Anxiety, Depression, Short story, Writing, Youth

Mercy (a short story) Part 3

The sun’s light crawled over the green hills as they burst into Sasha’s room, hurling each other onto bed. Sex was nothing new for either of them, and for Sizwe rarely was it a memorable experience. Yet that morning with a stranger, under the glow of sunrise and whistling of birds, he experienced pleasure he thought incapable of ever feeling. No love or substantial intimacy existed between them, their bond was undoubtedly shallow and still, over and over again, their minds and bodies plunged into ecstasy.

Sipping a cup of coffee while passively listening to an Aretha Franklin record, Sizwe was grateful. He had been rattled and shook from a long and heavy sleep. The blood whirling in his veins, every muscle in his bod, the crackling synapses in his brain, and hairs on his skin – he seemed to sense the world with a new awareness, immersed in all around him with a childlike fascination. Here and now, with her body next to his, the sun bright, his coffee sweet, his heart content and the music good, he is unaware of past or present. He is not afraid of the death which awaits all nor in denial of the past which cannot be escaped. For a moment, none of it matters.

He knew he wasn’t the only one to experience the long sleep. Going through each day doing what must be done; the assumptions and assertions of everyday facing no opposition. Again and again life moving to the same monotonous melody.  But how can anyone expect every day to be new? How can each second, all those minutes and plenty hours stacked on top of each other like bricks in an endless skyscraper, be made extraordinary? Maybe, Sizwe thought, staring into his coffee, this belief demands too much of our lives. Out of all the days he had lived so far, he remembered only a sad few, his mind bloated by painful memories and the rest ordinary. Perhaps the time had come for him to accept, confront and bear it, that is, the mundane quality of his life. The unremarkable and ordinary nature of all of our lives.

“Good afternoon”, Sasha awoke, hair ruffled and eyes drowsy but still a pleasure to be next to. Yawning she asked, “What’s the plan lad?”

“Do whatever feels good I guess. Late breakfast?”

After their meal they showered and neither wanted to leave the room. Sasha rolled a joint and put on an Etta James record. All windows shut, curtains drawn and lights switched off, their lungs soaking in the herb while they conversed in darkness.

“Doesn’t this shit get to you? Etta James that is. I mean, don’t get me wrong, she’s amazing, top shelf stuff but yoh! Her songs are sad”. Sizwe hadn’t smoked in years and so the joint’s potency was threefold. A soothing heat sat in his chest, joints tingling and face turning into mush. When she spoke her voice came from distant hills.

“I can’t listen to it all the time but when I do it’s a good reminder that love isn’t all the fun we think it is. A lot of it will hurt”

“Doesn’t seem worth the effort”

“Don’t get it twisted. Like yeah, trying to be with someone else in a meaningful way, it’s a struggle but it’s definitely worth it”

“How? Just looks like a ploy by evolution. Once all that rush is gone, all those chemicals flowing through your brain, once that’s gone, then what huh? A shit divorce or an even worse life of compromise in a shit marriage”

“Well aren’t you an angst ridden young man” she laughed.

“Fuck off, you know it’s true” he could not help laughing along.

“I don’t think that’s what love is. It’s not a feeling, feelings are so…temporary and flimsy. It isn’t a series of happy experiences, each one better than the other. Don’t get it twisted, that evolution stuff is legit. But we’re more than just another animal”

“You sure? Cause it looks like all we are is a decaying collection of blood, meat and bone”

“Go on”

“I’m serious. We’re always being told that we’re special. If it isn’t Zeus, Yahweh or Allah then its mom and dad. That we were created in someone’s special image. That there’s some essence that makes us better than our pets or the food we eat. Shit, all I see are a bunch of smart apes walking around in good clothing”

Again there it was. That discomforting discovery of what we hold sacred and indisputably true to be irreconcilable with what we see in the lives we live. One of Sizwe’s favourite pass times as a child was reading the stories of the bible. Old or new testament, he read in reverence of what humans of, flesh and bone just like him, could achieve. Men and women who displayed courage, love and compassion in the battles against evil. Evil had never troubled him too much. It poured into this world from other realms, outside of what he could comprehend. Evil was alien to man whereas good inherent in human character. This inherent goodness consoled him growing up as he witnessed the repugnant actions of those around him. These thoughts lost their hold on him eventually. He could not protect his eyes from the brutality of the world.

The closeness of evil is what corroded the strength of his Christian sentiments. Men who hit their wives and fiercely beat their children were his neighbours. Adults who had sex with children, he knew a few, some of whom he referred to as Aunt and Uncle. Friends who grew up to become impassionate murderers. Family friends who exploited the poor without shame or regret; acquaintances who fondled and fucked the unconscious bodies of girls at house parties and the heads of school governing bodies who let them get away with it. He did not want to even try and contemplate the suffering millions out there who he would never know.

And now he thought evil was not inherent in men but neither was good. They could not fall into the world from heaven or be dug out from the pits of hell. He knew and with this knowledge accepted a certain anxiety into his everyday life that we are responsible for all we see around us. The injustices of the world cast and cut by our actions. There is no one to punish the evil, no one to redeem the wrongdoers or save the innocent.

She laughed, “You’re such a cynical dude. I don’t think such a dim view of the world is healthy”

“The truth isn’t meant to make us happy…or sad for that matter, it just is, you know?”

“Truth huh?” she said this with a hint of mockery, “Big claims you’re making so early in the morning”

“It’s 7pm”

The room shook under the weight of their wild laughter.

“Wanna go to the Cube? Let’s go to the Cube! Half priced tequila and a not so bad DJ?”

She heard the cheer of his smile and they were off. The club was no more than a five minute walk from the B&B. They took a short cut suggested by Sasha through a narrow passageway. Still nicely coming off his high, Sizwe felt at rest. No longer did he have doubts, reservation or fear. He knew what had to be done going forward; returning to Gauteng he would take a year off to think and hopefully live, perhaps in the process begin recreating himself. He knew that upon his return home there would be arguments, resentful accusations and hurtful words. This did not weaken his resolve to finally take responsibility for himself.

Coming out of the narrow alleyway and into a fairly silent street, Sasha tripped over a lifeless bird.

“Poor thing” she looked tempted to pick up the creature and nestle it in her hands. Sizwe was glad, realising the pity on her face was no longer directed towards him and never would be again. Lone footsteps approached, echoing towards them from the narrow passageway.

It slid out of the stranger’s sleeve with practiced ease. He twirled it in his hands, his nimble fingers dancing with the knife. The blade itself was immaculate in its sharpness, long and thin as paper and obviously polished with care. The knife seized the shine of the moonlight; Sasha and Sizwe now stood stiff before a torch of white fire on that dark, damp street. Sasha’s scream was hoarse, nearly a whisper, strangled by fear and her face bright with uncertainty as her body shrunk and trembled. The man before them was silent, playing with the knife in one hand and gesturing for their wallets and cellular phones with the other. The man looked unfazed by the terror on the faces of his current targets, indifferent to what he was about to do. His skin worn out like old leather and little flesh around his bones, eyes a cocktail of red and yellow.

First there was fear, then profound sadness and finally resignation to what followed. The man’s eyes, previously calm with indifference, grew impatient and now desperate. Sizwe barely noticed the change, his mind had gone numb in the past 15 seconds. He blinked, eye lids sliding open to the sound of flesh ripping and stomach punctured. His body dragged him down onto the pavement, it was cold and rough against the skin on his face. Blood stained his cardigan and jeans. His mother wouldn’t appreciate the stain, he recalled how hard she worked to knit it for his 18th birthday. The blood did not gush out of him, it slowly oozed, thick and hot in the cold air, giving off thin streams of steam. Breathing was hard, mouth clogged with blood as his heart sprinted and his body seemed to weigh a thousand tons.

Memories of life did not flash before his eyes. He didn’t have any final epic epiphanies or heavenly revelations. As he died there was only a growing puddle of blood and crippling pain. Rain began to fall, cooling his body. His sight grew dim and he saw three foggy figures running towards him from across the street. Looking up he saw her face, still beautiful, and behind it the moon and beyond the moon, there it was; that black sea, endless and stretching out into forever. Closing his eyes and taking his final breath, he dived into its depths.

END 

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Anxiety, Short story

Mercy (a short story): Part 2

The Uber driver was full of stories to tell and jokes to crack. Sizwe was glad, the drive to the city was long and he appreciated the stranger’s genuine friendliness.

“I also wanted to be a lawyer…and then a doctor, and then a businessman or maybe even a chartered accountant” as he said this, Sizwe could see Ayanda’s eyes unsteady in longing of a once promising past.

