I hope my letter finds you well today
Please allow me to introduce myself, I am Jedi Ramalapa from South Africa. I have lived in this country since the day I was born 39 years ago. Even though the contents of this letter will reference a specific encounter with you in my professional capacity as a journalist, I want you to know that this letter comes from me personally. I am writing to you in my personal capacity as a citizen of this country and the continent of Africa, not as a journalist. I am writing to you in my capacity as a human being, who is (thankfully still) alive today.
You have been on my mind quite a lot recently. I have been thinking about you and the trailblazing journey you have made to create the third most powerful opposition political party in South Africa. My opinion may not matter to you at this moment, but I think what you and your colleagues have been able to achieve in the past seven years is incredible. I have a lot of respect for your energy, drive, creativity and passion.
Back in 2012 there were undeserved whispers about me in the corridors of SAfm’s current affairs offices, I was rumoured to be a member of your fan group. Although this was patently untrue I didn’t mind the whispers because I knew the truth. More importantly, I believed in you.
For some inexplicable reason I thought our values were aligned. But Was wrong. I thought you wanted the same thing I wanted for black South Africa: Economic Freedom in our lifetime. I had also just returned from a self-funded independent reporting trip in Dakar, Senegal where I witnessed young activists (journalists, writers, poets, rappers etc) collectively organize under the name Y’en marre and the /Movement 23 to remove then president Abdoulaye Wade from public office. The collective campaigned through music and door to door visits to people’s homes, tv and radio interviews encouraging young and old to register and vote Wade out of government. Their efforts were truly commendable and celebrations on the night of Senegals’ current president Macky Sall’s victory at the poll, were both spectacular and infectious. Watching political change happen was inspiring.
Around that time children who saw me walking down the streets of Dakar would greet me by shouting, “yanamarrrre!” because I looked like the fed-up activists. I would greet back and smile, without correcting them, because I knew the truth.
My colleagues thought I was a member of your political party because I had interviewed a young person from the September National Imbizo (SNI) which was then led by your former colleague Andile Mngxitama, the current leader of Black First Land First movement.
Back then I was sympathetic and curious about SNI’s objectives, so I attended one of their public meetings convened on Wits University grounds on my own time during the weekend to hear what was being discussed. Land was a hot topic.
SNI had been created to provide an opportunity for ordinary South Africans to “to take stock of what has taken place in the past decade and to deliberate on what must be done by all South Africans who want justice and sustainable development” noting that “the post-1994 government has not shown the sort of commitment required to turn the legacy of colonialism and apartheid around.” Everyone agreed with this, as they do now. I assumed the movement was progressive.
The September National Imbizo was inspired by “the great sages of the anti-apartheid struggle who represent the main currents of the liberation movement: Oliver Tambo, Robert Sobukwe and Steve Biko and Thomas Sankara.” It was encouraging to hear that some members of SNI founded the EFF with you. I thought it could only be a step in the right direction. Mind you, I was still entangled in imaginary romantic relationships with the late former Burkinabe President, Thomas Sankara and Congolese Prime minister Patrice Lumumba. I thought any African political party which chose to follow in Thomas Sankaras’ footsteps was leading African citizens on the right path.
I don’t have to tell you about Thomas Sankara’s legacy, you know it. But I will note one remarkable thing about him which makes him an African legend in my books. Hint: it’s not a coup;
“From the time Thomas Sankara took office as president in 1983 the production of cotton and wheat increased dramatically. While the average wheat production for the Sahel region was 1,700 kilograms per hectare in 1986, Burkina Faso was producing 3,900 kilograms per hectare of wheat the same year. This success meant Sankara had not only shifted his country into food self-sufficiency, but had in turn created a food surplus.”
In four years.
His best friend had him killed in 1987, so we will never know what could have become of him as a leader today or to Burkina Faso as a country. Perhaps he too would have become a modern liberation hero turned dictator like Ugandas’ Yoweri Museveni or Zimbabwe’s late Robert Mugabe who knows? Whatever the outcome, what is important to remember for the purposes of this letter is that Thomas Sankara illustrated how much progress could be achieved in four short years. He was crazy enough to imagine a future where children could be free from preventabe diseases, where women could enjoy equal rights with men by outlawing female genital mutilation, forced marriage and polygamy. He started a campaign to plant millions of trees to combat desertification while encouraging over 350 communities to build schools with their own labour. I was hopelessly in love with the man and his ideas.
