Racism Lives. Why Have We Stopped Fighting?

While sitting in a queue at the Hillbrow police station yesterday morning, I started chatting to the woman next to me – a young African woman, there to lay a charge against her boss – he had slapped her that morning.  ‘For no good reason’, she said.  She had done nothing wrong.  And when she had asked him why he had hit her, his response was that he was ‘stressed out’ because his coffee shop (in an upmarket part of Braamfontein) was not busy enough.  She couldn’t see how his lack of customers related to her being slapped.  She thought that it was ‘unfair’.  What had made her decide to come to the police station was that this was not the first time it had happened to her.  He had hit her before, and she had ‘done nothing’.  And, she had seen him do ‘worse things’ to other workers who were ‘not brave enough’ to report him to the police.  He had once thrown hot porridge in the face of another woman worker.  But this woman was ‘too afraid to do anything’.  I was getting more and more upset as she spoke, shaking my head in disbelief.  I asked whether her boss was white.  ‘Yes,’ she said, adding, ‘but I decided to come because these people don’t know that the laws have changed and that white people cannot do whatever they like to Black people anymore.  The law is now on our side.’  I nodded and smiled approvingly, supporting her decision out loud.  Silently I hoped really hard that the police here would take her charge seriously, that her case wouldn’t be lost in a pile of forgotten papers, that she wouldn’t go back to further abuse from her boss for laying the charge, that she wouldn’t lose her job, and that the law would work in her favour (she did not have a contract of employment).

I was also silently seething at the fact that such things still happen today.  That white people can actually still abuse Black people and get away with it in post-apartheid South Africa.  I also felt a really deep sense of sadness that these young African women, dependent on a white man for their survival, are still forced to live and work in fear – measuring their behaviour according to the potential reactions of their white master.  I couldn’t help but ask myself whether this young woman would have accepted a hiding from her boss if there had been ‘good reason’.  And what would have constituted ‘good reason’?  I also wished that she was not so alone in her brave stand…

Well past our first decade into democracy and we still seem to operate by a ‘reason’ that protects the inherited ‘superiority’ of whites.  Everyday I’m confronted with another experience that leaves me asking, ‘What makes white people think they can act like this?’  From the young white girl who thinks it’s cool to call the old Black woman behind the bread counter at the Pick ‘n Pay in Killarney ‘my squeeza’, to the white kugel walking out of the CNA in Rosebank who screams at the young Black cashier when the alarm goes off as she passes through the security scanners at the exit (as if it’s his fault that the machine thinks that she could have stolen something), to the young white man in Brixton who thinks it’s hilarious to tell me (a complete stranger to him) that I have ‘Bin-Laden ore’ (ears), to the white neighbours who have only ever spoken to me to ask if I can make samoosas or whether ‘that lovely curry smell’ emanates from my flat, to the white farmer who still punishes his Black workers through torture and humiliation, and the far more brutal and savage acts by whites against Black people that the media picks up on every now and then – the list could go on – is an undeserving confidence and air of superiority held by most white South Africans (chips on their shoulders, I can hear my parents say) that they seem to have about themselves and everything they speak about no matter how inane or unacceptable they/their words might be.

While our laws and constitution speak so beautifully of commitments to non-racialism and equality, our everyday realities cannot help but remind us that apartheid’s legacy, etched deep in the minds, hearts and souls of Black and white South Africans, lives on as we each try to make our selves in communities still shaped by the ways in which apartheid made people think and behave.  (Now just tweaked a little to fit the new talk of individual success and entrepreneurialism.)

The young white girl in Killarney just does not conceive of the possibility that she could be being disrespectful, and the truth is she will probably never know that she is – because none of us will ever tell her; instead we’re more likely to smile and commend her for trying.  How I wished, on that day in Rosebank, that the cashier would demand to search the contents of the kugel’s bag.  Instead, he apologised humbly, not even thinking that the woman could have stolen something.  On that day in Brixton, my obvious irritation and anger at the guy only served to make him smirk some more.  And all I could do was wish that I was bigger, stronger…  While I bitch about my neighbours all the time, I’ve never given more than a sarcastic response (at best) to their annoying questions.  And how many times have we been shocked at how white criminals manage to escape punishment and censure for their acts against Black people?  What’s sad is how we’ve all just come to accept as ‘natural’ the racism that continues to define the ways in which we interact with each other everyday.  Somehow it’s become ‘easier’ not to openly challenge the everyday acts that mock the myth of the rainbow nation – the racist realities that we confront everyday airbrushed out of its preferred pictures of pretty people of all colours spending their money happily together on pleasures previously reserved for whites.  Shouldn’t we be stronger now to fight such fights?  But rainbow reconciliation has demanded that we give up some of our fighting spirit, to choose our fights carefully, to hold our tongues, to wait for appropriate moments that hardly ever come, to be understanding of ‘where white people are coming from’, and to ‘allow them to try’, in the hope that someday I too will be able to be part of this picture, this dream of individual success and wealth.  We forget that this was not our dream to begin with.  Yesterday morning at Hillbrow police station, I was both angered and inspired – by a young, Black sister with the guts to risk the little that she has to fight again.  Fighting, I can only hope that she is able to live again.  It is better than to die dreaming (and working for) their dream.

Discipline! Comrade Madlala-Routledge, Discipline!

In all the hype about the Minister of Health’s alleged alcoholism that is dominating reports and discussions about the President’s sacking of Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, an important issue seems to have been forgotten – party discipline. All three individuals are members of the Congress Alliance, in particular the ANC, with Madlala-Routledge also enjoying membership of the SACP. All three would then submit themselves to the discipline prescribed for them in their different political roles by the Alliance. A discipline understood from within the Alliance according to the logic of ‘democratic centralism’. By this logic, decisions are to be reached ‘democratically’ within Alliance structures first and then translated into practice in broader society through government, civil society, and community structures. Members of the Alliance are expected to be loyal to the positions reached sometimes through consensus, and sometimes through the decree of leadership structures, even if their own individual positions might differ from the official line.