“You could still become any one of those things”

“Don’t be so naive mfowethu, my time is up. But my son, see he will become a great man – I’ll make sure he stays focused and follows the money. That’s the only hope for abantu”

Ayanda’s words and trembling eyes swirled in Sizwe’s mind while in the shower. The Bed and Breakfast was cheap, conveniently in the centre of the city and well run. Drying himself off, he chuckled looking at the smiling face of Nelson Mandela on the new notes. Maybe those notes and what they represented really was the final objective. And what did Madiba think looking down on the fruits of liberation? All of life reduced to immersion in trade and exchange. Old men, unloved and lonely with odd perversions, exploiting the abandoned and vulnerable, down payments for pussy in the form of tuition fees or maybe a new car. Those same men, whose watches and shoes could buy groceries for whole villages; to them nothing was incorruptible and principles were formless as the liquor overflowing in their imported bottles of whiskey and wine.  Even the once holy had been clued in on the game as pastors of prosperity shamed the poor, reminding congregants how highly favoured are those who bless men of God with new convertibles. He knew of many women unwilling to love if the promise of luxury was absent, always insisting that love needed to be well kept by shopping sprees to Dubai and R8000 weaves.

Sizwe feared becoming one of them; unable to love and unwilling to care. His and their compassion crippled by an obsession with always wanting more.  And what of those with empty wallets and four figure bank accounts? Ghosts of night and day, the whispers of the poor are faint to many ears as they plead to be seen and hope to be heard but always being easily ignored. Only Madiba’s, crisp against fingers and thick in hands, could solidify their existence. Only then can one be perceived as real, affirmed as valuable.

The plan for the week ahead was simple: mornings in bed with a book, afternoons at the beach or cinema and nights anywhere with decent music and cheap drinks. The holiday season had not yet begun and so the southern beach front was unusually spacious and to Sizwe, the lack of people inviting. Unfolding his towel and positioning the umbrella, he took a moment to breathe in the salty air, letting it swim in his chest, making him pleasantly dizzy.

The sun bright, waves calm and the sea’s water sparkling from the sun’s glow. Pouring beer into a plastic cup and opening a novel, he tried to immerse himself in the mellow mood of the beach.

He could not sit still and something had suspended his ability to read, having skimmed over the same two pages for half an hour. The present began to disappear, forever altered, only to return as the past: Ice cream melting into liquid, a sculpture of a seductive mermaid swallowed by the tide, dead and dusty leaves swirling in the wind, a scratch on a child’s tender knee, once bleeding and open, now dry and in the process of healing. There was nowhere to run, no caves or caverns of solace; hour by hour the sun will lose its light, winds will weaken and waves finally withdraw. All the contents of Sizwe’s world, even the tiniest of organisms beyond his perception – no one or thing will escape the clasp of time and the silencing touch of death.

He wrestled with the present, he could not submerge his mind in the now. Like his friends, he longed for the past and ached to retain the simplicity of those years and yet he knew this nostalgic aching was dangerous, the past itself another trap. The future too was dreaded as he imagined the daily monotony which eagerly awaited him. He felt it move through him. You wasteful idiot. Now it could not be escaped and now it became unbearably clear – All there is, all there ever will be is now. Sand scratched the skin on his legs. The beer now bitter and stale and his throat dry, stomach bloated, whole body coated in thickening sweat. His heart began to beat at a disorientating pace. Now he was drowsy, definitely nauseous, brain throbbing against the skull. He didn’t want to die.

The vomit stung his throat as he knelt over the bin. Standing up he looked towards the ocean and decided a drink of water would be calming. Walking on the concrete sidewalk he noticed the intricate, impressively detailed murals. Maybe it’s all elaborate design? The whole universe in its never ending motion propelled and guided by the hands of the all-knowing, allpowerful and ever present. Sizwe didn’t think this an attractive alternative. If everything already is, then surely nothing can change and again he would be stuck. The sun was ready to begin its descent, its light now a dim orange.

A woman appeared standing on the edge of the pier and the sight of her instantly cleansed his mind. Tall, skin hazel brown and without blemish. Her beauty better than anything he had seen on T.V or Instagram precisely because it wasn’t synthetic or performative; she looked good for none but herself. These details were impressive but not what seized his breath and demanded his awe. Her eyes, large and pupils dark, reflected a nerve he had never seen in anyone else; the arch of her eye brows, the curling of her toes – all gestures and unspoken words expressed a self-assuredness he wished she would share with him. Finally her smile, stretching across her face, no hints of insincerity in this action, rising to touch the outer corners of her eyes. Sizwe had not seen such kindness in years. She had harnessed in her heart a kindness not to be seen amongst the blissfully innocent or those whose hearts were sick with pessimism. Her kindness was produced by a courageous realism, a realism which had bared witness to the evil in the world but had never submitted to wallowing in cynicism, choosing instead to live in faith.

His phone rang. His mother calling, hoping he had been eating well and enjoying his welldeserved break. Putting his cell phone back into his backpack, he looked towards the pier and she was gone.

Over the next three days he could not escape her. The kind smile, the hazel shine of her skin, the fearless eyes – awake or asleep his mind was held in captivity, all energy arrested and only to be utilised in remembrance of her. Whenever those crippling and corrosive thoughts attempted to return, he summoned her image and within seconds they were erased. He had to see her again, not to jump in bed with, maybe not even to talk to but just to know that someone of such wonder could be.  Recently he had been drowning, sinking each day and he hoped not for her to save him, but to help him swim against the current and survive the many more storms to come.

The next four days were spent at the beach in panicked search for her. Walking up and down the long stretch of sand trying to look cool and unconcerned. During lunch hours he’d pass by all restaurants and fast food outlets. What he would say to the stranger and how he’d even approach her, he did not know, nonetheless he trusted his sense of urgency. At the end of each day of searching he would return to the B&B defeated. The image of her in his mind was losing its clarity.

His last night at the B&B and him the only guest, Sizwe sat on the balcony for dinner. The city barely moved. No tires screeching against tar or deafening roars of car engines along the highway, not even drunk bodies swaying, bottles clinking and feet stomping to another hit by Destruction Boyz. Sunday still remained holy in the eyes of many. Opening the only bottle of wine he could afford and skimming over the menu, he tried to make peace with the likelihood of never seeing her again. Would he even recognize her in ten years? Will her beauty one day lose its radiance? As he gulped down his fourth glass of wine, a loud bang reverberated throughout the house. Definitely the slam of a door. Music, soft and slow, now soaked all space with the pained voice of a women in love. It was Billie Holiday’s rendition of You Go to My Head.  An old jazz standard which retained much of its sound of melancholic longing. Sizwe was sure Miss Holiday and himself were very different people, each moulded by estranged times and places, but in her voice lived the assurance of their connection through that intense and sadly unrequited yearning.

He heard the light shuffle and patter of slippers in the hallway heading towards the balcony. The polite voice of an employee. The glass door slid open and there she was: black slippers, grey sweatpants and Supreme hoodie. She sat down at a table on the opposite end of the balcony and didn’t seem to notice him, maybe she didn’t care for his presence. She stared at the candlelight on her table, earphones in, no particular expression occupying her face. Astounded by his luck he had nearly choked on his steak when she walked in but now what?

He reviewed his options on how to approach and concluded he’d always look either too desperate or creepy. He fumbled with the last pieces of steak and boiled potato on his plate, head subtly turning her direction every few minutes, fearing she would suddenly leave.

A gust of sweet wind and now she stood at his table, looking down at his mystified expression.

“Hey man, sorry to be this person but do you have a lighter?”

“Yeah sure, go for it”

She lit the cigarette, inhaling deeply, “Thanks, I can never hold on to these things for more than a week”

Sizwe didn’t know how to keep her at his table and so he decided be honest,

“Wanna join me for dinner? I’d love to have someone to talk to and you seem really cool and…stuff…”

“It would be kinda awkward wouldn’t it? The two of us sitting at our separate table alone in this room all night”

“Exactly!” Perhaps he had said this with too much eagerness in his voice.

“Dope, dinner with a guy who thinks I’m ‘cool and stuff’” she said, playfully teasing.

Sitting down she pulled a bottle of gin out of her backpack and it was the beginning of a peculiar evening. Peculiar because he wasn’t used to being at ease with strangers or even those he considered good friends. She didn’t seem to want anything from him nor was she trying to impress or deceive him with an elaborate yet ultimately insincere performance. Everyone was always acting in pursuit of something, parents, teachers, friends at boarding school. He too indulged in those false-hearted games. Expectations must be met and duties fulfilled and the audience always to be satisfied. Here, with her, there was no pressure. She had provided him the unconditional allowance to be. Conversation was fluid, never abruptly imploding into awkward silence. The more gin poured, the more each began to unfold before the other.

Her name was Sasha. Born in Durban, raised in Cape Town. A chemical engineering student taking time off to “think things over”. Recently she had developed an obsession with K – Pop. Her little sister Neha was going through an anarchist phase. Their father was a sound engineer and his wife, Rina, had committed suicide eight years ago. Sasha was currently engrossed in Chimamanda’s Americana; yes, she was confident Notorious B.I.G was a better

MC than Tupac. No, she no longer believes in God and hasn’t for a while; the death of her faith wasn’t dramatic, just a gradual loss of interest. Rina? Once a history lecturer at the University of Cape Town.