While I was blindly focused on Sankara’s glowing resume, I did not see the dictatorial methods he sometimes employed to achieve these goals by “prosecuting officials accused of corruption, those he considered counter revolutionaries and “Lazy” workers in popular tribunals inspired by the Cuban revolution.” Yet, this seems to be the only example from his life you choose to follow religiously.
But I digress
It was not long after these rumours about me in 2012 that police killed 34 striking mineworkers in Lonmin on the 16 of August. These events in Marikana would eventually result in a personal decision to leave my job as a producer for the SAfm midday current affairs program quietly. After some months I found myself homeless in the streets of Johannesburg – despite having family and some friends in the city – no one coud help me. During that time I lived in old Kliptown in Soweto at a derelict youth centre for “street” children near the railway line.
I exchanged my time working at the largely unused library, packing books and encouraging children to read and assisted with meal preparation for a plate of food and a roof over my head. It was then while sleeping on broken chairs, sofas, cold floors and bug infested sponges that I truly understood how hard life was for most poor black South Africans, still.
Yet those dreams of land ownership, free education, work and housing had not materialized for the majority. People in Kliptown were still living under similar or worse conditions to those found in 1955. Residents we(a)re still using pit toilets, living in homes with no running water or electricity. I personally reported on this ‘unchanging” story when the country marked 10 years of Democracy in 2004. When foundations for the multimillion rand Walter Sisulu Square of Remembrance aka freedom square were being laid. Today even the pavement is vanishing. Residents are stealing the bricks from the square to build their own houses. The eternal flame of freedom which was meant to burn forever has long been extinguished.
It is also here that I discovered that like in the movie the Truman show, Kliptown was designed to be that way. The poverty in parts of Kliptown had been deliberately preserved for profit making purposes. Despite numerous protests by the Anti-privatization movement demanding the delivery of basic services at the time. I, myself profited from the poverty-tourism cycle in Kliptown as a fixer for international journalists who had descended on Africa to tell the “Mandela story” following his death in 2013.
After two weeks of living in Kliptown I was chased out for encouraging the girls to clean the rooms they slept in. When I got back on my feet I approached an editor at the Sowetan with information and a link to the business plan affirming my hypothesis. She listened carefully and promised to assign a journalist. I wrote about my experience in Kliptown on my personal blog and life continued.
Towards the end of 2013 fearing hunger and homelessness I gathered all my courage to beg a former editor and colleague for a job where he was also employed. Despite the rumors about dubious ownership I thought ANN7 couldn’t be as bad as everyone claimed since my former boss and other respected journalists were working there.
It was election time, so I went back to Kliptown to tell the same story we had told for many years before, differently. I told the story of the Kliptown’s development model which focused on FDI from tourists who would visit the Kliptown Open Air Museum. The Johnnesburg Development Agency (JDA) wanted to to attract tourists interested in experiencing life as it was in 1955. Which is why there had been no development in old-Kliptown up to that point. It’s tragic end encapsulates South Africa’s story of unequal development.
That’s when I met you.
You won’t remember me. But I remember you. During a press conference at your party headquarters in Braamfontein you pointed at me and told the world that I had blood on my hands. You said the blood of the 34 striking mine workers killed in Marikana was on my hands.
When I approached you for a one-on-one interview privately afterwards, you apologised before I could say a word. “Sorry sister I didn’t mean what I said,” you said as you took my hand to shake it, “it’s not personal” you said and you refused the interview.
I was doing my job. And you were also just doing yours. Think about the Holocost, how did it happen?
We both have a right to be wrong as individual human beings. We both have a right to make mistakes and make as many bad choices in our own personal lives as we see fit.
But today I am writing to you because you and I are not the same as most people. What we say matters, it affects more people that we could ever imagine, it changes things. Between you and I? You know that what you say matters more to the world than anything I could ever write.
When you call innocent people murderers, charlatans, traitors, agents, trojans, sell-outs, killers etc people listen. And despite your political motivations for calling them names, once you’ve said them, you can’t control what your followers choose to do with your toxic words. Think.
