“Instead of Freedom we got democracy” says John Kani, actor, play wright and executive trustee of the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa. He says the word ‘democracy’ like it is a disappointment – like someone who expected cheese and got tofu instead. As Black South African struggling for freedom during the Apartheid years, he did not fight to be allowed to sit next to a White South African on a bench, he fought to live in my house. It was not political equality, but economic freedom he fought for, he says.
Quoting a character from one of his plays (I think it was “Nothing but the Truth” published in 2002) he says: “ I want the white policeman who killed my son to be identified, judged, sentenced and then from his prison cell to ask for my forgiveness” (paraphrased). All these words get cheers from parts of the audience to whom he is speaking at the Drama for Life African Research Conference entitled: “The unfinished business of Truth and Reconciliation” held last week 20 to 21 Nov at the Soweto Theatre in Gauteng.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission made the perpetrators ask forgiveness and made the victims forgive, but it did not give us justice, says Kani. The TRC was good for some measure of transition, but what it mostly did, was allow our economy to be restored and grow. What it did not do, was shift economic power so that Black South Africans could share equally in the country’s resources. Yes, some people say, a handful of Black South Africans gained power and money, but only through the clever manoeuvring of a few white South Africans who even today, still control the economy.
I am touched and unsettled by his words at the same time. I see that many Black South Africans are still yearning for justice, or payment, or recompense in some way. I hear that the ‘peaceful’ transition after Mandela’s release left many dissatisfied. How do we deliver justice 20 years later? Is it even possible?
Almost 20 years after Mandela was set free, very little has changed in terms of economic power. Only now there is 20 years of pent up frustration without a clear enemy. Throughout the conference we hear of the pain of poverty, teenage pregnancy, HIV and AIDS, increasing unemployment, all related to the largely unchanged socio-economic context of South Africa. One example is the izikhotani phenomenon where young people burn and destroy expensive belongings extravagantly to prove that they are rich enough to not care. Izikhotani translates as “The Lickers” and this African language to lick means to boast. Kids from poor communities are pulled into this phenomenon and we are left to wonder where they get the money to buy these things? The ‘bling’ culture is creating an unhealthy yearning for materialistic wealth.
This stands in glaring contrast to the need for spiritual wealth that is so needed argues singer and icon Sibongile Khumalu in her address at the same conference. How do we restore spiritual wealth? Is this something we can do 20 years later? Is it not altogether too late?
I can’t help but wonder, what would happen if these youngsters and the disappointed older generation get political permission to turn their frustration on white South Africans again? Should I be afraid? Am I afraid?
And then I am on the taxi back from Soweto. I am travelling with a delegate from Ghana with whom I had made friends. I feel honoured and a little uncertain in my role as ‘the guide’. Usually I, as white person, need the guidance of other Black South Africans to teach me the ways of the local taxi culture. Now the roles are reversed – between the two of us, I am the informed one, and though she has the right skin colour, she has none of the assumed experience. Fortunately one of the attendants at the Soweto Theatre takes us to the taxi pick up spot and sends us on our way.
The taxi driver who is supposed to drop us at the Bree taxi rank so that we can catch the taxi home leaves us on a corner with a finger pointing in the vague direction where we will find the taxi rank. We get off and soon discover that we are not near the rank at all. The first man we ask for help points in the same vague direction and asks money for food. He speaks to my Ghanaian friend in a native tongue, but she smiles and explains that she does not understand. “They all just presume I am one of them”. The second man shakes his head uncertainly, but asks another to show us the way. He also points in the same vague direction. Then a short stout but amazingly energetic woman appears in a powerfully pink jacket. “Come, i will show you.”, and then when she hears our story: “Some people just take your money. That driver should not drop you there it is not a good part of town.” Her name is Phindisile (translating as ‘the one who comes again’, or ‘another one ‘ as if to say a repeat of either another daughter or even the coming again of a grandmother who has passed).
We walk 5 blocks this way and that until we get to the taxi rank. She takes us into a very large very dark space reeking of sweat and petrol. Taxis and people everywhere. I hear my friend behind me suck in her breath anxiously. After making several enquiries Phindisile gets us to the right taxi. On the way there she keeps turning back to check that we are still with her (she is moving fast and with purpose). “I am not going to lose you in here, I take responsibility for you, I make sure you get to the right place.” When we get to our taxi, I thank her with a squeeze on the arm and words of deep gratitude. She smiles and leaves – she is obviously in a hurry to get home herself.
On the taxi I look with different eyes at my fellow passengers: there are some who look from me to my Ghanaian friend, seeming to wonder what the connection is, probably thinking she is ‘one of them’, other passengers who simply ignore us completely and some who smile politely, and go back to their own conversations, or thoughts. Again I wonder what would happen if they were given political permission to turn on me. How would their attitudes change? Which of them harbour the same disappointment John Kani mentioned? Which hold the same deep yearning for wealth in the face of economic disempowerment? What assumptions would the curious ones make and will they go from curious to disapproving? Will the ones who ignore me now, become openly hostile? Would I be safe to get onto the taxi with them? Will the smilers now ignore me completely? And the Phindisiles of the world, what choice would they make? Will Phindisile ‘come again’ to my aid?
With Sibongile Khumalu I want to agree: let us call on the Spirit of Africa and seek, no SHARE spiritual wealth before we seek ‘bling’. We need the spirit of ubunthu (togetherness) to flourish, not the every-man-for-himself spirit of unconscious capitalism. I recall the counsel of my friend, fellow speaker and mentor Ingrid Roberts who said that financial wealth only amplifies your level of spiritual wealth. Spiritually rich people who also have money make their society financially and spiritually richer, but spiritually poor people who have money make their society poorer both financially and spiritually.
Phondisile, may you win the Lotto!.
Sibongile Khumalu said: Let us put back the lost parts of the original song Nkosi Sikelela Africa that did not make it into our national anthem – and I want to invite Phindisile, Ingrid and all others like them to join in – as we sing : “Woza Moya” (Come Spirit).
Woza Moya (woza, Moya)
Woza Moya (Woza, Moya)
Woza Moya, oyingcwele
Thina lusapho lwayo
If you liked this, you may want to read:
‘Making friends in Jozi’
‘Stereo types come from somewhere’
Traveling on Trust’ and