The best of South African literature
Arja Salafranca, Bongani Nkosi and Loyiso Sidimba reflect on the meaning of democracy and the events that shaped their social outlook.
It’s late Saturday afternoon in a house in Pretoria last month. I’m talking to an Indian woman married to a white woman. Together they have adopted a mixed-race baby, who at this moment is heading towards the sparkling blue pool, intent on splashing in it, even though autumn has started its slow creep towards winter.
“It has allowed me to have the family I have.”
The woman’s simple statement cuts through all talk and all reflection, philosophy becomes mute and falls away – it brings it all to the foreground. A gay couple who have adopted a child – the perfect poster children for Mandela’s vision. Is there anything more left to say? The sun’s shining, we’ve tucked into melktert and rooibos tea.
But reflections grow darker too – the couple admit that, now that they have a child, thoughts of emigration sometimes cross their minds. The corruption in government is worrying, they add.
At times they wonder what sort of life the child will lead here. But there are no decisions made, yet. Another woman there has just returned from a trip to the US to study its law system – she’s a public prosecutor – and says we have a new, young constitution, unbound by old laws and strictures, and her trip to the US has opened her mind to that and how refreshing it is too.
There’s good and bad, shades of grey in our talk.
My companion points to the fact that we might not also be together: a mixed race couple…
In 1976 I arrive in Johannesburg, South Africa, for the first time. I’m nearly five years old. I was born in Spain to a South African mother who left the country and met my Spanish father in Málaga.
My mother has now left my father, and has had to return to South Africa. We go on holiday to friends of hers in the Cape and I cannot understand the racial differences between people. I can’t distinguish between coloureds or blacks or Indians; I don’t know what they are talking about.
My mother reminds me of the first time I saw a black man. We were living in Israel then, having left Spain when I was three. A black man boarded the bus and I couldn’t stop staring, fascinated. I’d come from another very white world in Málaga.
That night, after my mother made chocolate cake, I smeared the chocolate icing all over my face and very excitedly went to show my mother, saying I too was now black.
I didn’t know that just a few years later I’d be standing in Cape Town, trying to figure out this new place of enormous beauty and ugly, strict segregation.
I’m 11 in 1983 when our domestic worker is arrested for not having a pass on her that allows her to live and work in the suburb where she lives with us in a maid’s room at the back. She spends the night in jail.
“Call Helen Suzman!” a friend of my mother’s urges her. That night I hear my mother talking to Helen Suzman on the phone – but it seems there’s little she can do. Our domestic worker is released the next day. Her pass still isn’t in order. It will be some time before this is sorted.
I make sense of the incident by writing about it in the fiction I am beginning to use to explore my world. I show it to my mother, who shows it to a friend of hers.
“She’d better be careful,’ says the friend, ‘if this kind of writing gets out…”
I’m too young to know the National Party government might be clamping down on banned parties and dissidents, but that, no matter how repressive they are, they wouldn’t be concerned with the scribbling of an 11-year-old living in Orange Grove, Johannesburg. Still, the sense of fear is there, and I’m beginning to feel it and see that it permeates the way we live down at the bottom part of Africa.
I’m 17 in 1989 when elections roll around. I’m too young to vote – but I’m keenly interested in politics and what’s going on in this country that’s flaming up around me.
In my diary I write about the National Party and the Democratic Party and its leaders, I’m a voracious newspaper reader, I’m aware of what’s going on, although unaware of just how much is suppressed. I want to vote, I want to make a change in this place, even though I know I’m part of a minority, and the vote is denied to millions. But I’m a month short of my 18th birthday, and there’s nothing to be done about that.
I’m part of an enclosed, insular world. I’m in my last year of high school – I attend a whites-only government school where the only differences between us are those of religion. We are separated into Jewish religious instruction classes and Christian classes. I am surrounded by whites, the world beyond is something other.
