Friday, July 8, 2016

On Mining and Labour

For many years now, since even during the economic “boom” years of the Mbeki administration with its promises of trickle down prosperity, mining has contributed increasing less and less to the nation’s gross domestic product (and yet, if UNCTAD reports are to be believed, has received the bulk of foreign direct investment flowing into South Africa, even with a 74% drop in total FDI between 2014 and 2015). In the ten years between 2005 and 2015 mining (and quarrying, as it is classified in SARB reports) has decreased by an average of 0.35% annually, continuing a steady trend downwards. A trend the origins of which can be traced back as far as 1993 when mining held the lion’s share of contributions to GDP at levels close to 20% before reaching 12% by 2015. 

For nearly 150 years, the men (and, lately, women) of this country have toiled underground, at great risk to their lives, to dig up ore of varying composition and quality. Gold, our most prized element - holding, as we do, the worlds largest known reserves of the stuff - comes out in such poor quality ore that one ton of earth must be excavated to yield a mere 5.6 grams of pure gold. That alone should have been enough to divert resources to unlocking the secret of the philosopher’s stone, were it not for the notion of “cheap labour” that we have become most famous for over these past few centuries. Today we have the curious situation where, as noted in a tweet by mining and labour analyst Mamokgethi Molopyane, “those who actually do (the) physical work to create the wealth of this country earn less than R5 000 on average”.

On August 16, 2012, 34 miners were ruthlessly gunned down by members of the South African Police Services’ Public Order Policing unit. Their crime: demanding an across the board minimum monthly salary of R12 500 - twelve comma five like the big bag of sugar/flour/mielie meal that gets many low income families going through the month. You would have to be blind to the everyday reality of thousands of households who depend on incomes as meagre as R4 500/month that some mine workers reported to be earning at the time - for some, unchanged since the 80s - to miss the poignant and poetic symbolism contained in demanding itwelf-koma-five. Even after the tragic event, even after the international outrage and national mourning that followed and continues even to this day, those miners are yet to realise their dream of earning what was then slightly less than the national average for the year. Every time there is any protest that seeks social justice involving anything to do with money, the reflex reaction from those appointed to mind the gates to the bountiful wealth of this country is to blame the economy for not being efficient enough to produce equitable outcomes - as though they themselves aren’t active agents in the working of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”. For mine workers on the platinum belt, the excuse was the financial meltdown of 2008 and the sluggish global recovery therefrom. 

Thomas Piketty, seemingly playing devil’s advocate and referring directly to the tragedy at Marikana, argued in Capital in the 21st Century that perhaps the best way to proceed would be full disclosure on the financial state of the mine, using the example of Rhenish capitalism as a lesson in how to reconcile competing interests in industry (profit maximising vs maximising the price for which individuals trade leisure for labour, according to the neoclassical model). But full disclosure is not a thing one can trust South African mining houses with, as evidenced by the tasking of the Davis Tax Committee by the National Assembly to look into transfer pricing. For the uninitiated, transfer pricing is the commonplace act of moving profits from the operational organisation to a separate but related organisation, usually one registered in a tax haven, in order to “avoid” (and evade) taxes in the land where the profits were first earned. The committee, comprised of some of South Africa’s sharpest economic and legal minds including experts on inequality like Prof. Ingrid Woolard, have gone on record citing the many challenges they face in determining when such pricing is indeed avoidance (which is legal) and what is evasion (which is illegal). Such challenges also include the lack of capacity within the state revenue agency, SARS, to investigate and bring offenders to justice. What chance then do mineworkers have - many of whom are barely literate, -against such sophisticated obfuscation that confounds even those who profess to be experts in their field?

On March 22, 2016, Sikhosiphi Bazooka Rhadebe was murdered in his home, while his family watched helplessly. For him, this was a culmination of a long fight against the awarding of rights to a foreign multinational behemoth to mine the pristine and picturesque sands of Xolobeni - a stretch of virtually untouched beach on the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape. It is not known definitively who killed Bazooka, or who, if indeed at all, ordered his assassination. What is known is that there is a large Australian mining company interested in the titanium that lies, ripe for the picking, in the sands of those beaches. Politics of the stomach have given rise to an internecine conflict within the community represented by AmaDiba of Xolobeni. Sluggish economic growth, growing unemployment all serve to create a powder keg of conditions within the community with those who see the job opportunities presented by potential mine operations pitting themselves against those who wish to retain the community’s control of the land. It is not the intention of this article to put intentions in the minds of this latter group, but instead to outline a perspective on the history of mining and the notion of citizens acting merely as labour for the enrichment of foreign interests.

