Apartheid in my head

I have become an emotional person, a person whose days are rarely filled with laughter. Instead, I am confronted continually by an avalanche of grievances, of real, every day national and personal issues. My days are filled with stories of neglect, or crisis, of unsympathetic greed. My nights are filled with confrontations of my own creation; personal reprisals or guilt trips that weigh me down or choke me up. Yesterday I cried about an Apartheid atrocity, today I felt saddened by a South African song.

Having come to Johannesburg two months ago, I have been confronted by the real South Africa, the land I left behind when I was a naive eighteen-year-old. My world was an insulated racist mess, with me trying to break free from its confining narrow-mindedness. Then I went to university and made friends with black people. I thought that made me good. I thought that I had escaped the persecution of having been born during Apartheid, of having a family which contributed in its own small way. After learning to criticise my every thought, I then spent three years in a blissful first world city, geographically separated internally and externally from the crying, fighting, dying nation.

But, now I know that Cape Town is a dream land. I struggled to make friends, because everyone is trying to avoid everyone else. They are not willing to expand their worlds beyond what they know. Because what they know is safe.

I was safe until I had to integrate, until I had to confront my own life and learn from my own Apartheid. I had created Apartheid in my head, apart from the reality of poverty, of crime and fear. I had not made black friends, just acquaintances. I had not made concessions, or given enough or sacrificed enough. But now I don’t know if I can take any of those actions, compromising myself in the process. I don’t know if I can leave my cushy, learned office on the 16th floor of a building that overlooks this reality and walk out into the street and really be there in mind, spirit and body.

I am scared of what I might find there – the same life that many South Africans live. This reality of this country is that millions of its inhabitants live a life of desperation and fear. And I am their enemy.





About the coolest thing that can happen

I had my first radio appearance today. And before you think that I’m famous, let me tell you this, it had nothing to do with fame and everything to do with luck. Not only that, that luck is only lucky if 10 people were listening. My friend’s father has started an online radio station in the sleepy village of Hout Bay, in the Western Cape, fondly known as the Republic of Hout Bay due to its seeming detachment from Cape Town and the tendency for villagers to stick to their own. “Republic Radio”, as it is so wittily called, maintains a prevailing focus on 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s music. A strong commercial slant predominates, which makes me feel a little apprehensive. But I am now listening to some of my old “History and Appreciation of Music” songs and starting to think that the term “commercial” could encompass just about anything. With Jimi Hendrix one minute and the Beach Boys the next, I realise that it all belongs somewhere. And let’s face it, radio stations were good once and the music they played wasn’t always mucky and one-dimensional.

So my appearance was actually linked to a potential job, without a salary, but with a lot of the cool factor thrown in, enough to keep me interested. And due to my absolute and all-consuming love for music, it’s actually a little prize for all my hard work being The Ultimate Fan. The chance to be a radio presenter, with a rock show, where I get to choose the music: The Ultimate Job (without the money). One downside: I am limited to commercial rock from back in the day. Perhaps I am lucky in that rock from back then was diverse and progressive and damn fine music. You see where I am going with this – I scored big time. I am now determined to get to a play a little Metallica.

My musical education was a whole lot of DIY, with the occasional formal learning taking place; such as the aforementioned “HAM” course with I took as an extra credit at University. That course for some was an easy credit towards a BA, but for me, it was four hours a week of complete submersion in real information, with an introduction to the weird and quirky. I have totally forgotten everything that I learnt in the classical and jazz sections, but have gleaned a few quality anecdotes about rock music. The best thing about HAM was that it was a real course, with real lecturers who knew their stuff, where you were expected to learn how to appreciate music through listening to it and perhaps discussing a bit of the history for an hour every week. The fact that I was expected to listen to music repeatedly, so that I could recognise songs within a bar (something I am still particularly bad at due to a memory like a sieve), just seemed to be too good to be true. My time at University now seems slightly surreal and undoubtedly peculiar too.