There’s a teacher who’s a feminist and liberal in her leanings who calls herself Ms, and tries to introduce us to a world beyond our white seclusion; there’s another whose racist undertones permeate his teaching.
When a pupil in my matric class says we’d be a First World country if it weren’t for the blacks, there’s no dissension. His words fall hard and ugly. At home my mother’s liberalism is my counterpoint to what I encounter here.
In my diary I write that swimming pools and buses and so on are being desegregated and opened up to all colours. One afternoon I’m coming home from school in the bus. There’s a lone black woman waiting to board at the bus stop, the formerly white bus stop. The white bus driver doesn’t stop.
Buses may now be desegregated but it’s up to the discretion of the drivers whether or not to stop, and this one isn’t going to stop the half-empty bus.
The afternoon sun slants in, and I look back and see the woman looking at the disappearing back of the bus. I can’t read her expression.
I’m 22 in 1994. My Indian friends from university have invited me to a party at a home in Houghton. We’re discussing the upcoming election, affirmative action, the new government, Mandela as president. We’ve been friends for a few years now, we met in osychology and African literature classes. I’m due to graduate this momentous April as we head toward elections.
“You’ve got to pay for your privileges,” one of my friends says as we discuss affirmative action, looking out over the sleeping city. A chasm opens up between us, briefly. I ask why, when I’ve never voted for the government in power, I deserve the same chance as everyone else. It’s something we cannot agree on, and we move on. The party continues, the conversations wind down, we agree to disagree.
I am working in my first journalism job for a community newspaper in the east of Johannesburg.
I’ve just graduated from Wits University – my education there both bookish and visceral.
In 1990 Mandela and other political prisoners are released, and I attend Ahmed Kathrada’s speech, sitting on the packed lawns. There’s a swelling of excitement, hope, and an energy that cuts right through the heat of the day. It is a further introduction to me of the promise of this country. Things can get better is the mood that day and throughout that year, and the following, as talks get under way, I continue to follow politics and happenings here with a keen interest.
Talks collapse, revive, the massacre of Boipatong casts a long shadow, Chris Hani is assassinated.
Throughout these years I am studying both English and African literature, finally learning about the literature from this continent, about the ravages of colonialism.
At school, literature from our own country was sometimes only touched upon.
My mind feels alive. I make friends with black people, I work with the late novelist Phaswane Mpe on the journal for the African literature department; my Indian friends take me to nightclubs. It feels like we’ve moved so far from just a few years ago, change is coming, and we’re young and ready to embrace it.
And with the optimism of youth we make our grand plans – to become South Africa’s first woman president, or to write a novel with the clichéd title of Belonging that will encompass all we are in this country. Because now I too feel that I belong – we will make sense of the past, and in turn, ride roughshod over what’s gone before. There’s no place for negativity or ambiguity in our daydreams.
On April 27 my mother and I join the queue to vote in the autumn sun. This is the first time she’s voted since she was 20, having refused to vote for what was on offer. And this, too, is my first vote.
The queue at Athlone Girls’ High School is short. We stand for barely an hour – and absorb the miraculous feeling that permeates us all, makes us smile, talk, laugh, share jokes and experiences with others around us.
When I mark the box with an X, I press hard, carefully, and drop it in.
So quick, so seemingly effortless – but there’s a sense of achievement and pride, one I carry with me every time I have vote in the years since then.
I have no idea of what those years will bring, and for now, it doesn’t matter.
*Salafranca is the editor of the Life supplement, and author of a collection of short stories, The Thin Line (Modjaji Books), two poetry collections, with a third to be published this year. She has won literary awards and blogs at http://arja salafranca.blogspot.com. Twitter: @ArjaSalafranca
Two decades later, we are still a country of two nations, writes Bongani Nkosi.
At the beginning of 1994 fellow non-white South Africans anticipated the day they would vote for the first time in their lives. I anticipated my first day at school.
I looked forward to kicking off my learning years at Khuphukani Primary School. The school’s name means “progressing” in Nguni languages.
