Shattered pasts

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(South African war relics, Marie Rawdon Museum, Matjiesfontein, Karoo)

A few years ago, while tapping away on my laptop during a flight to Cape Town, the woman sitting next to me asked me if I was writing a book.

I was. She asked me what it was about. At the time, my answer changed, depending on who was asking. I decided to give this 60-year-old white South African woman the long answer.

I had been an Open Society Foundation fellow. I had spent three months in the old Transkei investigating what democracy had – and hadn’t – brought to rural South Africa. During that journey I had run headlong into my own fears, prejudice and ignorance. I was writing a book confronting the racist shadows in me, a 38-year-old English-speaking South African.

“Would you read it?” I asked her.

She sighed.

“It’s very difficult for me to pick up one of those books and read,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Tangled emotions of guilt and regret and deep, deep sorrow.”

I waited quietly, waiting for her to say more.

“We’re in a bit of haze, perhaps we’ve had to develop that to survive. I’m sorry that we are so dulled, that there is a dullness of interest, it’s just as though…” she thought for a while, “I think we had to fall asleep. For survival. To live with guilt and regret is too painful.”

Her words echoed something I had read in Jonathan Jansen’s book Knowledge in the Blood. In it he discusses Shattered Past, research that examined the behaviour of post-war German communities. The research found that even after communities had come to have direct knowledge of the killings and torture of Jews, “the majority of the population rather preferred to cover its own complicity with merciful silence”.

For close on twenty years many whites South Africans acted similarly. Silence was the norm and when you did address “it”, it was often reduce to two words: “white guilt”. Go out of your way for a black person and a colleague might mockingly chide: “white guilt!” Turn away from a beggar, pretending that neither of you are there, and your conscience would taunt the same. Try raise the topic of apartheid and its link to poverty, poor education or crime at a braai, and the reply would be: “Enough of the white guilt already.” White guilt didn’t like to chat.

Recently, I found myself reflecting on how the conversation has shifted, how 21 years later, silence and white guilt are no longer in charge. Since late last year, “whiteness” and “privilege” have become the new buzz words, and the uncomfortable thing about these new labels are that they are being put upon us. People who are not us are describing our behaviour, defining our ordinary, every day, sometimes shitty, sometimes amazing lives as a stolen good.

“How dare they?” come the retaliations. “How dare they judge us? After all, we all know how the thieves are around here, don’t we?”

Oh yes, the dialogue is shifting. Our culpable silence is being broken, and white South Africans are feeling exposed, defenceless, uncomfortable.

What are we supposed to do now?

Well, if the Shattered Past research is anything to go by, what is happening now is very similar to what happened in post-war Germany. Just over twenty years after the end of the Second War, as the old Germans begin to die, a space opened up for a new generation of thinkers and writers who were able to observe the past with a new critical consciousness.

Cue – in South Africa – the Frantz Fanon, RhodesMustFall, EFF generation.

And if we keep drawing the parallel, what the Shattered Past research found was that “the capacity for perpetrators to change arose only after the political elites recognized more than one pain and ‘the link between the suffering of the victims and the perpetrators’ was established.”

In other words, for society to heal, it had to start setting aside some compassion for the bad guys.

In post-war Germany, the blanket of silence had meant Germans had been stopped from processing their own war wounds: the rape they had suffered at the hands of the Russians, the death of their solider sons, the intimidation and fear culture that had been Nazi Germany. Yes, the Nuremberg trials (Truth and Reconcilliation Commission) had held those with actual blood on their hands to account, but the rest of the Germans had been left alone to deal with their losses.

In 1960s Germany, the new youth consciousness heralded a phase where the personal losses and griefs of the past were permitted to be aired and dissected.

And I find myself wondering: is that what South Africa needs too? Do those white South Africans with their fortress houses and 4x4s who don’t seem to give a fuck about anyone but themselves, need to be given an opportunity to express their unresolved pain?

Admittedly, it’s often hard to feel anything but contempt for some white South Africans. On Valentine’s weekend I was at the Vaal River and felt like washing my hands of any further attempt at inter-racial healing as I witnessed the selfishness of those white South Africans, with their jet skis and speed boats who drive drunk and reckless on the river without a care for anyone but themselves. How does one even begin to have compassion for people who seem to treat the world as just a giant playground, hoarding all the toys? Who are these people?

But later, as the sun set over the river, and I connected once again with the deep peace of the land, I also found myself wondering what lurks beneath all that bravado and shiny toys and heavy drinking?

In his book Jansen remembers how destitute the white Afrikaners were at the end of the South African War. They had been chased from Europe because of their religious faith, and then they had been defeated again on this new soil as they had tried to build a new home. Out of this defeat they rose again, this time determined to create a nation that no one could destroy, and they lost control of that too.

What lies inside people who have lost and lost and lost?

