Reader's Cafe: Why my story/her-story matters in Africa

Last week Friday I was invited to speak at Reader's Cafe, a student society at the University of Pretoria. There were four other speakers who had written about the issues facing the continent. The other pieces can be read on the website:
http://readerscafeafrica.com/2015/04/why-my-storyher-story-matters-in-africa/

Growing up I often heard my mother say the words “ukuza kukaNxele”. She would say this in relation to something that might never happen, the idea of waiting in vain. A translation of the expression is quite difficult to come by and I can’t think of an equivalent in English but the title of Samuel Beckett’s aburdist play,  “waiting for Godot”, comes close. In order to explain the expression, I’ll tell the story. There was once a man named Nxele, or as some might say,uMakana kaNxele. He is something of a legend amongst Xhosa people. He was a prophet who became notorious or famous for rebelling against the English in the frontier wars. He lived around the place that was to become Grahamstown (the municipality that Grahamstown falls under is currently named after him).  He was imprisoned on Robbin Island in 1818 after a failed uprising against the British. Rumour has it or rather as my mother tells the story, Nxele vowed he would come back from the god-forsaken island. Together with other prisoners they tried to escape the island but never succeeded. They drowned while trying to escape and thus the Xhosas are still waiting for Nxele to come back as he promised. This is an example of how a historical narrative finds itself in everyday language willing us to remember the past.

The most famous example of a historical narrative that found itself in everyday language, in particular isiXhosa, is the story of Nongqawuse. When someone is  telling tall tales or stories that sound too good to be true this young woman always comes back to haunt us. A teenage girl, who told Xhosa people she had received a prophecy from the ancestors. She told them that they should slaughter all their cattle and burn their fields so that that the ancestors will arise from the dead and drive the white people into the sea and the dignity of the Xhosa nation would be restored. None of this ever happened. Nongqawuse became responsible for the impoverishment of the Xhosa people and a conspiracy whether it wasn’t white people who had influenced her to tell such a tale to begin with has always been in question. So when Xhosa people want to express their dismay at someone’s shocking actions that seem inconceivable, the story of the catastrophic cattle killings of the 1800s is invoked as hayi seskaNongqawuse.

I tell these anecdotes because they are some  of my first memories of how my mother attempted to tell me about African history, with a particular focus on Xhosa people. She had to do this seamlessly given that she had made the decision to send me to an English school that taught me history based on the arrival of the 1820 settlers. I hope you will not think of my emphasis on Xhosa history as any form of tribalism. I speak isiXhosa and where I am from is my vantage point when thinking about African history. I tell this story also because it amazes me how my mother taught me about African history through everyday language. My father attempted to impress my heritage upon me by teaching me my clan names: MamGcina, noKwindla, Xhamela, Ncancashe so that I would know that I come from a longer lineage and a wider group of families who are related. When I was in high school I had to do a history project and I chose to write about my great-grandfather. My mother described him as a wonderful man, a Baptist minister who was famous for having friends in spite of the racial barriers created by apartheid. When I was in varsity I discovered that the word Xhosa wasn’t random: it means angry. The khoi san people gave Xhosa people this name because of some of the conflicts between the two groups. I’m not sure when Xhosa people appropriated it for themselves.

These stories recently became more significant in light of the Rhodes must fall campaign. Behind or within the story of the statues and students at UCT, Rhodes and UKZN was the question of history. We all have a fraught relationship with the colonial history of the continent. An aggressive time that created false borders and seemed to entrench tribal identities that later created havoc instead of brining people together; the Rhodes must fall campaign brought into light some of the unfinished business the 1994 project hadn’t dealt with: what should be the honest response to colonialism and apartheid?

The most worrying arguments against the statues being removed was that that would erase history. It was also sad to see that some white people held on to the statues as symbols of their heritage with the kind of arrogance that was blind to what the statues meant for us as South Africans. We cannot erase history. One of the paradoxes of our lives is that we live with history everyday. The anecdotes I shared initially are my examples of how we live with history whether we like it or not. Fortunately we are not in a position of the world George Orwell creates in his dystopian novel where the Ministry of Truth uses the news, entertainment, education, and the fine arts to manipulate the population. In spite of the current government’s efforts to bully and control the media, we know that our own personal histories are powerful when they are remembered and preserved.

So what is it about our history that we need to hang on to, and what do we need to get rid of?

We cannot get rid of history but we can live lives that are ahistorical and allow us to forget history. An ahistorical approach to life is dangerous. The problem with the Rhodes must fall campaign was context. It seemed to have come out of nowhere for many people who believed in that the rainbow nation had been realized. The context of the campaign made people wonder where this anger is coming from all of a sudden. The truth is black anger is always with us and it manifests itself in personal and political spaces. The problem with black anger is that we (as a group of black people who identify with the politics of transformation) often appear as though we must justify our anger. We foreground the Rhodes statue rather than simply declare that institutions still need to transform. Having a black VC at a university does not mean transformation. Having black middle class people in an institution does not mean transformation has been achieved because other forms of exclusions can and do continue. When we invoke history and our current existence as black people, without the focus on symbols such as statues, no one can deny that our experiences and anger are justified. The question, how do we act responsibly in making sure that transformation is taken seriously rather than a superficial game about numbers?

About two years ago I was reminded of history and the work Sol Plaatjie had done in recording the experiences African people were having in the early 1900s. I was reading news reports about the annual floods in Cape Town I thought of Sol Plaatje and his manuscript that was published in 1916, Native life in South Africa. In response to the Native Land Act of 1913 he wrote a book highlighting the consequences of the act as well as the complexities of what happens to a country recovering from a conflict such as the Anglo-Boer War (which ended in 1902) and trying to rebuild itself in the form of the Union in 1910. Anyone who saw the images of Khayelitsha and Philippi in the news saw that poverty continues unashamedly in this country and people’s homelessness and displacement due to rain highlights the gross inequality we ardently write about in our privileged circles. Plaatje’s book describes the harrowing experience of black people becoming landless and being forcefully removed from the farms they knew as home. Natives still exist in the rainbow nation South Africa and they are no longer at the mercy of a harsh and racist government, but rather a more complicated situation where the laws have changed but much of the experience of being poor remains the same. I invoke Sol Plaatje’s work to highlight the importance of understanding history in our current context. I could invoke Plaatje when thinking about the Lwandle evictions that happened last year because they are a another example of the historical question of black people’s ownership of land or property haunting us again.

I hope we will never forget the Rhodes must fall campaign. It is an important campaign for students at the affected universities but also an important campign for South Africa and Africa. It says that all is not well. It says more needs to be done. It says the dream of independence and 1994 have not been fully actualized. In years to come I hope people will mark this time as “when Rhodes fell”, ukuwa kukaRhodes so that we can be reminded of the work that still needs to happen in achieving the kind of South Africa we want, the kind of Africa we want and the kind of world we want the next generation to inherit. Right now recent history shows that we are not doing enough. In the words of Alice Walker, “The world isn’t good enough and we have to make it better”.


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