The great coloured fallacy

This is a black conversation.

Repeat something often enough and it becomes real. We become habituated to what we are told we are. In their obsessive need to categorise and control, the colonial and apartheid administrators differentiated between white settlers, people of Indian descent, Africans of ‘bantu extraction’ and then the hugely heterogenous other. This last group became a potpourri of people constituted by groups formally known as Indonesian and Malaysian enslaved descendants, Khoikhoi, San, Griqua, and descendants of people of ‘bi-racial’ extraction among others that didn’t fit the script of the grand race lie. So a Mpondo person whose great grandfather may have been a European shipwreck castaway but who was raised Mpondo, would be labelled coloured. An isiZulu speaking person from a KwaZulu-Natal north coast hamlet whose father was Indian but who was raised Zulu by her Zulu mother and family on a sugarcane plantation would be called coloured. This label requires forgetting and surrender to the great scheme and crime of colonial amnesia. All traces of Malaysian descent or ones lived reality as Pedi must be jettisoned in order to fit the homogeneous narrative of this place called South Africa.

In truth, most people in Southern Africa have a trace of elsewhere in their blood. But because of Afrikaner anxieties about their own mixed heritage, we were trained to valorise purity and to be suspicious of complexity. What does a pure coloured look like? What does it mean to be 100% Zulu or Tswana? Is the person of Indian descent flatly Indian after more than a century in Africa? The coloured label flattens out, divides and alienates. Sure enough, there are people who want to be called coloured. It has been their reality for too long and they have developed a culture around this nexus of identification. Many of these have been raised in the coloured ghetto. Cape Town may be the most representative of this experience. But it is not everyone’s experience. In fact, this may not be most peoples experience. What does it mean to deprive people complexity?

Tshepo Madlingozi recently suggested that all blacks including those called coloured were black Africans. He simultaneously remarked on the nonsensical label of ‘black African’. After all, why should Africans qualify their African-ness with ‘black’? In response, some ‘black Africans’ challenged this inclusion of coloured people as black African. They asserted that many coloured people that they knew did not want to be called black because coloured identification resonated most with their experience. Some said coloured people had internalised racism and hated the blackness inside of them and in others. While all of this may no doubt be true, it is not the whole story. The fuller story has many shades to it and a blanket naming and generalisation falls foul to ‘the danger of a single story’. So what should be done with this conundrum? To begin with, gender and sexuality politics have taught us the value of self-naming and the productivity of fluidity.

I am black.

But every once in a while, someone asks – “what are you?” This is a big – small question. The response could of course be long but I keep it short. “I am black”. For me, black is open, embracing, fierce, historical, nuanced, wounded, proud, vulnerable and lived. Black is open, knowing and inviting. Most people accept this response but the race police who believe in certainty and purity are sceptical. I don’t care. I know my experience more than anyone else. My blackness does not delegitimate the experience and identifications of those who want to be called coloured, Indian or Khoikhoi. They are who they say they are. Given the inexact nature of race and the contingency of identity, people might change the way they see themselves over time. And we should be open to this. Identity policing is a colonial artefact that some woke people have come to embrace wholeheartedly. Some call this embrace of the colonial – ‘coloniality’. The colonial hangover. Or the ongoing internalisation and practise of colonial values.

I generally prefer to keep away from the coloured conversation. It is fraught. The coloured identity activists and the black purists are tiring. They share an obsession with exactness and identity boxes. They have no patience for fluidity and paradox. They flatten experience and see history as a straight line. They foreclose possibilities of solidarity, relation and class consciousness. And so we can have ‘race’ wars between two impoverished communities who could better advance their cause through solidarity. In the same vein, my reading of Shireen Hassim’s latest book illustrates that we are ready to deny the seminal contributions of people like Fatima Meer to black studies because she does not fit our narrow conceptions of blackness and because some people of Indian descent are racist. Walter Sisulu is considered a great black South African. We do not split hairs about his blackness. But what would we see if we did? Writing about Frieda Mathews (partner to ZK Mathews of Fort Hare University) in the 1950s, Noni Jabavu observes that “her generation and branch of the family were partly English and Scotts; but Xhosa people have no complex about ‘miscegenation’”. Would this be true in 2019? Do we have a complex now?

I am not a race abolitionist or denialist. I am also not a rainbow nationalist. We have to do the work necessary to get out of the melancholic rut of race. We can’t do that by abolishing race. But like Zimitri Erasmus, we can certainly work to expose its lie.