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Fear and self-loathing in Hillbrow

Last week I took to the streets of Hillbrow to read from my book, Lost Where We Belong. In this video I’m sitting on a pillar, reading a chapter about white fear to a guy from Nkandla (not Jacob Zuma) who was standing on the street corner chatting with a friend.

Afterward the reading I asked him what it was like to hear a white woman speak honestly and openly about her fear of black male strangers.

“Did it make you feel angry or hurt or sad?” I asked.

“All of those things,” he said, clutching his arms across his chest

“I’m sorry, I didn’t want to upset you. I wrote this book so we can talk about what is there.  We all know these things are there, but we don’t want to talk about them out loud. We’ve been so busy focusing on the Rainbow Nation, it feels like we’ve been sweeping the truth under the carpet. I feel that if we can start being more honest with each other, the past will have less of a hold over us.”

“It’s good,” he says. “Difficult to hear, but good you are doing this.”

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Looking for love


Written September 2014

I met Lerato at the Benoni Museum, in the room dedicated to the history of my hometown, Benoni. Benoni is a Hebrew word which means Son of my Sorrows. I was standing in front of a board that boasted about the building of Daveyton, the township next to Benoni, describing it as a “a model township”. The words are lifted from a book published during apartheid.

“Can you believe this is still up?” I ask the young guy standing next to me.

He reads, his arms folded, his hand on his mouth, and nods.

“I live in Daveyton. It is a nice place,” he says.

“But, but… don’t you get it. It is old apartheid propaganda. It is trying to justify that it was okay for black people to be put into separate areas.”

He shrugs his shoulders.

“I grew up in Attridgeville. Daveyton is a much better place.”

He introduces himself as Lerato, a 22-year-old student at Benoni Technical College. Lerato tells me that he moved to Daveyton to escape gang crime in Attridgeville. His friends had all joined gangs and he wanted more from his life, and so he left his grandmother to live with his mother and her husband.

“And is Daveyton much safer?” I say.

“No, nowhere is safe,” he says, shaking his head. “Not being able to walk around with your belongings. That’s not life. The other day I saw a woman being robbed in front of me, and there was nothing I could do. They say it’s a free and democratic country, but you don’t enjoy your freedom. Every day a child is dead. You cannot call that freedom.”

A week later Lerato invites me to visit him in his kasi (neighbourhood). At 10am on a Saturday morning I find myself in the Daveyton mall, looking for Love. That’s what Lerato means, love.

Love is stuck in a queue though, trying to help a friend wire money to Zimbabwe, and so I go shopping. In one of the cheap fashion chains, I spot a white T-shirt emblazoned with the words: “You can’t sit with us”.

I consider buying it and wearing it around Daveyton. Definitely a Chinese import.

At last Love is ready.

We drive back to Barcelona, his kasi.

“I can’t believe it,” his mum, Victoria Ralefeta, says, welcoming to her home with an enveloping hug. “Lerato said he had a white friend and I told him he must be fucking dreaming.”

I’ve never heard a black mamma swear before. I snort with laughter as she squeezes me.

Victoria invites us into the front room of her home, and offers us a seat on the lounge suite, in front of a TV switched on to Soweto TV. On the walls are 3D pictures of elephants, waterfalls and Jacob Zuma. If you shift to the right, the picture of Zuma morphs into Mandela. He wishes.

Victoria treats us to a bottle of Coca Cola, and tells us about her younger life, working as a domestic worker.

“How did you come to terms with apartheid during those years?” I ask. “What did you tell yourself to make it bearable in your own head?”

“I told myself it was a bad spirit,” Victoria says. “There are two people controlling our lives – god and devil. And devil is more powerful than god, if you allow him. Apartheid was nothing, just a bad spirit.”

Lerato takes us on a stroll through the neighbourhood. A woman is braaiing chicken feet on a corner. A barber is cutting hair in a converted portakabin. Bob Marley’s Buffalo Soldier is playing through an open front door. As we walk past the spaza shop, an amapanstula comes out.

“Umlungu!” White person! he shouts, dropping his peanuts to the floor and starting to dance.

Lerato is delighted.

“Everyone is going to be talking about this. I’m going to be the guy, who brought the white girl to the kasi.”

We make to turn left.

“Err, no, we can’t go that way,” Lerato says. “Too dangerous.”

“Oh right,” I say, a flash of fear grabbing my belly.

Lerato laughs. “No, not dangerous for you. You could walk anywhere here. No one would touch you. They’d be too busy staring.”

Back at the house we gnaw on chicken feet and drink Coke.

“You know life is a boomerang,” says Victoria. “I can tell you I don’t even have fifty cents in my house now, but I’ve got food. So why do I want money? Money for what? Money can’t change my life. As long as I can eat with my children, it’s fine. When suffering comes, the white people cannot handle it. We, us black people, we can handle it. The white people can’t take suffering, because the money is controlling them.”

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