenophobic violence broke out killing five people, injuring 50 and robbing countless others of their homes, business and peace in  Jeppe’s town specifically.  The air had been knocked out of my lungs amid haunted-deserted streets mid-morning. The debris of the week-end chaos was strewn carelessly on the sweltering concrete, shards of newly broken glass shimmered under the wintry sun,   velvet soot from smouldering fires, papers, garbage, abandoned splintering new merchandise, shoes, belts, stock  forgotten in a frenzy of adrenalin pumped feet escaping death.  I was lost in the inner belly of a city whose blood was pulsating through my veins with every passing second,  not knowing what to expect, where to go or who to ask what. “They took everything” said a shop owner, hurriedly packing up his shop. ”We are closing shop now, we are scared they’ll come back again, we don’t know if they’ll come back again”. The air was thin with tension making it difficult to blink. My coffee had grown cold. “They plan to turn this building into a state of the art-gallery” says Lunga pointing to an old Victorian-esque building on the opposite corner of Commissioner and Albrecht Street.” They’ll do renovations but they will preserve its original architecture” he says. “It’s beautiful, I can see myself living my life here riding a bike” I say.   ” Yes, in your future amazing life” he smiles at me. I smile back and think my life is already amazing. The offspring of the Washington consensus.

Curiosity Backpackers has been open for less than four months and business is practically blooming. Media coverage of the new open space for globe trotters around the world has been equally good.  All the rooms have been booked out to foreign travelers.  “Until the end of May” the booking manager tells me “more travelers from European countries are coming ” she says. As I roll my suitcase out of this inner city hide out, there’s a flurry of activity: brand new crisp white sheets have just been delivered. Curiosity staff scurried from one corner to another like mice cleaning up every inch and corner of the grey concrete building. No stone is left un-turned.

Fresh new sparkling white faces smile with wonder-lust in their eyes, high on the curious adventures in the concrete jungle. “Zwarte-piet  (black assistants to the dutch St Nicholas/ the Dutch celebrate the holiday by painting their faces black their lips red and wearing Afros) was just like  Santa-Clause or Father Christmas for us, for me as a child he represented the happy exciting feeling of Christmas, his represent only good things to us” A Dutch journalism student tells me in the crammed passageways of curiosity. “It’s a sentimental tradition which though I don’t celebrate anymore and can see why it can be “offensive” But for me it has nothing to do with racism. It is a festival full of excitement, celebrations, a time for gifts, sweets and such like, whenever I think of Zwarte -piet, I have good memories. It was the highlight of my childhood” She concludes sipping black label beer.

I am reminded of how lucky I am.  A few years ago, ten of them to be exact, the luxury of staying at a backpackers in my own country was virtually impossible, unheard of in fact. In 2004, the year South Africa marked and celebrated 10 years of freedom, I walked down Cape Town’s busy and popular Long Street, knocking from one backpacker to another seeking accommodation.  Then there was no room at the inn. I couldn’t stay in  a single Backpacker on long street there was a policy that reserved the right of admission only to foreign passport holders.   I was excluded only on that basis, it was neither the issue of availability nor affordability. “It’s our policy, no South Africans” the guy said. I was more than perplexed at the irony of the situation.  Even the citizenship that our forefathers fought so hard to achieve did not guarantee a roof over my head as a traveler in my home country.

“This place is cool, at least you can stay” said a friend of mine while visiting me at Curiosity.   “A few years ago I couldn’t find a backpacker to stay in, in Cape Town” she said as if reading my mind.

The previous night I sat around a fire with a group of young South Africans, a group which included a dread-locked white guy who asked for a sip of black label beer in isiZulu, a 25-year-old Jewish architect who was searching for inspiration, maybe even a life changing epiphany and yet another “born-free” (a term used to describe South Africans born after 1994) guy who didn’t want to vote in the upcoming elections on May 7 2014. “It’s about me now” he said looking at me with such intensity I felt my own words coming out of his mouth. “I have to know myself first. I need to know who I am, what I am about, I need to understand me first, sort out the issues with my family – find my place in the world before I can even hope to change this country” he said staring at the ashen coals of a dying fire.  He’s of mixed descent what South Africans refer to as “coloured” or “biracial”.  ” They don’t see this, they don’t understand it, but I won’t be forced to vote” He said tightening his grip on the dark brown black label bottle. I listen amazed by his confidence and resolve. I am disarmed by it.   ” Locals were never allowed to stay at Backpackers before, the rules just changed recently” the staff at Brown Sugar tells me as I walk in and inquire about rooms.  I hear myself asking why in a weak moment of complete amnesia. “They say you locals steal. So foreigners don’t want to share rooms with you” she says smiling and shrugging her shoulders.   ” So you can’t stay in a shared room because you’re staying for more than one night” she continues “You have to get a single room and it costs more.”  I look at her silently. “It’s the rules” she says folding her arms.

I think of Lyth. A beautiful Irish- Palestinian man I met a few days ago on my first Sunday back in the city of Johannesburg.  I noticed him a few times. I liked his style.He was sitting alone at a coffee Kiosk called Uncle Merves’ on Maboneng’s Districts’ Fox Street – paging through a thick green and yellow guide to the city of Johannesburg. It was my favourite spot too. I ask him for a light and use the opportunity to ask him where he’s from. ” I’m from Cape Town” He says trying to size me up “I was there on holiday with my girlfriend, who has gone to visit family in Durban. I decided to visit Johannesburg instead, to get a real sense of the country”. He said closing the tome between his hands.   It was his first time on the African continent he confessed. I refused to ask him why he didn’t join his girlfriend in Durban.  I was also just simply passing time, enjoying people watching in the afternoon sun. It was none of my sun-shining-day-business.   He tells me that they traveled from London where he lives (with his girlfriend) and works as a commercial lawyer for a huge mining conglomerate (which he refused to name). He wants to be a journalist like me he says, he is considering doing some human rights work.  He lives not too far from London’s famed Nottinghill District. “My favourite movie” I quip and he smiles knowingly. But I can see how disturbed he is.

After what seemed like an eternity he finally let it out. “I’m shocked that in this country I’m considered white!” he says peering at me as if  the answer to that question was written on my face.  “I mean I am Palestinian!” He  exclaimed shaking his head. I smile and in a moment of sheer exhaustion decide to by pass all his inferred history and simply simplify the reality of South Africa’s racially segregated past. I nod and only manage to say  “Here you are white, brother.”  As if to prove a much laboured point he reaches into his backpack and shows me his reading material a book called “Biko: A life” by South African Academic Xolela Mangcu.

I wince a little as images of me sitting at the newly opened, fresh out of the box constitutional  court of South Africa flash in front of me making it hard for me to delve deeper into the book. On that particular night in my very early and firey 20’s I shared the stage with Dr Mangcu himself and African-American philosopher and public intellectual Cornell West. The subject; a conversation about the meaning of Mandela. I surprised many if not everyone with my youthful analysis of our new rainbow nation.  I told them I don’t care about Mandela or Hip-Hop. I didn’t grow up listening to Kwaito. I didn’t believe in this rainbow. But nobody was ready for that. “You are very brave” one woman confided to me afterwards. “What a shame, young people nowadays!” flutters of disgusted whispers hovered over my head in hushed tones. I had to escape my own notoriety.  I had shamed the country’s esteemed public intellectuals, returned exiles, academics, writers, journalists and many others right in the centre of a building that embodied our greatest hopes and dreams as a nation. This then was my truth. My silence become uncomfortable.  ” It’s really a brilliant book, best biography I’ve read about the man” he said quickly returning it into his backpack like a prized possession. I agreed with him desperately wanting to change the subject. I was in a cheerful mood, determined to focus only on the bright side of life and Lyth was begging me with his thoughtful, questioning silent side-ways glances to go into the deep political ocean with him. “How will you manage that?” He asked of my determination to remain light as I looked away searching for something even more cheerful to talk about.  We somehow  ended up in  Beirut – a city we both love. He was also there in June 2006, dubbed the Hottest Summer in Lebanon, when Israel was at war with Hezbollah. I bought the t-shirt but my mother promptly discarded it. “Your girlfriend is lucky to have you” I say hoping to brighten his mood. Later I discovered to my surprise that he was also a curiosity resident. I invite him to the African Freedom Station where I introduce him to Bra Steve Kwena Mokwena. There, with a glass of whiskey in hand – he was at peace, at home. He grew up listening to Hip-Hop.