Mining is clearly on the decline and, as also astutely observed by Molopyane in another tweet, South Africa needs to prepare for a life after mining. South Africa should have started preparing for such a reality when mining first lost first place to financial services with regards to contribution to GDP nearly a decade ago. Currently in third place (if we disregard government services), there doesn’t seem to be any hope of a resurgence, especially considering the fact that mining by definition deals in non-renewable resources. The only way in which mining could re-emerge as the champion of economic growth is through the discovery of new mineral deposits such as those at Xolobeni. However, the idea that the community residing in the area - a community that faces great upheaval should mining go ahead, including the disruption of burial grounds - should serve only to as a source of cheap labour to mine the wealth of the land of their ancestors to expatriate to the asset portfolios of foreigners is beyond insulting. Knowing what we know about the exploitation of South African mine workers, we cannot, in all good conscience, stand by and allow the repetition of the mistakes of yore, which all but brought the economy of this country to its knees. 

It cannot be denied that the people of Xolobeni are sitting on a proverbial gold mine. For them to not realise, in real monetary terms, the wealth contained in those sands while trying to keep the wolf of poverty at bay would be a great tragedy. Add to this the very real possibility that strong lobby groups paid for with Australian dollars may eventually manage to sway the government to force the community to accede to the pressure, and the tragedy takes on the aspects of dark comedic farce. A combination of Rhenish capitalism, cooperative mining and public-private partnerships where the community retains complete equity on mining operations and merely pays fees (regulated by government to ensure fairness) to the mining houses and related operators for the management and operations of the mine seems like the best option. From this the community may follow the path of nations like Saudi Arabia and Norway who have built vast sovereign funds from their natural resource endowments and are now able to diversify away from these as they move into a future that is not threatened by the declining reserves of non-renewables.

[Originally published in the Comment & Analysis section of the Mail & Guardian's 02 June 2016 edition. Also available here.]

Friday, June 3, 2016

The Blues of Being a Stay-At-Home Gay

“I don’t know when love became so elusive /all I know is no one I know has it”, Beyoncé says as I contemplate my own love life on board a flight from Johannesburg to East London. I was trying to stir up the FOMO of the lady seated next to me by watching Lemonade during the flight and instead found myself deep in my own feels. I think I know when love became elusive for me - it was the day I discovered internet dating sites and apps. The first time I realised the internet could be used to find love, as a young freshman at Fort Hare, I soon realised that they only really worked in the big cities. They worked even better overseas. But doesn’t everything though? (Don’t answer that.)

Returning home last year to become a part-time stay-at- home gay while figuring this funemployment thing out, my sex life abruptly became the no life of my younger days. It used to be that when you returned from “the mountain”, your parents bought you a new bedroom suite and built you a backroom where you could live out your manhood to its fullness. The backroom is a rite of passage in and of itself. It’s the aspiration of many a young boy growing up in a township home. For a time, I did have a backroom at home but I relinquished it for economic migration to the big city (and the promise of busier Manhunt and Grindr pages) before I could really put it to optimal use. Without an established pattern of behaviour (and without the requisite knack for the age-old tradition of ukungenisa) I returned an old dog reluctant to learn new tricks and settled for an inside-house room where the wifi signal is stronger.

When I was in the big city, I wasn’t quite as shumanekile as I am now. My experience of some 20 years as a practicing homosexual has led me to some of the darkest parts of male sexuality. Not least of which is evinced in the unrelenting fuckboism that is Grindr (or indeed any of the many dating/hookup platforms available to same-sex loving men). The greatest of which comes neatly packaged as a set of “preferences” most commonly hurled at you by various headless torsos and other NSFW avatars. “NO FATS!” “NO FEMMES!” “NO BLACK!” “NO ASIANS!” are by far the most popular. One may rightfully argue that this is indeed a simple matter of preference. A favourite aunt of mine would say “de gustibus non disputandum est” - there’s just no disputing taste (aphorisms always seem to hold more weight when expressed in a foreign and/or dead language spoken only to sound like a pompous git). We all have preferences - for example I prefer Chicken Licken hot wings with the hot sauce to Nando’s any kind of wings. What I don’t do, however, is stand in the middle of the food court at The Mall of Africa and shout that out at the top of my voice. My analogy is simplistic and borderline egregious, but it serves my argument well in that, by extension, what civilised people are expected to do is to wait to be offered the undesired wings before politely declining without even mentioning a preference for wings that aren’t Portuguese. It’s humiliating and dehumanising to Portuguese chickens.