I am writing to you because I don’t want to call you names. But I am also concerned about the words you and your followers are using. I am scared of what you could achieve in four incredibly short years, if given the power to rule judging from your track record. Think about the Rwandan Genocide, how did that happen?
My brother insists that you are the kind of political disrupter and leader South Africa needs today. Everybody keeps telling me how amazing you are; that we wouldn’t know half of what we know about #statecapture, #nkandlagate, #guptagate including all the corruption scandals which are being revealed in front of our eyes today had you not continued to open your mouth.
Thomas Sankara warned about revolutionaries like you when he said “Our revolution is not a public-speaking tournament. Our revolution is not a battle of fine phrases. Our revolution is not simply for spouting slogans that are no more than signals used by manipulators trying to use them as catchwords, as codewords, as a foil for their own display. Our revolution is, and should continue to be, the collective effort of revolutionaries to transform reality, to improve the concrete situation of the masses of our country.”
When you get more power what will you do with it? What will it do to you?
You seem to be preparing for war with your words, Julius. But please take a trip to South Sudan before you do that and see how mere words; small little factual things such as Dinka or Nuer can change the course of thousands of people’s lives, for multiple generations, forever. In fact you don’t need to go that far, you were raised by a domestic worker just like me, so you know what words can do. I will not lecture you about your political tactics as I don’t expect you to lecture me on how to do my job either.
But at the core of it both our jobs are about stories and we both know that stories are also about power, about who controls the narrative and who is able to capture people’s minds and hearts. To quote Nigerian the writer Chimmamanda Ngozi-Adichie, “how they are told, who tells them, how many stories are told all depend on power. Power is the ability to not only tell the story of another person, but also it’s to make the story you tell the definitive story of that person”.
I don’t know if you know this but you are a powerful man, Julius. And power needs to be checked.
Julius, my name is Jedi Ramalapa not Cyril Ramaphosa.
It is Cyril Ramaphosa who wrote the words in an email which would eventually lead to the bloodbath in Marikana. Your own colleague Dali Mpofu read Ramaphosa’s emails during the commission of inquiry: “In a mail to Albert Jamieson, Lonmin’s chief commercial officer, a day before the August 16 shooting, Ramaphosa wrote: “The terrible events that have unfolded cannot be described as a labour dispute. They are plainly dastardly criminal and must be characterised as such … there needs to be concomitant action to address this situation”.
If we wanted someone to blame, it will have to be the former general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, a man who also later led his party in talks that brought an end to apartheid, as secretary general of the African National Congress, but he is more powerful now, just like you Julius so he can can control his narrative. Peter Alexander from Centre for Social Change, University of Johannesburg wrote in the M&G that Cyril Ramaphosa was a skilled negotiator perfectly positioned to bring a peaceful settlement to Lonmin labour the dispute, but instead he aligned himself with Lonmin and the police in their attempt to crush the strike using lethal force.
A writer I admire Zadie Smith, said something which resonates with me. She said “I don’t think of myself as contrarian. I’m useless at confrontation. But I also can’t stand dogma, lazy ideas, catchphrases, group-think, illogic, pathos disguised as logos, shoutiness, ad hominem attacks, bombast, technocrats, preachers, fanatics, cheerleaders or bullies. Like everybody I am often guilty of some version of the above but I do think the job of writing is to at least try to minimize that sort of thing as much as you can.”
I wrote this letter to do the work, to minimise the above in myself. To also hopefully make you aware that you are now treading on dangerous ground. I can no longer dismiss your words as harmless political gimmicks. Too many people’s lives are at stake.
To that end, I would like to share something I have learnt in my rather unremarkable life. Maybe you might find it useful in your political endeavours. It is this; there comes a point in life when the ends can no longer justify the means. Because as the German theoretical physicist and pioneer of quantum mechanics, Werner Heisenberg, once observed, “the imprecise measurement of initial conditions precludes the precise predictions of future outcomes”
So think carefully about what you say from now on, Julius. Or you might end up with real human blood on your hands. Is this what you want?
PS: I meant every word I said here, it’s not political. It’s personal.
South African Citizen.