There was no coloured person in southern Africa until colonial administrators decided there was. With this in mind, I end with some questions that might or might not be useful. What was lost in this naming and what was gained? By whom? How much longer do we hold on? What would decolonisation look like for how people identify? What are the implications of this for the categories presented in the census, employment equity forms, employment contracts, and the attendant discriminations and stereotyping? What happens when we assume that the person from Mannenberg, Kuruman, Mandeni and Flagstaff share the same experience and identity? What are we afraid of?

Afterword: There are paradoxes in this piece. I contradict myself because this shit is complex. Sometimes, I police identity. I too am a product of this place. But we can do better.

Hugokacanham

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Exchanging black excellence for failure

The black excellence mantra is a trap. It imprisons subscribers within the fallacy of perfection. It expects nothing but socially sanctioned success. Black excellence shames those who do not have the ‘goods’ to live into the mantra. It kills middle class empathy for the other. It is almost single-mindedly self-interested.

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Like the next person, I am happy for those who excel. And because of the low expectations cast on black people in a white world, I am especially pleased when black people beat others at their ‘own’ game. However, I cannot help but cringe at the hash tags when black people excel at sports, academia, business, art and in other spheres of life where they were historically expected to fail. These hash tags valorize a very limited range of activities and invisibilise everyday successes that carry very different meanings to people. They are distinctly middle class and therefore blind to the everyday struggles and triumphs of the working class and rural people. And no, I am not suffering from hash tag envy.

 

Most middle class black South Africans are first generation middle class. This does not include the Sisulu’s, Tambo’s, Vundla’s, Motsepe’s and Nxasana’s among others. But us ordinary Mary Jane’s and Themba’s are recent arrivals. The effect of the black excellence mantra is that it dulls us. It deprives us from experimentation and error. From the bittersweet learnings of failure. It makes us carry the burden of not only our families and communities but also the black race. We have less fun than our parents when they were our age. We become representations, signifies and metaphors. Evacuated of the vibrancy of life. We model hard work and what is possible. We are examples. We dare not fail for all hope is heaped on our weary shoulders. We cannot prove our racist naysayers right. And so we must succeed at all costs. We choreograph where we are seen and whom we are seen with. The food and drinks in our pictures must signal our success and by extension our excellence. Our morning runs and breakfast strawberries must be broadcast on apps. Our clothing and cars are not mere means of adornment and transportation but tropes that stand in for. They are representations. Our body shape and weight have become gestures and extensions. They are not lived in. Shells with beautiful echoes and scents. Shrines to excellence. Archived on Instagram. A friend once jokingly told me that his body of work could be found on his Instagram account. That will be his legacy to the world. A clean and empty contoured beauty.

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Tired are being told that we stink, we do not embrace the funk and we are embarrassed by error and fatigue. The pressure leads to misrepresentation, debilitating caution and psychological collapse. There is nothing heady about black excellence. Ask Tiger Woods. The crash burns. Serena Williams has to sit with the heft of black expectation and the fear of defeat. Even when defeat must surely come in any sport. She must be the edifice to black excellence. Always. I’d rather be Venus. The cumulative burden of black excellence is a choking Albatross that leaves us unable to breathe. Some of those who labour under the burden of heteronormativity or patriarchy will tell you of the wrist cutting and death fantasies because the cost is too high. Likewise the burden of black excellence. In its daily practice, the number of likes on social media chalks up the calculus of black excellence. It elevates us to what I heard Hlonipha Mokoena refer to as slashers.  Influencer/entrepreneur/public figure/occasional model/motivational speaker/. An empty list of signifiers. And people pay for this. We are approached by advertisers to promote commodities on our social media platforms if we are ‘liked’ and ‘shared’ enough. Clothing lines, moisturizers, weight loss products, whisky, cars. Here then, black excellence becomes a billboard for capital and commodification. It is unattainable by those squeezed by the economic crunch and hemmed in by their class position. Those not represented by the hash tags.

 

I have seen the drive for black excellence break people and turn those that I had thought were fun people into ogres. This is the burden of internalizing the black excellence mantra. Disciples of black excellence work to grow their number and attempt to convert us all. High expectations. ‘Do more than everyone. Shine. Do it for the black child.’ Those so driven, forget to laugh. We remember the abandonment with which they laughed before they began drinking at the trough of black excellence and taking themselves too seriously. Having lived long enough to see these transitions, I am afraid of the perverse effects of black excellence. I would rather be mediocre if it means I can love myself more without the paranoia that others are coming to snatch the representations and trinkets of black excellence from me. Because once attained, one has the mammoth task of maintaining black excellence. And we who attempt to live side by side with failure are seen as threats to those who streak ahead with multiple titles.

The treadmill of black excellence has no room for failure. It eschews failure.