The gin was potent; Sizwe felt it cruising through his bloodstream, his joints loose and his bones softening, skin slowly melting. However he didn’t feel nauseous but at ease with all around him. Three hours had passed since they had begun talking and neither of them wanted to stop. As Sasha’s face glowed above the candlelight, the gravity of her presence drew him closer to her like the devastating drags of currents on the sea.

“Let’s go to the beach?” she asked.

“Really? Like now? I mean it’s pretty late and it isn’t that safe-

Quickly cutting him off, “Have you ever been to the beach this late in the evening?”

“Nope, never”

“Well then it’s settled. I’ll call the Uber”, she giggled, drunk and cheerful and he could not say no.

The sand was grey as moon dust and damp against their feet. Sasha lit a cigarette and offered Sizwe one of her own but he declined. The moon stood remarkably bright in the sky, surrounded by a thick, impenetrable darkness: the stars were in hiding. Walking in silence along the shore Sizwe’s focus was absorbed by the sound of the ocean. Waves crashing and rising with titanic power, as loud as thunder, their lethal movements conducted by the radiance of the moon. He felt weak in the presence of all those forces. Forces which could crumble cities and swallow mountains. Forces whose actions were arbitrary and power older than the earth itself.

Sasha too looked at the sea; her heart also trembling but in reverence and not fear.

“Amazing hey? Does it ever scare you, like, make you feel puny…a little helpless?” he asked, voice nearly quivering.

Sasha took a few seconds to digest the question,

“When everything was still intact, a long time ago, my family and I went to the Philippines on holiday. I remember seeing this guy drown during a monsoon. It was terrible, like water just pulling and pushing everything out of the way – trucks, cars, apartment blocks, trees, nothing could escape. My family, other tourists and a lot of the local people at the resort managed to find shelter on the roof of a building. But there was this guy who was still stuck down in it all, caught in all the rain and wind and water. He was fucking terrified, the wind was so loud I couldn’t hear him screaming but I could clearly see the terror on his face and in his eyes.  He clung to a palm tree but couldn’t manage anything else and no matter how hard the dude held on and no matter how loud he kept screaming, the wind kept pulling and the water rising. Eventually he stopped screaming, looked towards the stormy sky, closed his eyes and just let go. And like that I knew he was dead”

“How old were you?”

“I think ten if not eleven. And I just couldn’t believe it had happened, I mean I knew people died but seeing it happen felt strange. I thought about that guy a lot in the following months; he didn’t do anything to deserve to die, just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time I guess. And there was nothing, absolutely nothing we or anyone there could do about it” she said. The awe she had felt during that monsoon and the ensuing flood still resonated in her voice.

“That’s a lot to process”

“Maybe but it’s just the way things are. There isn’t much we can control or change”. Sasha said this as though it was an indisputable fact.

“I feel like I’ve been lied to. All I’ve ever been told is that we matter, to someone or to something out there”

“Me too. I thought that even if you’re deserted by friends and family, that no matter how shit things may seem, there’s someone out there, the most powerful someone who cares. But no: seeing that man die, guilty of nothing at the time and so damn helpless, I knew we were alone. We’re alone and the world definitely doesn’t care”

“Sad thing to realise”

“Sometimes yeah. But me, man, I’d rather know the truth then try to believe a lie”

“And how do you know it’s a lie?” restrained desperation boomed in Sizwe’s voice.

“I guess, for a long time, what I told myself was true and what actually happened in the world out there, were two almost completely different things”

The wind grew hostile and developed a cold sting and so they decided to head back to the B&B. Walking towards the Uber, Sizwe looked back and heard the beasts beneath the sea. The water turned black as tar and he continued to listen closely, hearing nothing except an unbearable and unbreakable silence. Blinded by the moonlight, feeling only the sting of the icy wind and opening his eyes he found himself floating above the ocean. Sasha and the ocean were no longer a part of his world. Eternity called out to him from that bottomless pit and looking downwards, it held nothing but a darkness which stretched into forever.  Sizwe woke up in the car shivering, cold because he feared one day being swallowed by those beasts and into the belly of forever. It was the single assurance of life, universal and everlastingly true: death, a promise indestructible.

Sasha, easily sensing his panic reached out and gently but with caution, put her arms around him, his face now nestled in her chest.  Her perfume smelt sweet, like freshly melted sugar. The scent layered above the smell of her sweat, sour to the nose and yet still comforting, the warm body of another.

“I don’t know what to do anymore, Sasha I don’t know how to be…I’d rather end it all now, it’s unbearable” he said still shivering.

She replied, slowly trying to find the right words.

“End it if you want. Or, accept all of this for what it is and try to live through it the way you want to live”

Not understanding what compelled her, Sasha lowered her face and kissed him. Not tenderly or with nervous caution no, her hands and body moved with urgency. For a few seconds he was paralysed, still afloat over those dark waters. She withdrew, whispering into his ears,

“All there is, all there ever will be and there ever has been is now. Don’t be a coward, use the now, no one can ever take it away from you”

“But wh-

“Even if the sun were to burn out and the universe collapse, which it one day will, all of this still happened and you were still alive, don’t you want to die knowing you lived all the little life you had as fully as you could have?”

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Short story, Uncategorized

Mercy – a short story

15TH March 2016 – the night of Sizwe Mtshali’s graduation. Thousands of hours over the course of fifteen years racing towards this moment and concluding in a law degree – magna cum laude- now met with a dead heart and a synthetic smile.

His path from this departure was indisputable. Since his matriculation it had been made clear to him by the authorities within the family that there were those who would depend upon him. Relatives far away and those inside the walls of his home had urgent needs that demanded close attention. Being the first in the family to obtain a degree, he had been crowned the blessed golden child; the child whose failures would not merely be an embarrassing disappointment but a stinging financial blow. Investments into Sizwe’s future had been made and the time to reap what was sowed had arrived. Later on that night, as he was swarmed by powerful hugs, congratulatory pats and respectful handshakes, as his mother, aunts, Gogos and sisters voices pierced the air with ululation and song, he could not resist regret; the regret of all the choices which had led him this night- a night spent in mourning of his youth.

Sitting in the grand auditorium, surrounded by beaming faces and booming smiles, his boredom devolved into a quiet rage – why could he not summon their joy? The parents were more relieved than joyful, sincerely hopeful and this was understandable. A degree was the assurance of stable income, a secure home and a well fed family. Still hung over from decades long passed, the parents present had not yet realised the ground beneath us has turned into liquid. The dreams promised by a piece of paper and the tangible reality awaiting graduates now, more than ever, seem to be irreconcilable. All of life’s goods, material and otherwise, can no longer be easily gripped and instead run through frantic hands like water.

Sizwe’s faith rested in focused action exacted by an indomitable will. That and luck but only the gambling naive relied on luck, which bowed in loyalty to none. In this simple philosophy he had usually found consolation when confronted with trouble and suffering. But in the past few months he had been losing resolve – always weary, always worried and never not tired. The serenity of his dreams ruptured by a question now always on his mind,

Is this all there is left for me in this life?

He had a disdain for such thoughts, thoughts which induced self-pity and fooled him into trying to change circumstances whose composition were beyond his control; tonight’s party would serve as a good distraction. When he arrived it was already in full swing: plenty bodies inebriated and docile long before midnight; everyone appeared to be determined to bathe their livers in liquor. Joints passed around the apartment like sticks of cotton candy. Rooms crowded with smoke as faces and voices floated amongst clouds of grey. Music so loud, aggravating tenants on the first floor of the twelve story building. Neighbours angrily knocked and bitterly hollered every twenty minutes but the land lord had been bribed and so no one cared and the volume only increased as the night dragged on.

It dragged on that is, only for Sizwe. Bored and still not drunk he laboured through it all with a jealous frown. Conversation was underwhelming, loud chatter about firms, articles and internships and monthly income and real estate and rent and utilities. Sizwe thought his ears under attack, all around bombarded by plans for the future, voices breaking under the strain of excitement and lethal amounts of vodka. “We made it!” They say said smiles wide, faces bright. Zooming in on those faces, Sizwe could easily recognize the marks of fatigue collected over years. Years of zealous study, all-nighters in libraries and computer rooms, stacks of never ending assignments ruining youthful bodies now withered by caffeine, stress relieving booze and spoonfuls of Ritalin. Past the tired faces around him, smiling as eyes sank into sockets, fear moved with vicious vitality, Never before had their lives been thrust into such deep uncertainty. Certain ties had to be severed and they would begin to know that responsibility, whose presence is pervasive, and only to be ducked by the wonderfully wealthy. As this reality appeared with more terrifying clarity, they spoke of the past with an urgency to return, their eyes running back into it, now beginning to appreciate the security provided by dependency.

