Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The scourge of the single-mother

As a teacher I have come to appreciate some of the challenges that teenagers have to face: teenage pregnancy, drug-use, sex education in relation to the myths they hear from friends! All these ills are often clumped under  the portmanteau word: peer-pressure. Beyond these challenges, access to quality education and opportunities that will ward off poverty also form part of the teenage-question. In truth, the list is endless.

What is also often included in the list of the many social ills that plague young people is the question of family structures. For many working class teens the prospect of being in a child-headed home is a real possibility or a home where the mother is the primary care-giver, raising a child (or children) alone. As someone who was raised by a mother who opted for divorce and a grandmother who raised six children alone, I am often uncomfortable when single-mothers are lumped into the list of social ills that I’ve listed above.

My purpose is not to glorify the experience of single mothers as I have no doubt that it is often (not always) circumstances beyond many women’s control that leads them to a place where they are left with the responsibility of raising children without the assumed extra help of the father or a father-figure. I have also been surprised by friends (who happen to be white) who have spoken about being single-mothers. The one shared how she opted to be a single-mother because she was financially independent enough to do so and another said she would opt to be a single-mother if she felt ready to have a child whether or not she’s in a relationship.

I’d like to question how it is that we continue to add single-mothers to the list of social ills. The truth is, the reality of being a single-mother and the extent of the hardships one faces are closely related to a woman’s social class. The reality of raising a child or children alone without the expected help of a father, is different for a middle class woman than for a working class woman. The middle-class woman has resources the poorer woman does not have and the poorer woman is often called in to be the child-minder for the wealthier woman who can afford to pay someone to help look after her child.

My other concern is that the focus on the poor, single-mother should rather shift to the harsh reality that renders the lives of poor women an eternal hardship. Poverty. Together with poverty, the obsession with the idea of the nuclear family means that women are a problem unless they conform to the social structure of family where there ought to be a father figure in the home. Where a man or father figure is absent in a home, we refer to this as a broken home (but if a man is in a position where he raises children alone, he is the hero).

If we consider the reality of many working class black families, the family unit has never been prioritised. Many working class women have never been “kept” women who stay at home and look after the children. They have mostly been working mothers who have been in exploitative working environments without the benefits to support child care (When my aunt had her first child in the 1970s she was working in a factory. She did not have maternity leave and she was back at work the day after she gave birth to my cousin). Fathers, brothers and uncles were migrant labourers who could not be in the home to help raise the children. 

And this form of family life in the black community still exists where work opportunities do not allow working class men and women to fully support their families either financially or with their physical presence.
The single-mother question often brings into light the question of what kind of children does a single-mother raise? The perception is often that single-mothers cannot raise boys who will become “real” men and their daughters will become women who are too independent with “daddy issues” and will therefore seek attention from men because they have never received attention from their fathers. These are negative perceptions about what it means to raise children as a single-mother.

We need to recognise that whether a woman chooses to be a single mother or not, she has the right to be given the space and the rights to raise her children in a society that does not damn her for not conforming to the heteronormative idea of what is means to be a mother. We all have taken-for-granted ideas about what it means to be a mother and a father without thinking about the role of the extended family as well as the role of more supportive networks that woman may have when they are single-mothers. These networks may be informal or formal but they must allow us to recognise that single-mothering is a legitimate form of parenting.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

R50 000 and homelessness

Last week Sunday I visited SA National Gallery in town. The current exhibition, Umhlaba commemorates the Land Act of 1913. I find it a strange thing to refer to the process of remembering the Land Act as a commemoration. I have always thought that commemorations are meant to celebrate rather than draw memories back into a dark past that still lives with us today.

A week before visiting this exhibition Mama had called me telling me about the new tv she had acquired. My mother is unemployed (and has been since I was 7 years old and thus depends on my sisters and I for support).I asked her where she got the money from and she told me my Grandmother's claim from the land commission had finally come and the money was divided amongst her and her sisters. I was seething with anger. Initially I thought I was angry because she had bought a tv and some clothes for her granddaughter, my niece, and had decided to save very little of the money she had received. But this is not the reason for my anger.

After seeing the exhibition I realised that I wasn't angry about my mother's foolish extravagance with the lump sum of money they had received, but rather I was enraged at the futility of this idea of land restoration. I calculated that my mother and her sisters received about R50 000. The R50 000 my mother and her sisters received is now a distant memory for each of them as they spent it on household appliances and buying something for their children and grandchildren. What the R50 000 will never do is restore the dignity my grandmother lost during apartheid simply because she was a black women, a single black mother with too many children. A problem for apartheid South Africa.

Two weeks before my gran passed away we had the longest chat I would ever have with her. It was our last conversation and I clung onto each word because I secretly knew the opportunity would never be afforded to me again. We spoke about many things. She also gave me a copy of her reference book, her dompas. We spoke about her experience of moving to Mdanstane in the winter of the 1960s and arriving to a small house that was not conducive to inhabit given the winter chill. She had been removed from an area close to town to Mdanstane, where she would have to commute many miles in order to get to work. When she told me the story I realised how she was still wounded by the experience. My gran had a macabre sense of humour and she often laughed things off easily, but there was no mirth in her voice when she told me about being forcibly removed from her home.

