hewers of wood, drawers of water

"We shall reject the whole system of Bantu Education whose aim is to reduce us, mentally and physically, into 'hewers of wood and drawers of water'."
Soweto Sudents Representative Council, 1976.

I moved into my current flat almost a year ago. Since I've moved in there's been a construction of yet another block of flats in Grahamstown-Rhini. It's been the constant background noise with trucks humming and bricks being laid forming the latest addition to the property boom in the small town.

Part of the construction site has been the builders, black and coloured men of various ages. I walk by them every single day. I walk by them when I go swimming in the morning and when I’m on my way back, when I go to campus and when I walk back and any other time I leave my flat during the day, they are there. As the building gets taller and forms shape they are now the first people I see when I open my curtains.

I don't know the names nor the faces of these men. If they greet me, I might nod or smile back depending on whether they say “sexy…baby or sisi”. But like most men who are construction workers they always stare when I walk by and every now and then there'll be a whistle or a comment about “ndifun'uhamba nawe baby” (take me with you baby) or something about my thighs. I never respond because at this point in my life, what's the use, seeing as men have been oogling me since I was 12.

When I do catch a glance at some of these men standing along the wall waiting for their day to begin, I can't help but wonder "who are these people?" Fathers, brothers, sons, boyfriends, lovers, friends...they are people. And then I wonder what their stories might be, especially the ones with scrawny arms throwing and catching bricks with bravado and ease, but look like they ought to be in school

As I watch the building form a frame and soon to be finished, I wonder where their next job will come from. I also wonder what it's like to build an apartment block with rent the builder could never afford nor even enjoy the comfort of a freshly built sturdy building. More importantly I wonder what it's like to build something you know can never be yours.

These men are the working class men in this country who disappear once the job is done. Perhaps they didn't want to be hewers of bricks and drawers of water, but that's what they've become...

They've built the apartments with such precision and care, but have they been able to construct their own lives with that much precision and care? Have they ever had the opportunity to consider being the builders of their own lives or are these just my middle class concerns as a student at the cusp of the adult world? Because the truth is, the new South Africa needs the working class to assist the project of creating spaces for the burgeoning middle class. Is there enough room in this country for all our dreams to flourish the same way new constructions flourish everywhere around us?


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