Picking up a bottle of vodka and a lukewarm litre of lemonade, Sizwe took the elevator to the top of the roof. He thought it a novel place to pass out. Eventually he was joined by Mandla, friend of five years and also a top graduate.

“I don’t understand you man. Isn’t this all you’ve ever wanted these past few years? Look at us: top of our class four years straight, both our CV’s thick and polished, articles done and now internships with the best law firms in the country – what more could a guy want?” Mandla’s optimism made Sizwe slightly nauseous.

“I don’t know. It’s hard to explain but it just doesn’t feel as rewarding as I thought it would be”

Inhaling deeply on his cigarette, Mandla looked at the dark sky, cloaked in stars and tried to restrain his bewilderment,

“I’ve never heard you talk like this before”

Sizwe chewed on his thoughts for a moment and then,

“Something happened halfway during the degree…”

“Halfway?”

“Even before that honestly. Everything became dry and disappointing, you know? I go through days on campus or in the dorm always doing what needs to be done or at least what I’m told I should be doing”

“But you love the law?”

“Bullshit. You love the law; I just manage through it well enough. I don’t even know what I enjoy doing anymore. When I do have spare time I freak out, as in, what do I do with it? I feel like all I’ve become is an extension of my degree. And what’s really shit, really unbearable is that it won’t get better, nope, not if I continue where I’m going”

Unaccustomed to hearing Sizwe speak with emotions unrestrained, Mandla struggled to hear what he was actually saying and this forced him to question their friendship.

“I get it, you’re worried about the future, its making you question some important stuff and you’re stressed out but it’s not all work, work, work. There’s relief in times and nights like these.

Sizwe cynically chuckled, “this ain’t worth much” he said pointing down to the party below them.

“I mean yes, it feels good now but the night always ends. The bottles run empty and everyone leaves. Then you wake up knowing it’s all gone, not remembering most of what happened and those awesome feelings, physical feelings, that won’t ever come back. Now you gotta deal with all that’s being thrown at you, sober as a nun. There has to be more man, it can’t just be working our asses off, getting lit on weekends and sex with strangers”

“You’re being melodramatic. It isn’t just fucks with pretty strangers; there’s friends and family and –

“When and with what time? Our parents barely get time to see us, I mean they can’t even claim they raised us and who can blame them? It’s hard to keep it all together; if it isn’t putting food on the table it’s paying the rent or sorting out the mortgage or paying off school fees. And friends? We’re all gonna be too busy trying to make senior partner to give a shit about friendship. Besides the occasional dinner or night out, most of it won’t mean much” The air between them grew cold.

“Then why did you get into this stuff in the first place? No one is forcing you to be here”

“You know it isn’t that simple, people are gonna start relying on me. I had to follow the cash and maybe –maybe- I’d find ease knowing I was doing important work you know? But it isn’t anything special besides litigation for the rich”

“Well then what do you want? Not everyone’s cut out for the social justice gig – the world needs people like us and it just so happens that it pays really well. I don’t see what there is to complain about” Mandla’s frustrations made Sizwe feel small and his complaints childish.

“I don’t know what I want. I haven’t known in a long time and I’ve wasted so much. I don’t want to die having wasted all of this, being scared of so much”

Maybe he was being melodramatic and maybe what he felt and thought would pass along with the conclusion of this season of his life. Still those thoughts crept into his mind, devouring any and all optimism for the future and now hope too had become elusive, always annoyingly beyond his reach. 12 floors huh? That would get it done. The vision of his ideal self had become a dim childhood memory. Dreams of his future, prosperous and to be enjoyed with a content smile, had become irreversibly foggy blotches nearly beyond recognition.a

He needed to think, to suspend himself from reality and work out what had been possessing him for the past two years. Neither his parents had understand the depth and gravity of what he felt but they would think relaxing in Durban for a week or so would be a well-deserved break. They sensed his distress – it was in the blood shot eyes, the fidgety fingers and sweaty palm, the bouts of late night vomiting he thought they couldn’t hear and the complaints about his back or sudden migraines.

Driving from King Shaka Zulu International Airport, he was calmed by the distant sound of waves dancing on the shores and the smell of sea salt swimming in the air.

End of Part 1

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Marxism, Politics, Racism

Notes on Freedom Day: are we ready for the land?

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” – Audre Lorde 

Amidst all the lively debate and divisive discussion on the land issue, I can’t help but worry about certain things. When I question whether we are ready for “the land”, I’m not trying to have discussion about skills or education. The debate about whether black people have a principled right to reclaim land is to me also settled. For those expecting an article about black mediocrity and inefficiency, go somewhere else to validate your tired racism. It’s stunning that people think innovation and an industrialism only exist in the DNA of Europeans. Rather I’m concerned about something a little obscure but I think crucial to our future: the meaning of freedom to black people.

A revolution was postponed in 1994 and for many people of color, the evidence that their dreams of freedom are still nothing but dreams, surround them every single day. All of us are familiar with the picture of a white bakkie driver seated alone in the front of a car, while his labor sits outside scorched by the sun or bitten by cold wind. Standing in a que for a taxi in a suburb, the sight of white men or woman dropping of their maids after a day of work is nothing new or peculiar. I can’t recall how many time I’ve heard a white woman, not a day older than 30, call a black women two decades her senior by her first name.

23 years of democracy and such relationships are rarely questioned. And these experiences are not those of black people alone, many colored and Indian South Africans must go to work each day serving a community that does not consider them their equals. Servility and subjugation have been one of the core fabrics of black life for the past 200 years, but we all know it doesn’t have to be like this. Land redistribution is not simply about black people amassing wealth. The issue has great symbolic significance in that it represents black South Africans finally obtaining the means to self-determination.

The film Black Panther resonated so deeply with many black people around the world, because it was the expression of a vision that we have constantly failed to realize on the continent. In Wakanda black people shaped and molded their economy and social life according to their interests and needs. Having these powers, black people in Wakanda are truly free, not restricted by external actors and having the means to fulfill their dreams as a people. Unfortunately Black Panther is a science fiction movie very removed from the bleak and sometimes disillusioning reality black people find themselves in.

Freedom is a concept very hard talk about, and all the wrong people dirty the word too often with empty rhetoric and greedy intentions. I’m not a philosopher or political analyst, but I think we are falling into a trap as people of color, especially black South Africans.  Very few of us have yet to ask: what do we desire to be free from and what do we want to be free to do?

The first question is not difficult to answer. Black people know of the heavy chains that burden our bodies and minds. We know that a certain type of prison was abolished in 94, 23 years down the line we’ve discovered that it’s still the same penitentiary but the space within its walls are larger, and some of its guards our own people. People want freedom from their poverty and the conditions it creates, conditions that make it hard for a black child to love themselves, that make it even harder for a black parent to invest that child with a sense of self-worth. People know that they are suffocated by the lack of opportunity, their potential stifled by the impenetrable barriers that exist in the economy. Think for a moment of all the would-be scientists, engineers, poets and artists, professors and architects whose existence is erased because they do not have the freedom to pursue those dreams and make help their people.

Self-determination is only a tangible possibility for those who have power, be it social or economic etc. Power is the ability to effect change and outcome in the world, it implies autonomous control of one’s life. What would we do, as black people, if we were to amass power equivalent or greater than that of the white minority in this country? Is power alone enough to ensure freedom for all our people?

I don’t enjoy spending days or nights out in certain parts of KZN. I avoid places like Umhlanga, Ballito and certain parts of Musgrave or Hillcrest when I can. These are affluent areas with high-end restaurants, the most exquisite looking houses, the cleanest streets and full of private schools for the financial elite of this country. Besides the fact that it’s impossible to enjoy oneself in these places unless your bank card comes prepared, there’s a disturbing shift in the make-up of these areas. You can walk into any expensive restaurant and see capital debase other human beings, draining them of dignity – however the words which brutally patronize a black waiter working for minimum wage come from a black mouth. I don’t like these places because I have to witness black people debasing themselves – especially straight black men- by flaunting wealth to validate their worth as human beings.

I would argue that many have had a twisted view of what freedom is and the antics of the black middle and upper class are a display of this. For decades the apartheid system, its architects and lackey’s robbed black people of their dignity by locking generations of people into cycles of poverty. Now a small but gradually growing group of black people are finally able to access wealth, to accumulate ridiculous amounts of capital. People mistakenly think that having the wealth which white citizens have horded for all these years will satisfy the need for dignity which they have been denied. Look at what white folk did with the capital they obtained, it certainly didn’t make them the most moral of people. Yes they were and still are comfortable, but that comfort came at the price of their moral virtue as human beings.