As the ANC and the Alliance have developed in the context of electoral democracy post-1994, debates and differences have multiplied and grown stronger amongst and between member organisations and individual members. This has exposed differences within the Alliance with regard to the very understanding of ‘democratic centralism’, and created further divisions concerning how binding decisions are made and what powers different levels of its institutional hierarchies (and individuals positioned within them) should be able to exercise over others. While Madlala-Routledge has embraced her dismissal as a challenge to fight for ‘the real values and programmes of the ANC to be achieved’, Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang have tried to portray the Deputy Minister as ‘someone who cannot work in a collective’. While Madlala-Routledge seems to be accusing her bosses and senior comrades of working against the spirit of the Alliance, she stands accused of neglecting to abide by ‘protocol’, by party discipline. She has been ‘ill-disciplined’. She is a ‘loose cannon’. Terms I’ve heard many times to describe those who have subsequently been expelled from Alliance structures or who have chosen to leave, unable to find space within the Alliance to speak with effect. While there is always ultimately a blind loyalism to a set of institutional processes and structures in the way such differences get handled, there is, however, also almost always the questioning of the institutional culture that characterises the Alliance – a claim that processes and structures, and positions of power are being abused and manipulated against the interests of the Alliance.

It is this claim that I thought we’d be hearing more from Madlala-Routledge (and those within the Alliance who support her) about. In the fiery words that the former Deputy Minister spoke just after her dismissal, she exuded the confidence of one with many behind her, not just from TAC, but from within the Alliance. Jeff Radebe featured in the list of those who gave her support in her job. But Madlala-Routledge has grown silent since her dismissal, and the list of people refuting their support of her seems to be growing. In fact, there seems to be a concerted effort on the part of Alliance members to distance themselves from any efforts to portray some form of allegiance to Madlala-Routledge possibly growing. Even Zwelinzima Vavi today came out making ‘a qualified apology’ about his remarks about Mbeki choosing to dismiss hard-working executive members while other ministers were ‘dying on duty’. He apparently meant to show no disrespect to those who had died while in office but wished to place on record their poor levels of performance.

Madlala-Routledge is probably feeling very alone at the moment. This is sadly how democratic centralism has come to function in the Alliance, with discipline mobilising deeply ingrained feelings of subservience to processes, structures and hierarchies over commitment to people and principles, even amongst those who mount the most biting critiques of some of the policies and positions adopted by the ANC government and the ANC leadership. It would seem that Madlala-Routledge overestimated her ability to win the debate over what was right according to party discipline. No matter what her views on HIV-AIDS or the government’s macro-economic policy framework might be, according to the logic of this discipline, she has gone beyond what is considered acceptable for the institutional culture of the Alliance. It is sad to have to accept that the institutional culture you were raised in is designed to prevent your own voice from gaining resonance. But this is the way in which the Alliance works.

While the enormous inequalities and inadequacies in the public health sector have provided the context for Madlala-Routledge’s disciplining, others have faced dismissal from their government positions and expulsion from Alliance structures for speaking out against the ANC government’s policies with regard to service delivery. While the President, government, and the ANC leadership are spending much of their time and energies fighting the storm around this dismissal that has reopened questions about its approach to the issue of HIV-AIDS, another storm has erupted which is again calling into question the ANC government’s approach to the delivery of basic services – housing, water and sanitation, electricity, land, education, and health care. Since the late ’90s, ‘ill-disciplined’ Alliance members, together with other community members, have been coming together in struggles against evictions, water and electricity cut-offs, and so on, to demand that government deliver on its promises of ‘a better life for all’, resulting (sometimes) in the formation of new social and community movements. Over the years, while the Alliance and government have attempted to deny the claims and demands of these movements, portraying them as ‘ultra-left’ and marginal, struggles from within communities have not ceased. Just two days ago protesters from Sebokeng were shot at and injured, with 30 arrested for blocking a major highway and stopping rail traffic by damaging trains quite significantly. The levels of conflict at community level and the fact that these ‘service delivery riots’ have been going on for some time now and seem to be escalating at the moment, are proof enough that these struggles are not the work of a few ‘ultra-left’ individuals with power over poor communities or the result of particular organisations manipulating poor communities in order to bring the Alliance into disrepute. This is no longer a case of a few ‘ill-disciplined loose cannons’.

I guess what I’m getting at is that party discipline may have been called in to try to quiet the storm around Madlala-Routledge, but Alliance processes and structures cannot hide the glaring effects of the neoliberal policies being adopted by the Mbeki government. Nevertheless, it is interesting to observe how, in spite of the tremendous divisions within the Alliance that have been exposed in public by Alliance members (one would imagine, often in contravention of party discipline), the apparatus of discipline has time and again ensured that conflict is properly managed and channelled, always ‘in the interests of the collective’. I’m anxious to see what Madlala-Routledge does next. Will she submit to one of the ‘collectives’ fighting for the ability to speak as ‘the collective’ within the Alliance? Will she be allowed to submit to one of them? Or will she realise the sham that ‘the collective’ can become?  I have nothing against collectives. I belong to some myself. But there is a danger with undemocratic hierarchies being misnamed collectives. But this is a subject for another day.

In Capital’s Shadow

It was June 2000.  As the last rays of sun kissed us goodbye and the night lights of New York city took their places, my sister and I quickly found seats as part of an audience in the shadow of the World Trade Centre.  We were here to listen to Bra Hugh – Masekela.  It was one of the city’s legendary free summer concerts – out in the open night air, in a space cleared right in the heart of capital.  Emerging first as a speck amongst specks on a stage minisculed by the city’s towering skyscrapers, Bra Hugh soon loomed large, his tunes quickly overpowering their menacing scowls, softening their silhouettes and making them an apt backdrop for the music that made us laugh and cry that night, at ourselves and at our histories.  It was a great concert – thanks to Visa!!  There was no missing the fact that big corporate sponsorship had allowed this gig to happen.  Bra Hugh kept reminding us, giving huge praise to the sponsors between playing.  I felt a little sorry for him, obviously having agreed to punt Visa as part of his deal.  But part of me also resented the fact that I had to come to New York to experience a kick-ass FREE concert by someone from home.  Yes, I had heard Bra Hugh play in South Africa, but I had paid to do this.  Just as I had paid to listen to many other great musicians returning from exile in the early ’90s.  A performance that’s down in my books as one of the greatest was one given by Abdullah Ibrahim at the Market Theatre in 1992 – as a student, I had used almost three quarters of my monthly pocket money to buy a friend and me tickets to it (R300).  As rare as these concerts were, I would willingly, over the years, pay to listen to musicians I had been raised on, their records often serving as our lullabies as children.    