RAMPHOSA AND THE BURNING MAN

I’m sure by now you’re asking where this story is going or how it is related to the the recent and in some cases ongoing attacks on African immigrants in Soweto and other parts of South Africa.  Before I get there, I want to use the story of Ramaphosa Township which made international headlines in 2008 after a picture of the “burning-man” who was known as Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave was broadcast to the world. His en flamed body became a symbol of xenophobic brutality in South Africa. Photographers watched on as he burnt to death, collapsing, crawling, trying to escape the inferno that clung to him like white on rice. Many were too scared to save a man’s life, but  most were indeed brave enough to document it.

Shortly after being assigned to Jeppe’s town I was  assigned to this very township, Ernestos isolated frame still etched in my vision. Violence had not abated. Police were still exchanging fire with unidentified gunmen.  As I walked through this informal settlement I found some people, cleaning up and moving into newly vacant homes or shacks. Thinking they were victims of recent violence I approached to ask them  questions about what had happened. It turned out that they were just residents, perhaps neighbours, who saw the violence as an opportunity to meet their housing  needs.  Many of them had already staked their claim on homes, some were already moving furniture, others were using what material was left to erect new homes, some just stood on vacant doors. Enough evidence to prove that this space belongs to you now.  Each home already had a new owner who was moving in, barely days if not hours after many had been chased out of their homes. I asked why? They answered that the foreigners “take our jobs, they take our women, we’ve also been waiting for houses.  for plots of land from where to erect our shacks. For something to happen. We want houses.” So they just simply moved in,  took advantage of the situation. No police were there to monitor the situation, there was no one to lay charges or dispute what was happening. Everyone had ample opportunity to do just as they pleased with what was left behind. I realized then that there was something sinister. A sickening opportunism, a blatant take -over of someone else’s dream and years of hard work, whose reality was made worse by the fact that there was no one to blame, no one could be held accountable, in the greater scheme of things.  If any of the African migrants  who survived had to return, they would find nothing left for them, what little they had was no longer theirs. The vultures had been hovering long before the violence broke out, they would find their home occupied, taken over.

 A HISTORY IN THE ECONOMIES OF SCALE

Shortly after the Xenophobic attacks in Jeppestown which left much of the area abandoned and vacant, Propertuity, a company owned by Johnathan Liebman  acquired its first property on Fox and main streets in 2008.  The building would be turned into Arts on Main: a mixed use space for creatives to have an integrated live and work offering. With the support of important artists and institutions such as William Kent ridge and the Nirox Foundation.  Arts on Main was opened in 2009 and has since resulted in further  acquisition of more and more buildings to become Maboneng and has since been listed in the New York times as one of the most fascinating places to visit for tourists.  Before the xenophobic attacks of 2008 Jeppe’s town was occupied by SMME’s many of them had been there for decades. Traders and merchants – trading mostly in designer men’s clothing and specialist shoe shops. There was no mass exodus of people. I bought my first car in Jeppe’s town.

What opportunistic residents of Ramaphosa did  is no different to what  Propertuity did in order to acquire buildings in Jeppe’s town for next to nothing.  Perhaps it was all just a fortuitous coincident that Propertuity was able to acquire a building shortly after xenophobic violence broke-out,  perhaps the idea had been there all along. Perhaps they like Ramaphosa residents created, instigated or used the misfortune to create business opportunities for themselves where there had been no opportunities before. The difference here is of course that Propertuity makes money out of this, its urban regeneration projects are perceived to be a generally good intervention into the inner city’s “decaying” landscape. Entrepreneurs in informal settlements such as  Ramaphosa who engaged in the same or similar activities are looked at with  scorn looked, as  if they  are “bad” apples.  But this is what many in the business world would consider as a “hostile-take over”. A natural process  of doing business.

The scapegoat  however valid (xenophobia) is an easy one to make. Everybody knows that Africans dislike each other. The existing weaknesses in our fragile identities make it easy for anyone to manipulate the situation for their own benefit.  In cases of mob justice it is often hard to find the instigators or the real reasons behind the violence. And if found those reasons on balance  do not support such extreme violence, the response seems disproportionate .  In such cases, as the media often does  and should everyone focuses on the perceived losers and never on those who stand to benefit the most from the ensuing violence or instability.   I have witnessed this in Ramaphosa, Jeppe’s town  and in other parts of Africa where suddenly property prices plummet with violence and instability, allowing speculators, investors and others to acquire property and assets that would have taken  much longer to secure in the normal course of  business negotiations.  Indeed  they cannot be blamed for the violence or for profiting from a bad situation, because in essence that is the definition of  entrepreneurship.

Many people admire  Jonathan Liebmans’ genius, his intelligence and quick thinking action as an entrepreneur, a brave man who has  gone where no-one dared go  before, a pioneering spirit  so full of inspiring original ideas and creative ways of getting what he wants. I say he’s just as clever, intelligent and as creative as those Ramphosa Residents, who seized an opportunity and moved into plots made vacant by faceless nameless crowds. They are all cut from the same cloth. One is despised for it, shamed for it. The other is praised and worshiped for doing the exact same thing.

And Lyth? The point about his story is to illustrate the reality of life. That it is not black or white in the way we’ve always understood it, based on the colour of one’s skin.  The bigger picture  is to a large extent no longer about what you look like; whether it be white, black, coloured, Jewish, Indian or brown or Japanese. What’s more important than what you look like is what you think, your motives, your reasons, the ideas or ideology which motivates and inspires your actions.  These supersede your appearance or the natural length of your hair because they determine who you are at your very core, your nature. These thoughts and attitudes are what determine your way in life, the people you associate with and the choices you make in life. It’s about an ideology, a belief system that resonates with your personal core values whatever  they may be.  Lyth was shocked at the fact that he is considered “white” in South Africa because he understood whiteness as an ideology, a state of mind in much the same way as Black Consciousness is a state of mind.

SOWETO?

It is my belief that we need to move from a white, black, skin and money consciousness narrative and be more “People” conscious. Let’s read the constitution and the bill of rights of this country again, over and over, every day. Let’s do this to remember where we started, to understand where we are, let’s do it so we can see the direction we must take, using the bill of rights and the countries’ constitution as a map for where we want to go.  Then measure all of our current actions and inactions against the goals and aspirations written in the constitution and bill of rights. Are we going in the right direction? The idea of a rainbow nation was birthed as a poetic celebration, a metaphor of humanity’s landscape throughout the world. A call to  celebrate diversity, because we are not all white or black or coloured, we have different shades and hues and together we look just as magnificent as the rainbow. Despite how we look however, we all deserve the same rights, respect and consideration  irrespective of our country of origin. If we welcome Europeans, Asians, and others warmly  into our cities, or neighbourhoods to do business or build lives we must surely extend the same courtesy  to Zimbabweans, Congolese, Somalians etc because they too are our honoured guests, because they too deserve the same rights and respect. If we do not do that, then we are betraying ourselves, we are going against our core values as a nation as set forth in the Bill of Rights  which affords everyone in this country a right to dignity.  If we don’t condemn these attacks, if we do not  stand against capital or money being used to routinely  violate human rights, we are agreeing with them, we are implicated by our silence.  We may be in trouble as a nation but we are not without direction, we have the blueprint for a society that we want to live in, enshrined in the  constitution and the bill of rights. Let’s use that as our campus and do whatever  is  necessary to defend the human rights and dignity of others as if our own lives depend on them being upheld, because ultimately they do.