It isn’t enough to have power; not all of us can have prosperity under the current economic set up, it requires class stratification, it depends on the vulnerability of the poor and expendability of the unemployed.  Capitalism is a game that we no longer can continue to play and capitalism with a black face is no different. Black madams are still madams; they are still people who exist in an exploitative relationship with another human being. We see the destruction it has unleashed on civilization and as Africans chasing liberation, the system is unsuited to our needs. If we were to get land back (power), the structure of our economy would need to change – and are the new elite amongst us willing to make the sacrifices such a change would require?

I remember the first time I read Steve Biko. His work released me from the anxiety and tension I’d experienced all my life over my blackness. The writings of people like Fanon, Biko, and Marcus Garvey are thrilling as they are enlightening because their insight is able to provide clarity on the existential issues one faces as a black person in the modern world. Re-reading the works of Pan-Africanists years later I could still deeply appreciate the analysis, although I left the pages feeling dissatisfied. The impression given by Pan-Africanist thought or the words spoken by politicians and SRC members who echo their philosophies, is that the struggle for self-determination is reserved for straight black men.

Prisons have been erected in our own communities. Black men who claim to fight for black freedom dismally fail to see the humanity in the black women and black queer folk they are supposedly struggling for. And so those seen as Other are ostracized, their needs neglected while they suffer oppression at the hands of their own people. The logic of white supremacy (dehumanization, segregation and exploitation) repeats itself as homophobia and misogyny. A divided society at war with itself will not be able to achieve anything substantial. If we are to finally achieve self-determination, we must accept that black people are not a monolith. Within our community there is an indescribable and beautiful variety of human life, it must be celebrated.

Total acceptance of the black community cannot just be heterosexuals and male feminists self-righteously patting themselves on the back for being woke. Like racism, homophobia and sexism persist not only in the actions of individuals, they flourish within institutions such as Model C Schools or the nuclear family. Freedom must translate into the abolishing of patriarchy and the poison it distributes in our society. The land cannot return and its power used to exact violence on the very people it must be useful to.

So much has not been said in this article, the issue is complex and it’s difficult to do it justice. We need to begin to start having conversations of what our society should look like in the near future. Chats about whether black folk can trust so weak a state and so corrupted a government to dedicate themselves to equitable land redistribution must occur. National talks and debates on whether liberal democracy should guide our path in the future are a necessity.

There are civilizations whose lives were thrown into chaos with the arrival of those Portuguese ships in 1652. What happened in the following centuries until now has been nothing short of moral disaster. Life was not perfect in Africa before colonization; black folk are not immune to the temptation of greed and the love of oppressive hierarchy. But our lives were our own. I think the battle for land is symbolic and existential. The struggle for self-determination demands that we as black people sit down with ourselves and each other, to begin asking what we for our lives.

We should not pursue what the western world has had; freedom must mean more than a few of us buying designer clothing and drinking expensive whiskey. I can’t imagine what freedom would look like for South Africa, our past is so distinctly defined by its absence – we must begin to change this.

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Marxism, Politics

The Moral Cowardice of the Middle Class and Rich in South Africa

“The life of a human being is worth a million times more than all the property of the richest man on earth” – Che Guevara

Being a university student in South Africa I’m not unaccustomed to or shocked by protests and strikes throughout the academic year. The solemn or celebratory struggles songs, the police and private security teams (who always seem to be looking for a fight), the long winded speeches bloated by rhetoric, the running crowds and sudden explosions of teargas. In first year protests seemed like an unnecessary inconvenience. Why did they need to be disruptive and disorderly? Time and exposure to the struggles of students and hard reflection on the socio-economic landscape of South Africa forced me to be more than sympathetic.

After some reflection, I began to be frustrated by students who could never stop sourly complaining about #FeesMustFall or #RhodesMustFall. Who moaned about wasting petrol getting to campus only to find out lectures had been cancelled or stirred unwarranted fear and paranoia about protesters being excessively violent on Whats App groups and Facebook statuses. If it isn’t unreasonable antagonism from such people then it’s indifference. What became clear to me was that anti-strike and anti-protests sentiments are often shared by the parents of these students. In 2018 there are still South Africans who condemn minors massacred by the police as “irrational” and “irresponsible”.

Initially I thought it was typical racism that is, unfortunately, to be expected from most white South Africans. I thought that the fear of angry black masses in song and dance was really that irrational fear of black people and their supposed natural inclination towards violence. But this is only part of the answer because there are Indian, colored and black people who frown at the poor and neglected of our country utilizing their right to expresses their political grievances. There are exceptions, but the commonality these groups share is their position as (lower and upper) middle class or rich.

It’s not a coincidence that the kids who shame “protest violence” own the latest IPhones, are alumni of former Model C or private schools and that their parents vote DA, live in suburban areas and enjoyed their time at #ZumaMustFall protests. How else do black or Indian South Africans, who have an almost intimate relationship with injustice, not want to support those fighting for progress and change on the ground? Because it is not within the interests of the wealth that they have accumulated and seek to protect.

For a society so regrettably unequal, so severely segregated along lines of class, we don’t like or seem unable to have thorough discussion on what being rich, poor or middle class means. And yet in our personal lives, what we earn or what wealth our families have accumulated (or not) is as impactful as our religious beliefs or gender orientation. This controversial label of class and the economic realities it tries to capture, influence and sometimes totally dictate our dietary preferences, the music we are exposed to and the social circles we run in, those we decided to date and marry, whether we’re likely to suffer from anxiety or depression.

It’s still important to remember that people do have agency with the intellectual and emotional mobility to live their lives how they see fit. I don’t want to make a vague monolith out of certain groups of people but there are trends and general patterns of behavior, alongside exceptions, and this is the focus of my discussion.

We rarely talk about class and the politics we have as individuals and communities as a result of it. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that majority of SA’s “upper classes” have a distorted and naïve understanding of how change happens in societies, but also the specific types of changes South Africa needs right now. It would also not be an exaggeration to say that the interests of the middle class are often in conflict with the interests of the poor in our current economic set up.

One could look back at the historical record of politics and conclude that change can occur through short term reforms or long-term radical alterations of the economy, government and even civic culture. The rich and middle class of South Africa are, understandably, naïve because we are conditioned to have faith in conventional politics. Action and change in the conventional politics of the status quo happen within the chambers of parliament and offices of the executive branch of government. The people speak through peaceful protests, votes, petitions or opinion pieces, the government eagerly listens and conducts rational debate or negotiation to get what is best for all citizens.

But there is more, our faith rests not only in government but should preferably rest in the free market. All of us across classes are compelled to foster a strong will, a creative spirit and original idea that will enable our success in the economy. This isn’t Stalin’s Russia or Verwoerd’s South Africa, this is Mandela’s rainbow nation where we all supposedly have equal opportunities to make something of ourselves. Never having to work for less than minimum wage, those living in suburbs or gated communities genuinely believe businesses will not exploit workers, that they will always sell products of a high quality, that they value their employees and don’t see them as expendable tools for profit-making who don’t deserve to work in clean and safe conditions.

The truth about government politics is that it’s motivated by power, securing power and accumulating power. This means debates will be heated and messy, and that negotiation with those who are political enemies will no doubt be difficult and at times impossible. I have my ideological disagreements with the Economic Freedom Fighters – their rhetoric which can foster deeper resentment amongst people and the subscription to an outdated socialism unsuited to our nation’s context. However their challenge to the ANC’s power and arrogance in parliament has been great for our country’s politics. Those who condemn the “rabble rousing” of the EFF in parliament fail to understand  that a party (the ANC) that has maintained such a strong majority for so long will not convinced or easily swayed by pretty speeches.

Access to the resources of government and the opportunities to engage with government are not available to all South Africans. The poor and working class are neglected, left to endure difficult lives in terrible conditions and when they express their dissatisfaction through conventional channels, government does not listen. Protests and strikes which become violent are authentic expressions of rage, rage over not having clean drinking water or electricity in your home for years, or the police unwilling to battle crime which terrorizes your community, or heads of corporations worth millions unwilling to give you decent compensation for the hard work you do– these are not flippant complaints, it sounds grandiose but this is about humans being able to lives of dignity and fulfill their basic needs and wants while doing so.

The middle/upper class of SA is unable to clearly see these realities, locked in private hospitals, high-end restaurants and cozy air-conditioned cars all that is seen is people demanding handouts from governments due to their laziness and unjustified anger. We are paying the price of segregation, unable to see what happens beyond our high walls and electric fences but also unwilling to reflect on why so many are poor and so few rich in the first place. And so the unity and solidarity needed to create mass movements which tackle poverty and inequality can never be created.

To be middle class or rich in this country is to be fooled into thinking that poverty can be solved with hard work by individuals, or massive donations to responsible charities or even just through good education. Inequality, crime, rape and sexual assault – these are not random hiccups or blunders of an overall healthy nation, but deeper problems with the structure of our economy, our policing and correctional services and the way men see themselves in our society. Millions falling into unemployment and millions more unable to climb out of poverty will not be changed by reform, they require radical solutions because they are radical problems.

