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