 

A Personal Assignment: Nothing is Black or White in Africa

Ouma Setee and Ouma Tillie Celebrated a 100 Years on Earth this week.

Ouma Setee and Ouma Tillie Celebrated a 100 Years on Earth this week.

Sweetheart I am so sorry to have kept you waiting for so long. See I had some unfinished new business to take care of. Matters of the heart run deep and often pull you unawares back to a place you thought you’d moved away from, made peace with,let go and closed  the door. You see, the personal and the professional coincided last week. And instead of rushing through it so that I can get it over and done with. This time I have chosen to take my time or as much time as I need to be here in this moment. Absorb as much as I can in order to move on from here without looking back. I tend to rush through things, being in a rush and never having anytime to do anything (properly) is a core element of my profession as a journalist.  So since  we’ll be turning a page together, I thought I should fill you in on what’s been going on – so that I can always be fully present when ever I am,  with you.  So this dear one  is a wide glance back in time in order for me to move  forward. I no longer wish to be  entangled in the past though the past is always present. Ironically this unfinished business of mine is about just that, the past and learning to be patient, particularly with myself. In some ways I feel a little bit like the late Wits prof. Emeritus and Paleanthropologist Phillip Tobias, except I am not excavating fossils but human emotions, feelings, hearts from  living beings. To find truths long-buried with the hope of  contributing to an understanding of where we are and where we are going.  Everything in its own time.

So here’s the story baby. I’ll try to keep it short (people everywhere want it short). In the last week of my recent job I was  assigned to a story I instinctively hesitated  to take on. In fact had I known how close it was to my own story I would have immediately refused to do it. But I didn’t know so I accepted the assignment and here we are. Together again unexpectedly.

START FROM THE BEGINNING: A COLOUR PIECE

Okay so I was to meet these two ladies. Both celebrating a 100 years on earth this year in Eldorado Park a township in one of Johannesburg’s South Western Townships – known by the acronym – SOWETO. They said it would make for a great story.”Nice colour piece” nothing at all to do with politics. “Do you want to do it or should I let someone else do it?” asked my grey-haired editor with a hint of a smile in his eyes. I wasn’t sure  what to say or quite how to do it.” Eldorado park is a historically “coloured” residential area.  It was classified as coloured after the introduction of Apartheid laws in 1949. Apartheid was an Afrikaner  political ideology of “separate but equal living” based on the fact that all non-white/non-European people were far less developed and therefore inferior to the white people. Apartheid emphasized difference as a tool to legislate human relationships, behavior and interaction in the country.  So in 1949 they introduced the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act which prohibited marriage between white people and black people including non-white people. It was followed by the Immorality Act of 1950 which prohibited adultery between white people and non-white people, followed by the Population Registration Act which required every South African  to be racially classified  this was followed by the Group Areas act of 1950 which forced separation between  races through the creation of residential areas designated for different racial groups, white, black, coloured, Indian, Chinese  etc. My ancestors come from one of the first racially mixed communities in Johannesburg – Kliptown. It used to be a  “white farm” but there all races lived next door to each other, they were chinese merchants, white farmers, black people , coloured people everyone was living together.  The there ‘s river next to it. Kliprivier.  When the group areas act law was  implemented  the government started a massive re-construction campaign, a physical manifestation of legislation.  Eldorado Park is one of those areas built for people who were racially mixed: not black or white or Indian or any other racial group. These were the people who were said to better than black people on the superiority scale  but not good enough to be white – people who were a combination of both black and white.

I read the word Kliptown and dread came over me. What is it about Kliptown that keeps popping back into my life over and over and over again. ” You’re sending me back to Kliptown” I heard myself whispering under my breath loudly while reading the letter to the editor. I was relieved he didn’t ask what I meant by that because that would have been a whole other story. The story itself sounded simple enough yet I was immediately overwhelmed. How could I tell this story in two minutes? I said I’ll do it.  He smiled and said  “do it  for TV Radio and Online”.  I summoned the  courage to see my mentor, Angie. She has climbed mountains and I admire her work and respect her meticulous attention to detail which can exhaust anyone on a tight deadline. She said ” I’ll give you five minutes for a radio piece” – a relief for me. “I would like lots of Natural sound. Use a timeline from the beginning of world war one, world war two, the 1920s the beginning apartheid in 1942 and so on”. I looked at her incredulous thinking of the amount of work that involved. Seriously? Yes, she said. Get some archives she added then moved on to answer the phone – we waved goodbye. I was on my own, but the timeline suggestion was  the structure  I needed to order my thoughts and it was also a great way of obtaining an aerial view of just how long a 100 years looks like. It’s as if for a long time nothing happened in the world – people and the world lay dormant, quietly sleeping until one day everyone was woken up by some mysterious force calling them to take action, do something, make their dreams a reality. Then people woke up frantically and started doing things, inventing this and that, fighting, loving, creating my world in 2014 even I couldn’t keep up. The 20th century is Amazing! I knew that I had to meet them first, speak to them before I could think about what  event on history’s timeline would encapsulate their story or which archives I would use to visually tell the story. I was nervous. I had never spoken to someone who is a 100 years old let alone two of them in one room – what life changing wisdom would they share? What questions do you ask someone at that age. Would the ladies want to talk to me?.  ” Ouma  Tillie (pictured on the right) can speak but Ouma Settie (pictured on the left) doesn’t speak anymore and is mostly bedridden. Also Ouma Tillie can’t hear in one ear so you have to be loud when you address her” Said Sally Harris,’ Ouma Setties’ youngest daughter. I needed all the help I can get.

TWIN-SOULS: NEVER CHANGE

Ouma Tillie and Ouma Setie were born in 1914 in South Africa, in the month of May three weeks apart. Ouma Tillie, short, light-skinned and vibrant is the eldest of the two friends. She was born in the free-state province located on the flat boundless plains in the heart of South Africa. Tillie and Settie met in Kliptown, in 1932 in their early 20s. At a time when they still enjoyed going to clubs and dancing the night away. “We could go out and walk at night in the olden days during the day and night and nothing would happen to us, during the day and night. These days you can’t walk during the day or night without something happening” She says repeating walking day and night over and over. This is one of the reasons she offers, life was better in the olden days compared to these days. Tillie is hesitant to make comparisons when asked the big question: how has the life changed. Sometimes I got the impression that she’s made a decision to avoid talking about anything unpleasant in her life. “I’m happy, I’m always happy, I am grateful to God” She says while reflectively rubbing both her legs with both arms in a swinging forward and backward movement. It’s something I’ve observed my own mother do in conversation especially when the subject matter was of an uncertain nature. But it’s also cold and she’s old “I depend only on God, he is my father, my mother, my everything – every day when I wake up I know its God. He teaches me everything, I am learning everyday” She said her pitch cracking into a soothing swooshing sound of an old record player or tape, the cracks in her throat broke through her windpipe into a clear childlike voice which sounded like an echo trapped in a place where time begins. I am blown away by her response, I could ask a million questions and it would all boil down to one thing – God – so I asked him for help in my heart. “my life has always been good,” she says in Afrikaans, a language created by Dutch settlers who arrived in South Africa in 1652. Afrikaans sparked the 1976 Student Uprising in SOWETO in which young white South African policemen and soldiers opened fire at multitudes of unarmed school children protesting against the Apartheid government’s intention to institute Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in all public schools.  This historic event took place a year after Television was introduced in South Africa. The state had until then resisted introducing Television because it deemed it “evil”.  The world woke up to Apartheid South Africa;   through the iconic black and white image of two screaming black school children dressed in uniform – a girl and a boy-  running while the  limp body of a dead primary school boy called Hector Peterson dangled in their arms. Despite all these historical facts, Afrikaans remains the third most widely spoken language in South African households according to the South African Census results of 2011, after isiXhosa and IsiZulu who are at two and one respectively.
In fact Tillie tells stories in Afrikaans, sings Christian hymns in IsiZulu, Sesotho and IsiXhosa and English. Sometimes when she speaks her language is saturated like a fading image and all of the country’s 11 official languages blend in her mouth producing a sound I can only describe as tongues. A language used by many born-again Christians to pray to God. At least I can understand what she is saying. When no one is looking Ouma Settie, tall, dark, regal with with sharp darting eyes leans in closely and Ouma Tillie whispers everything to her. Ouma Settie can talk when she wants to.

