Perhaps its not about us

The other day I was having a very funny and relaxed conversation with the census guy. We realised quite quickly that we had some things in common, being the same age and having frequented the Rat and Parrot in Grahamstown often enough to have a story or two about our escapades. He told me that one of his friend’s had encountered a racist lady quite nearby to where I live. She told his friend, also a census person, that she wasn’t having any black people in her house and that he must just leave the form in her postbox to be collected the next day. I laughed and commented that there are still people like that out there. He agreed with me but said that it is mostly a thing with the older generations. Then, in a moment of daring, considering that he himself was a black man, I told him that we all still harbour an element of racism, even in our liberated generation. Then he said something that was quite profound and I wanted to share with you. I can’t remember his exact words, but he said that yes, this is true, we are all a product of the past and in many ways, this means that we still have thoughts which are not particularly nice. But then he said that we should be judged on how we bring up our own children.

I agree, wholeheartedly. Our country suffers from many problems, entrenched within the lives and mindsets of its people. We cannot always escape those thoughts that have wedged themselves in our subconscious to pop up unexpectedly and in embarrassing ways. Some of my friends say that they can’t even speak the K word – kaffir. But I know that they can think it. Although the word is not necessarily directed at anyone in their own lives, they are too afraid to admit that these words were part of their society and so became part of their own childhood vocabulary. Once a word, or an idea, has been part of your upbringing, how do you simply forget its existence? Anyone who is my age and says that they are not racist (and this applies to all kinds, creeds and races of people) are not being entirely truthful. It’s human nature to differentiate and discriminate. It’s human nature to have preferences, labels, stereotypes and all those nasty things that can sometimes make us not nice human beings.

This does not, however, allow people to inflict their often misinformed or ignorant beliefs about others onto their offspring. We have a responsibility to our children to allow them to make up their own minds about people. We have a concurrent duty to refrain from discriminatory and inflammatory words and ideas, because they don’t belong in this new, fledgling world. We cannot help what our parents said, we cannot change our history, but we can control our own thoughts. This country is not going to change because of one generation and in the course of this one generation’s existence; it’s going to take many. But we can start today; we can start with our own children.

I think we need to start by shrugging off the guilt we live with. We need to accept what we are; a product of a past in a country who’s very breathing was, and still is, about black and white. I agree with Kristien, from Andre Brink’s Imaginings of Sand, when she says: “I’m afraid I have more faith in a right-winger who frankly admits that he hates blacks than in all these white males who suddenly try to persuade everybody that they’ve always been against apartheid.” Just like an alcoholic who needs to admit that he is an alcoholic in order for his rehabilitation to work, our generation of silent racists need to admit what we are. When you can admit your faults, only then you can repair them.

The Story of a White Liberal

I have just had my ideas about myself and my identity altered and alienated by Christopher Hope’s “My Mother’s Lovers”. Quite frankly, his truths are rather bitter and I want to resist them. But my mantra for life has always been to be truthful to myself and to not be afraid to confront anything and everything that can contribute to that thing that happens to all of us – growth. So his book has really spoken to me because he does just that; he confronts and explores what it means to be a White, liberal South African.

I have often dismissed the idea that I benefitted from Apartheid, simply because I had no active role to play within it. I have felt soothed by the active role I now believe I play in being a white liberal; bound to a dream to do something good with my life. I refuse to downplay the extent of my privilege, but attribute it not to a government whose sole aim was to create the perfect life for a minority, but to my own family and my own talents. You would have to know and understand the life I have lived in order to assess whether there is any truth in that. We were poor and white and I attended the same schools as poor blacks, ate cheap stews because we had no money, wore hand-me-downs and battled the demons that children of alcoholics do. In a nutshell, I struggled as much as I see some people around me struggle.

I believe that the fact that today I attend a privileged university and drive a car has nothing to do with Apartheid and everything to do with the small gifts that shaped my life along the way. I have a strong and determined mother and a brain which got me bursaries. But perhaps what really got me this far is that there is no place for poor whites in the new South Africa. Perhaps it was the understanding that I cannot count on government to fulfil my life needs, but that I need to provide for myself. We, being the whites, don’t get a level of service to which we are accustomed. So, if we want good health care, good schooling and a nice house, we need to emerge unscathed from poverty and provide all it is that we feel we have the right to.