Grace Musila talks about the need for creating space for failure in our lives. I desire permission to fail so that I can experiment, be lazy, and enjoy life a little more. The treadmill of black excellence has no room for failure. It eschews failure. And yet, failure gives us permission to love all of ourselves and to see the foibles in others as endearing. It makes us less afraid of what others will think. It enables us to break out from the prison of the fishbowl. As writers, it opens us up to try out new genres. As business people, it permits us to work with our passions. As children, we are freed to display our disdain for the bigotries of our parents but also demonstrate how much we love them and appreciate their sacrifices. As parents, embracing the possibilities of failure means that we can drop the mask of martyrdom. To each other, failure permits us to break with the pretense. As lovers, we might forgive each other more readily if the ideal couple on social media didn’t exist. Hash tag – bae goals. Even though we all know that our bae goals come to us through a filter at just the right angle and with the light just so. And even if the caption declares ‘no filter’.

 

There is success in failure. There is a mellowing out from slowing down to smell the coffee, the crap and the roses. Failure allows us to live in our bodies, not as the extensions of commodities but as ageing vessels for our pleasure and pain. The body as that thing within which our hearts beat and from which we attain untold pleasure. I was raised in a village where I watched people enjoy their bodies. The languorous walk without a care for the time. The non-event of stretch marks. The pleasure from eating amasi and carbohydrates. Umbona omtsha. The gentle roll of the run. The beating of the chest and the anguished cry. The proverbial dance like no one is watching. Of course the village is also the place of unspeakable anguish. But it reminds me of the lived in body that refuses or mocks representation through commodities.

 

The yolk of black excellence can be discarded if we allow ourselves to be more acquainted to the feeling of failure. I hated failing at school. My early life was characterized by repeated failure. I know the feeling of failure intimately. I was soaked in failure. This two-syllable word is my long-term friend. Knowing failure helped to keep me somewhat anchored to the knowledge that the world will not collapse if I let go. If I fall, it will not be into an abyss. I have to remind myself of this though. Living in this middle class vortex, I too am imprisoned by the fear of failure. Letting go fills me with terror. I am not immune to the demands and allure of black excellence. But knowing my discomfort with the headlights, I shrink back from being interpolated into the maelstrom of black excellence. The noose that is black excellence does not entirely debilitate me. By holding onto the knowledge of my discomfort, I am able to sometimes say ‘no’. Because saying no will save your life. It may slow down your career advancement but it will not really be career suicide. Saying yes and then laboring under the strain of too many yesses can lead to suicide. And suicide is the final way of saying no. We are not excellent when we say no to our families, our managers, lovers, and communities. But we are still black. Or human.

 

‘No’ is a kind of failure that buys us space and time. Failure is then a genre of self-care. Self-care is a kind of love. Slowing down, meandering, and changing our minds, makes life more forgiving and liveable.We feel the pleasure of small successes without the pressure to be the CEO, youngest professor, first doctor in the family, or the principal dancer of the company. We are better at it when we do it slower and when we dim the expectant gaze of success.

 

My sisters’ and brothers’ children

You do not know this, but many years ago, my favourite writer – James Baldwin, wrote a letter to his nephew. In the letter he assured his nephew of his love for him but he also articulated his fears for him. After all, he was being raised in a racist United States where the threat of death was/is ever present for black boys. I write to you under different circumstances. To assure you of my love but to tell you that I see you and I support you. I look forward to witnessing the beautiful life that I see before you.

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The 16 of you are of such disparate ages. The eldest is 20 and the youngest is learning to walk. It is not easy to speak across this age gulf. Five of you are in your adolescence years. This has caught us by surprise. You are where we were not so long ago. But how things have changed since then! We came of age when South Africa was in the throes of change. We were dealing with both bodily and political awakenings when we were your age. As you grapple with subject choices in high school, I think of my own struggles. When I dropped math and accounting, no one blinked an eyelid. As you know, mom (your gran) has a grade 8 education and she was just happy that I was passing and showing signs that I would complete school. Your parents care about your school subject choices. We discuss this endlessly on our Whatapp group. Like your gran did about us, we worry for you. We want the best for you and we cheer your successes. But gran taught us to mute our celebrations because she feared that they would be premature. I am a product of muted celebrations. My wish for you is loud and regular celebrations.