WHEN TWO WORLDS COLLIDE: SHIFTS HAPPEN

This assignment has been a challenge, the more I tried to do it the more I felt like I was losing something valuable. It was draining emotionally, but I tried to celebrate life. Throughout the week I was in a strange mood which I couldn’t explain by the sighting of the location of the moon. the office was louder and noisier than I ever imagined. Eventually I resorted to making noise myself which generated a lot of laughter in the office. That seemed to temporarily ease the tension which was becoming heavy like a wet fur coat, my shoulders were freezing under its drench. What is going on? I kept asking myself. Going out to the field and listening to other people stories was a welcome tonic to the a sadness that kept flirting with me surprising me a the most inappropriate time. More over this particular story ‘Celebrating centurions in Eldorado Park” was talking to me.  I am not going to Kliptown I told myself I am going on a story in Eldorado park. The two might be close to each other but they are different.I had to push myself to do it. When I finally did, on Saturday night, I went on twitter to relax. And found I had a new follower who tweeted “J please get in touch with me urgently” Zakhele Zulu. It could only mean one thing. So I tweeted my number back and ten minutes later he called. Your grandmother Omkhulu passed away last week, its her funeral tomorrow, we were looking all over for you. Are you Ok? Yes I was okay I had just been working. “Are you coming?” He asked “You know I don’t like funerals” I said. Ok. He replied in a tone that said to me, no one likes funerals but someone has got to do it. I didn’t know how to feel. I called my mother to let her know. She already knew. “Are you going to the funeral?” She said in voice which pleaded, instructed, assumed I would go. I said I would think about it. In truth there was nothing to think about. I had to go.

SO THIS IS WHAT ALL THIS WAS ABOUT.

So I went home to number 7224 Thabethe Street, Phefeni, Orlando West Soweto. The first address I had to memorize and know before going to school. There were three things I had to remember before going to school for the first time. My name, date of birth and home address. The house hadn’t changed since it was first built by the apartheid government in 1942. The same gate from my childhood is there. I can still hear the sound of it opening and closing sometimes. I can still hear my grandmother shouting at to make sure I close the gate each time I came back from somewhere. It had a distinct sound. I could hear it opening from my room on quiet days. The white tent pitched on the front of the house, reminded me of pictures I had seen of my mother’s wedding to my father. Dressed in an elegant white chiffon two piece Suit, with a white sun hat and a healthy Angela Davis Afro peeping on the side- she looked to me like a model who has just stepped out of Vogue magazine or a plane from Paris France. She looked so beautiful. I found people sitting and chatting outside, My uncles Zack, Sipho and Velaphi standing in the middle of the street facing the house. The women sat under the trees in the front garden, some under a tent, I was looking for a familiar face. I asked my maternal grandmother, the only one remaining, to tell me about Kliptown. “My grandmother owned a house there, near the railway line. We used to go there during all our school holidays to visit Umkhulu Nogogo Umpiyakhe Mtshali. We had everything we needed because we were the land owner’s children. It was nice. I asked her more questions and decided to do what I do best. Record Everything and everyone in the family and finally tell the story of the Zulu Brand. ” I’m not black I’m african. My my mother is Zulu Sotho, Coloured”. I am a part of every race.

Can you imagine?

IT’S THAT TIME AGAIN: HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

Troyville. Monday, 6pm CAT.

This little village where I fell in-love with artists so many years ago and for a little while lived vicariously through the lives of eccentric artists such as Karl Gietle who now lives in a coastal French town in Sett, Wayne Barker my former landlord who found love and is now remarried to a French woman and is living happily in suburbia, Mervin  Dowman the Mosaic artist who also is a keen craftsman, is also making a home somewhere else.  Bra Peter, the disgruntled writer who used to live on the top floor, is now also selling and moving on to his real hometown, Brixton London with his girlfriend.  Jessica the artist and mother of one sweet molly, Kacia the architect who wanted to be an artist is now a mother living in Cape Town, her brother Maciek is now living in Poland, writing, teaching, making films and looking after his grandmother. Katlego the singer with three beautiful children. Bheki the little guy on the stoep is not so little anymore, he now owns backpackers in the new gentrified Maboneng precinct and works a photographer. And then there’s me, the radio- journalist who was always in search of the meaning of life. After all these years  the people, characters, that made this little town so fascinating have all moved, left in pursuit of happiness.  I find myself now on the eve of my second departure from this institution called Berly Court, much clearer than when I first arrived. This little village of Nostalgia, of broken dreams, hearts, and friendships has made me realize just how fragile we all are. And how though we try to hide behind wide smiles and optimistic grins – we all feel a little lost, with a constant need, urge to belong somewhere, to someone, to something. To be relevant and understood without question. To be home.

The past two months here have been intensely emotional, I have met old friends, like Pamela whose now back in town and is living with her daughter and partner after years of being lost in Cape Town. Phibia who is now living in town with her new love. Mbali, the DJ who is now pursuing a career in photography and is on her way to Belgium to re-invent herself.  Fumi  a former colleague at the SABC whose wealth of knowledge about South African politics I never had time to discover,  Nicole also a former colleague, is a writer and researcher who lives a mostly solitary life.  Katarina, the German artist whose friendship has made my life a little easier to bear. Carole whose smile always reflects my own. Neli the travelling dancer, whose  amazing talent persuaded  me to pursue my secrete wish to be a dancer.  Then there’s Lindiwe my name sake and an Actress who I met years ago while she was still studying drama at Rhodes University and I was on assignment.  I finally got over her intoxicating beauty  and saw for the first time that she is just as human as I will ever be. In the last couple of days there’s been a flurry of old faces, all of them once so close and but now so far, old lovers, moving on with new loves, homes, careers or maybe still searching in other parts of town or world. I’ve met new faces too, most of which I don’t remember anymore and will probably never see again. I realize as in life that this place has always been a transit-home. A station where people wait for a little while, until a dream with their name on it picks them up. People I’ve met here have always been on their way to somewhere else, to bigger dreams to a better life, to love, to something which remains even as I write this intangible, until it’s lived.  I’ve  walked these streets every day and discovered the decay, the loneliness and broken-ness hidden behind closed windows, loud music blaring from cars, TV screens, chisanyama’s , in faces who hearts are somewhere else far away.  I can taste the hardship of life in the middle of no where  between the city of Johannesburg and the airport to the world. It’s a place populated by migrants from Ethiopia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, KwaZulu Natal, the Eastern Cape, France, Germany, Soweto.  I can taste the sweat of the daily  hustle, the smell the frustration in perfumes and  faces drained with alcohol.  Life in Troyville seems to hang constantly and thinly on balance. As with money, jobs and relationships.

