Pre-amble: [The United Nations‘ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers” ]
Once upon a time I had a heated argument with a partner. As I was going off in all cylinders he kept looking at me curiously and when I finally calmed down long enough for him to get a word in edgewise, he smiled deceptively and said “I want to kiss you, but I’ve been thinking about how in the world I could do that. I mean your lips are so big and full. I don’t’ even know from which angle to approach you. I don’t know if I should go left or right or just dive in straight ahead” He said, his head tilting slightly from side to side as if he was attempting to pin down a moving target. His words surprised me, but had the effect of knocking the air out of my argument. An involuntary smile spread itself across my face and I was helpless in preventing the genuine laughter which followed. I remember thinking how amazingly brazen he was. I looked into his gleaming passionate eyes which made a penetrating dance around my face and decided to show him some respect and reward his efforts with a compliment. “Hmmm” I murmured, “I suppose I could kiss you too” I said pausing and repressing the laughter which threatened to overtake coherent speech “but I just have no idea what I would be kissing there, you practically have no lips to speak of. It’s as if the creator was in hurry to finish and just made a straight line, a slit, an opening just so you can claim to have a mouth while on the other hand he spent his precious time and took his time to carefully carve my mouth, creating these dark full, soft, curvy and juicy l…
I’m you sure you can guess how that sentence ended. Don’t worry if you can’t I’ll tell you. That conversation ended in a passionate sensuous kiss in which both of us took great care to find each other’s lips, big and small and allowed them to do the sweet talking. By drawing my attention away from the issue which had me legitimately blowing hot coals at him he redirected the heat into an activity we both enjoyed. In that moment we successfully managed to diffuse a potentially explosive situation by choosing to laugh. It was a highly provocative situation which ended happily ever after.
So how is this tale of a typical lovers tiff linked to Charlie Hedbo? Humour, Satire, Freedom of Speech/Expression, the right to offend and their opposite’s bigotry, hate speech, incitement, all phobias including racism. The later could have been read into the situation described above. Even though the initial misunderstanding was not even close to being a racial incident, my partner’s later comments could through a lens of history and current events be justifiably so classified. The difference was we both took no offense. The situation might have been different of course had one of us been hypersensitive about the size and shape of our lips. If I thought for a moment his statement was derogatory or an insult to my looks, person, history and entire generations of original people, which someone would be forgiven to assume and vice versa, I would be telling a very different story. We both could have given each other a different kind of kiss.
If we are (rightly) to protect and uphold the right to freedom of expression and in particular the right to offend embedded in the freedom of the press, we must know that people will take offence or become duly offended as was our intention when we exercised that right. We should also acknowledge and accept the fact that once we have so exercised our rights we henceforth lose control over how these individuals and or organizations we mean to offend will retaliate or respond once we have successfully offended them.
We have countless examples in recent history of instances where people expressed thoughts and or opinions which have caused those offended by them to react, retaliate or respond, sometimes in the most disproportionately inappropriate ways, because once the fire is raging you cannot dictate the terms. The recent xenophobic attacks against African citizens in Durban, KwaZulu Natal and other parts of South Africa are also a clear example of the power of free speech. In light of this if we are all to rightly ask King Goodwill Zwelithini to take responsibility for his speech, opinions and statements which may have caused, incited and or inspired the brutal attacks on African citizens, if we are right to call his statements: irresponsible and careless, we must by the same token ask Charlie Hedbo – to take full responsibility for its own role in inspiring the attacks of January the 8th.
Charlie Hedbo’s pride lies in its ability to freely and fearlessly poke fun, lampoon and insult everyone they so choose. No idea or person is safe from the scrutiny which flows from their creative pens and pencils. But that freedom or right does not preclude them from responsibility nor does it render them immune from scrutiny, criticism or worse fatal attacks from others.
Everyone has a right to poke fun, to satirize, but if someone does not find your jokes about them particularly funny or amusing, and you persist regardless of the fact that your persistence is making them angry, you will end up with an equal and opposite reaction.