 

You have grown into beautiful young adults. You are certainly more beautiful than we were. Your beauty sometimes scares me. I wish I could protect you from those who prey on beautiful trusting smiles. Sometimes I pray that you do not stray too far from your parents and that your white lies are not as bad as mine were. I see the fear and pride speckled in your parents ageing faces. You have not given them cause to despair. Not yet. You are so different. Naïve, bold, insecure, trusting, afraid. We can’t do much about these traits. But know that your parents and I look on from a place of love and support. We see your insecurities but we want to walk with you and protect you as much we can. Talk to your parents. Talk to me about your fears. I live far away and I miss some of your milestones. I might even appear aloof and busy. But I have an open invitation to talk. You are in the midst of making career decisions. The fact that you come from a modest family lineage should not mean that you must contain your dreams. Stray far from what we have done. Walk away from the ashes of our dreams. You do not have to be a great soccer player because your dad should have been one. You do not need to be a social worker because your mom didn’t get the opportunity. And because none of grans’ children are medical doctors, this is not your burden. Try and change your mind if you must. We will be here.

 

But you know that you have no choice about school. It is a path that you have to travel. The world is tough. In some ways, tougher now than it was for us. It is more competitive. There are some things that are not optional. Finish school. Unlike our generation, university is compulsory. You know that I am not the smartest of grans’ children. But, if I could get a doctorate, you can get a bachelors’ degree. After that, it is free reign. You can then “do you boo.”

 

We are late bloomers, your parents and I. We didn’t rush anything. Perhaps, we are too cautious. We wait long. You can blame your gran for this. There is value in waiting though. There is always time. You can kiss as many people as you want. Just not yet. We don’t say this to kill your joy or because we are jealous of your beauty. Rather, we want you to kiss from a position of strength. Because people can be jerks, they sometimes don’t respond to calls after a kiss. But if you are on your way to being an industrial designer, architect, dancer, it is less devastating when they don’t call back. We want you to have children if you want to have children. But it is so much more joyful when you can provide for your children without asking your parents for money. We want to spare you the difficulty. Wait a bit. In a few years you will be done paying your dues.

 

Your aunts and uncles were once more beautiful than they are now. When your beauty begins to fade, my dream is that you will be a kickass writer or occupational therapist. Not an unhappy parent. Everything in good time.

 

But if you falter, send me a Whatapp. Buzz me. Tell your mom. Your dad. They are my siblings and I know that they love you. Their anger will be short-lived.

 

Alcohol is a family trap. It hooks us but does not get along with our blood. It has caused great unhappiness, poor health, and resulted in death. Come and see me about this story. I promise to talk frankly.

 

Ava and Cash, you are tiny now. You look so much like your parents. It is a joy to watch you muster the courage to walk and go to school. I remember my own distaste for walking. If I had my way, I would have stayed on grans’ back. I am sorry to see you go off to boarding school. I hated boarding school. But I know that your parents have no choice. I hope that it will not be too brutal and that like me, it will not break you. Perhaps, you will make lifelong friends with people who will love you like a sibling. Erin, your quiet confidence is something to behold. I wish I had been like you as a child. Khaya. Fox. Eth. Chuck, your father tears up at your sight. He is the proudest dad I know. “Isn’t my son beautiful”?

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To my tiny nieces and nephews, you are so lucky to have older cousins who will look out for you. I look at the family pictures and see how they cradle you.

 

Not all of you have active dads. As you know, we did not have a dad for long. Your grandfather died when we were young. But we turned out alright. You will be alright. Your uncles love you like you are our own children. Twenty five percent of your DNA is a match to ours. But even without the blood, you know we would love you. Right? I think of you often. I have an interest in your happiness and in your future. Know this. When you think I don’t care, challenge me to care. My care is my promise to you.

 

One of my great joys is that I can share my mother with you. Now, gran is a person to have in your corner. Talk to her. Learn her story. She is old and cannot carry you in her arms. But she is hilarious and loves you. I see how you look like her. Spend time with her like we spent time with our gran. You will learn a story that is yours but that predates your birth. You will come to understand your parents a bit more. I think you might even love yourself a little better.

 

We are not perfect, your parents and I. But we are here and we love you.

 

Your uncle, hugo

Nieces & Nephews

Coming out as…

Associate professor. Not as queer. I hope that all that I do is queer. I hope that this piece is queer. A week ago, I was appointed as an associate professor. It is awkward to share this news because there has to be a narcissistic element to the public sharing. Right? Kind of like Instagram. But I chose this medium to come out to my friends for reasons that I hope will soon become apparent.

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I have always been older than most people in the various cohorts to which I have belonged. I failed and repeated the first three grades of my schooling. In the 1980s, this was sub A, sub B, and standard one. My mother recalls that she and my uncle Harvey concluded that the last resort for my cousin and me (she also failed repeatedly) was prayer. At my farm school, there were no psychologists, speech pathologists (I had a childhood stammer), occupational therapists, or the rest of the battery or gaggle of professionals that are on the ready to diagnose young children these days. I spent six years doing and repeating grades that most children completed in half the time. My primary school was small. Grade three shared the same room and teacher with grade four. Ditto grade five and grade six. I heard the lessons for the year ahead – well, a year ahead. I was raised on repetition. In the boredom of repetition, I learned to catch flies and close them away in my desk. I am a slow thinker and a slow learner. I am the one that is most likely to be left behind.