Today I feel mostly grateful for the time spent here, largely because I have somewhere to go, I have a family waiting for me, people I’ve known all my life and who have loved me and I them through all the ups and downs of life. I have always had a home, many homes in fact, in the hearts of those who’ve loved me unconditionally –who took me as I am. I’ve always had a home in those hearts that chose to love me irrespective of my many faults.   For home truly is where the heart is.  As to the meaning of life I have found that it is in Living.  To live, with as much love, kindness, forgiveness and grace as we can possibly master, one day at a time.

Thank you all for continuing to read my blog this year, I have enjoyed the freedom of writing my heart on the page and to look at it, from time to time, again and again with you, because then I don’t feel so alone.  I hope you are with the ones you love, with those in whose hearts you continue to find a home again and again. Happy Holidays! And let’s all toast to love in the New Year! And smile not because it ended, but because it happened.

LOVE

j

THE FIXER: DAY-UNKNOWN

The second coming?

The second coming?

“It’s always impossible until its done” Nelson Mandela

A DAY OF PRAYER AND REFLECTION.

ON SUNDAY – I was at the most famous church in Soweto, Regina Mundi where activists organized, held meetings prayed and were attacked by apartheid police during the 1970s, 80s and 90s The Church has to be rebuilt after it was completely destroyed by Apartheid police in pursuit of comrades. The service was e presided over by Bishop Sebastian Rousow. I spent most of my time outside, catching up with old friends and scouting out potential interviews for my clients . Trying to find the  right people for my people to speak to everyone has a story to tell, everyone’s story is important, but finding the right one out of billions is a skill.  While waiting outside I met tata Patrick, now a very old man. He tells me he has lived in  Rockville  Soweto since 1962, he was part of the Soweto Action Group Committee which was set up following the banning of all non-white political parties in South African, notably the  ANC and PAC.  He tells me with a faraway that police used to stand right where all the media cameras are, surround the church and shoot at people coming out of the church. He was even there when it was built. I can smell the whiff of stale alcohol on his breath. But he tells me that Mandela is a great man. A great tree has fallen he says. If you go to freedom Park which just behind the church you will see there are 95 indigenous trees which have been planted in honour of Mandela each year on his birthday the 18th of July. His son says each time he walks past those trees they represent freedom for him. Long Live they both say. But no one bothers to speak to Patrick. His old and rugged. The media crisscrossed past them waiting for the “big” political and international personalities. There are rumours that Winnie-Madikizela-Mandela might show up at the church, but the rumours are later proven untrue. I also meet Jane Nhlapho who has lived in Rovilled since 1967, and her friend Elizabeth Gwele from Dobsonville another Township in Soweto. They both describe  how police used to frequently surround the church with caspers, mellow yellows, police and army vehicles, and shoot and throw tear-gas at activists locked up inside. Elizabeth told me that, as parents they frequented the church in search of their children, to see if they are okay, still together in one piece.  Jane lost a family member right here at the church, a brother who disappeared – last seen at Regina Mundi Church. It’s pain-full to think about. They were running halter and skelter she says. Not knowing where to go or what to do. We were not free. We had not freedom of anything, movement, speech, anything. She looks as lars tall overwhelming  Master-like figure. “Today I can stand here and speak to you like a fellow human being “she said. And that simply brings me to tears.  I think of My brother Thente.

ROOM 209 – CHIEF ALBERT SISULU FLOOR – SOWETO HOTEL

Later in the day we go to the Soweto Hotel for the NRK team to edit and file their story  of the day. I chose Soweto hotel, because of where it is and it represents with uncanny accuracy the current state of our country.  It embodies in a few kilometres the character of South Africa.  Because the contrasts in South Africa from here can’t be more jarring. Our window is face the Union Road – Shop names have changed but the buildings are still the same buildings from 1955 when more than 3000  South African of all races gathered to sign the freedom charter – a blue print for a democratic South Africa – During the darkest period in my country.

They unanimously declared:

  1. The People Shall Govern
  2. All groups shall have equal rights
  3. The figures shall share in the country’s wealth
  4. The land shall be shared among those who work in it
  5. All shall be equal before the law
  6. All shall enjoy equal human rights
  7. There shall be work and security
  8. The doors of learning and culture shall be opened file and edit and file the story of the day. I choose the Soweto hotel we go back to Soweto …
  9. There shall be houses Security and Comfort
  10. There shall be peace and friendship.

You can have all of the above in South African today. If you have money.Only.

BUT ON MONDAY

To say I’m broken would be an understatement. I am trying to be brave and say it’s okay. I’m here at the media centre as I write this. I imagine how full this room will be tomorrow frantic with journalist filing stories minute after minute, second after second, and I won’t be a part of it. I won’t even be at the FNB stadium tomorrow – because as a fixer my team does not think I should be there.get one. So I’ve been literally crying and I feel cheated somehow, except who can I tell. Except you. While noting instructions from my team Clinton my former boss walks past and say to me “where’s my script” and  it brings back old memories of being in the news room where he would say the same thing to me… it took me while to write a story.  I see Sam, waiting in line and she gives me the warmest hug and I start crying I try to walk away. Later Hajra comes and gives me a hug and says hello member of the A team. She is a sweet woman. I start crying. I leave because I’m now too emotional. “Are you OK my dear” Havard the camera–man asks me. “You seem, quite frankly – shattered” he says. I tell him I will be fine tomorrow. Yet in my heart I wonder if he wouldn’t be shattered like me if it were him in my shoes.

MEET THE FIXER

Jedi Ramalapa a South African Female journalist for 13 years. Maybe you don’t understand. I have covered Mandela stories so many times in my life and the one time it matters, not one is willing to hire me, except as a fixer. It’s maddening, I want to scream, tear off my clothes, cry, and what not. But it’s not the end of the world. I will tell my story here. As a blogger – because that will be the most authentic story I could ever tell. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful to have a job – work to do , to be involved. It’s just I never thought that I would be a fixer in the biggest event of my country’s history instead of being the one telling the story.  Not even have the memento of a press tag. But life does work in mysterious ways and I have to be grateful for what I have.

They are on their way to pick me up. It’s 8:12 am South African time. We’re going to the Stadium. I’m driving them

 

THE FIXER: DAY ONE – FRIDAY: GOING BACK HOME

Português: Brasília - O presidente da África d...

Português: Brasília – O presidente da África do Sul, Nelson Mandela, é recebido na capital federal. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

This morning duty called, our father passed away, on the day that our brother, struggle Icon and Pan African Congress (PAC) party leader Robert Sobukwe was born on the -5th of December 1924.  He died in a prisoner inIsolation on Robben Island in 1978. Members of the family have been called back home to mourn.  I didn’t know what to do or where to go.  I kept asking myself what I can do. So I am doing the best I can.

 

 I didn’t know what to expect on my drive down to the South Western Townships of Johannesburg –Soweto.  A place which, 36 years ago marked the turning point of South Africa’s struggle for freedom against the regime.  The 1976 Soweto Uprising by school children from Phefeni Secondary High School, commonly known as “PHESESCO” – where my mother went to school, Thloreng Primary, where both my mother and I began our primary school education, Bhele Secondary school including most schools around the township staged a protest march against an Apartheid government plan to introduce the Afrikaans language as a medium of instruction at schools.  It was the last straw.  The world Watched as Police and the army opened fire to thousands of unarmed school children dressed in uniforms.  The picture of a limp Hector Peterson, carried in the hands of a grief-stricken Mbuyiselo, and Peterson’s sister running by his side, painted an iconic image of the cruelty of the Apartheid government.

