There are secrets between us. Stories that our mothers could never share at bedtime, because they were too humiliating to bare. Too hurtful to fathom. They had to keep it together, so that our hopeful eyes could not see the shame inscribed in their souls, their beings. Simply because they were born into wrong bodies. Plump, soft, curvaceous, al dente. Strong, carved, angular, long smooth and a little rough around the edges, just for control. There are huge, gaping holes in our heads, blurry, greying bits in our collective memories. Stories that don’t fit together. Facts that lie. Truths which hurt. Too much. A labyrinth. Of unspoken loses, tragedies, murders, wails and screams weaved and sewn together in the coils of our hair and stirred into our morning porridge. So that we can, with all the hope we can master get on with the business of living. Of putting one foot in front of the other. Of navigating the hurdles, the rocks and blockages on the way to a better life for all.
But sometimes despite our greatest efforts to tell the good story of triumph. Sometimes despite our valiant efforts to conceal our deepest hurts, our source of shame, the reason we live, love and lay awake at night. These stories come out. Unexpectedly, they unfurl like a long ribbon around us, spinning another web, a different story, carved in soft contours with no sharp edges or straight lines. They come, out of context. As if irrelevant, somehow, to current debates. And like bullets coming out of now, here, or nowhere, we are surprised by them. Shocked. Confused.
South African writer and educator Sindiwe Magona (71) told the story of how she came to writing books to an audience that had come to see her including poet Keorapetse Kgositsile and Ghanaian writer Ama ata Aidoo during the Africa Month Colloquium hosted by the South African Department of Arts and culture last month. She surmised from her experience as a Xhosa language teacher at the privately owned prestigious Herchel Girls High school in Cape Town that black South Africans credit white South Africans with too much (knowledge), while white South Africans are completely ignorant about black lives (current and historical). She told a story of an incident that bared this truth. It was during a break in the staff room when these words came out of her mouth in conversation with other staff members. “There’s no electricity in my house, there’s no electricity in Gugulethu”. She says what followed was shocked silence, you could hear a pin drop, because it was inconceivable to her white colleagues (and her current audience) at the time that she did not have electricity in her house in the 1980s! Meanwhile it was just as inconceivable, if completely unbelievable for Magona that her white colleagues did not know that she, along with millions of other black people living in black townships including Gugulethu did not have electricity in 1980! I mean really what’s going on here?
Without making apologies for anyone, Magona continued to elaborate on this seminal experience in her life, describing how shocked she was that white people could be so ignorant about black lives. She also explained that people who looked like her (black people) perceived white South Africans in only one way. They were: “White – obviously, Rich- obviously and Happy- obviously!!” According to black people white people had no reason to be unhappy because they reasoned amongst themselves “what reason have you to be unhappy when you don’t carry a Dompass?” As if happiness arose from not having to carry a Dompass. Then, she says something happened after that moment had passed. “So I started to think that you know we credit white South Africans with too much, because they made the laws we thought they knew everything, well they didn’t. Just as we didn’t know everything, who does? The more I got out of my particular ghetto and made friends and acquaintances and relationships off all kinds across the defined and delineated areas, it began to dawn on me how little we knew of one another in this country. And there’s no hope of ever changing anything as long as there is this yawning divide of utter lack of understanding and knowing. Unfortunately 22 years later we’re still very much there, although there are now no laws to stop us we still live very much as though we live under Apartheid.”
“When you see how we are perceived and how cheap labour lives and then you read history books and books on anthropology. It dawned on me that those of us who can string together two or five sentences ought to write about who we were, how we were, where we were. I don’t write to threaten and unseat any great writer. I write the so that the story of my life, our lives, can also be heard from my point of view from my perspective. I write to leave footprints.”
SO ABOUT: THE MINISTER AND WHITEDOM
So that when South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoane-Mashabane, told the world about a hole on her head caused by carrying a water-can when she was nine years old, during an Aljazeera interview. A pin dropped. The interviewer, South African-born Jane Dutton was shocked! She did not know this about her fellow South African sister. Dutton, trying to recuperate asked the minister how her response was relevant to the question of the EFF being thrown out of parliament and if the distinctions she was making about their different life experiences were relevant. Nkoane-Mashabane insisted that, yes, they were. Relevant.
But Dutton could not see how. She could not hear. Her brain could not connect the dots between the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) being thrown out of parliament and a woman (or a girl) being forced by circumstances outside of her control to carry a water-can on her head in South Africa today. Because it is the EFF which says in its own policy documents that: “The state, at all levels, should have the obligation to provide sanitation wherever people reside. This is a fundamental human right, which should lead to the abolishment of bucket and pit toilets.”
Had Dutton “known” perhaps that people (blacks, South African, labour) still carried water-cans on their heads today, that indeed people still used pit toilets, in areas such as Kliptown in urban Soweto (something which the EFF is presumably/ostensibly fighting for) today – right now – then she could have followed up with sterling questions and conducted a superbly informed interview. Relevance would not be a question. It is not Nkoane-Mashabane’s fault (and I’m sure she and her political party have many) that Jane Dutton , a senior-anchor on Aljazeera did not do her homework.
PS: Even Ama ata Aido was shocked! To discover that young students at Rhodes University did not know who Lewis Nkosi was. And I in turn was shocked! to learn that young students (who look like me) do not know who Jan van Riebeck was. Today, in 2016.