A Conversation from Lenasiaby Rithuli Orleyn / 23.11.2012
I feel like a kind of wound. Like ‘A kind of blue’, whose open structure, latitudes and spaces have been shut out by the rigid hierarchies of western classical composition. In a trope of jazz metaphors, retroactive refiguring fucks up the chronology of historical timelines. Suddenly Miles predates Mozart. And Round about midnight predates the 9th Symphony. If Monk came before Ludwig, we, in the present, are uncouth and vulgar, a wound that festered even after Biko had treated it with the proper antidote.
The vulgarity of contrasting images of Zumaville and Lenasia more than unearths a symbolic political toxicity buried beneath what words can shape into speak. It digs out a grammar of suffering.
I am listening to Miles Davis, and talking to a 19 year old girl, Nomvuyo, who is squatting at my house, as a makeshift provision, so that she could finish her matric exams. We are total strangers except for sharing a clan name. Her marternal totems are baboons (Mamfene), and my mother is the same.
I tell her, reassuringly, that I know how it feels to live with strangers. Unnerving. She nods cautiously, so as not to seem ungreatful of my do-gooding gesture to keep her in my house until the exams are over. I continue, “for three months during the merger/transition of Transkei University becoming WSU, I felt so displaced, squatting at the mercies of acquaintances or total strangers for a place to sleep. I could hardly get my periods regularly.” An anguished look, unmasking the empty etiquette of small talk, appeared as Nomvuyo mentioned the street where they lived.
“She told me something about the neighbourhood.” Nomvuyo said. “All that’s gone now”.
“What do you mean all gone? Some houses are still left”. I said.
She says, “this is like a recurring nightmare to me.”
A retrospective trope casting history in a sort of ‘deferred action’, a delayed trauma. Like time had swapped events. Like Zumaville had been the vulgarity that Biko came to correct when he gave us Zanempilo self-help clinics at a time we had the least power. I listen.
“You would think we could show more care for our people now that we have more power than Biko had”. I say. She cocks her head to the side to release a tension from her neck, and braces herself to confide.
“This is like a wound that won’t heal… Our situation I mean.” The same thing had happened in Cape Town when Nomvuyo was little, after that, things were never okay between her mother and ‘step-father’, Ben. But things just went haywire.
Gathering clouds of grief fall on her face in the form of furrows on her ridge. Her father was a typical black sperm donor who thought nothing of jettisoning babies as soon as he soils the many birth-canals that queued up for his guttural cries of ejaculation. Her mother’s boyfriend Ben, had been the only semblance of sanity for her: a breadwinner and a cherished Maths and Science help for her school work. After the evictions, in Cape Town, a proverbial spanner was thrown in the works. Her life and that little bit of stability had become a whirlwind.
“The whole street was gone; there’s nothing but trees now.”
She inhales and puts her hands around her throat – as though to indicate she can’t breathe.
“They said it’s for enviromental reasons that we were made homeless in Cape Town. They are keeping a biodiversity of a unique species of butterfly from extinction.” It’s supposed to be more important, than our livelihoods. These butterfies are only found in Cape Town.
“That really hurt. I felt less important than a butterfly. Or a fly, for that matter. I could be crushed and nobody would be bothered. Like a body stolen and cut off from its life-supply, a body cut off from its motives. That’s how I felt. And each attempt to clothe the ludicrousness of destroying our homes, with reason, each syllable just seemed to strip me naked. It revealed the ‘general powerlessness’ of my black body.”
Nomvuyo drew me the street and put the names of the people in the houses (both the Lenasia eviction and the one that happened in Cape Town) who lived there at the time. Nomvuyo had just been on the phone with her mom’s ex, Ben. He had called to ask her how she was coping with exams pending, in the light of the evictions that appeared on TV. I could hear Nomvuyo mouthing, “it’s fine,” incongruous with the contortion on her face. Unconvincing.
As if Ben, from the other end of the line, knew that Nomvuyo’s words and her facial expression spoke past each other, he mediated that cross-talk and said, (as Nomvuyo told me later), “I felt the same way when we were mowed by a front-end loader from Cape Town, 20 houses went flat. Gone. And then with gravity in his voice he says, “that was an erasure of our very essence.”
“That cold display of power over powerlessness was very disturbing to me.” He adds.
“How so,” Nomvula asked.
“That knelling bell of noisy absence.” He said. “That. Not just the material house. But the place where all those memories were. There sits a bottomless absence that is overwhelming. It felt like a death in the family, and that death broke my relationship with your mother. No amount of money can remake that warmth of coming home to you and Thobeka, your mother… In a sense.” Ben went Silent.
Several seconds pass.
And Nomvuyo just says: “He hung up.” Then Nomvuyo speculates, “his airtime must have been exhausted.”
“Even if I pass matric by exemption,” she continues. “It will never fill the void: that sense that, though I am, I am not.”
I ask her if Ben heard that?
“I dont think he got that.” Nomvuyo said.