Yet, as I write this, I can feel the hypercriticism, the unalterable lies in my story. Christopher Hope taught me that. He said that there is no such thing as a white liberal. Although we want to feel attuned to fellow South Africans, and we feel bad that they live in a world worse than we can imagine, we don’t ever want to be them; the poor, the lost and the different. We want the same freedom as them, we pray for them the same prayers that they pray for themselves, but we are happier in suburban bliss than we are in the rot of the informal settlements. The most we do is look on, sadly shaking our heads at the atrocities that confront other people, and deny all allegations of the part we played in creating them.

The central character in “My Mother’s Lovers” is a man who has spent his whole life running from South Africa and the colour-blind mother who neglected him as a child and then did everything in her power to bring him back. Having been brought up by someone who saw Africa as one country, who lived out her life in the company of every colour, creed and nationality of man, who is loved by everyone and loves no one, one could consider him to have grown up the ultimate liberal. Yet he rejects the idea of belonging to South Africa. He has a best friend who grows up in his household, who he considers his brother, but who is black. This friendship shows him how different he is to this African man, how his dreams are not the dreams of those freedom fighters, and that his thoughts will never be those of his friend. His childhood separates and divides him from South Africa, until he no longer believes in home.

Eventually, the character becomes a gardener for his own home, living in the back yard in a very basic way. He takes on the life that his mother’s previous gardener had left behind. Perhaps the message is that in order to truly be liberated, and in this way liberal, one has to confront and accept the life that many in South Africa already live. Yet, this burdensome life, which seems to overflow with death, as much as the community toilets overflow with the excretions, is not something which any white person wants to confront. Even within the life that the character eventually chooses, there is something safe and humble within. It is a private life, a simple one, which he can hide from the rest of the world. It is life with little thought, but it is a life which he embraces when it all becomes too much.

I long too for that simple life, where I don’t have to prove myself to anyone, not even to myself. I would like a life in service to others, but not devoted to any one government, or any one deity, but a life devoted to acquiring those things that are simply, but harmoniously crucial for life; a space that is my own. 

Africa Takes

It was many years ago when I first touched down on the dusty airstrip at the edge of the Linyanti swamps. I remember feeling curious about what you would be like. Finally old enough to know you as one adult to another.

As a child, I worshiped you. I thought of you as the ultimate hero; all that a woman could desire of a man. Bold, wild, untamed, gorgeous. You had a smile that was knowing, naughty and incredibly charming. Now, as an adult, I wanted to know what it was that drove you. I wanted to experience the feelings that kept you at the edge of this feral paradise, immersed in this wilderness, a sense of lazy danger around every corner. You represented Africa to me and I wanted to touch upon that feeling.

I know I come from you. I see me in your bell-bottoms packed away for the times when you required remembrance. I see me in your love of golden oldies. I see me in the way your eyes sparkle when you are playing the fool, which you do often. I see me in the bough that travels darkly, strongly and naturally through your home. I see me in you, as I watch you feel the lions roar upon your skin.

Those were the days that I loved you best, that we spoke for hours, that we sensed how much we knew about one another, because we were of the same blood and had the same soul. Yes, it may seem strange to others, and part of me is shy of my utter devotion to my memories, but I also know that you would understand.

You belonged to Africa. Your dreams were of baobabs, you breathed in its dust, you thrived on its sunsets. But you were a mere mortal in a land of immortality. Now you are a simple scattering of ashes; insignificant human remains intermingled with the bones that lie on the plains of Etosha; where your love affair began and, now, where your spirit will find its final resting place.

Yours was a long and difficult devotion to a cruel, natural world; but it was the only kind of life that mattered. I wanted to be you, I wanted to feel the same sense of awe at the wonder of it all. You fought to keep a untouched legacy, a small piece of heaven on an earth that has been mutilated by mindlessness and misguided self-importance.