 

 Happily, my brother Sechaba working as a car guard – was stationed at the make shift parking on Khumalo Street adjacent to the bottom of the Vilakazi street.  Where Nelson Mandela first own a house in 1946, and where he lived with his first wife Evelyn Mase, then later with his second Wife Winnie Madikizela Mandela and their children.  Archbishop Emeritus, Desmond Tutu also lived in this street, PHESESCO, the high-school I couldn’t wait to grow up and attend is also on the same street.

 

 “ Silahlekelwe sisi” ( it’s a great loss my sister)  he said of our father’s passing – the death of South Africa’s  First President and liberation leader  the late President Nelson  Rholihlahla Mandela. “Kub’hlungu” He says. I know. I can see the pain in his eyes. We get to chatting a little bit while the crew gathers their staff and he tells me that he’s afraid. Tata Madiba was the one holding us all together he says he’s the one who told us to stop fighting and I am afraid that now that he’s not here anymore, the children might start fighting again. Do you really think that? I ask. He says yes. The tension is bubbling he says. I refuse to go there with him.  The conversation leaves a sting in my heart. Don’t worry about your car he says, I’ll look after it. We thank him and proceed.

 

MADIBA- MAGIC. THRIVE.

 

 All I can hear as I cross over are drums.  A group of young drum-majorettes dressed in pink are marching down to the beating drum.    As we get nearer to the center I notice a new restaurant, it was not here a few months ago. It’s at the Corner opposite – to the famously packed Sakhumzi restaurant. The mood is festive. People are sitting outside on the pavements people gazing as they sip on their cold drinks and coffee. The building is a duplex concrete and glass structure, modern, minimalistic, with white plastic art deco chairs. It looks like my kind of space. For a moment, I don’t feel as if I am in Soweto, Orlando West: my home town.  I walk in and order a cup of coffee while I wait for my phone to recharge.  Then my eyes find the man who seemed to run things, the man taking the cash from waiters who have him inundated with orders.  With a wide smile he happily shared the miracle of THRIVE the restaurant, with a tagline “Appetite for life”.   “We opened the restaurant four weeks ago, he tells me. The restaurant is a beautiful 50 percent Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) deal he continues brimming with pride. It is the first black female owned restaurant on Vilakazi Street. He points at her, Thembi Mahlangu a native Sowetan.  She used to work for me as a barrister at one of my restaurants, Bellini’s in Illovo. She worked as a barrister there for two years.   She told me that she wanted to start a coffee trolley business in Soweto, and I decided that let’s build a place. I couldn’t get a view of Thembi Mahlangu only her back, she was facing the industrial coffee machine. Doing what she knows best. Making- coffee.

 

THE DEAL.                                               

 

So I used the opportunity to get into details about the BEE deal. Stop me if I’m rambling he says with excitement. I tell him not to worry. It’s an upmarket restaurant. We’re targeting 50 Percent Tourists, 25 percent black middle class, and another 25 percent for the locals.  The most expensive meal on the menu is a stake fillet at R150 (plus minus 15 USD), the cheapest is breakfast for R20 (2USD), the pricing is 10 percent below Tasha’s, one of the most successful restaurant franchises in Johannesburg. We’re also trying to introduce locals to different foods which they are adapting to very nicely. We have some local stuff he says, Boerewors for the Afrikaners and Kota’s for the local.  It’s not a party venue, he emphasizes for clarity, we’re bringing the North to the South – an upmarket restaurant in Soweto basically he says.  How did you get the land I ask? We got the land from the neighbours next door on a lease, we’re paying them rental, we built this place for them basically he says. And how is business so far? It’s picking up nicely he says looking out to the horizon, and with Mandela’s passing we’ve just been overwhelmed. I have never worked so hard in my life. We’re still facing some teething problems, but so far so good. I thank him, polish up my coffee which is good and head out to the crowds.

 

IN MOURNING.

 

Opposite Madiba’s former home, now a Museum called Mandela House. I see her. Dressed in her green and black African National Congress Women’s League (ANCWL) uniform, Khosi Masondo. Standing alone and forlorn. She really looks sad. “Sizilile M’tanami” she says, we are in mourning a leader, a visionary. But we just want to thank Tata Madiba for what he has done for us. He really helped us. You see, at a time like this, you can’t just sit in your little corner and cry by yourself you have to be with others. I really don’t think we will ever have a person like Madiba, not in the near future, maybe centuries from now but I not for a long time. His Patience, his Resilience, His Humility. You know Madiba had the ability to make you feel very important. Even when you felt that you as a person are nothing. Madiba made you feel like you’re human being, that you are worthy, that you can do something.

 

COME THE TABLE

 

“My fondest memory of him” she tells me as her eyes fill up with tears. Was at a dinner party organized by my husband, former Mayor of Johannesburg to Amos Masondo to commemorate the June 16 Anniversary for the first time after his release. I ran away. I ran away when I heard that I was going to sit at the same table with Madiba.  I went to hide. But Madiba called me, sent people to fetch me to say you “Khosi” you have been called to duty, come and sit at the table with South Africa’s first Black President. He could make you feel really important.  Tata has taught us a lot, we’ve seen, we’ve learnt the most amazing lessons from Tata.

 

AN END OF AN ERA

 

 As day became night, I found myself at his last home in Houghton estate, amongst fellow mourners. I think it became real when I glimpsed the sea of lit candles, flowers, wreathes, images that I had until then only seen on Television, about other people. I am alive at this moment in time in history and suddenly I felt overwhelmed with emotion. “It’s my last assignment as Africa foreign Editor” Lars Sigurd Sunnana. A Radio and Television Journalist with the  Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) , for more than four decades. He is an award winning journalist. A true professional. ” Its a  it’s a fitting conclusion to an illustrious career I say. He says yes. It’s fitting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DAILY-LIFE AS PEFORMANCE

Long Live The dead Queen by Mary Sibande Pic: Arthrob

Long Live The dead Queen by Mary Sibande
Pic: Arthrob

A Couple of days ago I was invited to a gig at the Drill Hall downtown Johannesburg, opposite the notoriously crowded and busy Noord Street taxi rank.  We arrived fashionably late as always in time to hear the last band on the line up blasting its tunes to a half full glass gallery. It was strange to be out among former party people and friends.  The music performed by a new up and coming Afro-Rock-band BCUC, was too much to bear.  I stood between bobbing heads and watched as the band members sang their lungs out as if it were their last performance on earth.

FO MO…

Orange juice in hand, I went out to the balcony, for some air. The city streets offered some quiet room for idle contemplation.  Then Suddenly, as if listening to a documentary narration on the National Geographic channel I heard a beautiful baritone say, “Look at her, picking up, bag after bag, rubbish after rubbish, and no one is paying attention her, she does her work, quietly as if she’s performing” he mused and waited to let his words linger on the woman in blue overalls and a reflective jacket plastic bag in hand bending-over. “It’s a kind of performance.”   I searched for the voice with my eyes and found it coming from the mouth of the artist friend who invited us to join him on a night out to fend off a common condition among hip Jo’burgers called FOMO or the Fear of Missing Out.  I wondered if this woman, someone’s grandmother, mother or aunt, wife, sister, friend, thought the same about her work as a municipal worker for Pick-It-Up (a municipal refuse collecting service).  A performance. His languid narration brought to mind a memory from childhood.  Bear with me as I connect the dots.   Here’s the story:

EMAKHISHINI BABY…

Domestic work in township slang is called – emakhishini – a Zulu word meaning Kitchens. I knew that my grandmother woke up every day as early as four in the mornings to catch the train and go to work Emakhishini, a place I imagined to be a massive large kitchen full of dishes and plates and my favourite: Shiny silver pots, pans and all manner of utensils.  In my mind’s eye my grandmother would report to work and fall in line next to other women and begin the task of washing dishes all day as if in a factory until it was time to come home.  Then one day my grandmother told me the unthinkable she said “today I am going to take you to work with me”.  “Really?” I exclaimed with all the excitement and enthusiasm an inquisitive, I’ll go anywhere as long as we’re on the road nine-year old could master. “I will get to see the huge kitchen that you work in?” Yes she said. Oh boy was I excited, finally I would have a story to tell to the other kids when schools re-opened.  Since I was petrified of trains, we took a mini-bus taxi.  I must have pelted her with questions all the way from Soweto to one of Johannesburg’s leafy Suburbs. We arrived to a cream-white  house with a pool  and yes I was a little disappointed at the size of it, since I had imagined that it would be some place huge and magnificent. The moment I entered the space – I felt as if I was walking into a movie set. Two younger white children (toddlers) sat on the carpet floor watching cartoons amid a river of toys strewn everywhere. The Mother crisscrossed down the passage, kitchen and lounge while shouting orders to Lefina, my grandmother. “Stay here, and play with the children” My grandmother instructed me while she went in for more instructions from her madam.