 

It was only during my training as a psychologist many years later that I began to piece together the reason for my earlier school failures. Two years before I started school, I had a major childhood accident. I regressed developmentally and lost capacities I had already obtained. Aspects of speech and mobility. The year that I began my long, long schooling career, my father died. The next year, I went to boarding school in another province. There, I would learn English and the decline and implosion of the Transkei homeland education system would not adversely affect me. But I left an imploding system for a poorly resourced and strange farm school in the sugarcane and tobacco fields of Nqabeni. So the psychologist that I became was able to make sense of my stuckness and repetition. I was dealing with shit and needed time. I was also dealing with an abusive principal that rained corporal punishment on us. After six years, I suddenly (and it was sudden!) became the top-performing student for the remainder of my schooling. I exited high school as the class valedictorian. But as a consequence of being a chronic repeater, I wrote my first university examination on the day of my 21st birthday. Old and anxious. Thinking about the change from failure to passer still surprises me. I have retained my slow deliberate manner but I have quit catching flies.

 

My mother is a voracious reader. She always has been. Without a television, we as her children had no choice but to read. Reading has saved my life many times. Reading also means that I can write myself out of my slowness. I write on repetition. My mother is also my repetition. She owns a place in my head. She left school in standard six. This is to say, she barely commenced high school when she had to leave in order to work. But her eyes live buried in novels and she is my academic muse. She does not know the details of my education. She sees the big picture though. The first time she set foot on a university campus was for my ‘little’ brothers’ graduation (she was five months pregnant with him when our father died) and then again when she came to my PhD graduation. I called her before anyone else when I was awarded my doctorate four years ago. She was the first person I told when I was promoted to associate professor the other day. She is offended when she hears things about her children second hand. “I am your mother and your father. Your education is mine too.” And she has every right. She paid and prayed for it. None of her seven children received any loans or bursaries. “Your education is the only inheritance you can get from me,” was her guilt routine to us when we were younger.

 

And so, when I called her and she didn’t answer the other day, I had to call again. On repeat. She called back in a panic. She panics. But she relaxed as she listened. “Halala, halala, halala!” This has always been her refrain whenever she is proud. For every spoon full of food that her children swallowed when we were little, her reinforcement was always “halala, halala!” Her grandchildren tell her things and remind her to say, “halala, halala”. From the other side of the line in a rainy Lusikisiki, she asked, “Do you know that I do not think that your father could read? I never ever saw him reading. He reared his families’ livestock as a child. What would he say now if he knew that his son was a professor? Who am I? The lowest of the low. Idlakadlaka lomoni. The daughter of Mzimba and Millicent. What would your grandmother say?” In my head I have a queer response but I keep it to myself. “She will be relieved that I eventually stopped studying and am no longer draining her daughter’s financial resources.”

 

Next, I told my partner of many years and my siblings. And then I responded to my friend Don’s insistent calls. These are the people who cradle me in their “halala, halala.” They are my constants and stayers. My repetition. My loves.

 

And then those who come and go. I love them too.

 

This is awkward. My aim is not to brag. I am not glowing. I am not singing the virtues of hard work. Hard work is irritating. It imprisons. I wish I didn’t have to work. This is a milestone of sorts but not really an achievement. I am not the first or the youngest. I have never really been a first of anything. This happens when one is a repeater. I will not be wealthy. I will eventually pay off my debt if I am lucky. I am sad too. My creative writing career is yet to begin. I have always faced this pressure to do academic writing at the expense of creative work. Those early years of reading while mimicking my mother and older siblings kindled the love for writing and stories. Many years later, I have built up a portfolio of academic writing, some short stories, a rejected novel, but most of my creative writing lies incomplete. It haunts me like one hounded by ancestors. Perhaps I will get in touch with my slowness and pause. Perhaps now I will have room to find my voice to say no to some things and yes to creative writing. My career has been circuitous and slow. I have left and returned. I have repeated. Maybe now, I can zigzag once more. Back to the little boy who lived in novels.