And you paid the price. Africa giveth and Africa taketh away.

Sometimes I think my life began in Botswana; the life I know today, not the life that I was born with. I think your life began the day your father took his own life. I think you spiraled out of control, holding on tightly to all that spoke to you. The birds, the trees, the winds; they spoke to you and here your life took shape.

Even though you are gone, I cannot mourn you. You led the fullest life of anyone I have ever known. You were the rhino, the goat, the guinea fowl, the lion. Your body was part of a necessary cycle of life in Africa. I only hope that one day I will find you again, in someone who feels in the same abandoned and devoted way. Africa lost a hero, a person who respected her, fought her and fought for her. You were someone who believed in her generosity, her ferocity, her forgiveness and her brutality.

Rest in Peace, Mzulu. Tsamaya sentle, Go well. I hope Etosha treats you well.

Tizzy: 11 December 1956 – 29 November 2010

The Hunter and the Hunted

Hi, my name is *** and I am a vegetarian…

But I have a little secret too. I come from a family of hunters. In fact, my grandfather and father were top marksmen in their younger days. Riflemen, hunters, pros.

 

 

Here, birdy birdy

 

I remember that, when I was very small, the sound of the gun would scare me. But I was also intensely fascinated by the puff of feathers and the bloodied mess of the dead bird. So I used to run away when my dad was about to shoot and then run back to see what the bird looked like; limp and lolling around in his hand. I do not think of this as an unhealthy or cruel thing for me to have done; I see it as a very natural fulfilment of my curiosity.

When I was about 15 or so, my father took me out to shoot my first gun. It was a shot gun. I cried, because I was terrified. But even worse, my boyfriend at the time was taken out on a hunting expedition to shoot pigeons. He was really unhappy about the whole thing, even though he was a good shot and almost an adult man. The irony.

There was a lot of power in the feeling of the gun against my shoulder, but an immense amount of fear too. I was quite proud of having managed it and I later kept the cartridge with the date penned onto it. When I was in my 20’s my uncle took me out for target practice. Again, I was stressed and nervous, but managed to hit the target every time. I guess I inherited their aim.

Having grown up in a family of huntsman, I harbour a paradoxical perspective: I am a vegetarian who believes that hunting is okay.

But let me qualify that statement: I think that ethical hunting is okay.

Gasp. Any “true” vegetarian will tell me that the term “ethical hunting” is an oxymoron – that by killing an animal you are infringing on their rights.

But I think it all really depends on the premises on which you base your beliefs. For instance:

  • I don’t believe the factory farming is ethical because I believe that animals live and die in a cruel way
  • I believe that people are too far removed from their food, so that they cannot appreciate the life of the animal that they are eating
  • I believe that factory farming has a vastly negative impact on the environment

However, I can easily remedy my conscience when it comes to the hunting of wild game. As it stands in South Africa, perhaps not all game is as “wild” as it seems and there is, possibly, poor treatment of stock and cramped living conditions on game farms. The whole concept of the game farm is now a manufactured and farmed enterprise.

 

The majestic kudu

 

However, that bokkie runs free; eating, breathing, procreating and running when and where it wants, until that one day, while innocently munching on its grass, lights out! The hunter himself is forced to confront that animal, even if it for a brief moment in his scope.

I cannot see this as cruel. If hunting is undertaken in a respectful (understanding the value of the animal and not wasting any of it), conscious (knowing that the hunting is sustainable) and ethical way (by ensuring that the animal does not suffer), I see no point in condemning it.

I also know that my views have been clearly marked by growing up as a young South African in a family of hunters. But here is the thing; both my brother and I have chosen to become vegetarians and we are even willing to take this further. We are both keen environmentalists and do-gooders; I even chose to dedicate my career to environmentalism. I can only think that my life has been enlightened and enriched by these manly men who go out in their kakis and brown boots and come home with something for the pot. I have even allowed myself to respect them for it.

You see, when I really look it from all angles, hunting is not always a question of might over right. This is not always about the power dynamics between the hunter and the hunted. There is something innocent and natural about the process. And, if I had to choose between my own life and that of an animal, I would choose mine.

