It’s Saturday Night, the 26 of April. The suns’ glow which lit up a clear blue sky highlighted by wisps of gentle clouds, shone for a few hours before traveling to the west. The air is starting to bite, clinging to my clothes, shoes and linen. 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 feel grateful. I am sitting on the balcony of Brown Sugar Backpackers in Observatory east of Johannesburg. My new home. I arrived a few hours ago from Curiosity Backpackers in downtown Johannesburg’s newly gentrified Maboneg District. A place where you the artist can live and work. “It’s a place meant for you, so you can be inspired to create” says Lunga, a 22-year-old property agent as he leads me into vacant flats at the Artists Lofts building. ” I’m not selling you a dream, I’m telling you reality” he says showing me into a New York style loft apartment under construction, with its own private lift as an entrance. “This one has already been bought” he adds. Lunga “the charming hustler” 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 derelict area for middle class South Africans not so long ago. 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, near Jeppe police station, in Jeppes’s town. It’s all coming together now – my memory is returning to me vividly as we walk with paper cups of coffee in hand. This is where I walked alone and breathlessly in May 2008…the air had been knocked out my lungs amid haunted empty streets mid-morning …. the debris of chaos strewn on the sweltering concrete, shards of newly broken glass, velvet soot from smoldering fires…papers garbage, abandoned splintering new stock forgotten in a frenzy of adrenalin pumped feet. It was Monday, the 12 of May, a day after the xenophobic violent attacks erupted against African foreign nationals living in Jeppe, Johannesburg and other parts of the country. I felt lost in the inner belly of a place whose blood was pulsating in my veins, not knowing what to expect, where to go or who to ask what. “They took everything” said one shop owner.”We are closing shop now, we are scared they’ll come back again”. The air was thin with tension shimmering against the glow of the yellow sun, silver bright and blinding. “They plan to turn this building into a state of the art-gallery” says Lunga pointing to an old Victorian building on the opposite corner.” 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 consensuss.
….. Curiosity Backpackers has been open for less than four months and business is good. All the rooms have been booked out to foreign travelers. “Until the end of May” the booking manager tells me to more travelers from European countries. As I roll my suitcase out of this inner city hide out, there’s a flurry of activity, new sheets have just been delivered, the staff is cleaning up, no stone is left un-turned. New sparkling white faces smile with wonder-lust in their eyes. “ Zwarte-piet was like just Santa-Clause or Father Christmas , for me, growing up -as a child” A dutch journalism student tells in the crammed corridors of curiosity. “It’s a sentimental tradition which though I don’t celebrate anymore and can see why it can be “offensive” 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” She concludes. I am reminded of how lucky I am. A few years ago this luxury of staying at a backpackers in my own country would have been impossible. In 2004, as we marked and celebrated 10 years of freedom, I walked down Cape Town’s busy and popular Long Street, knocking from one backpacker to another. There was no room at the inn. I couldn’t stay in any of them… because I had a South African Identity book. I was South African and couldn’t stay at a backpackers even though I could afford to pay. “It’s our policy, no South Africans” the guy said. I was confused . “This place is cool, at least you can stay” said a friend of mine while visiting, ” A few years ago I couldn’t find a backpacker to stay in, in Cape Town” she said echoing my experience. The previous night we sat around a fire with a group of young South Africans, a dread-locked white guy who asked for a sip of beer in isiZulu, a 25-year-old Jewish architect who was searching for inspiration, maybe even a life changing epiphany and yet another “bornfree” 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 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 call “coloured” or “biracial”. ” They don’t see this, they don’t understand it, but I won’t be forced to vote” he said holding on to his black label. I listen amazed by his confidence and resolve. ” Locals were never allowed to stay at Backpackers before, it just changed recently” the staff at Brown Sugar tell me. Why I ask in moment of complete amnesia ” They say you locals steal, so foreigners don’t want to share with you” she says smiling ” You can’t stay in a shared room because you’re not staying for one night” she says ” 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. An Irish- Palestinian beautiful man I met a few weeks ago, on my first day back in the city of Johannesburg. Sitting alone at a coffee Kiosk called Uncle Merves’ – paging through a thick green and yellow guide to Johannesburg. I ask him for a light and use the opportunity to ask him where he’s from. ” I’m from Cape Town, I was on holiday with my girlfriend, who has gone to visit family in Durban, so I decided to stay a few days in Johannesburg to get a real sense of the country”. It was his first time on the continent of Africa. I refuse to ask him why he didn’t go with his girlfriend to see her family in Durban. I was also simply passing time enjoying the afternoon sun. It was none of my sun-shining-day-business. He tells me he’s traveled from London where he lives and works