Unfortunately radicals and radicalism are dirty words in the circles of the middle/upper class. If you live in a political Disney world, where government and market work for all, then radicals are to be silenced and radical thought debunked for the dangers it poses. It seems that the word radical conjures up images of rabid communists and bloodthirsty Pan-Africanists who will steal one’s property and drive white people into the sea. These stereotypes and tropes are alien to the truth.

Radicalism, of the political right and left, of Christianity and Islam, is born out of a sense of urgency, desperation coupled with viewing societal issues through larger lenses of analysis which get sight of problems on a grand scale. Because the problems are huge, what can be lost or won in political movements is incredibly impactful from this perspective. Such struggles will then require long-term solutions that are as equally impactful. Many radicals agree about the problems faced by modern society, however there is quick disagreement as to the actual roots of the problem and the needed solutions.

The middle/upper class disappoints, being lovers of law and order, not wanting to hear anything about change. It’s rare that those who live in great comfort will be actively critical of the very structures which provide them comfort. More than biting the hand which supposedly feeds you, the love of law and order is really a cherishing of the security and stability which allow people to continue accumulating wealth. Mass-movements willing to use non-lethal violence and stand up to the police are a threat to the daily functions of commerce and industry. Sometimes property is damaged and government or usually a private entities will lose millions.

The general public is quick to shame such protest action, ignorant about what exactly is being fought for and mentally manipulated by an economic system that teaches us to value expendable products and lifeless property over the protection of human dignity and the pursuit of prosperity for all. The complacent and comfortable do not see history for what it is: ordinary people fighting to enhance freedom and secure rights. People willing to cause trouble and disorder, eager to disobey unjust laws and clash with the state using their bodies, minds and skills. Why? Certain circumstances demand radical thought and radical action. Not everyone has to be in the streets. Activism can also include service to those most vulnerable in one’s community and dissent can be expressed through images on a screen or painted pictures on a canvass.

This discussion cannot avoid the race and its interactions with class. The face of wealth in SA and all the poisoned goods it represents, is white. The paranoia and unreasonable terror some white citizens feel when talking about “reverse racism” and the myth of white genocide, reveal the material concerns of white South Africa. Justice for people of color at the very least would mean a major redistribution of wealth, and this seems to be a direct threat to the livelihood of white citizens. Firstly – why white people want to latch on to wealth illegitimately gained at the expense of black lives and labor is beyond me – one wouldn’t want to keep a stolen car or a house acquired through murder – white wealth is morally tainted in the same manner. Secondly white people need to understand that government will always have an obligation towards them, as citizens of the republic and a minority (albeit an empowered one). Any redistributive program will take their interests into consideration to some extent (this doesn’t mean cases of settler flight or eviction like Zimbabwe are not totally justified).

The problems we face as a country are historic and structural. Colonization, war, Apartheid and a “liberation” government which continually betrays its people are taking a toll on all of our lives. There have been significant improvements and those must be acknowledged. However there is great work ahead, work that requires solidarity and substantive unity amongst citizens. Those of us fortunate enough to observe the poor and working class battle for their lives must recognize how our gains are often ill-gotten, on the backs of those exploited and abused. We must recognize that movements for justice, social and economic, seek to better all our lives collectively.

The attempts to delegitimize the struggles of the poor and villainize their leaders are attempts to hold back other South Africans, South Africans who merely want and rightly deserve the best opportunities for their lives.

 

 

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Politics, Racism

The lie of white victimhood in South Africa

“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” James Baldwin

The conversations we have around race, especially those had by white South Africans, reveal how much work has to be done to release ourselves from Apartheid’s mental conditioning. I often wonder what intentions creep behind the words “love” and “unity” when uttered by white folks. Why are white citizens so eager to abandon discourse regarding the past? They plea and passionately beg non-white South Africans to look beyond race and see the common humanity in all of us.

Love, unity and the transcendence of race – the pursuit of these ideals is very admirable if not slightly naïve; however I have learnt not dispense trust in words but to scrutinize the sincerity of the actions which follow. Most white South Africans, in their individual and collective action, display a shallow understanding and therefore a weak commitment to the ideals mentioned above.

History has not been kind to most within this country. The violence, conflict and chaos of the past continue to reverberate in the realities of the present with immense force. History bleeds with this country’s pain and it isn’t easy to look back at what was, but confrontation with history is crucial in order to understand what is. Black Monday, Red October, Zuma Must Fall protests, the antics of AfriForum are grand and infuriating displays of exactly how deeply deluded people can become if they choose not to see the past for what it actually is.

Black Monday could have been about this nation’s dire problem with murder but it devolved into something else. . The nationwide protests became an opportunity to spread a dangerous and false narrative centered on white victimhood. No citizen awake to the depressing socio-economic realities in this country can doubt that we have a grave problem with murder and numerous forms of violence. Violence is a collective nightmare for South Africans. However, divisions and inequalities, both economic and social, render violence a more vivid reality and a more urgent issue for certain groups – primarily the black and the poor. Whereas the middle class usually has the financial agency and legal power to defend themselves against violence, if not, at least maybe obtain a sense of retribution.

White South Africans live at such a social and psychological distance from the rest of the population, that they are able to genuinely perceive themselves as victims of some genocidal conspiracy. The past 23 years should have been time spent by white SA to critically reflect on what it meant for them to be so intensely isolated from their countrymen for so long, before Apartheid and during it. Questions should have been raised. Questions examining what it means to be a colonial settler population. Questions needed to be asked regarding what the Dutch and the British came to do in this land. Have white South Africans really asked themselves why they consider themselves white and what road led them to this conclusion?

Very little of the above occurred and majority of white citizens indulge ignorance and indifference, now and then engaging in spectacles of outrage against that which concerns their particular interests. I do sympathize with those brutally murdered on farms, black and white victims. My sympathy is paralyzed by attempts to distort facts and pervert truth. There is no agenda, within government or amongst the black civilian population, to persecute white South Africans. There is bitterness and there is resentment but how could there not be?   A crime, sanctioned and implemented by the state with the cooperation of the white populace, was committed and people of color have not been granted the justice they rightfully deserve.

What does exist is a growing awakening amongst black folk, that there was a betrayal of the black population’s trust by the ANC in 1994 and strong resistance from white South Africa (government, civilians and capital) to the collapse of the Apartheid regime. The collision of these forces produced a compromise which has denied non-white South Africans, mostly black, substantive freedom. Our legislation grants all citizens rights and liberties but the deals made in the early 90’s have resulted in people not having the means to utilize those rights in pursuit of well-being.

A profound dissatisfaction and frustration is rising amongst black folk and some are realizing that redress is needed through large-scale and long-term economic policies which rightfully redistribute the wealth and resources wrongfully denied to black citizens for so long. There are even demands for our whole economic structure to be revised and I share the sentiment that there can be no substantive liberation for South Africans in a capitalist economy.

An alienated white SA is one which stands as an obstacle to progress for all in this country. Proposals for free tertiary education, increasing the minimum wage, land redistribution or a universal basic income, are met not with reasoned consideration but outrage and condescension from white folk, who make up majority of our middle/upper class.  The alienation, which is really the absence from this country’s reality, is exacerbated by the dominance of neoliberal ideology in white SA.  There is an embrace of capitalism’s ethos in the white population and its popularity rests in its inability to question the economic framework of South Africa, which leaves so many black folk disenfranchised.

If taxation truly is theft and if prosperity is to be unlocked solely through hard work, then policies which attempt to redress the past are to be condemned because all they do is scare investors and hand things out for free. In the minds of white SA, the maintaining of their wealth is not only morally sound but economically reasonable. And so calls for unity, like those on #BlackMonday, are to be questioned. Unity on whose terms and against what? Rarely does it seem to be unity against issues faced by the rest of the population.

Attempting to believe in the possibility of love, not as merely an ecstatic feeling but as the construction, maintenance and then enjoyment of a kind-hearted connection between human beings, seems to be idealistic in our current circumstances. Love then, as defined above, would require knowledge, respect, patience and understanding but how is this to be achieved, if we, black and white citizens, stand at such a great distance from each other? How can anyone claim to love those whose culture, language, history and heritage appear as a mystery to them?

The shameless waving of the Apartheid flag left me and most of the country shocked. Black folk were infuriated by the boldness of the act and liberal whites disappointed if not embarrassed. Such acts should undoubtedly be condemned, not just by individuals but by the law. We must not be surprised when the narrative of white victimhood unravels towards its logical conclusion. A fear resides within some white citizens, irrational but brewing in its intensity and the old regime’s flag represents a time when total power imbued whites with a confidence in their identity, an identity which is defined by a claim to superiority. People of color have always seen through the supposed infallibility of whiteness and it is time white South Africans do the same.