Over the years, I have seen many artists struggle to survive at home, many having to turn to other forms of employment or entrepreneurship just to eke out an existence, often having to rely on social networks (also slowly disintegrating under the regime of ‘the individual’) for survival.  Some of our greatest talents have not been able to bare the harshness of life, ending their lives prematurely.  Others have had the option of living abroad, away from familiar comforts and ways.  As the ANC government has come to prioritise the interests of global capital over those of a redistributive macro-economic programme in the interests of the majority of South Africans, its adoption of neoliberal policies has dealt harsh blows on various groups of people – artists not escaping their reach.  But little has been said about the ways in which the adoption of these policies has involved the marginalisation of the collective interests of artists in the interests of particular individuals and styles, in the remoulding of African and South African culture and talent towards particular notions and images of the continent and the country – images that are easy to package and sell, images that reinforce the preferred versions of Africa around the buying world.  In selling our music, I would imagine that different markets have been created and targeted with different genres and artists.  And artists, having to survive in a capitalist world, have to begin making time and space for their own unrestrained practice, production and performance through working for money in the projects and places assigned as ‘culturally valuable’ by the market in different parts of the world.  As glorious as our night listening to Bra Hugh in the shadow of the skyscrapers of New York was, we could not help but feel angry and sad that such great talent was able to be shared in the best way possible only as a result of the intervention of corporate capital.  Bra Hugh had been packaged and sold by Visa and we were thanking them for it! 

Reading Bra Hugh’s complaints about life in South Africa in the last week took me back to our night in New York.  I was pleased to hear him speak out.     

Culture Of Amnesia?

As townships around the province (and country) flare up in what have been called ‘service delivery riots’, ANC leaders, political commentators, and journalists have lashed out at ‘the violence’ and ‘impatience’ of protesters, claiming that they represent only a minority of residents, led by populist factions and individuals, and that ‘a culture of entitlement’ is at play in these demonstrations. Rather than demanding ‘more handouts’, the argument goes, people need to start taking responsibility for their own lives and stop expecting government to deliver ‘everything free to them’ (see article by Jovial Rantao in last Friday’s Star). Wading through archives about Orange Farm and informal settlements in Johannesburg from the late 1980s over the last week, I came across a United Democratic Front (UDF) memorandum on urban land and housing policies that was presented to Hernus Kriel, apartheid Minister of Planning & Provincial Affairs, on 16 August 1990. I was amazed at how quickly and easily people seem to forget – to forget our histories and our dreams. Below are a few extracts…

“The UDF recently issued a call for those who are landless and without proper homes to settle on unused land. This has been referred to more generally as ‘land invasions’, and has been greeted with dismay by, inter alia, private landowners, municipalities, and provincial and central government. This call by the UDF merely reflects a process that has been underway in communities throughout South Africa, where tens of thousands of landless people have taken the initiative to provide their own shelter on whatever land they can find.”

“The existence of millions of shacks in the urban areas of South Africa is a consequence of the policies of apartheid applied to black people over many decades. Apartheid policies destroyed people’s houses and uprooted existing communities. Apartheid policies created the housing backlog by prohibiting the construction of houses for black people in ‘white’ urban areas for nearly thirty years. Apartheid policies confined black people to townships on a small percentage of urban land, causing widespread overcrowding and unhealthy living conditions. The UDF believes that all human beings have a basic right to shelter. It is inhumane to destroy a person’s shelter without providing suitable alternative accommodation. Until government is in a position to provide land, and decent, affordable housing for all, no shacks should be demolished. This includes shacks in both urban and rural areas.”

“The UDF objects in principle to forced removals. In addition, on purely practical grounds, at a time of a national housing shortage, it makes no sense to demolish existing housing stock. The UDF calls on the government to announce that communities still under threat of forced removal… are entitled to remain permanently where they are.”

“The UDF recognises that in recent years, more land has been made available for low-income housing. However, virtually all this land is located in places totally unsuitable for the integration of low-income communities into the cities and towns. Some new low-income areas, e.g. Orange Farm and Rietfontein, are far from work, economic opportunities, shops, schools and community facilities. The poor are being burdened once again with high transport costs. The UDF calls for land to be released near places of work and economic opportunity, rather than on the extreme margins of the urban areas.”

“The UDF rejects the current government’s policies of privatisation of housing, which fail to cater for the housing needs of 80% of the black population in South Africa. The UDF believes that all the people of South Africa deserve more than third-class housing in the form of site and service schemes. The UDF believes strongly that the state has a centrally important role to play in the provision of land, services and houses for all South Africans.”

“There can be no justification for the continuation of landlessness and homelessness, for the lack of clean water, electricity, water-borne sewerage and other basic facilities, and the government must move rapidly to rectify the situation. Constitutional negotiations and a political settlement in South Africa will be rendered useless if urban areas continue to be inaccessible to the poor and the homeless.”

As I read through the seven page document, it struck me that it could, with a few minor changes, serve as a memorandum of a community or movement today against the current ANC government, many leaders of which were leaders of the UDF back in 1990. It is tragic that the squatter communities that forced the apartheid government to develop its strategies of ‘orderly urbanisation’ and ‘controlled squatting’ in the late 1980s are among the very settlements that are today facing the heavy hand of the ANC government as they rise up to demand the lives that they believed they were fighting for in the struggle against apartheid. What the UDF was fighting against not so long ago was precisely the formalisation of informal conditions of living that the above apartheid policies were designed to entrench, and that the ANC government today seems to be pursuing. But this deserves a blog on its own… soon…

The Monster Intellect Of Ronald Suresh Roberts

Just two chapters into Ronald Suresh Roberts’s book about Thabo Mbeki and I’m already seething. I guess what pisses me off most is the fact that Mr Roberts sets as his standard for measuring ‘native intelligence’, the very white society that he wants us to believe he (and the President) have surpassed intellectually. As a start to showing just how little of ‘an enigma’ Thabo Mbeki is, Mr Roberts spends much time, in the opening chapter, describing Mbeki’s walk about the Afrikaans suburbs of Pretoria one afternoon, handing out ANC election pamphlets, engaging with ‘Pretoria’s Afrikaners’ about their daily lives. Mr Roberts points out that Afrikaners saw Mbeki as ‘ordinary’ and ‘humble’ that day, and that Mbeki was ‘moved’ by ‘how far so many whites are from discontent’. It is an attempt by Mr Roberts at making seem natural an Mbeki who is friendly, approachable, caring, and likeable, supportive of reconciliation and the well-being of all South Africans. Different from the enigmatic image of the President that Mr Roberts accuses the mainstream media of creating – that of the cold, distant, serious, unapproachable and un-Mandela-like man.