Then I asked Nomvuyo, what else did Ben say on the phone, because her eyes were welling with tears.
“I asked Ben where he lives now, and He said, ‘I live in places that I love. And I’d hate to lose them. Sometimes with friends, and sometimes as a backyard dweller. In all of that I have learnt that home is an idea rather than a place. It’s where you feel safe. Where you’re among people who are kind to you. They don’t have to like you always – but they’ll not hurt you. And if you’re in trouble they’ll help you'”. Nomvuyo pauses. And she says, “I think I am speaking for Ben too when I say, we’ve moved from that in this country.”
And then Nomvuyo said: “This country hurts its own people. As if it never had the example of people like Biko, who laid down their lives as visionaries. Visionaries to teach us that when the least amongst us hurts, all of us hurt. To teach us that freedom for some, is freedom for none.”
Ever since that conversation with Nomvuyo, I have been constantly mulling over her words: “We are a wound that won’t heal!”
I am compelled to agree. Like Nietzsche said: “There are occurrences of such a delicate nature that one does well to cover them up with some rudeness to conceal them.” I think that’s the rudeness displayed by the Zuma government, an attempt to conceal those who are a pariah in our own land. The nothing that Zuma is, feels embarrased by the sprawling landless and squatter-camped nothings that the majority of blacks are, like Nomvuyo, Ben and Thobeka. There is something about our pain of being black, in this world, that resides in that progressively ‘wordless’ space that seeps through and spills over into every attribute of our being.
This is something so fragile in our collective political sickness (hallucinatory-whiteness), a lurking emptiness in our black identity, an identity organised by settler colonial displacement, an identity of disjuncture and brokenness. An identity with no Oedipal complex ordering it into full-grown selfhood. This fragile thing has been our infantilised identity throughout history. An identity with no ‘fathers’. More to the point, an identity with “white fathers”. The fathers of gratuitous violence. The “law of the father”, the law of gratuitous violence against the black body is now reproduced by blacks against other blacks. This is a fragility that masks itself in the wrapping of our existential vulgarity.
We have a culture of squalor on one extreme, and on the other end a vulgarity that masks itself in decadent wealth and opulence, like Zumaville – a safety cask opulence that isolates the few among us. Certainly an opulence that isolates Zuma from the grinding experience of the majority. Those few who have acquired honorary white status, to momentarily cure their hallucinatory-whiteness, do not only do so in the suburbia of those Sandton double-story houses. They display their islands of freedom even in incongruous neigbhourhoods like Nkandla. In everyday reality you find many upwardly mobile blacks who think Zumaville marks black progress. Those who cover their nothingness behind their self-hate veils with tasteless opulence. Those class and LSM categories work as value-place holders from where these blacks can attain some semblance of normalcy and relationality with the Other, the “desired other”, the white.
The same Zuma in March this year displayed on TV a parrot-like commodity fetishism in that extended morning live broadcast. He laughed, pleased by the sound of his voice during a Q&A session, and he continued in the path of the obscene by asking blacks to be patient for 20 more years for what he calls: the next 20 years of “economic revolution”. It seems we should remain patient, whilst he renovates his palace with our tax money. Yet he is so impatient with us when we eke out a semblance of home for our families. It’s a freedom constantly deferred for us, but certainly enjoyed by those in power, in the present. How did we get to be led (ruled even) by a president who doesn’t know shit, and people who don’t care about us? How did we get to this place of decadence and still continue as if nothing is wrong?
Our world, not by our own choice, is ordered this way. At the highest level of our pain, as blacks, in this world, is the “talk code” that best represents our suffering. It is captured in the words: “accumulated rubble”. We are objects in the world of subjects, and we are a utilitarian gooey lump (as opposed to being unique bodies, who can stand and be identified as individuals with selfhood and subjectivity). We are shepherded to the voting booth regularly like cows, and then disposed of faster than a toilet paper.
The reality of our sickness is that we want to be white. That is the DNA desire of our leaders. It is best captured in the words of Smuts Ngonyama when he said, “I did not struggle to be poor”. Now, Zuma might not have uttered those words but, we see it in the vulgarity that contrasts Zumaville on the backdrop of a poor community. The desire “to be” is a foreign desire. We have desires of captive bodies. Slave desires. We are fucked!
Our being constructed by whiteness in the zone of invisibility, so that whiteness can be visible, manifests itself in the way that Zumaville dwarfs and makes his neigbhours invisible.
When we live our everyday reality we tend to lurch onto anything that seems to give us the idea that we are “alive”… The comfort of the township plantation is referred to endearingly with terms like: “ghetto fabulous”. And the pursuit of opulence on the other end: prospecting rights that ANC comrades toss around amongst themselves, signifying those who are more equal than others. This opulence creates an illusion of safety that blankets the poor quality of life experienced by the majority of our people, littered all around.
That is why we are good for the bullets in Marikana and front-end loaders in Lenasia. Indeed we are a deep seated psychological wound. A wound that won’t heal.