If history is seen as inconsequential events forever suspended in the past, then white alienation will persist. But if history is faced and understood as an indomitable force which shapes the conditions of the present, then the present can be guided, through our choices and actions –collectively and as individuals, towards progress for all.

And a final word for white South Africans: The privileges you enjoy and tightly latch on to are real and have come at the expense millions throughout our shared history. Black maids and miners, colored slaves in the Cape, indentured laborers from India – blood has been shed, families ruined and cultures wrecked to ensure your prosperity; why do you insist on denying your past? If there are those of you who really want to render race meaningless and produce a society where all are judged only on the content of their character, then contribute towards the eradication of the mentalities and economic conditions which make my blackness matter in the first place.

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Feminism

Manhood in South Africa: a myth and prison

When closely observing the cultural landscape of our country and its history, a terrain coated in blood and a history scarred by violence, I can’t help but be grateful that I am not a woman. I am grateful not because woman are inferior, inherently submissive, intellectually incapable or infantile. I am grateful because many men in this country – black and white, Christian and Muslim, poor and rich- not only believe women are what I have described above but use their perverse power to try and shape reality to reflect these dangerous beliefs.

When our reality, which undoubtedly proves women to be our equals, cannot be reconciled with the myth of our superiority, a violence is unleashed upon women. This violence is not only physical, it is psychological and economic but crucially it is systemic; contaminating and corroding all spheres of our lives. What I’ve learned only recently is that patriarchy is a disease that causes all of us to suffer, men, women and all those along the spectrum of gender, and this realization dispels my initial gratitude, turning ignorant relief into anxiety.

I can hear them already, frustrated by these accusations; “not all men are trash!” Our infatuation with individualism distorts our vision of how society works and it pushes us into reaching conclusions which are costing women their lives and costing us as men, our psychological stability and our moral integrity. The common mistake is to see racism, sexism or homophobia as problems of a deformed individual mindset, which only needs adjustment through punishment or “discourse”. But we see these issues unfolding all around us on a daily basis. South Africans are uncomfortably acquainted with these toxic mentalities and so we must ask what systems produce the corrective rapist or the Penny Sparrow – who are not the exception but the daily state of affairs, they are not evil but merely the most vulgar expressions of the fabric our society is composed of.  As people we do not exist in isolation from the world around us; we exist in a series of cultural networks – the church, the nuclear family, the private school – which persistently leave deep imprints on the tissue of our minds.

However forget the existence of these networks and so as men, we fail to ask ourselves exactly why there is rape, murder, battery, neglect and ridicule those we ironically call sister, wife and mother? The obligations these names demand are not fulfilled; obligations of mutual respect and care, but instead they are violated, often without shame or an empathetic second thought. I look for answers within myself and the world around me, asking what it means to be a man and a sad realization creeps upon me: manhood, in its current manifestation, is both a myth and a prison. The male species is a biological fact which is defined by a certain physiology and chemical composition. However the male’s masculinity, like the European and their whiteness, are an invention of the powerful to justify persecution of the weak. Weakness here does not mean lack of capacity or strength but rather the diluting of one’s agency due to the oppressive material and social conditions of the world around them.

Manhood can be seen as a series of high expectations placed upon males. The blind pursuit of them is dangerous, I’d even say fatal in many instances. The danger is in the fall from these unattainable ideals. Notions of infallible authority, entitlement, strength and heterosexuality as obligation stand far up in the sky, so distant from our lived realities, and they are as hallow as the clouds over our heads.

An unlucky few manage, no doubt at the expense of women and their dignity, to reach these ideals. But no one can live, relatively happy and content, if the foundation of their identity; which is tied to how they see themselves and the world and what they hold to be true in the world, is based on elaborate lies. Masculinity is fragile because its pillars are as shapeless and intangible as the air we breathe.

#MenAreTrash is not an attack on men by foolish feminists whose anger is misdirected and illegitimate. The anger of women, specifically black women, is not only understandable but justified and necessary for their struggle which cannot be severed from our collective struggle as South Africans. The hashtag highlighted a simple truth tremendously hard to swallow: if male domination orchestrates the arrangement of society, then what that society produces – including its people – will retain in varying degrees, qualities and elements which propel and perpetuate male domination. The pillars of patriarchy –sexism, misogyny and heterosexism- dictate our spiritual beliefs, the structure of our families, the images we see on television, our tastes in clothing, our supposedly “biological” sexual preferences, the images in the media, which are never just shallow entertainment but potent pictures which pierce into our minds and intoxicate our impressions of the world.

I am trash, all men are trash, not because we’re inherently bad people but because the makeup of our psyches has wired us to not think of women as our equals and in some instances, to hate them for trying to aspire towards substantive equality.

Patriarchy cannot be escaped but only confronted, understood and then destroyed. So long as we continue to indulge in our delusions as men, patriarchy will thrive and women will continue suffering. Let’s not get it twisted though, we are not the gatekeepers to their liberation, this pursuit of freedom is collective and it frees us all when achieved. This task does not only occur in the social realm of values, morals and cultural ideals but it also in the economic arena. Some would say the issue is primarily economic, this is a debate for another day but what is clear is that cycles of poverty, increasing rates of inequality and relentless exploitation – the offspring of capitalism –   are entangled with the issue of patriarchy.

“Painting men with the same brush only creates division!” this is a sneaky attempt to protect the feelings of men, specifically the “nice guys” who think they are exempt from patriarchy’s influence. “Would you call your father or uncle trash?!?” An attempt to silence women through emotional guilt tripping and appeals to patriarchal figures, proving exactly why this conversation is necessary.  This cognitive dissonance is displayed even by men who have the best intentions or the “comrades” who master Marx and Fanon but swerve Audre Lord. It reveals that the expansion of your social consciousness requires not just theory and knowledge but the emotional capacity and imagination to endure a kind of surgery. Your mind is the object of examination; riddled with cancerous beliefs and ideas which must be removed. Here there is no aesthetic, we cannot succumb to cowardice and numb ourselves to the “evil” in the world. This surgical procedure is like a torturous revelation, an intense and uncomfortable awakening to the truth of our societies – I think it’s about seeing the world as it is, beautiful but mostly repulsive, and realizing your stake in the bad of the world and beginning to take responsibility for it.

And what do I mean by myths? They are the stories we tell to paint a particular picture of the world. Myths regarding men and women or straights and gays however are not like the stories told to children by elders around the fire. The former are stories immersed in systems and networks of power, told not by the caring elderly but by the self-interested who seek not to comfort us but to shape society in their image, and bend the matter of our minds to serve their interests. Whether its rich pastors preaching prosperity to the desperate poor or Model C school teachers reminding us how important it is to be a Lady; this storytelling is all around us. These fabrications are in the end nothing but fabrications and are only made real, tangible in the material world, through our collective belief in them as society.

Disbelief in myths disturb the networks and systems of power and will often lead to persecution. Lesbians are some of the bravest people in our society because their very identity is in direct opposition to the goals of male domination. Their sexuality rejects the myth that all women are destined to love a man and that this destiny ( usually viewed as biological “imperative”) means men are entitled not only to their love but their bodies, which are never their own. Even worse, lesbians will not bare a man’s child and so her purpose as mother, as builder of his household and as the avenue through which his name continues – is abandoned. Corrective rape is the punishment for such bold defiance.

Myths often endow the privileged with a distorted and dangerous sense of entitlement. It’s hard to look at another human being, to see their eyes alive with color and feel the veins beneath their skin or touch the flesh around their bones, knowing very well that blood flows through them as it does through you. How can one bear witness to another person’s sadness, relief or joy – which mirrors your experience – and then proceed to violate their dignity? The human must be reduced to an object to justify oppression; it’s an obvious lie but in the context of our discussion, it helps men sleep at night. The women is shrunk and flattened, devoid of depth and valuable substance. She is useful only as the communal property of men.

Our entitlement is evident when we make supposedly innocent rape jokes or when the “nice guys” on campus touch their female friends without consent. At house parties, clubs and braais we see it all the time; the subtle and sometimes overt ass grab. The frustration guys express when rejected by a woman after you buy her a drink and maybe dinner. Apparently sex and intimacy is of equal value to food and booze. Let’s not forget the helicopter boyfriends who are forever stressing about the whereabouts of their girlfriends. Her time and her energy, in his mind, are not her own to spend however she sees fit. It gets worse, there are degrees to misogyny and sexism. Husbands who demand sex, taught that the sexual satisfaction of a husband is a wife’s duty, her opinion secondary in the matter. Old men whose wealth debases their empathy, not seeing young girl’s hungry, desperate will broken, but a “women” to be used and then thrown aside. Uncles, fathers, brothers who would rather beat human skin purple and blue instead of allowing a woman to leave the house unaccompanied.