Making Mr Roberts’s day, and becoming the hook for the chapter, is a spur-of-the-moment decision by Mbeki to invite a woman he meets on the streets to join him that evening in a meeting he’s to have with Charlize Theron. The woman and two of her friends are quickly bundled into a car and whisked off, with Mbeki, to the gathering with the star. Mr Roberts clearly chooses this example to try to endear us to an Mbeki who can also be spontaneous and frivolous, able to connect with the desires of ‘ordinary people’. But what starts out as an attempt by Mr Roberts to prove that Mbeki can be just like Mandela soon becomes a celebration of Charlize Theron, Mbeki’s character being seen to shine through in the ways in which he interacts with ‘South Africa’s star’. And this is where it gets a little puzzling for me. Remarking on Theron’s comments to Mbeki that winning the Oscar was ‘a kind of farewell to monsters’ for her, Mr Roberts writes, “Theron’s farewell to monsters reads nicely as a break with the long tradition that Jean-Paul Sartre highlighted in his famous preface to Franz Fanon’s The Wretched Of The Earth: ‘the European has only been able to become a man through creating slaves and monsters.’ Theron was hardly man, or monster, nor was she creating any. She was confidently African, sharing her talents, out in the world.” And when Theron responds to Mbeki that she’s been in America for ten years, Mr Roberts waxes on, “There it was: the maestro moment. Almost to the day, Theron’s entire career was very precisely twinned with the new South Africa’s freedom. She had made herself part of a free country’s offering to the world. The April 1994 liberation vote was also her own liberation from the Zola Budd drag-down factor that had blighted the careers of apartheid South Africa’s whites for decades.” Mr Roberts then records, with awe, the gesture reserved for heads of state that Mbeki then confers on Theron – he walks her to her car! It is in this act that we are supposed to feel this ‘other side’ to Mbeki. Mbeki’s reaction to Theron’s Oscar success is later quoted by Mr Roberts – “Ms Theron, in her own personal life, represents a grand metaphor of South Africa’s move from agony to achievement.”

I’m not sure. Is the President’s ‘native intelligence’ really to be apprehended in his celebration of the ‘spirit of African rebirth’ in Charlize Theron??? [The opening chapter is titled ‘A Kind Of Farewell To Monsters’: Mbeki’s Africanism And Charlize Theron’.] Or was this just a photo opportunity for the President to show the hated media a different side? And why would Mr Roberts choose this example through which to illustrate the President’s ‘other side’?

Friends in Orange Farm remember the President differently when it comes to photo opportunities. A couple of years ago, residents of Orange Farm packed their stadium to listen to Mbeki speak. There was also the promise of people being given title deeds. People waited. The President didn’t ever arrive. On the news that night, he was shown visiting the home of one pensioner in Orange Farm, handing over a title deed. Other residents are still waiting for their title deeds. Residents say that it was the only title deed handed out that day.

And I guess this is what it comes down to. In setting himself up to prove the mainstream media and ‘illiberal society’ (largely white society) wrong about its perceptions of Mbeki, and the organised left wrong in general, Mr Roberts completely ignores the voices and critiques of many South Africans that have been silenced, erased, ignored, exploited and/or misrepresented in and by the mainstream media and by government and the ANC. He also ignores the fact that many among these voices chose not to vote in the last elections. Those who see Mbeki as responsible for their water and electricity cut-offs, their evictions, the introduction of prepaid meters, the broken promises of the ANC… While Mr Roberts celebrates the ANC and Mbeki being voted back into office in the last elections, he spends no time looking at drops in the numbers of people voting. Or the rise in the number of protests demanding proper service delivery. In fact, he spends little time backing up any of the sweeping claims he makes throughout these first chapters. Skimming through the rest of the book very quickly, he seems to address some of these concerns only through his rebuttals of the critiques of Mbeki that he finds in the writings of white intellectuals and activists of the ‘anti-globalisation movement’, such as Naomi Klein and Patrick Bond. Nowhere in Mr Roberts’s writings do we find the voices of Black intellectuals from movements who have, in struggle and in writing, criticised Mbeki for the policies that he has championed, which undoubtedly contribute to the kind of person he is seen as. Voices which have also been silenced and misrepresented in and by the mainstream media. Perhaps it is because these voices are not ‘refined enough’ even for ‘the native intellect’ to consider.

It would seem that Mr Roberts, so completely enamoured by the values and measures of ‘intelligence’ celebrated by those he critiques, cannot escape the need to prove that he (and President Mbeki) are ‘just as good’, ‘if not better’ than those who preach that ‘the natives’ are not ‘fit to govern’, at exactly what they do. It would seem as if Mr Roberts has something of what the few Black intellectuals he quotes so liberally (like Fanon) and those he ignores (like Steve Biko), might call an inferiority complex. So, his book is a response to some of the grand white theorists on race and critics of Mbeki, crafted in the language of the great white writers of the world – Mbeki’s use of poets like Shelley features often in Roberts’s first chapters. The tragedy is that Mr Roberts is selling his book as representative of radical Black intellectual thought in South Africa today. Not only does it speak almost entirely to the interests and fears of white society, but it is a poor intellectual product by any standards. In the end, there is nothing ‘native’ (in a subversive sense) about Mr Roberts’s work. Instead, he cannot escape being ‘the native’ who needs to be affirmed by his master. Having grown so accustomed to the ways of the westerner, he can measure his own self worth only by the standards of the society that has made him ‘a native’ (understood as a category of inferiority in relation to white, colonising society).