After the Madam and her husband left the house for work, I followed my grandmother into the kitchen where I was confronted with the biggest shock of my life.

WEEK-END SPECIAL…

Still today as I write this I am still trying to figure out just what was going through my mind and how I rationalized my imaginary majestic silver kitchen with  the reality of what  “emakhishini “  work actually  was.  I still don’t understand why I was so shocked by what I saw. Pots, plates, dirty cups, mounds of plates with half eaten dried out food  and sauces, mountains and mountains of Tupperware, some even fell to the floor, whose cream-white tiles were covered in black soot; it was so disgusting my head spun. I had never seen a house as filthy as that kitchen in my short life, with the exception of the beer house at the top of our street. But even they managed to wash the dishes once in a while. I couldn’t understand how grown people could live in such filth for days on end. The day of the week was Monday. “Wow “I exclaimed “don’t these people wash the dishes? “ I asked my grandmother “So all this time, Friday, Saturday, Sunday they don’t wash the dishes?” Why? I asked her, “Because it’s my job to wash the dishes” She replied already starting to clear out the dizzying mess. “They wait for you? for the whole weekend??”  I asked. Yes she said “that’s why you’re going to help me” she said. I immediately wished I had never said yes to my grandmother’s invitation. I couldn’t think just where I would even start to help her, the kitchen was such a mess; it was as if a hurricane, coupled with a bloody world war had taken place in that kitchen. Plus in my imagination my grandmother never worked alone, how was I supposed to help her?  The prospect of having to clean up brought tears to my eyes which I tried  desperately to hide from mama.

THE SHOWER

My grandmother consoled me and told me I shouldn’t worry she would clean up the kitchen herself; I was to help her with one small favour she said. “It won’t take long, and then you can join the other children and watch TV” she said, we didn’t own at a television set at home.  She said I would like you to help me clean the bathroom baby as she led me to the shower.  She said see these tiles, they used to be white but now as you can see they are almost black, if you can scrub them clean for me you will have helped me a lot she said as she cleaned one corner of the one inch by inch white tiles whose ridges had become black from decay and grime in demonstration. “Every single one of them?” I asked my heart sinking with each syllable. “Yes my baby” my grandma said with such a sweet pleading voice, I couldn’t disappoint her. The minute she left the bathroom I started crying, as I scrubbed every inch of that shower as if it were the last thing I would do. I had been in that bathroom for-ever, when my grandmother arrived and told me I had done a sterling job, better than she would have she said. “Now come eat and look after the other children” I followed her to a transformed kitchen, as if an angel had come and did a miraculous make-over. I was proud of my grandmother. But I missed her more, she had disappeared into the children’s bedroom and was now ironing their clothes,  she looked so lonely and alone I had never missed someone alive standing right in front of me like I did then. I lost all and any respect I had for white people. I resented how my grandmother told her madam how well I had scrubbed the bathroom making it look almost brand new. She was so proud. The Madam smiled at me, but all I wanted was to go home, with my grandmother to our little house with music and radio stories at 7, where she didn’t have to wash mountains of dishes.

Life as performance…

Maybe I have trouble with the idea because of that experience. Because I know that my grandmother was not engaged in some form of artistic Performance for the benefit of galleries or artists bored with their lives looking for a muse or inspiration.  It was not a performance scrubbing those tiny little tiles inch by inch.   The artists’ job is meant to challenge the norm, reveal new perspectives, ways of seeing the other but I suppose I have a problem with easy fantasies and eloquent conclusions.   I have a problem with world-renowned artist Mary Sibandes’ Glorified “Sophie” character in her critically acclaimed work “Long live the Dead the Queen” a domestic worker – maid – dressed majestically in regal, aristocratic, stoic yet still domestic uniform. I had never truly understood why until now.

Here’s the thing…

While I admire Mary Sibandes’ work and artistic talent and vision: I am just simply tired of efforts to try and glorify abusive behavior in the name of art.  I am just simply tired of being forced to make do, accept the inhumane working conditions which are simply put – an act – of continued slavery perpetuated by both the former colonial masters and increasingly the new African black bourgeoisie or middle class.  I simply just can’t stand it anymore, to watch and listen as people pontificate, subvert and what not with what is essentially people’s lives.  Here’s the thing, I don’t look down on Domestic work, or people who do this type of work. It is work. There’s nothing wrong with cleaning people’s homes and offices who can’t do it themselves, there’s nothing wrong with working as a municipal worker for Pick It Up, picking up refuse, cleaning the sewage etc. – work is work and as some would say, “someone has got do it” Restoring order in chaos is a talent, a skill which includes – all the skills required for you my learned friend to land that plum job at that corner office. Time management, organizational skills, project management, conflict management, people skills, culinary skills, child care abilities etc. So those who do this type of work must be paid and compensated with salaries consumerate with their skills, experience and hours spent at a job.   I think it’s high time that domestic workers are paid a living wage, and no that does not amount to the 150 bucks you spend on a dinner in a restaurant.  Domestic workers must be paid real wages,   close to what you would expect to be paid for a day’s hard labour.  A minimum of 6 -10 thousand rand a month, for picking up your soiled panties that you leave lying around or the tread marks of last night’s dinner that  you neglected to use a toilet brush to remove.  If you want someone to clean up after you and wipe your cute little behind you must be willing to pay and pay well for work well done, otherwise don’t patronize people by expecting them be grateful, for the change you give them for a full day’s work. If they need training, you as the employer must foot the bill, send them for further education and skills and pay them what they are worth. So that they too can plan ahead, advance their lives, send their children to school, buy a home, have choices and not live from hand to mouth in perpetual slavery to you.   Respect is not a platitude of fake smiles, hand me downs, hug and fake benevolence. Show respect by paying people a decent salary. Pay them money so that they can buy the clothes they want to wear, not some hand me down clutter and rubbish you pull out from your wardrobe and dump it on them because shame they are so poor. You must pay; otherwise learn how to clean up after yourself.  There’s no shame in domestic work, the shame is from you, you must feel ashamed that you expect someone to clean up your shit and then turn around and spit on them by disrespecting them and looking down on them.  You must be ashamed because you know you wouldn’t, would never do what you expect your domestic worker to do at the price you pay them.  (Please don’t say that’s why I went to school and got an education crap, you should know better by now, surely)

There are countless examples of people around the world who make money from organizing people’s homes and offices doing the cleaning, the dusting etc. There are even shows about it. And you expect “Sophie” to do it for free for you, giving her just enough money for transport and brown bread.  You are a slave-master. If you insist you must not complain when it’s not clean enough to meet your very high standards, you get what you pay for. Empowerment does not begin with some government policy or legislation, do the math oh you educated one and tell me if you could “live” on the pennies you give another. It’s not rocket science; failure to do this is slavery. It means you too are part of the problem not the solution. Start by recognizing that, that woman who cleans your house is a human just like you.   And treat her as you demand to be treated by your employers, give her the benefits you so righteously deserve too. Then maybe you can afford to “care-less” about their personal “issues”.  Anything  less than that is pure slavery.