 

I hate lists and self help fads. I dislike ten point plans. I don’t like counting, period. But this coming out piece feels empty. Coming out can be anti-climatic. A damp squib. I end the piece with a list for how I stay alive. If staying alive is of interest to anyone. Here is one version:

 

  • Read fiction. It is a beautiful escape from life. It is a parallel life. A safe space.
  • Run or walk or do yoga. I run long. Sometimes I run hard. Pummeling the body is painful and beautiful. It takes you away from you. After the initial pain of tight muscles, I forget that I am running. Also, running selfies don’t work. I leave my phone at home.
  • Find love. A companion. They cradle you with halala, halala. They give you something to think of beyond yourself.
  • Forgive your parents if you can find it in yourself to forgive them. Forgive yourself if you have injured them. It lightens your load.
  • You are beautiful. Accept it. Move on.
  • Bake, write, take naps, cycle. Travel. Knit. Drink if you must. Cry.
  • Look into your child’s eyes and see the love and fear.
  • Getting older is humiliating. But it is beautiful too if you smile at the wrinkles, greying hair and the slowness.
  • I have found friendship in strange places when I reciprocate a gesture. Many of the people that pull me along at work have become friends. Friends and backers will write the reference that will convince a committee that you are worth it. Thank you.
  • Walk away without bitterness. That shit will choke you. I need to learn this.
  • When people say no, accept it. It gives you permission to say no too.
  • Appreciate the length of history. She is longer than you. For example: Charlotte Maxeke was a social worker long before Nomzamo was born. And that is okay. Presentivism will be the death of our minds.
  • When you think you have arrived. Think of Bessie Head, James Baldwin, Lillian Ngoyi, Wole Soyinka, Ernest Cole and your grandmother.
  • Feel the rain. The sun. The wind. On your bare skin.
  • Let the music soak in. Increase the volume and reminisce. Let the sound bang against your insides.
  • I am melancholic. I like sad things. It doesn’t disable and undo you if you like it.
  • Laugh inappropriately. At meetings and funerals.

hugokacanham Village 1

Village Graves

The absence is profound when a villager dies. Each person fills a visible space. Each house and room is visible and the spatial configuration ensures visibility. Everyone knows everyone else. We imagine each other in space. The boys stand along the path and laugh. We know who raised each one. The girls play netball. We know their grandmothers. We know each story because we all have a story. When someone dies, they are buried close by. As life, the grave is visible. It is close to the house. For a while, the dead appear to live spatially. The children avoid the grave and imagine they see flames over the grave after dark. We chase the cattle away when they wonder too close to the grave. Children cry at the graveside of their playmate and sibling. The village eschews headstones. The mind knows where the dead lie.

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But graves vanish. We return to the earth. Those who remember the graves die too. The ‘unspoiled’ rural landscape is littered with the dead. African grass and varieties like Kikiyu grass are relentless. If girls run the world, grass owns the earth. Fires come and go. Grass grows.

Most village houses are made of earth. With neglect, they too return to the earth and over time, all traces that anything ever stood there or anyone ever made a life in the space; vanishes into the grass. Mud houses are like graves without headstones. Our neighbour’s grandson was a terror and he was eventually banished from the village. His grandmother Mamiya decided to abandon her homestead in order to live with him elsewhere. The walls of her house are disintegrating and falling back to the ground. With time, perhaps only the thorn bush that she grew around her garden will remain.

Naka’Xolani cannot point to a grave into which her husband was lowered. He went away for work to the mines one year like he had done before. But this time he did not return. She cannot remember their last parting. Perhaps he wore black trousers but it may have been brown. She would have cleaned his shoes in preparation for the journey but these too have folded and worn in the recesses of her 90 odd years. He may have disappeared in the 1960s. Or was it the 70s? He had a beard but she has no pictures to prove this. He forgot his brown hat that last year when he walked away. But her son took it and lost it.

Besides his surname, he leaves no trace of having lived. Perhaps he lives elsewhere. His wife did not officially mourn him. He simply disappeared.  Maybe he was buried in the rubble of the mines. Perhaps he had another family in Rustenburg and he chose to remain with them.  His children died during the great plague of early democracy. But there are two grandchildren. Perhaps they have his ears but too many suns have dulled her memory of the shape of those ears. She can point to her sons’ grave although time has erased it. Rains have fallen over many seasons. Grass has grown, the mound flattened and cows walk over it. She saw her grandson pee where his dad was buried. She didn’t bother to remind him because the rolling hills had reclaimed the grave. We live and die in the village. The wind blows through the hillside with no regard that we once lived. Perhaps, it carries a tune from a village song it once carried away. Like the grass, the wind does what it must do. It outlasts us. We live and do what we must do. And then we die.Village 2

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Pictures by elaineh

Cease-fire!

fireThose of us who were trained in the colonial and apartheid tradition of South Africa are scared witless as we watch our memorializations, totems and shrines to excellence shudder and threaten to topple over. Those of us trained later, exhausted with holding the cognitive dissonance of being educated as free people but within old modalities and frames of inequality in a changed world, are banging our heads with rocks – too tired of the madness of the science and silence of being unheard. And so, we tether on the brink; signing our names to different petitions and throwing rocks in different directions. Moralizing and screaming obscenities. Thrashing and trembling, bleeding and pushing in and out in a rainless summer shrouded in teargas, stun grenades and stink bombs.