Anyway, I hope I make it through the rest of the book. If only to write a proper denouncing of it.

Sushi, Sun And Struggle By The Sea


For the first time in my life, last week, I found myself on the inside of a conference being protested – the Sanpad poverty conference in Durban. Invited as a speaker, I had anticipated little less than an academic menu seasoned lightly by some social movement voices. Judging from the programme and location of the conference (the R1000 a night Elangeni beachfront hotel), it seemed as though a number of compromises had already been made in its organising. And, quite a few social movement activists and progressive academics had been part of the organising committee. Imagine my surprise, then, when on the first day I was informed by one of the conference organisers that a protest was being planned by comrades in Durban for that evening’s opening ceremony where the mayor, Logie Naidoo, would be speaking. The plan was to disrupt his speech and insist that he accept a memorandum from protesters. I had planned on skipping the ceremony entirely, but now asked dutifully what I should do. ‘Should we be inside or outside?’ ‘Definitely inside’, came the response, ‘how else are we going to make sure Logie’s forced out? We need a critical mass inside the hall to have an impact’.

At seven that evening, I took my seat in the hall next to comrades from social movements from Johannesburg and Cape Town. As the mayor began to speak, we looked at each other in anticipation. We could hear toyi-toyiing at the door. The organisers were rushing to the back of the hall. Each time the door opened, we caught a bit of the singing and chanting outside. I waited for a shout from inside. Should I start the disruption inside? I decided it was not my place. There were other comrades from Durban in the hall. At the back, three rows of placards silently went up. Still no slogans from inside. The mayor continued to speak. Failing to get past the throng that had by now formed at the exit, I decided to return to my seat and observe what unfolded inside a gathering ‘under siege’. After all, I had been part of many such protests in the past, but had never been able to observe the reactions to them from the other side.

Undeterred by the rising volume outside, Logie Naidoo finished his speech as though nothing was amiss and returned to his seat dignifiedly, respectably, untouched by word or hand. In fact, he received applause for a rather insipid presentation. And every speaker to follow would now have something to open jokingly with – the protest action quickly finding its accepted place in the understanding of civil society that dominated the conference. In such spaces, there was a place for everyone. And those on the podium had had their turn on the side of protest. They had now graduated to policy and the ‘real world’. They understood the position of the protesters and would abide them, but the ceremony would go on. With the intervention of conference organisers, Logie Naidoo graciously met protesters demands and left the ceremony to accept their memorandum. The ceremony concluded, with local artists cruelly subjected to performing the anthems of our modern ‘rainbow nation’ and ‘continent of rebirth’, while pictures of beautifully vulnerable looking women and children adorning African bush landscapes were projected onto a screen behind them. The protesters dispersed, the fine dining offered by one of Durban’s finest establishments would follow. As I exited the hall, the only sign that there might have been a protest was the sudden emergence of numerous security guards around the conference centre.

I soon learnt about the details of the demonstration from protesting comrades who also happened to be delegates to the conference. As we made our way into the banqueting hall together, I learnt that comrades were quite happy with the night’s events as the mayor had indeed come out to accept their memorandum and their issues had made the news. Their target was not the conference as such, but the mayor. I was chastised for not insisting that I be let out of the hall as the idea was to open the back door as many times as possible to interrupt the proceedings with the noise of the toyi-toyi. As we settled down to a three course dinner (including lamb chops and red wine), serenaded by live jazz, I couldn’t help but feel uneasy. Comrades from Johannesburg joked that the protest had just been ‘part of the programme’. It was time to start partying. ‘Let’s toast to poverty’, said a comrade at our table. We all burst out laughing and clinked away. I guess this was an uneasiness we would all live with for the week.

Over the next few days, struggle would be relegated to the margins. One plenary and a few working group sessions allowing for the experience of struggles of the poor to interact with academic theories and research reports, the voices of social movement activists present at the conference would most often take the form of testimony, attesting to the severity of poverty today, seldom engaging with the statistics and econometric models being presented and affirmed in the many papers being presented, unable to show the effects of struggle on the very nature of poverty and policies designed to address it. The structure of discussions (both in panels and working groups) also worked against any meaningful engagement, debate and production of new ideas through the sharing of information. Instead, academic papers conforming to traditional forms of research and analysis were mainly presented, often not engaging with each other at all but standing alone as positions on the various issues being highlighted in a particular discussion’s theme. The length of presentations and the number of presenters per panel or working group also limited time for discussion and debate, and there was little real engagement with the positions presented. With each academic paper setting itself up to prove an overarching theory, any experiences gleaned through the research process came to serve this end. In the few discussions that I attended, there was little interrogation of the ways in which academia and the discourse of development themselves reinforce and (re)produce the relations, theories and hierarchies that sustain poverty.

Tagged onto a series of ‘poverty and …’ discussions, social movement experiences and the lives of poor women were erased from the majority of papers, presentations and discussions at the conference. Appearing almost as an afterthought in the programme, social movements and women (and gender issues more broadly) were explicitly included only as appendages to the main discussions on poverty. Behind this separation of issues and conceptualisation of the programme is a more dangerous approach to the organisation of debate and discussion in society – one that confines intellectual engagement and practices to academics, allowing ‘the poor’, ‘the activist’, ‘the social movement’ agency only as givers of value to theories produced on their behalf and/or in their interest. In this understanding, activists and community members can speak only of ‘their experiences’ and not to any of the research and theories being produced about them. Experience is also not seen as ever being productive of knowledge or theory. Instead, experiences need ‘theoretical translation’, and this task is restricted to the academic. To include social movement voices, then, a panel was set up entitled ‘the experiences of social movements and poverty’. With the exception of the panel on ‘politics and poverty’, in which the big men of the movements were given platforms to play to their crowds, no social movement activist sat on any of the other panel discussions or working group panels unless s/he has also worked in some kind of academic environment. The discussion on ‘social movements and poverty’ was led by a comrade working in an ngo working with movements. And women were, naturally, to be discussing ‘their issues’ in a small group tucked away in a small room talking about ‘the feminisation of poverty’.