It would be so wonderful to live in societies where people were mature enough to dismiss the Zulu King’s inflammatory statements or respectfully ignore them as if they were never uttered. Perhaps in those societies the king will have been deposed by now and asked to step down for abusing his power and influence. It would be great to live in a world where those who Charlie Hedbo aimed to expose, offend and or poke fun at would examine themselves first, analyse their own behaviour and actions highlighted in those cartoons, and ask themselves if they are in all honesty justified to take offense and if so why? It would be wonderful if they could take a moment to laugh at themselves, before acting on their righteous indignation. It would be truly fantastic to live in a world in which people in all spheres of society would instinctively reflect on and attempt to eliminate their own bigotry before pointing a finger or attacking others. In a fair and just world everyone would be mature and sane enough to understand and know without question that violence cannot be an answer to any offense given or taken. But we don’t live in that world.
For journalists, writers, cartoonists and others to pretend that we do is just as careless, irresponsible and dangerous as the actions of those three gunmen, utterances by the Zulu King and people behind the xenophobic attacks. In the course of our work as journalist’s performing a public service, we encounter resistance from those in power (and in the general public) who are more often than not permanently offended by the truth and our very existence. It is an offence we cannot control but it does not relieve us of the responsibility of conducting our work in fairness. And since everyone has a right to take offence with the work we do as much as we (have a right to) offend in the process of performing a public good, the onus is on us, those who stand for truth and justice to perform our duties with the highest levels of integrity, and the highest commitment to truth, fairness and justice for the greater good and betterment of society. We must take responsibility for the rights and powers bestowed on us to speak truth to power in a way that will not degrade the very values and principles we aim to uphold by holding those in power to account. We must also be accountable for our own actions in spreading ideas and opinions which will incite such violence, first upon us and our ability to perform our duties and or upon the public we serve. We need to use our power wisely, strategically and with soberness. We need to be shrewd and careful, without compromising the truth or being careless with it. The truth is already a hard pill to swallow, adding insult to it, is unlikely to make our work any easier or contribute to peace and justice. We must at all times feverishly endeavour to exercise our rights and freedoms in such a way that they enhance the rights and freedoms of others (n. mandela). This is our mandate. No offense. Perhaps one day we will laugh about it. xx
“You write in order to change the world, if you alter, even by a millimetre the way people see reality, you can change it” James Baldwin
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.
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.
11. May. That date brings so many memories. I recall them today because it was a day of paradoxes which I am now only aware of ironically in hindsight. The 11th of May 2008 was a day of new beginnings, a day of some kind of a fresh start. I walked into the walls of the largest Buddhist temple in Africa, dehydrated, hoping to come out refreshed, energized and ready to live a peaceful life. We ( I and three others) were going to spend a weekend in silent meditation…connecting with our inner chi and though we were not disciplined enough not go out the night before we still made it against all odds, half way on a Saturday the 11th of May 2008.
It was a meaningful occasion, especially for me because I had attended high school just a street away from where the majestic temple now stands, oddly isolated from the once sleepy town of Bronkhorspruit. You can see it on the highway from Pretoria to Witbank. Back then when I was 13, learning Badminton, practicing Kung-fu and reading Miles Munroes’ in Pursuit of Purpose between selling pies at break time, sweeping mounds of hair from my mothers Hair Salon, watching the Lion King and having “debates” about the existence of God, race and Homosexuality with my class mates… the temple whose foundations were still being dug seemed like a faraway dream. Like something that would probably never happen. Or even if it did my choice of faith would prohibit me from walking through those gates. But in May 2008 I drove through Nan-hua Temple with Chris and Black Panther (my car) two of my then best friends.