While HAM was a formal way of learning about that thing I love, rock music, the DIY aspect involved a whole lot of reliance on the circles of people I ventured into. While my childhood had been ruled by “East Coast Radio”, a provincial radio station as commercial as it gets, I was lucky to have been a natural fan of music from the day I was born. Talking about music has always been my favourite kind of conversation and I know now that I will always be open to anything and everything to do with rock music: any discussion, any book and any band. Along the way to this very day, I have spoken to more band members than I care to list, have read just about every biography on Jimi Hendrix (and have started a collection of books on various bands) and spent thousands of hours discussing music with the few friends who care enough to have a worthwhile opinion.

But the best way to learn about music is to listen. Of course. It may seem like an obvious piece of advice, but there are a great number of people out there who don’t listen. Of course they listen to radio, but their minds do not filter or process what it is they are listening to. They don’t often absorb the right information, such as where a band comes from or what the lyrics are saying. And this is the way you kill music. Music is not supposed to be one-dimensional. It is not supposed to be something which is merely sound; rather it is a feeling, a story, a sign, a protest or a journey. It’s a lot of things which the general public seem to misunderstand or not really care about. The thing is, the public dictates what happens, so in many ways, we need to pander to their whims. Music is a business now and you have to sell music as a product, not a feeling.

It is of course really ironic that I am currently reading a book by Irish rock DJ, Dave Fanning. Dave is an institution, if you get my drift. He discovered a good many bands, he had a hand in their advancement and he was always true to his first love, music. Of course, that’s what the book says, but I believe him. More than that, I admire him greatly. So far, I have learnt a great deal from him – that’s it’s okay not to like what everyone else likes (hence my dislike for electronic drivel) and that music should come before pride. He has also taught me to do what you love, but work hard at it. There are no half measures allowed.

The trouble is, my heart sinks just a little when I realise I will never be a Dave Fanning. For one, I tend to enjoy commercial rock, have shied away from the very obscure genres such as psychedelia and punk and have run away screaming from Indie Rock, the latest rock to emerge from the radio waves. I am way behind when it comes to rock trivia and I will never ever catch up. Music is always undermining my confidence, although I owe a lot of that to people I encounter around me. Truth is, there must be a million bands out there and there is no hope in hell that I will ever know all of them. A large part me wishes that I didn’t give a shit.

When it comes to this radio show, it’s about the coolest thing that can happen to someone like me. I have to simple hang on to whatever integrity I possess and play music for the sake of the music, with just a little thought given to the audience out there. But damn, I am nervous. So, to ease the nervousness I am going to make myself this promise: that I am also going to be true to me. I mean, that music that I really don’t get, I can miss. No big deal. No one will even notice.

The Proverbial Drain of Real Life

I met my friend S on the other side of his microphone. He was hosting a show on a “college” radio station and was interviewing me about the local music scene. In between breaks, we got to talking about ourselves and I was completely blown away by his experience of bands and his overwhelming encyclopaedic knowledge of music. He had watched a number of massive rock acts of the 80s and 90s while he lived in England. The music he put on that day was eclectic, underground, different. S belonged behind that mic; even if his talent was only know to a handful of listeners.

He recently found himself in Cape Town working as a producer for a show on a local talk radio station. He had the second most popular show. Until the media brought him down – in particular, his own media. He apparently wrote something in a tweet which his company took offence to and then proceeded to dig a deeper grave through a blog post entitled “Radio killed the, well…radio”. He should know; he works for radio. And I cannot say for sure, but I am almost certain that the boy behind the mic at the college radio station had changed considerably. He was no longer using his encyclopaedic knowledge of music or suggesting songs from the forefront of the underground scene.

He lost his job.

At University we are given so much critical and intellectual power, forced to question and probe every aspect of this world. The Bachelor degree we get at the end is not so much about that fact that we covered Foucault, or were introduced to the Constitution, or could recite the scientific names of a hundred species of insect; the degree was more about how we questioned what we were taught, how we argued against the messages we were told.