Asked to write a paper on ‘the feminisation of poverty’ by Sanpad almost six months ago, I had decided to work through the topic with a group of women comrades in Orange Farm, a place I have had a close relationship with since 2000. Through a sharing of our different life experiences, we were able to interrogate some of the main ideas (re)produced by the mainstream discourse of ‘the feminisation of poverty’. In our discussions, we also developed a critique of the ways in which mainstream processes of research and writing about poverty and their prioritisation of women as ‘the poorest of the poor’ work to silence the voices of poor women (and men) and facilitate policy targeting that provides minimal levels of intervention in the lives of the poor on the part of the state, donors, and the private sector, allowing them to claim that they are addressing poverty in tangible ways when they are really just ‘letting themselves off the hook’ by denying their role in perpetuating the underlying causes of poverty (which are undeniably gendered). Two of us were allowed to present the paper in Durban. While we were hardly able to get through a quarter of our ideas in the time allotted to us, we were able to spark some interesting discussions about, among other things, the nature of the conference itself and the ways in which research (particularly academic research) entrenches differences and hierarchies that prevent those directly affected by poverty from having a voice in the mainstream discourse about poverty. This related not just to the issue of women, but to the poor in general. It is disappointing that the richness of the arguments made in our session did not have any resonance within the conference as a whole. It is also sad that our critique of the gendered mainstream discourse around poverty did not find space within the broader conference as I believe that it is an important one to be accepted and responded to by those who claim to be working in the best interests of the poor.

More importantly, I believe, we were denied the chance to show a different way of approaching intellectual pursuits about poverty, a method that challenges the belief that activists cannot engage in theoretical discussions and that intellectual engagements are the sole preserve of academics.

As we found each other in the massive hall on the occasion of the last night’s social event, we joked, as comrades from Joburg, Cape Town and Durban, that we had enjoyed a holiday together thanks to Sanpad. Later that night, full on sushi and drunk on savannahs and wine, we finally found our voice, taking over from the boring band hired to play cheesy covers with our toyi-toyiing. ‘From Cape to Cairo – Azania’ we sang determinedly against the hotel security adamant on reminding us that we were ‘in a hotel’ and eventually sending us all to bed under threat of calling the police.

In the closing session of the conference, organisers congratulated each other on their ability to include so many different people and groups. Social movements were thanked for bringing ‘colour’ to the conference. And, I guess, given the nature and role of Sanpad, the conference had served its function – bringing together a number of ‘experts’ in the development sector to share their research and thoughts on poverty. How it had done this, however, says a lot about how all of us think about our different roles in society and our relationship to intellectual pursuits. By accepting the form of the conference and each of us playing our designated roles in its delivery, we were again falling into the patterns of engagement set up for us as ‘academics’ and ‘activists’, the former allowed to produce intellectually, the latter providing the ‘practice’ to go with the theory. While holidays in Durban might be nice, I think it is time for us all to start thinking about different practices amongst us as we try to shape our ideas and other weapons for the fight against poverty.

A Nation Of Pimps

I don’t listen to the radio too often. But twice in the last month I’ve had the luxury of driving with sound. The pleasure of tuning into, among others, Gauteng’s ‘leading youth station’, Y-fm. On the first occasion, driving past groups of protesting public sector workers making their way into Braamfontein on the first day of the strike, as a weird kind of respite from her banter about which playas should always carry condoms with them, dj, Pabi Moloi, turned on the voice of some learned white gentleman for Mzansi’s youth to take advice from. His advice – how to get ahead in life by trying to live like your boss. Firstly, observe how your boss behaves closely. Notice how he is different from other employees, especially how he always puts the company before himself. In the learned gentleman’s experience, bosses were bosses because they didn’t concern themselves with their own petty worries. Instead, the company came before everything else in the boss’s life. For me, as a young South African, to be successful in life, I too would have to stop worrying about my petty problems and consider the life of my boss and the company first. I can’t say I stayed tuned long enough to hear Pabi’s take on the whole spiel. It was all a little too surreal for me, what with the numbers of red t-shirts and their ‘petty grievances’ swelling around me…

Fast forward to June 16th – Youth Day. I’m driving through the streets of Jozi again. Y is celebrating with a festival that’s receiving commentary on the station from dj, Bridget Masinga. R3000 worth of pimp juice is up for grabs. Listeners have to call in and describe how they see Mzansi’s youth in the next ten years in order to qualify for the prize which will allow one of them to set up a small business. Bridget’s enthusiastic about ‘vukuzenzele’, the ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ that is taking Mzansi’s youth, and all the potential out there for young people to succeed in life. In passing she encourages listeners to celebrate all that the youth of the past fought for and gave up for the youth of today. More importantly, she wants to know what the youth of today are doing for their future as this past should not have been in vain. It couldn’t be clearer – the spirit of the fallen young lions of South Africa is now to be invoked in service of the market. What else could there be for Mzansi’s ‘born frees’? And here is a respected one of these brave youth of the past, now a national leader, offering young people a chance at making something better of their lives and helping to advance the entrepreneurial spirit of the new nation with his pimp juice. How can we get the nation’s youth pimpin’? Callers are quick to bite – the first goes on about how bright the future is for the youth as a result of the many sacrifices and struggles of the youth of the past; so does the second. I switch channels. Three grubby little faces appear at my window, their arms outstretched. They’re shivering and the littlest one is crying. I fumble around for change…

Pimp juice – a green energy drink being brought into South Africa by well known politician, Matthews Phosa, and American mainstream musician, Nelly. An extraordinary partnership for an extraordinary drink. A green energy drink to boost your pimpin’ potential – your potential to sell yourself, your potential to sell others, your potential to sell. Pimp your way out of poverty – has a nice ring. Comrade Phosa says it stands for ‘positive intellectually motivated person’. Nelly says he’s giving a positive spin to something negative. I’ve tried but I can’t see the positive in pimp – not in the media hype behind the drink, not in Nelly’s song lyrics, and not in the lifestyle that pimp juice promotes.

I can’t say I’ve been able to get into this whole celebration of the pimp. The pimpin’ life and style’s never been my kinda scene. For me, bigger’s never been a guarantee of better. And bling’s almost always been proven to be hiding something scarier behind it – usually ignorance, insecurity and feelings of inferiority. But pimpin’s caught on really quickly in Mzansi. In fact, it’s quickly becoming a way of life. I guess what it boils down to is that you know you’re made when you can deliver the baitches to the bosses. And, I guess, that’s what makes me mad. It’s again about being some 1 in a bosses’ world.