We joined two friends Mali and Fumi? Our masters were at pains to explain that men and women were not allowed to share the same room. A rule which was for once, all in our favour. We couldn’t have wished it otherwise. Our first lesson after lunch was learning how to plan and be prepared for life by learning the art of making tea. Then we did Tai Chi, Kung fu stretches , walking, sleeping, eating meditation, we practiced being grateful for everything, between bites of noodles and greens and suppressed pious laughter…..shhhhh…silence was encouraged. It was beautiful. On Sunday we bought music to keep meditating on the way back to the busy buzz of the city of gold. We were floating on repeated chimes of the Chinese flute and violins when at the petrol station; Mali leaned on black panther and said d through the window “You guys are busy meditating while Johannesburg is burning!” I had never heard anyone say that before “Johannesburg is Burning” what do you mean? We asked perplexed as if waking from deep sleep. Turn on the radio, it’s on the news. I immediately switched to SAfm, and heard the shocking news that there had been wide-spread violent attacks on foreign nationals in the city center, some people were dead some injured, shops had been looted it was just mayhem. I called my boss to ask if they needed extra hands. He said it was fine they had it covered. What was covered? But by the next morning I was walking through the deserted streets of Jeppe’s town on the outskirts of Johannesburg’s city CBD… trying to piece together some kind of a story a sequence of events. Who – What – When – Where – How and Why? The streets were eerily empty… the shops abandoned… broken glass, black soot, the only sign of violence…. shop owners gingerly trying to salvage what remained of the weekends’ carnage”.
A far and distant memory seeps to the surface like a mirage…. one day in Bronkhorspruit we woke up to news of a terrorist attack… the Indian shopping center had been bombed…. there were TV news journalists asking people questions. Did you see anything. I wanted to see. I was a street trader, selling hair clips, lipstick and nail polish( it helps grow your nails, makes them strong) A better option for me compared to knocking on people’s homes like Jehovah’ Witnesses. I had to go to the loo near where the bombs had exploded… I didn’t bargain on a platform of pit-toilets and large half-naked women balancing precariously between the dark manholes…with yellow water falling from even darker hidden places. But I saw the damage… and heard the word. Terrorism. The market was busy, teeming with people who continued to shop as if nothing happened. The last time I had been in a deserted town in a place where clothes, money and possessions lost all their value… where people left everything behind was…. was in the Hot Summer of June 2006 in Lebanon.
But the xenophobic violence quickly spread across the country… like wild fire and became daily headline news. The police were becoming desperate to find the ‘criminal”,” third force” element that was quote unquote responsible for the violence. They had a list of names and were now knocking on doors, shacks, banging them down, barking “where is so and so? we’re told he lives here? Are you hiding him? I don’t know who you’re talking about . A woman would respond peering fearfully through a corrugated iron door “Hhey mama, we know he lives here”….. “mkhiphe” take him out… where did you buy this TV, this DVD? You steal? Where are the slips? All of it sounded too familiar, so close to me…. I know a time like that in my life…. Years ago…somewhere in Orlando West Soweto on the kitchen table… my uncle Thente was getting a Tjambok’s hiding – a lesser punishment for whatever crime he was at the time, white soldiers in full army uniform stood around our faded green enamel kitchen table. My great-aunt watched on helplessly as he flinched and groaned with every lash, his lips and eyes blood-shot. Do you Know him? What would I have said peeping through my bedroom door. He died a few years later. But not before teaching me how to draw, and introducing me to the joys of eating ‘is’khokho’.
“black bags meant for garbage are prized possessions here” was the line my colleague Sherwin and I used to open our radio story on scores of refugees returning to their countries of birth following the aftermath of the Xenophobic attacks. “You hesitate when you ask questions” he says to me taking the microphone and showing me how it’s done. I was overwhelmed. I spoke to refugee after refugee…. I spent days on the side of the road…. In Lindela …. In the corridors of the Methodist church in downtown Johannesburg. None of it made sense. We Printed T-shirts. We marched in solidarity. Slept behind bars. Appeared in court. Until someone asked – How does a victim become the perpetrator? It was just a play. The line. I knew then that the events of 11th May 2008/2007/6/2004/1993 etc had changed my life. I’m still trying to find myself in the ashes of the burning man. I just cannot believe it’s happening again.