Life is not a GOD-DAMN performance! Even that you pay good money for.

 

CHANNEL O-OH! AFRICAN VIDEO AWARDS AND THE VIP SYNDROME

Nigerian R&B duo P-SQUARE, doing their thing at the 2013 Channel O African Video Awards in Kliptown Soweto.

Nigerian R&B duo P-SQUARE, doing their thing at the 2013 Channel O African Video Awards in Kliptown Soweto.

“Gloom and despondency have never defeated adversity. Trying times need courage and resilience..” Former South African President Thabo Mbeki, 2008 September Presidential  Resignation speech.

The Fairy-Tale

Let’s just say I was a fish out of water. I traipsed through the darkness over the railway line in 6 inch thin Wedges to get to the other side of the tracks in order to arrive at the entrance of the Tenth Annual Channel O African Video Awards in Kliptown, Soweto.  I was there at the invitation of Mr Bob Nameng, director of the Soweto Kliptown Youth Centre (SKY) in old Kliptown. The center featured prominently during the show part of  Channel O social responsibility initiatives. The channel build a music recording studio at the center to help train aspirant musos and the youth of Kliptown  some years ago.

At the entrance I received my orange tag, tightly tied around my right wrist and was swiftly greeted by two crew members one of whom informed someone via the intercom that “We have another screamer” coming in. I asked one of them “screamer? What does that mean?” I soon found out at the entrance to the main venue when I was asked for a card or ticket which I didn’t possess. “Wait here” they said seemingly confused about where I should go.  After I was let in and showed to the “screamers” section I realized what the confusion had been about. I was not dressed like the “screamers” – a word which here is meant to describe die-hard, star-struck largely young(er) people who would stop at nothing to see their favourite artists up-close and personal and so are placed standing around the stage to shout and scream at the performers throughout the live show.  I was with those guys that the “stars/performers” shake –hands with on stage, who they throw their pieces of clothing or accessories to. Some did too, a pair of sunglasses and a hat were thrown to the “beloved” screamers “without whom the artists would not be the stars they are” (sic) 

I laughed at my own presumptuousness. I had actually asked for a chair, but realized that my orange tag only afforded me standing room in a cage –like – Kraal among screaming fans.   Seated on the gallery were Very Important People (VIPs):  the stars, musicians, artists, performers, Music industry leaders, managers, producers, the media with their wives, friends etc.  I even spotted  Randall Hall, the famed Idols judge whom everyone loves to hate, sitting in the front row seats at the gallery his demeanor unchanged from what Idols audiences have become used to.  I had been spoiled by the “perks” of being a member of the press, though admittedly I have never in the past (nor presently) used my press card to gain access to events I was not assigned to cover or invited to. Tonight I was here as myself – Jedi Ramalapa – and that only provided access to the fan section – which in production terms is equivalent to the role of an extra, without benefits (food and refreshments).

THE SHOW…

After I settled into my standing “Screamer” position and taking pictures with fellow screamers. I took out my notebook with a view to writing about the Awards from a very different perspective.  Soon darkness descended inside the Marquee erected on Walter Sisulu Square of Remembrance as the countdown to the live show began.

Fire-works, Lights, Stage Smoke erupted around the stage which lite up the dome in a spectacular fashion. The fire works though were dangerously close to the “screamers” raising  alarm from my side about our safety. Soon   Red, Green, Yellow and Red laser lights blitzed, whizzed on the stage revealing two statuette-like figures of two well-built men, who were to be the main MCs for the show. Naeto Super C and AKA, names and faces which were until that very moment were unknown to me.

BLACK & GOLD

The fashion theme for the show was overwhelmingly black and gold. Black Military-esque outfits, suits, body hugging evening dresses for the female presenters and Vjs embellished with thick gold chains and an assortment of jewelry from tooth to toe.   The show was fast-paced and I soon discovered the advantageous position I was in as I could see the performers up close and also had a view to the scripts they were reading through the tele-prompter.  From my standing position one could observe the demeanor of the performers and presenters as they propped themselves up for a cue to action and read from the set-script.  Many of them improvised, made up their own words as they went along and some did a poor job of reading which meant that had I been sitting on the main gallery, I would not have had a clue of what they were saying.   The stars read as if spitting a rap tune, but I understood this as they were in-fact artists who are more often than not prone to go off the script and perform whenever the mood arises. No one is perfect.

“I am just one poor woman among millions, in their name I want to greet a freedom fighter”   Belgian Woman to Patrice Lumumba following his release from prison and arrival in Belgium.

THE ASS (ET)   FACTOR.

What I found most interesting (read disturbing) about the show was the prominence and dominance in all music genres of male artists. Female artists were mostly supporting acts – dancers who gyrated half-naked, limbs in the air, massaging the floor with their thighs and buttocks in half-twerking-twists and splits behind King-Like- Male artists. My fellow screamers were in heaven. The women among us faked fainting and made comments to the tune of “he looks so delicious” – all is equal in love and war.  The Men wanted to leave “ let’s go and have a drink somewhere”  It was indeed a live show  true to what Channel O music videos are about –  the trusted old script of the Male lead supported by half-naked gyrating women behind them. It made me think about what it is in fact that make male artists more “successful” or prominent, hard work, less time looking after the family? Fraternal brotherhood?  Has nothing at all changed? I suppose women aspire to be background dancers because that is what popular culture sells to them, advertising excessive sexuality on the dance floor as a way to get in, be seen and admired by men and envied by other women.  I have often had my doubts about whether or not it would be prudent to force commercial entities such as Multichoice which owns Channel O to provide “diversified” forms of entertainment  thinking that it would be better for us to do our own thing on the side.

But “we” independent artists who function on the fringes of the mainstream do not have the platform, and one can’t influence popular culture if we don’t go were young people are – which is the Channel O and  MTV’s of the world. So how do we change? Change does take place yes, is taking place, but at a much slower pace – ultimately we’ll have more young people aspiring to those forms of entertainment as career options than we’d have true artists who have a real message  or craftsmanship. Independent artists need to infiltrate the established mainstream ultimately. How?

The performance by South African DJ Ganyani of her hit song  Chibombo  ( a former supporting act for Thembi Seete of  Boom Shaka) was perhaps the only powerful female  led performance act, which brought to mind images of the late 80’s singer Paul Ndlovu   and Brenda Fassie in one tiny package.  Admittedly non-gyrating-fully clothed male and female music duos received a resounding reception from the audience particularly a performance by The Soil. The audience stood up to sing with the artists word for word.  Mafikizolos’ 2013 hit song “Khona” also received a  warm reception as it brought the show down to a close with more fireworks, dancing Africans, stage smoke and confetti, to a spectacular close. Even the ever popular Alingo –  by the Nigerian duo P-Square;  which got me moving one Sunday afternoon, though popular did not  generate the massive support. It was altogether a night for South African artists, which also made me wonder where the  African(ness) was in the awards.

All things being equal, I imagine  that  certain sections of the public are also slowly getting tired of the male on top type music videos and are also looking for performances that are much more substantial – though the latter still dominates.

Michael Jackson was alive at the Channel O African Video awards, with almost all dance choreography mimicking the pop-legends infectious moves. This is also true to worldwide mainstream dance acts from Beyoncé to Chris brown. The show left me wondering if this generation has anything “original “to offer? Perhaps it’s time I considered adjusting my expectations.