It had been a cold, grey, wet week. Not much fun for a young one accustomed to the pleasures of wide open spaces in the sun filled with surprises. Endless hours of rain watching and fantasising soon became boring, especially as I did not yet have sisters and cousins old enough to share these times with. When the phone call came that night to say that one of our family’s old friends had passed away, something in the air suggested adventure. Within a few minutes of my dad receiving the news, my uncle (his only brother) arrived at our home. There was no question that they would have to attend the funeral. This was an old friend of their father’s with whom the family had shared a business relationship. The ‘old man’ had also been a presence in my dad and uncle’s lives, someone with whom they had shared many experiences. But attending the funeral was not a simple exercise – it would be a whole day’s affair. The ‘old man’ had died in Izingolweni, a rural area some way outside of Port Shepstone.

Not the kind of child to be left out of anything, and seeing my escape from the boredom of wet weather, I insisted that I be allowed to go with. I had seen the glint in the eyes of my dad and uncle when they spoke about the trip. I had seen it very seldom before, and knew that this was probably something i would not want to miss. In spite of my mum’s protestations, I nagged and sulked enough to be made part of the whole deal. For my dad, it became ‘a way for the child to learn’. And the next morning, bundled up ‘like an eskimo’, I settled into the backseat of my dad’s BMW, content to listen to the easy exchanges that would flow between the brothers. With niggling business related issues out of the way, the talk soon turned to boyish matters – stories of their childhood, and car escapades. In the few hours on the way to the funeral, I would be schooled in the many ways in which to enjoy your car on a wet and muddy road. My uncle behind the wheel, and the weather presenting quite a few challenges for driving, much of the talk focused on the best ways to negotiate curves in the mist at high speed. There were no pranks played yet, though lots of talk of skids and 360 degree turns. For now, I would have to rely on my imagination and the colour of their words, their daredevil speak tempered in action by the need to get to the funeral unfrazzled and the severity of the mist and rain. From my backseat perch, the hills and valleys on the way to Izingolweni became alive with promise and a strangely comfortable fear – a fear that comes with needing to discover the unknown, to explore in uncertainty, with the comfort of knowing you’re not alone.

As signs of life began emerging through the mist, my dad warned me to respect things that I saw that might be different to what I was used to. And not to ask too many questions. As I got out of the car and looked down on the kraal and huts with their fires burning, the wail of women’s voices in the background, I quietly slipped my hand into my uncle’s. There were warm hugs for my dad and uncle from the sons of the late friend, who had come up the hill to meet us, and slightly amused handshakes for me – the ‘young Naidoo’, the ‘young dokotela’. As we walked down the hill, the brothers shared their grief and concerns about their father’s death with us. This was not just some duty call that my uncle and dad were paying; these were people they were genuinely close to. I was secretly glad – we were not just coming to allow the family to say that the doctor of the town had come to pay his respects.

Shivering in spite of my ‘eskimo’ skin, I was most grateful for the roaring fire that we were immediately taken to. Its warmth had drawn all the men of the place. I wondered whether the wailing women ‘s place of gathering was just as warm. My dad and uncle introduced and welcomed, it was my turn – ‘son of the doctor’ came the words in zulu. I immediately turned to my dad, waiting for his correction. Instead, he just raised his eyebrows at me and smiled. I knew to be quiet and play along. As soon as the conversation started up, he would lean over and whisper to me – ‘Do you want to go and sit with the ladies? No, so just let them think you’re a boy. Ok?’ off course it was ok with me. I had no intention of being separated from my dad and uncle. Over the next few hours I listened to the stories of old men who had shared the life of the late friend, stories in which my uncle and dad featured as young boys, stories that had us all laughing as we celebrated the life of the ‘old man’. There wasn’t the usual air of sadness and solemnity that my young mind had come to associate with funerals. Instead, the community elder’s death had occasioned the roasting of freshly slaughtered meat on an open fire and the sharing of umqombothi especially brewed by the women of the place. Soon men would begin to dance and the stories would become more animated, with two to three people relating the same story. I watched in awe as my dad and uncle joined the ceremony of drinking, feasting, and story-telling that the men made amongst themselves that day in the middle of nowhere. Watching them be happy, I was happy too.

The drive home was a lot more edgy. Warmed by umqombothi and fired up by the memories of past adventures, my dad and uncle took turns behind the wheel, popping what I now know to be wheelies and playing dare with the curves in the mist. My fear again tempered by the comfort of their playful, carefree approach to the drive, I quickly settled into my own flurry of questions that I had been storing up all day – why were the men and women separated? Why did they slaughter animals? Why was it only the men who drank the beer when the women made it? Where were the women? Where was the body of the dead man? Off course, each answer set off a whole new lot of questions. As the bends became fewer and the lights of Margate bade farewell for us to the quiet and eerie splendour of the hills, I’d become much quieter, preparing all my stories to tell my mum. As we approached Port Shepstone, the mood in the car slowly became more serious, less easy. It was as if with each metre driven, my dad and uncle were leaving behind another bit of their freedom, their carelessness, their desire to live uncertainly, and picking up another bit of responsibility, duty, and obligation. ‘Don’t tell mummy about our driving, ok?’ my dad ventured, almost as if he were reading my thoughts. I nodded – the funeral was enough meat for my stories. My silence about the skids was little to pay for the secrets I’d been let into that day. Secrets I would cherish forever. Secret spaces I would desire forever.