Violence is the order of the day. Campuses have been surrendered to the control of police, intelligence operatives, riot gear, tankers, water canons and endless emails from the Vice Chancellors Office. Instructions come from dizzying heights. The police commissioner controls his troops. Rubbish bins crushed for stones that sing in the air. Bullets riddle the backs of students and tare tendons from ankles. Though we proclaim a common goal we cannot talk to each other beyond emails, police batons and rocks. Fighting to control the narrative. The subject line is business as usual. We grow accustomed to the violence of the presence of riot police walking among us. We dream of chants and Solomon Mahlangu and we are awoken by screams and curtains of smoke from smouldering fires. Free education now. We disagree on the now and the how – those of us who value the shrine and those of us who live with the dissonance and contradictions.

We refuse to see that we have run out of options. The tide is high. The fires say ‘now’. History says ‘now’. Free, decolonised education now. Business as usual – propped up by the ministries of police, intelligence and defense. Nuclear deals, airline bailouts, jet upgrades, qualified audits, high-rise walls, business class, bids for Common Wealth Games, private security; alongside hunger, squalor, exploitation and casualization. Cars burn. Smoke billows. A new national anthem sprouts. We cry. Binding, defiant. Nguni. Arrests, hospitalisations, court appearances, music festivals, solidarities, rifts. Court interdicts. Colleagues stop talking to each other. Studious avoidance of the staffroom. Some teach. Others refuse. Social media meltdowns. Police on horseback, on foot, in tanks, in formation.

Some of us sign petitions and participate in on-line polls to prop up business as usual. Mimicking the university in Braamfontein, other universities opt to save the academic year by calling in the police. Busses burn. Trauma proliferates. The headlines are filled with smoke. Journalists choke. The language of hooligans and thugs mushrooms as sympathies sway. Student dies. Classes cancelled. Maybe next year. Funding models. Prayer meetings. Priests in robes. Iconography abounds. Fires sprout under busses and libraries. Cartridges bloom alongside the Spring flowers.

President – dololo.

In all of this we lose sight of the possibility that we all love the university. We imagine it and its role in different ways. Some of our senior professors want to keep the university the same way that they found it. Their votes in Senate reinforce a unitary history supposedly founded on justice, excellence and standards. In other words; monuments to themselves and those before them. Knowledge and traditions, like wine acquire more prestige with age. Our senior professors aspire to hand down these monuments of excellence to the next generation intact and unchanged. Because they were formed in these structures, they pretend that colonialism, apartheid, and neo-liberal corporatization did not happen. They don’t offer solutions and don’t entertain any beyond their support of police to maintain business as usual. Even when business as usual brutalises us all.

Love blossoms on social media. Hospital visits. Race solidifies. Black self love enfolded in rage. Wariness of the motives of the other. Dashiki emoticons sign off Whatapp messages. Biko and Malcolm X circulate. Love in pain. Love in rage.

***

Some of us, who have positioned ourselves as allies to the students, condemn both the police presence on our campuses and the fires and rocks. But we believe that the stone throwing and fires would not happen if we threw everything we have at transforming this historic dream to reality. We need each other for this to happen. We have to suffer short-term losses for the long-term realization of social justice. Digging trenches for prolonged warfare will batter us all, compromising the university as we know it and shattering the futures we want for a generation of students that does not have to worry about debt, hunger, exclusions and inequality in the classroom.

As black allies to the students, we know their pain in the body for we too lived with the precarity that characterizes their lives. With this knowledge that resides inside, we cannot dither with our support. This knowledge does not blind us. We talk and debate all the time. We disagree but we avoid zero-sum positions. But vague promises will not do. Urging us to teach in a war zone is against our code of an ethics of care. Under the leadership of government, the higher education sector needs to craft a plan for free decolonized education now. After 22 years, the time has run out.

There is no doubt that university management; senators; non-protesting and protesting students, and allies all love the university. It belongs to us all. Policing some of us against each other suggests that some love the university in more legitimate ways than others. It suggests that some belong more than others. It is exactly this narrative that asks to be disrupted by rocks. Stop it! Lets talk about our love for education.