as a commercial lawyer for a huge mining conglomerate. He lives not too far from the famed Nottinghill ” My favourite movie” I say and he smiles knowingly. But I can see how disturbed he is. ” I’m shocked that in this country I’m considered white!” he says peering at me for understanding. “I mean I am Palestinian” He says shaking his head. I smile and say ” Here you are white, brother”. He shows me his reading material a book; “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, sharing the stage with Mr Mangcu himself and African-American philosopher and Public intellectual Cornell West talking about the meaning of Mandela flash in front of me. I surprised everyone with my 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 don’t believe in this rainbow. Nobody was ready for that. “You are very brave” one woman whispered to me afterwards. What a shame “young people nowadays!” more flutters of disgust hovered in hushed tones. I had shamed the country’s public intellectuals, returned exiles, academics, writers, journalists, right in the center of a building that embodies our greatest hopes as a nation. Okay so I have a reputation.” It’s really a brilliant book, best biography I’ve read about the man” he says quickly putting it into his backpack like a prized possession. I agree 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 silences to go into the deep political ocean with him.We talked about Beirut – a city we both love. He was also there in June 2006, dubbed the Hottest Summer in Lebanon. 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 he’s also a curiosity resident. I invite him to the African Freedom Station where I introduce him to Bra Steve Kwena Mokwena . There he was immediately at peace, at home. He grew up listening to Hip-Hop.
“Can we count on your vote?” Nomsa from the ANC says over the phone.”How did you get my number.” From the voter’s roll” she says.” Of course I’m voting” my friend puts the phone down and looks at me and we laugh because laughing is good for you.
Tell me because I often find myself in this uncomfortable space. I find myself increasingly feeling lost in these transition(s). Where do I belong? Who speaks for me now? What has happened to my generation? We who were not “born-free”. We who were not in the “armed-struggle” mixing Molotov cocktails and distributing coded pamphlets. We who were born into various states of emergencies in the late 70’s and early 80’s. We the ones who never “fought” in the struggle but existed side by side, with mellow-yellows and army trucks, illusive activists, township thugs, a game of dice by the “danger”, weed rolled up in newsprint perfuming the air at dusk, we who lived in families who tried their very best to create heaven on earth in slave compounds. Those of us whose initiation into primary school was the biting sting of tear gas. Those of us who witnessed the “dying” days of the “boogy-man” called Apartheid. Who grew up in constant fear, avoiding violence in the trains, and hostels bordering our urban villages. We Who Never left. Is there a place for us? We who didn’t have choices. Options. We who watched as army trucks driven and manned by young white boys, teenagers actually, terrorized our brothers, uncles, and made them all disappear in the name of separate but equal living. We who were left alone at night – while our mothers organized stockvels and fathers (those who were still alive) went to work or drowned in government issued alcohol. Their dignity lost. Those of us who knew that something was not right even as we happily and fearlessly played, diketo, skop die bollo and amathini on the “dusty” streets of Soweto? All the running around was a bloody game we didn’t understand. No one was happy – despite what they said. Who speaks on my behalf? Who has written that story. Yes it is not all black and white. We listened and heard. And peered and saw through closed doors at the brutality of our white masters we all loved to fear. We who saw the pain etched in our grandmother’s faces, those who barely eked out a living as domestic workers across all of the city’s luscious green suburbs. “the Jews are better” they would compare notes with each other on their off days.” at least they give us free good quality things we can use”. Where is that generation. That was never taught anything other than to remain silent, and never ever ask questions. Hear nothing. See nothing. Silenced by our childhood, old enough to see but too young to comprehend the game. We who were barely sheltered from what it means to be a black African in Africa. What happened to us who picked up “sofa-sonke” (we will all die ) pamphlets which often covered the golden brown earth of our now romanticized townships, as we were herded pushed out of schools to struggle for a man whose face we never knew… again and again? Don’t ask. Don’t look back. Just run. Shhhhhh.. Yes We were there. We bore witness. We may not have understood the states we were in but we do still bear the scars of a squashed revolution in our hearts souls and faces. We were spirit children,who absorbed all the prayers and held all your tears like precious stones, hard-earned medals in our hearts, hoping to one day grow up and “make it all better” . “I was born in 86″ says Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s grandson, a professional golfer.” See” he shows me the scar on his forehead. ” I got this scar fleeing from the police” He looks at me with such a detached look I want to call him back even though he’s right here, sitting next to me. ” The police were raiding our house… my parents had to flee…. I fell from my mother’s hands while she was running” he said looking away. ” I’m not voting” he said.