It’s Not About A Woman President

I cringed one night many months ago when an Italian friend of mine asked us to sing ‘the Zuma song’ – ‘Awulethu ‘mshini wami’. Unknowingly, with his few words, he was erasing years of different memories and representations of a song that, I am sure, is a favourite of many who grew up in the struggle traditions of the liberation movement, for different reasons. Through its resounding chorus and refrain, allowing both male and female voices to enter it in playful ways, its melody has, in different situations, allowed for an overwhelming sense of unity, purpose, and collective power to be forged in different contexts. Far from the military monotony suggested by its words, the song succeeds only through the creative coming together of many different voices in many different parts and many different rhythms. Over time, collective renditions of the song have given various meanings to the words ‘give me my machine gun’, and political tendencies across the left spectrum have sung it proudly. I too have beautiful memories of this song – first hearing it sung by over 10 000 people at a mass rally at King’s Park in Durban in 1990; singing it with hundreds of other students at the University of Durban-Westville in my first occupation of a rector’s office in a 1991 anti-exclusions campaign; shouting it at police who opened fire on us in a march through West Street to Comrade Chris Hani’s memorial service in 1993; singing it in various ‘battles’ in struggles for the transformation of higher education in the 1990s; singing it with new words as a member of the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF) in 2000 – ‘give us our electricity’…

But, today, it is ‘the Zuma song’, having been appropriated and deployed in the narrow interests of an individual and his followers. For Zuma, ‘his machine gun’ is the ANC, and, in his fight to defend his reputation and livelihood, its symbols, songs, values, principles, and policies have become the bullets.

Having been an ANC member, I too have known the immense power and sense of self-righteousness that having the ANC as your ‘machine gun’ can give you. I have also known what it is like to have that ‘machine gun’ turned against you. It is the kind of power that has respect for very little, the kind of power that abuses the law, commitments to democracy, non-racialism, and gender equality, its very own principles, the kind of power that has been bred on years of practice at the manipulation of policy and process for individual or narrow sectarian gain.

But I have also known and learnt the power of collective action and struggle in and through the ANC – the kind of power that makes your wardrobe green, gold and black, the kind of power that makes you stand in the line of fire together with your comrades, the kind of power that makes you believe that freedom is possible and makes you struggle for it in spite of your chains. I can still remember the great spirit of warmth and comfort I felt walking into the Diakonia Centre in Durban just after the unbanning of the ANC and finding unqualified acceptance by people I had never met before, calling me ‘comrade’.

But over time, as ‘the enemy’ became less singular, and differences began to surface within our ranks, ‘comrade’ came to mean more than comfort and cover. It came to demand unqualified loyalty to positions I didn’t always believe in, and knowing when to be quiet, as ‘organisational discipline’ was what defined a ‘good comrade’.

For as long as I believed in the charade of democracy and collective decision-making and action, I submitted myself to organisational processes and the ‘will’ and ‘desire’ of the ANC, accepting ‘deployment’ in several of its structures over the years, and often silencing my own voice in defeats by stronger ‘majorities’. Like most of my comrades, my own will to effect change became subsumed in the processes and programmes of the ANC and its mission to effect change, one that I believed was collectively shaped and determined. But learning to speak my mind and in my own voice revealed that the organisation itself was constantly under contestation. While the ‘democratic floor’ of the organisation gave the veneer of openness and equality in decision-making processes, the workings of cabals and cliques with varying levels of influence and power actually determined the programme of the organisation. Over time, the power of different groupings would also change according to their access to control over state resources and instruments, such as the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), used to police suspected ‘counter-revolutionary forces’. While the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) was understood commonly within the ANC as a means to ‘deepen democracy’ through the transformation of the state in order to address ‘the national question’ (understood as racial oppression) and there was general agreement about the economic policy direction that it adopted, the label ‘counter-revolutionary’ was mobilised to rid the Congress movement of ‘the ultra-left’. As different cabals and cliques would come to contest the leadership of the ANC, the NDR would come under contestation, with the left within the Congress Alliance arguing that the NDR has been ‘hijacked’ by big capital, with black economic empowerment (BEE) becoming the vehicle for the ‘national question’ to be addressed and the needs of the working class and poor being neglected. While there is little to suggest that the political camp opposing Mbeki has a much more radical economic programme to put forward, the NDR has become its means of critiquing its opponents.

I started out writing this piece many months ago when President Mbeki announced that his choice for a successor would be a woman. My agenda was to try to show how his statements had nothing to do with a woman becoming president but everything to do with keeping Jacob Zuma out of the seat. And how the ANC, as an organisation and political tradition, would become the vehicle through which the succession battle would be waged. In particular, I foresaw the mobilisation of the principle of non-sexism in favour of a female candidate loyal to Mbeki. And the equally ambitious deployment of a critique of ‘gender tokenism’ by the Zuma camp. I did not anticipate the scale at which the traditions, values, principles, and commitments of the Congress movement would become the weapons of the war between the two factions.

As events unfolded in the Jacob Zuma affair and the succession saga, it became more difficult to complete the piece. However, with each new incident, my initial views seemed to be substantiated. During this period, I also had the fortune of interviewing some of my old comrades for a project that I’ve just completed looking at the role of the South African Students’ Congress (SASCO) in the period after 1994 in the higher education sector, most of whom now sit in influential positions in different organisations of the Congress movement. In all of these interviews, people spoke about their extreme frustration at the ways in which spaces for debate and discussion had closed down in the Alliance. Everyone still involved in Alliance structures spoke of how no one is able to speak without being labelled a supporter of one of the two current political camps, and of how divisions and alliances were formed mainly in order to secure the business interests of groups of members. For example, ANC meetings would often involve members proposing projects which would then be tendered for at government level with organisational support. In many instances, projects would be created purely for individuals to access government money. The succession saga was as much about people’s individual survival and success in life as it was about the leadership of the ANC and the country.

While the ANC policy conference has ended without the resolution of any of the major points of difference between camps in the organisation, and with no real deviations from past commitments with regard to economic policy, Kgalema Mothlanthe has taken the opportunity to highlight the fact that the organisation has, at the end of the day, presided over everything and everyone, ruling against the interests of any one faction. Experience has, however, taught that the real decisions are made outside of the conference halls and formal discussions, in the cabals and cliques that play organisational tradition and games ‘behind the scenes’. While it is quite clear that Mbeki’s statements many months ago now had nothing to do with a woman becoming president, it is less clear what other tactics will be employed in the coming months as the race for the presidency of the ANC heats up. What is certain in all of this is that the ANC has not, as Mothlanthe would like us to believe, survived as a democratic and all-inclusive space in which ‘robust debate’ can happen and drives programmes of action. Instead, ‘robust debate’ has, over a long period of time, come to serve as the means by which difference and dissent is contained.