It is located in a dusty rural area called Tweefontein, deep in the heart of the former KwaNdebele homeland in Mpumalanga. This is where Imbokodo, a quasi-political vigilante group, unleashed terror against residents in 1986 and 1987.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard many Imbokodo cases, including the raid in which the group’s members fired indiscriminately at Tweefontein’s youth. Four youngsters lost their lives in the attack.
But the fighting had long stopped at the turn of the 1990s.
I looked forward to each day at school once I was enrolled in “mistress” Madimabe’s Grade 1 class.
Yes, I went straight to Grade 1 and didn’t start in Grade R. There was no Grade R education during those formative years of the new South Africa.
Almost all my classmates and I didn’t miss a day of school – that’s until the winter gale started blowing. School became unbearable.
Most – if not all – windows in our classrooms were broken and the zinc door didn’t close properly. This made the classrooms agonisingly cold.
As in the entire Tweefontein, there was no electricity at our school. We brought coal and wood from our respective homes to fire imbawula (home-made braziers). At least this kept the classroom warm and Madimabe could continue teaching.
Many homes in our community used imbawula. Other homes, like mine, had the advantage of using a coal stove.
The winter chill terrorised us in subsequent grades until some time in 1997, when I was in Grade 4. I recall that’s when the government’s project to fix every broken thing at the school gained momentum.
New glass was installed in the classroom windows and doors were fixed. But it would still be a while until the school had proper fencing.
Whenever I’m home, Khuphukani serves as a reflection of how far we’ve come. It’s been a proper facility for many years now – with windows, doors and electricity – and it’s now fenced.
Trees we planted at the school one Friday afternoon in 1997 stand tall, also a reminder of how far we’ve come.
The entire community now has electricity after a mid-1990s installation project by Eskom. It’s amazing how electricity can improve people’s lives.
Khuphukani and Tweefontein are also perfect examples of the long road we still have to travel towards the realisation of true equality among South Africans.
The adjoining piece of land the school is supposed to use as a sports ground is still undeveloped and pebbly, meaning pupils’ dreams of taking part in sports have been deferred.
This stands in contrast to what I see in Johannesburg. Schools here, particularly in the suburbs, have all the sports facilities pupils at my former school can only dream about.
The first time I saw people playing hockey was at the Tshwane University of Technology, where I enrolled for journalism studies in 2006. I had seen rugby, swimming and cricket, but also not live.
The pupils at my old primary school are growing up without sports facilities. I get a feeling they’ll be stuck with their rough and dusty football and netball pitches for many more years to come.
Tweefontein itself remains underdeveloped. The only notable development we’ve seen in recent years is the tar road that connects us to the notorious Moloto Road.
The deadly Putco buses remain the only mode of transport for multitudes who shuttle to Pretoria each day for low-paying jobs.
People’s dream for trains, which would lower travelling costs and solve the Moloto Road carnage, have been deferred.
Despite the Moloto Rail Corridor project having been approved by the national government in 2008, it remains a pipe dream.
On the other hand, the money-spinning Gautrain went up in 2010.
Democratic South Africa is characterised by socio-economic inequalities, there’s no denying that. The government itself is perpetuating the disparities and creating new ones. This is how I experience the country 20 years down the line.
I see the country through the eyes of Thabo Mbeki when he talks about South Africa being “a country of two nations”.
There’s the rags Alexandra-type South Africa and there’s the Sandton-riches South Africa – communities so close yet so far.
The time has come for us to take another long walk to freedom.
Only selfless leaders are needed at the forefront.
*Bongani Nkosi is a journalist for Independent Newspapers
Loyiso Sidimba remembers when the winds of change bore down on the Wild Coast.
The period between the unbanning of political parties in |February 1990 and April 27, 1994 was eventful even for us |in my sleepy hometown of Port St Johns on the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast.