And all she was given posthumously was R50 000. It isn't about the money and it will never be about the money. People might be given financial compensation for the land they lost during apartheid or if they are lucky enough they might get some land back, but they will never be given back the dignity they lost when they became homeless in a country they knew as home. How do you compensate a nation of people whose families will always carry the burden of homelessness because that is the legacy apartheid laws left for them: pass books and homelessness?

My father is still in the midst of his land claim case for his family. Both my parents have been embroiled in land claims and one would think that that would make me happy. It doesn't. It is a cruel reminder of my own homelessness. If my parents have no sense of ownership (in the form of land or a homestead) in this country then I too am homeless and R50 000 will not give me a home. It has give my niece new shoes and my mother, hours of entertainment from her new tv connected to DSTV.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The absurdity of the Rainbow nation

1994. I was in Grade 1. New grade in a new school in the new South Africa. I was one of the throngs of black children whose parents had decided to enroll into former white schools which started integrating in the late 1980s and early 1990s, “Model C schools”. I was the only black child in the Sub A classroom .There were four  Sub A classes in the school and the other three classes had an equally dubious representation of black learners in each classroom. Thus, in 1994 when the promise of the rainbow nation was being bandied about, my angst about integration began to take root in my psyche (and reasons for being the only black person in the class will be a conversation for another day).

I realise that across the country there are many black people who can share their experience of being the only black person in a sea of white faces, the proverbial or literal “black at the dinner table”. Whenever I find myself in a situation where I am the “only black at the dinner table” (proverbial or literal) I am often led back to Steve Bantu Biko’s work, I write what I like.  I’m a late bloomer when it comes to Black Consciousness (BC) and my level of consciousness ebbs and flows. Because BC has also been monopolised by Mngxitama’s anger and vitriol rather than critical engagement with the relevance of BC in the new South Africa, the recent furore related to Andile Mngxitama’s response to Jared Sacks’ article (Biko would not vote for Ramphele) was an opportunity where my BC began to flow again.

As a product of a Eurocentric, former white educational institutions, I was once upon a time very quick to embrace non-racialism (that race should no longer be used as a marker to understand our experiences). I’ve been living in Cape Town for over a year and I have come face to face with the politics of being black in the new South Africa the same way I did when I was in Sub A in 1994. As someone who teaches young people who have been labelled as the “born-free” generation I am skeptical of non-racialism. At some point there needs to be an acceptance that the rainbow nation does not exist. The nexus between race and class highlights the complexity of simply wanting to be “over race”. The income disparity— which highlights which race is doing well and which isn’t creates a further cleavage between people rather than the wonderful and awe-inspiring image of a rainbow where all the colours come together  to form a unified image that leaves people with a warm and fuzzy feeling.

A few weeks ago I watched a documentary about Orania. The story was focusing on self-governing state that still exists in South Africa. The audience comprised largely of white people (I think I counted less than five black in the audience). While watching the documentary I considered how most of the people in the audience would probably be appalled by the idea of Orania. There were moments of mirth in the documentary with awkward laughter from the audience and I wondered, “why are we laughing at this ludicrous idea?”. There are people in this country who are convinced that black and white people cannot and should not live alongside each other. I was also left with a thought I couldn’t fully articulate (nor can I do so now) that there are many Oranias in South Africa. There are many people who have been raised, educated and socialized with people who think, look and sound exactly as they do. They experience diversity through the warped version of popular media and the stereotypes they are fed about other people who do not come from their communities. This is dangerous for everyone and most of the focus has been on the dangers of spaces that protect “white privilege” where many White South Africans grow up in a world of privilege cocooned from other realities throughout their lives unless they are forced to confront the world around them. When we think of spaces that have protected white privilege we seldom think of what the alternative has been for Black, Coloured or Indian who have not made it up the middle class ladder of success.

We know that the idea of integration, reconciliation and the rainbow nation are a blemish in South Africa’s democracy. So what now?  We should begin by discouraging people who say “we need to get over race” as a way of moving away from the need to speak about race. It seems only comedians are willing to engage with the race issue (which has limitations of its own). Slavery happened many decades ago but Americans have not forgotten about it. The Holocaust happened and we dare not forget that. Apartheid supposedly ended almost two decades but in South Africa we lambaste anyone who wants to raise the “race issue”. Error! We should know better especially because we dare not forget the injustices that happened in other countries, but when it’s too close to home, we invoke amnesia or ignorance, especially for those born post-1994.

Biko’s words ring still ring true to me: “Does this mean I am against integration? If by integration you understand a breakthrough into white society by blacks, an assimilation and acceptance of blacks into an already established set of norms and behavior set up and maintained by whites, then YES I am against it. I am against the superior-inferior white-black stratification that makes the white a perpetual teacher and the black a perpetual pupil (and a poor one at that)… I am against the fact that a settler minority should impose an entire system of values on an indigenous people”.

The idea about integration needs to be revisited. Who are we integrating and for what purpose? The public and political failure of integration brings into question what happens in people’s personal and private lives. What happens when we are not in public without the judgement of any gaze? Do we seriously consider our own consciousness and what it means to have certain privileges or no privileges at all? I’m not one to re-imagine a South African consciousness as Dr Mamphela Ramphele would have us vote for. It seems to me that it might be another of form of glazing over the complexities in South Africa. Like Koketso Moeti, I am of the opinion that the illusion of the “Rainbow Nation”  must come to an end if we are to see the reality of this country for what it is. Harsh, complex and uncomfortable.