And then comes the real world and suddenly we are told to obey, to not think, to not question or express opinions. We are transformed from masters of our own minds, to cogs in the machine, dog’s bodies. We become masters of the alt c, alt v world. It makes me think, why bother? Scrape through that bachelors degree, you won’t really be expected to apply your mind in the real world. At University they should merely make you arrive at nine, do some copy pasting, and then leave at five. You’ll be better equipped for the crushing drudgery of working life.

After three months at my first job I thought that I would go mad. I was completely disillusioned by the repetition and boredom of my work, which involved sending hundreds of e-mails. I had toiled through a Master’s, suffered the stress of two years, learned the entire Land Reform system inside out, battled with game theory and wrote close to fifty thousand words in the most critical and all-absorbing way, just to send e-mails. More than anything, it made me angry. Not because I felt like I deserved more, but I resented the fact that there is no space for my own creativity, that all that hard won knowledge was slowly going down the proverbial drain. And I couldn’t question it, I couldn’t speak up.

After two years I went back to the classroom. When people ask me why, I say something like, “I wanted to change my career path,” or, “I got some inheritance so thought that I would study further.” The real truth is that I was disillusioned by working, I had come to despise the money-hungry environmental sector and I really wanted to do something where I could apply my brain. It took me a few weeks to be able to really think again but it has been therapeutic to have had this year of time-out.

I used those excuses because I feel really terrible about my cynicism, which is strengthened by stories like S’s. What happened to him is indicative of the conformity and meekness that is expected of you in the working world. His experience of music mirrors that of life; radio playlists are not experimental, critical or inspiring. Popular radio stations have “the same shit, just a different day” kind of mentality which I despise.

Which is ironic really, when one looks back on where music came from. The really good music acts came from a place where they too felt despondent, where they wanted something different from life. Ozzy Osbourne, Nirvana, Metallica, even fucking U2, wanted to say something about this world. What they were fighting against, mass conformity and mendacity, is killing the very thing that they created in the first place – great music. If you want to do something, say something or play something different (real, progressive, liberated), you have to do it at university, or at an underground station.

What do you earn when you try to do something different – nothing or barely anything. No one pays for creativity. And this is the proverbial drain of the real world.

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. 

City Lights

Sometimes I feel like my life-world is in intangible mass of city lights; none of which belong to me. I look down on the industrial-scape of blinking stillness and I feel like nothing I will ever say will calm it. These words I write every day are not mine, but learned from endless books which I could never write. I have no original thoughts, no original needs. I have only atoms which shaped into something human-like, with a unique appearance; a porcelain factory replica of thoughts, dreams, desires.

The moon leered through the clouds while I gazed upon this foreign place which I will never really love. Loneliness danced at my feet on the cold, heartless stones upon which I stumbled. I am following a life-path that trips me up more than it cradles me. It has made me unlovely, small and mean and I have not said a nice thing to you in weeks. I apologise.

I think I loved once, but it may have been in another life. I held your hand by the raging fire and felt no spiritual awakening, like they had promised, but just an emptiness that no one can explain. I feel like dead leaves are strewn in my wake, many autumns in which I grew colder, fading from your smile. It may have been the grotesque insignia on the side of buildings which remind me of the stupidity of us.

These are not our thoughts, we have no original thoughts; we take these from the minds of others. A city-scape of others; millions of mindless minds, indescribable monster-angels, these fearful souls. All of us know, there is no one who would give their lives so that we can have a chance to live. I only have this life, I only know of this world; but it seems so lonely in this intangible mass of city lights; even while I am holding your hand.

If you don’t ask…

…hopefully they won’t answer.