The lie of manhood deforms the better parts of ourselves, suppressing our ability to care, to carefully listen and be empathetic. It summons the disgusting elements of our nature, turning us into predators, exploiters and enablers. The prison is erected and its walls fortified by our unwillingness to not be men. When being a man means irrational entitlement to women’s bodies or the idolizing of violence, why would we want to embrace this identity?

Calls for the destruction of masculinity alongside gender are, to me, shallow radicalism, both idealistic and therefore impractical. The locus of oppression is not gender but the form gender takes when expressed and the restrictions placed on it in our societies. The pillars of manhood in SA – mandatory straightness, affection for violence, the need to always be strong and have authority over others – are in menacing cooperation with the economic conditions and this, partly, produces the masculinity we see today.  Recognizing the existence of patriarchy, its verve and ferocity, and our complicity in its continuation is the first step. But wallowing in guilt or the performance of self-degradation is not enough. Obliterating the economic conditions which sustain patriarchy is definitely a long term goal but what can be done, every day, is the attempt to attack these pillars. What will men look like in 30 or 50 years? I don’t know but hopefully their masculinity will wipe away the fear and anxiety in the heart of women whether walking alone late at night, requesting a raise at work, raising a daughter or trying to love another women.

 

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Uncategorized

Are Your Dating Preferences Racist? – On the Subjectivity of Desire

Vernac News

Andile Zulu

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”

The saying is usually used to rightly denounce anyone claiming that something or someone is objectively attractive. The phrase highlights the subjectivity of desire –  that what turns us on, what we sexually crave and romantically long for not only differs from one person to another, but is also shaped by the specificities of who and what we are.  

Rarely do we seriously investigate what forms the eye of the beholder, or better, what world forms the beholder. We seem to take the composition of our desires to be coincidental. But it isn’t a coincidence that incest porn or porn consisting of buff black men and pretty petite white women is immensely popular on the internet. Nor is it a coincidence that many white people swerve people of color on dating apps like Tinder and Grinder. It certainly isn’t…

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Feminism, Politics, South Africa

Zodwa Wabantu: Organic Feminism’s “F*ck You!” To The Male Gaze

“Women who love themselves are threatening; but men who love real women, more so” – Naomi Wolf

My initial reaction to Zodwa Wabantu, her being a major persona in Mzanzi’s black popular culture, was disbelief and shock. How could she display so much of herself, in such a sternly prudish society and never seem to doubt her actions or fear what others would say? As I watched more of her electrifying performances and began to look past the public outrage, the cold-hearted slut shaming and the polarizing choruses of praise, I noticed that ultimately she is having fun, in other words, authentically living her best life.

Zodwa’s courageous nudity, her unapologetic shrugs at conservative demands for modesty and her total disinterest for hypercritical public opinion, are a confident middle finger to the male gaze, which is the bedrock of respectability politics in black communities, and a much needed display of organic feminism similar to the female empowerment embodied by the likes of Brenda Fassie.

“What? Isn’t she just a money-hungry attention seeker? This sounds like some liberal BS. How does her public indecency change anything for women?”  If we forget to closely survey the historical and current social context in which Zodwa exists, we may end up reducing her actions to lucrative entertainment or even worse, shocking actions for the mere sake of shock value.

“Hhaibo! Bazothini abantu?” (Translated to English: what will other people say?). The question is loaded and many are uncomfortably familiar with its power, as it lurks in the backs of our imaginations as we weigh up and compare what this or that action will be read to mean in the public eye. This question isn’t really a question but a compelling rhetorical warning that what people see and the conclusions they derive from their perception matters. The outward expression of our authentic selves in black communities is often shackled and sometimes totally caged by a hyper-awareness of society’s judgment. “Fuck the haters” and “YOLO” don’t always feel like adequate solutions to the issue because by judgment I’m not referring to gossip (although that can also have severe consequences).

I’m referring to the collective gazes in communities equipped with the power to judge who is deserving and undeserving of respect, and therefore be able to suspend a human’s dignity in public spaces, holding it hostage until tyrannical standards of respectability are met. The world is not viewed through one singular, pristinely clear lens by all those who inhabit it. It’s partly why proclamations about “not seeing race” are laughable if not childishly dishonest. I wish prejudice didn’t exist. A world governed by impartiality sounds ideal but currently the disparities in economic opportunities, social mobility and political currency mean relationships between people are often maligned by inequality. It’s naive to think that those who occupy positions of power in various institutions and social structures will see those who sit below them as their equals.

The male gaze is propped up and relentlessly fueled by the various inequalities which pervade relationships between men and women. I’m adopting a different definition of the term and not referring to the theory which explains how the objectification of women in cinema and television occurs. Rather I’m talking about what happens when a women, simply walking down a street, is stripped of dignity by the invading eyes and vulgar tongues of men, who grope with their pupils and violate with crude words.

Why are we so familiar with these incidents, to the point where they exist as the ordinary, mundane stuff of everyday? It’s too easy to forget the so called thots, sluts and hoes, who can be liberally used and re-used by  men, then callously tossed aside and alienated into a social wasteland, their worth to men irredeemably soiled by sex with “one-too-many guys”. To try and avoid complicity by cloaking our already crooked moral compasses in lazy claims of “not all men”, is unreasonable and dangerously irresponsible – the gaze we throw upon women must be openly criticized.

Women sit as both sexual object and helpless infant in the twisted imagination of too many men. A culture has been sustained where a woman’s body, in fact the entirety of her Self, is figured to be the collective property of men. Rarely is a women, in our eyes, totally her own. Forever and always her value is tightly bound to her relation with men. Notice how the rallying war cries for men to battle against domestic abuse and sexual assault are centered on the protection of our sisters, aunts and mothers but not the unconditional cherishing of human beings. Men cannot move into action it seems until there is an appeal to our self-appointment as the protectors and custodians of women.

Following the crooked logic of the masculine gaze, because women are the delicate extensions of ourselves, their worth is rarely theirs to control and always ours to dictate. A woman’s fertility, her virginity, the shape and form of her body, the modesty of her dress – all of this and much more compounds to determine how much respect is awarded to her.  Reduced to sexual objects and children, the sovereignty women rightly have over their bodies and the choices they make, are often not respected by men.

How is this digested, regurgitated and redistributed by society at large and even women themselves? It isn’t uncommon for women to slut shame each other. The matriarchs in black families are usually pivotal to the maintenance of an aura of respectability for their nieces and daughters, through virginal testing or the vilifying of promiscuity. The church, traditional leadership, the family and media exist as indoctrinates of morality and producers of social culture. With Sunday sermons, traditional rituals and soapies we are taught to adopt metrics for unfair evaluation of a human’s respectability.

What is deliberately overlooked is that the executive realms of these institutions are dominated by men, who reproduce their gaze to fashion the staple values of such structures. Respect for an individuals dignity, in part, encompasses a thorough understanding and sincere belief that what an individual chooses to do with their body, so long as it does not harm others, should not be the concern or worry of anyone but themselves. This principle is rarely adhered to in our communities and is often actively undermined by the interests of men to see women primarily as things that serve their “need” for sexual gratification. It is then totally obliterated by women who act as agents of the male gaze, using the Bible or appeals to civility to cement the idea that basic human dignity and respect is conditional, based on ideal virtues such as modesty,  when it is in fact fashioned and tailored by the hands and hammers of power.

Zodwa Wabantu has never publicly labelled herself a feminist or associated with activists and public intellectuals of the movement. She does not quote Bell Hooks in interviews or take photos of herself on Instagram enjoying Sunday brunch with a copy of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Yet without complex theory and academic jargon, her struggle through and rise from poverty alongside her unrepentant celebration of her body, not for anyone but herself,  she is walking manifestation of what many women around the world have struggled for – she echoes the philosophies of feminist thinkers in her performances and public appearances.

Of course her story is the story of many women in South Africa, who seize their lives and bodies as their own from the grips of the male gaze because the economic, social and political conditions of our society make feminism more than a theory or academic study but a intuitive and inevitable development. Sadly majority of women in this country cannot secure the wealth and popularity that allows Zodwa the platforms to challenge and astonish. The material circumstances of women’s lives results in a reality where women are brutally killed, assaulted and abused for refusing to be the property and infants of men. The battle for women’s liberation has always been and will continue to be one that facilitates attempts to eradicate poverty and drastically reduce inequality.

“Women said‚ ‘sisi‚ you are inspiring us to love our meat and to be proud of our shapes and everything else. I belong to them” – Zodwa’s commentsunnamed

after the reactions to her choice of dress at this years Durban July. Zodwa renders the male gaze lukewarm in its power, no longer looking towards the approval of those who seek to make her their own and instead makes some of us uncomfortable, forcing us to question why we care so intensely about what a women chooses to wear.  One can never ask for respect from those who oppress, it must be taken but I do hope that men begin to look inwards and realize the damage done by our overbearing eyes and brutal words.

 

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