My family got its first television set, my late mother stopped cutting my hair with a pair of scissors and I became an aspiring champion boxer in the Transkei Defence Force’s junior boxing club.
Having a TV meant we no longer relied solely on our battered Omega radio. Radio Transkei would no longer be our sole medium of information and entertainment, and I’d be able to watch the fights of my heroes at the time, Dingaan “The Rose of Soweto” Thobela and Vuyani “The Beast” Bungu, among others.
But having a TV at home was not without difficulty. For example, because the signal was poor in Port St Johns, there was regular climbing on to the shiny corrugated iron roof to ensure that the TV aerial was facing in the correct direction.
Anyone who has stood barefoot on corrugated iron sheets on a hot summer’s day will know about the dancing required.
Like our school, my mother abhorred unkempt hair, so she would painstakingly unleash the strange scissors haircut. I managed to escape this humiliating haircut by joining my peers in working as a caddie at the local golf course.
The Port St Johns Golf Club was a playground of some of the Transkei’s elite and for up to 10 hours one’s tiny body would carry a businessman’s weighty golf clubs.
Payment ranged from R10 to R20 – a decent amount for a pre-teen. About R2.50 would be set aside for a haircut at the local barber shop, KwaMzala.
By the time of the World Cup final in July 1994, a month before I turned 12, I had freed myself from my mother’s scissors haircuts and could even experiment with a perm lotion-induced, greasy Afro during school holidays.
In the period leading up to the elections, Port St Johns had its share of revolutionary and deadly action.
An Azanian People’s Liberation Army (Apla) cell was established at a house next to my elder brother’s junior school and soon pupils at the nearby high school were striking, clearly inspired by the blowing winds of change.
These Apla combatants were responsible for awakening my hometown’s youth at the time, somewhat entrenching Pan Africanism, albeit briefly. They also waged a low-intensity war along the Wild Coast. A number of white people were killed in this period, some of them at the hands of ANC-aligned “guerrillas”, as they were known in our neighbourhood. A few were later granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
One of these guerrillas returned to Port St Johns recently as a high-ranking municipal official.
I’m certain he’ll be the first to admit that while Port St Johns has a story to tell it hasn’t been a rosy 20 years and that it’s not an entirely good tale.
Not only do the potholed roads leading to our part of the Eastern Cape resemble a war zone, but the R61, which connects us to KwaZulu-Natal, is one of the deadliest roads in the country.
My hometown, once proudly referred to as the jewel of the Wild Coast, now has the most dangerous beach in the world. I’ve lost a peer, someone with whom I played soccer, to a shark attack. It took the brutal shark attack on a European tourist a few weeks ago for the Eastern Cape provincial government to take action.
Tourism, which the shark attacks were beginning to threaten, is the lifeblood of the Wild Coast, yet the roads leading there are among the worst in the country.
There has been little investment, if any, in the growth of an industry sustaining thousands of livelihoods. Port St Johns’s biggest employer, the Majola Tea Plantation, folded a few years ago despite government aid worth millions of rands.
Much of the vast land which was previously lush green with tea plants now lies fallow and a significant source of income has all but collapsed. Meanwhile, illegal dagga farming and trade has always been associated with our part of the world.
Hopeless, unemployed youth in Port St Johns, as in many parts of South Africa, have little else to do besides boozing and hiding behind thick fumes of dagga smoke and, lately, prostitution.
What the future holds for Port St Johns is less clear, but I can never forget how I was immortalised among the boys at our school in 1994.
A naughty, light-skinned classmate and I had a blockbuster kissing session in full view of our Standard 6 classmates. The teachers were at one of their endless meetings. Word spread and even at the end of the academic year jealous peers were wondering how I had pulled it off.
The previous year, our school had moved to a new face brick, double-storey building (it was state of the art then) and, two decades later, it’s still the most prominent public facility in Port St Johns.
*Loyiso Sidimba is a journalist for Independent Newspapers
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.