Hugo kaCanham

Sexism & higher education leadership

Like other readers, it was with rising sense of horror that I read about the alleged irresponsible financial expenditure by Professor Xoliswa Mtose, the Vice Chancellor (VC) of the University of Zululand. The Mail & Guardian reported that she is alleged to have accepted a performance bonus of R478 000 at the end of 2015. This was South Africa’s most turbulent year for the higher education sector. In addition, the news report indicated that she and her executive reside in a R26 million estate recently purchased by the university.  Readers of the article are also given a pricing tour of the furniture that was purchased for the estate. The university spokesperson countered by stating

that security concerns based on increased violence on campus made it unsafe for the Vice Chancellor and other executives to live in on-campus university housing.

By the time I had completed the article; two similar stories were crowding my head. I went back to search for 2013 articles on the University of the Witwatersrand Vice Chancellors accommodation. In 2013, incoming Vice Chancellor Adam Habib stated that Savernake, the official residence of the Vice Chancellor was worth about R30 million. He said that he would take residence of the house after it had been renovated to the tune of between 9 and 12 million rand. Faced with criticism by students and the media, he argued that as a university asset and heritage house, it was in the interests of the university to maintain the residence and prevent disrepair. The house was duly renovated and refurnished but unlike the University of Zululand house, we were not informed about what individual chairs cost.  Interest in this residence died down. Back in 2008, the University of Johannesburg council decided to build the Vice Chancellor a house to the amount of R5 million. The old VC residence that had been occupied by successive Rand Afrikaans Universitiet VCs was converted into campus security offices. We do not know how much this house was worth. Attempts to find information on VC housing at Stellenbosch, University of Pretoria and the University of Cape Town (UCT) were not successful. That is to say, it is not publicly available because the Mail & Guardian has not investigated them. I leave the reader to imagine the opulence and value of the housing there.

Also at issue was how much Mtose is reported to have earned in 2015 when she was acting VC before her April 2016 appointment. 2014 data from the financial reports of the 9 ‘top’ universities suggests that with UNISAs VC earning over R4 million per annum and his Rhodes counterpart with one of the smallest student numbers earning R2.4 million, Mtose’s salary is not out of the sync within the system. I know for sure that many VCs were paid performance bonuses in 2015. What I am hoping to point to with this data is that it is the system and not University of Zululand or indeed Professor Mtose as a person that is problematic. The entire system has maintained its colonial character and extended this with the corporatization of higher education. Our universities own assets off campus and use corporate speak. At Wits, we have the Wits Group incorporating Bidvest Wits soccer team, Frankenwald Estate adjacent Waterfall Estate and Donald Gordon Hospital. We have a plan to “take over” Braamfontein. The University of Cape Town owns a mountain and chunks of land at the Waterfront. Harvard University can unashamedly own assets. It is a private institution. In South Africa, quality higher education is offered by state funded institutions. These state funded institutions are run like corporations. All this, in a sea of poverty.

My discomfort with the Mail and Guardian article on Professor Mtose was that it was devoid of context. No account of the hyper-sexism that exists on that campus – an old bastion of patriarchy, was provided. Far from public attention, the violence at University of Zululand does not make headlines. The lived experience of a black woman who is supposed to steer a university where hyper masculinity rules; cannot be seen as justification for wanting to live off campus. The question of what this means for students and women students and staff in particular is one for all of us to grapple with. As a state institution, University of Zululand does not belong to Mtose but to all of us. We are correct to be outraged at wasteful expenditure, but we misplace our dismay when we direct it at individuals. Women in leadership get bad rap and we reserve special outrage for them.ogude

As a student I remember the sexist contempt that some people held for then UCT VC – Dr Mamphele Ramphele. Prof Cheryl Potgieter of UKZN is seen as a feminist killjoy in high heels. Vaal University of Technology VC, Prof Irene Moutlana fights regular court battles to remain in charge.  Professors Fikile Mazibuko and Nthabiseng Ogude were asked to leave before the end of their terms as VCs. Prof Cheryl De le Ray of UP learned hard lessons at UCT. Out of the handful of women VCs, we either have a group of incompetent, corrupt women in the leadership of higher education or our counsels and society are sexist bigots. If they are not portrayed as angry bullies (think Meryl Streep in Devil Wears Prada), they are timid incompetent women that are cast as out of their depth. Some of our more visible VCs are tolerated as arrogant but strong. Their foibles are tolerable. They act like men. Men are leaders. We accept that they live in stately mansions while students sleep in libraries and computer laboratories. Students can go hungry in class, while VCs travel business class. As public universities, we have made the error of holding onto colonial trappings of competence and opulence and embracing corporate models based on the logic of profit. The sexism of our patriarchal society finds perfect bedfellows in coloniality and capital. In the meantime, students scream for change – “free, decolonized education.” But they may be howling in the teargassed wind.

Hugo kaCanham

images not mine…