The Deaths behind Live Aid

Starting with Rian Malan’s “My Traitor’s Heart”, I have become a really big fan of books written by journalists. They tell the story behind the story, which is useful to anyone who has an interest in the truth about incidences in history. I have recently been immersed to a fantastically funny and candid autobiography by a BBC journalist called Michael Buerk. The book “The Road Taken” gives a very moving account of the broadcast that changed the face of Africa and resulted in a one of the greatest concerts of all time, Live Aid.

Photo taken by Mohamed Amin while in Ethiopia with Michael Buerk (1984)

Michael Buerk and his crew got permission to enter the Northern regions of Ethiopia in October 1984. The region had been devastated by a famine which the world had not before noticed or cared about. The footage taken of their days there was enough to mobilise millions in a way never before experienced. Two reports went out on the 24 and 25 October showing the real extent of the misery effecting hundreds of thousands of Ethiopia’s famine victims.

“The two reports fused the sympathy of the First World to the urgent needs of the Third World in a way that has never before happened and has never happened since. They raised the curtain of cynicism and selfishness that divides the rich of the earth from the poor. People were moved enough to believe they could do something for others in distress; tens of millions all over the planet went out and did it”.

Watching the footage was a man known as Bob Geldof, lead singer of the Irish rock band The Boomtown Rats in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Buerk refers to him as a “scruffy, foul-mouthed Irish rock musician in the middle of a career crisis”. But later he says, “He was and is a man of extraordinary sensitivity, intelligence and drive”. It was Bob Geldof who initially conceived of encouraging musicians and bands to come together for the Ethiopian cause. He founded the charity supergroup, Band Aid, who released the single, “Do they know it’s Christmas?” which became the biggest selling single in UK singles chart history* and raised substantial amounts of money for the famine victims of Ethiopia. It was also Geldof and Midge Ure, frontman of Ultravox, who organised the Live Aid concert in order to raise further relief funds.

Bob Geldof at Live Aid

Live Aid was held on the 13 July 1985 in multiple venues across the world, notably in Wembley Stadium in London, England, and John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It is estimated that over 2 billion people watched the concert from over 60 countries. Artists included massive names like Elton John, The Who, David Bowie, Sting, Black Sabbath, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins and Led Zeppelin. It is estimated that over £150 million was raised as a result of the concerts. Geldof received massive reward and fame after the concerts and was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and granted an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II.

So what did Live Aid really represent? Buerk prefers to remain neutral on the issue although he does so for professional reasons, stating his preference to remain being seen as an impartial journalist. But you cannot help but be moved by his description of his encounter with the Ethiopia of 1984-5.

“I was upset and disturbed by everything I had seen and worried that I would never be able to convey what it was really like to be there. It is one thing to see it with your own eyes, to touch and be touch, to smell the shit, the staleness of despair and the sticky sweetness of the corpses, to have people trying to give you their dying child, to feel, so strong, the sense of personal inadequacy of being a useless spectator of a massive tragedy.”

Yet, he managed to do it well enough that, for many years (decades) after his footage was aired, a culture of giving, of using one’s power and fame to do good, commenced.

Hell on Earth

However, controversy lies at the heart of every good action. One controversy in the case of Live Aid was the claim that some of the relief funding landed up in the hands of the dictator at the time, Mengistu Haile Mariam and his army. The irony, of course, is that Mengistu was instrumental in creating what was referred to as “the closest thing to hell on earth”. The famine itself was not of his making, of course, but the extent of its misery was attributed to his draconian reign. Of course, the West was not free of fault either; some states were aware of the famine, but refused to do anything for Ethiopia because of its ruler. This is problematic and amounts to punishing a child due to the faults of its father (can we as South African’s not take heed too?).

In recent times, since becoming a politically observant individual in Africa, I have heard speak of this problem with aid. For example, in the current case, the misery of drought and famine has not been miraculously cured by the events of 1985. In fact, news reports show that Ethiopia continues to be in crisis. My own understanding of the matter of food and famine is that there is certainly enough food in the world to go around, but that African dictatorships and poor governance are denying people access to this food. The food relief was only a temporary measure, but certainly missed the mark. Ongoing war and corruption are the real threat to the people of Africa. Some say that giving aid to these countries increases the reliance of Africa on the West and fails to make the difference where it matters.