I remember my frustration in my early 20’s as I entered my working career in Johannesburg the city of gold, sitting around a table with former exiles newly returned still speaking fondly of New York, Toronto and London, maybe even Tanzania. “You children don’t know about Apartheid” they kept saying. “Why do you speak English like that? why don’t you speak your mother tongues?” You don’t know your histories! They shouted over clinging rocks of ice in Irish whiskeys and Cuban cigars. I was livid! I didn’t know that the struggle was about going to white schools. I didn’t know that the struggle was about living in the leafy suburbs. Or being accepted by white people. It was nice. But I thought the struggle was deeper than that I thought freedom meant you decide who and what you are.
I thought the struggle was about “real” independence(s). About real freedom and African Unity. I grew up being told to learn English. But now this English I speak is a shame. You’re a coconut. Black on the Outside. White on the Inside. Why did you send us to those schools? Why didn’t you stay and teach us isiZulu so we ll we could write our PHDs in our mother tongues? Why is isiZulu not first language in South Africa? Why am I writing this in English? Who was teaching us” history” educating us about our “values” and “traditions” when you were in the bush in Tanzania, fighting for liberty in London, Toronto, New York and Russia?
I’ll tell you who was there. The TV. SABC. Television taught us about music (american) movies (american) culture (american). TV showed us what was possible. We easily identified with African-Americans ( they were the only ones who looked like us who seemed to be having a great time, Lesilo – Rula was too depressing). We were trained to emulate what African-Americans did. We all thought we will grow up and be stars one day! and be famous like the famed characters of FAME! or the Huckstables in the Cosby Show. The only place where the black man was free was in AMERICA – the so-called land of the free. So we took what we could from the televised Revolution. We learnt a lot from African-Americans more than you realize. But never ever forgot, where and who we are…what we saw, what we lived and observed with our own eyes. We are the children who fell through the cracks while you were “struggling” for freedom. We are the children who sang “South Africa we love you! Our beautiful land, let’s show the whole world, we can bring peace in our land!” and we meant it. Do you remember? That day? My mother was teaching me to do things for myself, I was taking a minibus taxi to town by myself, for the first time. The radio was on in the taxi, when it was 12 on the dot, a moment of silence was announced, the taxi driver stopped, and we all in the taxi observed a moment of silence, for peace in our land. I didn’t know that freedom was for a select minority few and not for all!
In fact come to think of it, I never considered for a moment that I was not free. Until I was told. ” The townships haven’t changed, people still live in shacks, in slave compounds” says Euridice Kala. “South Africans are too obsessed with themselves” she says.”They don’t understand “independence”. “Freedom is not just about mobility” said Ayanda ” It’s about the mind”.
I was crushed by Marikana, by the 2008 Xenophobic attacks. Everywhere I’ve been people who look like me ( or close to me) live in compounds enclosed like wild animals to be viewed from tall buses by well-meaning tourists. My soul yearns for liberation I seek it often and always in little ways. I’m not your spectacle. I own myself actually. I’m not an Angry Black. I’m a loving one. Not angry, just full of L . O.V.E.
This is why you are simply off the hook. You don’t have to do anything. I don’t blame you. I’m not blaming you or anyone or anything for the state I am. Actually I am grateful. But what I am saying is; I can’t bend and twist myself into something I am not. And never will be. I will not let you or anyone else define me anymore.
I value your contribution. I will never discount your experience or belittle it. I will honour you. Respect you for showing me so clearly what freedom is not. I will use this knowledge to fuel the flame of real liberation which still burns fiercely in my heart to shine even brighter. I will use everything I saw, everything you taught me and didn’t teach me, to be the best ME I can be. Not the best black anything. Just to be ME. That’s freedom. We ARE the ones you were waiting for…. Thank You. You called us into existence with your blood-stained-tears.
We may have” fallen through the cracks” of time, but that as I see it now, that has been a wonderful blessing in disguise. Because then we learnt want it means to be free. We are the self-taught, self-educated, self-reliant generation. We are the ones who know clearly, that none but our selves can free our minds from mental slavery. No PHDs will do that. We have found freedom in our hearts and minds. This no one can take away. So I am here to announce that this “lost in-transition” generation is here and we have always been “free”.
Instead of torching the streets and screaming from podiums, I will use the power you gave us. The one you say is in our hands, in me, to light up my own path to the real African National Congress…. and if I find as I’m slowly discovering that it actually doesn’t exist… I will create one with other loving souls just like me … we are many… and we’ll do it with so much love it will light up the sky with all the brilliant colours of the rainbow!
Power + Love = Peace.