I rarely get very aggravated by a band. I’m quite a mild person in general and tend towards a liberal view on most things. But when it comes to some bands and some music, I have very definite ideas. That said, I am supposed to be a music critic in my spare time and do at least two reviews of albums a month. I don’t think that allows me to claim authority on music, but I think it makes me somewhat qualified to air my views on music that I do know. So let me say two things before I begin this. I have trained myself to be objective when it comes to music, but the business of reviewing is almost completely subjective – so I guess I failed before I even begun. However, I don’t listen to musical genres which I don’t like or know very well and, therefore, I do not review or voice opinions on bands that are of the rap, hip-hop, kwaito and rhythm and blues persuasion.

But this is my exception. This exception has also meant that I have given power over to a band which does not deserve it. They don’t deserve my thoughts, or my feelings, and they definitely don’t deserve my ear.

Die Antwoord. Oh boy, here we go…

Recently, the Daily Maverick, a news website which I have the utmost respect for, published an article by someone who expressed their dissatisfaction with South African audiences. She claims that SA critics are not qualified to have an opinion on rap, and that Die Antwoord have been shunned by SA audiences for no good reason. She feels that they are an excellent band, with great music and that only international audiences have recognised this.

I have found myself a lone cynic when it comes to Die Antwoord. However, this is not because people think that their music is particularly good, but because they realise how genius the band is. This says much about the quality of the music, versus the quality of the marketing, the name and the product that is Die Antwoord. I have also never heard someone say something like, “great voice, unique performance, amazing music”. No, people remark on how hot Yo-Landi is, or how extreme the performance is. Is this enough to earn my respect?

Let me turn to my own thoughts (this is my blog, in any case). Rap in general is crap. It is one dimensional and the only thing that saves it is the abilities of the lyricist to grab you at every line. Let’s face it; if they haven’t said anything of significance by line 5, then you are pretty much just listening to a monologue. Rappers, in general, are chauvinistic, opinionated, arrogant people who rarely have lyrical imagination, but blow a lot of hot air, disguised as original thought. Yes, there are great rappers out there. I am not going to give you a list of names, because I have no idea who they are, but I am quite sure that there must be good ones.  

The thing about Die Antwoord, which makes their product of a “genius” persuasion, is that they shock, revolt, choke, move, provoke. So the fact that they provoked me means that they have won. But I won’t back down on my revolt against them. Their music is crap, but what is worse, is that they debase, dehumanise and destroy music, especially South African music. It is not lyrical genius which does this, but the unimaginative overuse of profanity and nudity. Look, I could get naked on stage and tell you that your mother smells like fishpaste too, but I would never stoop that low to bring you entertainment. I have dignity.

So maybe I am missing the deeper meaning. Perhaps their message is that there are people like that, somwhere out there, living in towns and cities in South Africa. Maybe the message is that we must notice them, that we must embrace all cultures and that we should no longer be ashamed that we have white trash living in our neighbourhoods.

I am white trash. But I refuse to embrace that culture. Nor do I relate to, or understand their message. Their message amounts to a cultural imposition and not all cultures have values that I want to uphold.

Going back to the Daily Maverick article, I am somewhat insulted by the insinuation that South African critics are not qualified to criticise. I am also insulted by the insinuation that South African audiences would embrace music, simply because it is South African, and that we cannot distinguish bad music from good music. She implies that we are so narrow-minded and stubborn that we cannot have our own individual views on music, but go along with what the general populace says. She implies that the revolt against Die Antwoord has no grounding.

Maybe she has a point, just maybe. But maybe she has forgotten that music is a package and that people rarely disassociate the artists from the music. The revolt against Die Antwoord is not a revolt against the music, as such, but is a revolt against Die Antwoord; what it represents, the people that make up the band, the feelings they invoke and the message they are saying. Really, the music is only secondary. So this last little rant has nothing to do with the quality of the music, but the other side of the music; how it speaks to a person and what it says.

I dislike Die Antwoord because they are arrogant, opinionated, debase and resort to unimaginative, unintelligent and disgusting habits to sell themselves. Even their name aggravates me. They consider themselves The Answer. The answer to what; I didn’t ask a question, and I certainly didn’t ask them to represent me, or anyone else in this country.