Live Aid concert 13 July 1985

Nonetheless, even though I was only a few months old when Live Aid was broadcast for the entire world to see, and made such a remarkable impact on the nature of aid, I can still appreciate the extent of its success. I just have to look to my backyard to see how the culture of using one’s talents to heal the wrongs of the world has settled quite nicely into the fabric of society. Bands continue to take up their instruments in the name of charity. In my old home town of Grahamstown, just about every gig that was played by local bands was in the name of one or another cause. In Cape Town over this period, there has been a succession of charity gigs in the name of various orphanages, animal shelters and other social organisations. It certainly says great things about musicians and leaves a lasting and happy mark on South Africa.

 

*To be superseded by Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” in 1997

Who am I if I cannot be me?

I am labelled. I do it to myself and, in turn, I do it to others.

I call myself a vegetarian but up until a year ago, I ate meat and still called myself a vegetarian. When the world called me a hypocrite I wanted to scream my frustrations. Who are you to tell me what to eat anyway?

At least I am trying to change.

I call myself a liberal, but sometimes I think like a racist, sexist and homophobic right-winger. I grew up in a small town of racists, sexists and homophobes and in a country where this feels like the norm.

I am the one writing about how we should all get along.

I call myself an environmentalist but the green movement is drowning in pseudo-science fed to us by militants with rotten cores. There are too many people just in it for the money. Who wants to be a money-seeking but bunny hugging environmentalist in the shackles of the capitalist economic model?

The movement is subverting its own values.

I call myself a feminist but I still dream the white-picket-fence dream. I believe in equality of the sexes but I also want a man to be a man. I am petrified of being alone but I value my freedom and my independence from others.

The f-word always comes out like a swear word.

I call myself an African, but I do not have a black skin or a black heritage. I have a mother born of England, who does not know what it means to be religious, racist or conservative and a father born of South Africa who fought for an Apartheid State.

Can I be from neither heritage and both at the same time?

When it comes down to it, I am most proud of what I am not.

I am not you, I am me.

I am an African

Have you read the speech by Thabo Mbeki on the day that the Constitution was adopted in South Africa? It is called “I am an African” and I regret that I could not have understood the magnitude of the occasion at the time (1996). Fourteen years have passed and I understand most of it. So many aspects of it stand for what I believe and what I value.

I am unashamedly South Africa, with all its hypocrisies. His speech, despite what came after, reinforces my pride. So I am particularly drawn to the part that states,

“The [C]onstitution, whose adoption we celebrate, constitutes an unequivocal statement that we refuse to accept that our Africanness shall be defined by our race, colour, gender or historical origins.”

I was also affected by another part of the speech which relates to my post about Model Africa.

“I am an African. I am born of the peoples of the continent of Africa. The pain of the violent conflict that the peoples of Liberia, Somalia, the Sudan, Burundi and Algeria is a pain I also bear. The dismal shame of poverty, suffering and human degradation of my continent is a blight that we share. The blight on our happiness that derives from this and from our drift to the periphery of the ordering of human affairs leaves us in a persistent shadow of despair. This is a savage road to which nobody should be condemned.”

How far have we come? As much as I love Africa and South Africa, I despair. I don’t understand the politics at the heart of it, but I understand the history. I suffer from what is known as white-guilt.

“Today, as a country, we keep an audible silence about these ancestors of the generations that live, fearful to admit the horror of a former deed, seeking to obliterate from our memories a cruel occurrence which, in its remembering, should teach us not and never to be inhuman again.”

If I can ask  one thing of you, it would be this: don’t hide behind the idea that you were not part of it. Know your history, see the place of your ancestors in its stories, do not be ashamed by what you see, but do not perpetuate it.

Then turn around, with all the despair of your new-found knowledge, and seek light in the darkness. Be an African again by opening your eyes to what was, and what is, and what you can be.