With a population of 267 000 (if Wikipedia is to be believed), after making the necessary adjustments for demographics (locating the sweet spot in the male population between Ben10 and half-past blesser), eligibility, queer-drain (like brain-drain, but with queers) and so on, the only people left are the four other gay men in my East London circle of friends. The worst thing is at my age, even as an openly out homo, I am starting to get the “when are you getting married” question a lot at family gatherings (damn you Constitution of South Africa!) Soon one of my siblings will be getting married and I need to be prepared. So my mission between now and then is to find someone to be my date to the wedding, so that when I get asked that question I can deflect and point to him on some “mbuze, nanku”. That ought to buy me some time I think. Or get me chose. Either way, I win.

[Originally published in the Friday section of the 6 May 2016 edition of the Mail & Guardian.]

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Passing The Bhokhwe

A little while ago I was sitting at my workstation at home minding my own business, as one does. The radio, which I wasn’t really paying attention to, was tuned into uMhlobo Wenene FM - the midmorning weekday show, Khanya Gqiyazana, was on. The show normally deals with issues around gender, “with a bias towards women issues”. I sat down at my work station to begin the day’s work when just then the host announced what the following segment on the show would be about. 

There’s something about being other that makes you acutely aware of when the temperature in the room changes and you sense that what will follow will leave you feeling naked and exposed. The host began by explaining how as Xhosa people we practice our customs with a certain pageantry that relies heavily on the gender binary as an anchor. Suddenly the room got cold. Her question to her listeners that morning was how did those she described as “amadoda athandana namanye amadoda” (men who love other men) handle those situations.

Ever since the very public traditional wedding in KwaDukuza between two men in 2013 that went viral across the world (ending in a zealously instagrammed divorce two years later), the topic of marrying tradition to constitutional freedoms has been a recurring one, mostly on social media networks. I consider myself a traditionalist, because that’s just how I was raised. In the same way that someone thinks themselves to be Jewish or Muslim, I consider myself to be umXhosa. I also just happen to be indoda ethandana namanye amadoda.

The radio show host invited calls exclusively from men who self-identified as such.  Knowing they were likely to attract trolls, they spared no effort in screening the calls. When the first caller eventually got through he took the host completely by surprise. He spoke with a bass in his voice that sounded like it had the power to shake the foundation of a heteronormative home. His Xhosa was uninflected, radiating a mixture of Model C twang lying just under the surface of his down home country boy charm. “Bhuti uthandana namanye amadoda phofu?”, she asked a little suspiciously, like he’d slipped through her carefully constructed firewall. “Ewe, ndithandana namanye amadoda”, he boomed proudly out of the radio speakers. 

The call ended at that point and the signature music came on. You could almost sense the host’s disappointment at so uneventful and far from titillating conversation. A little while later, the host returned to announce that she had just been informed that there are what are termed “butch” men who love other men. God bless her producer for trying to educate her but it was all such a mess. The show was not going as she had hoped and she was starting to fray at the edges. A few other callers came on and in the end she found one caller who managed fit her narrow fetishism of queer men who don’t “pass”.

As someone who easily switches between masculine and feminine expression, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve had to “pass” when around family, especially extended family. It’s just easier for me - it may not be for someone else. When you’re black, being a family is a lot of work. Even the word for the things that bring us together as family and friends “imisebenzi” - literally “works”. For me, passing is the path of least resistance.

I’ve seen others pass too. I’ve also seen others who don’t. I’ve also encountered feminine men who self-identify as straight. It’s really not that linear. 

I remember once my mother asked me how I was going to have children. Her concern was how I was going to carry on the family name. A fair question, now that I look back - I wasn’t so magnanimous when it was asked though. That’s the advantage people who enjoy the company of the opposite sex have over people like me - this sort of built-in feature to make more people. I do envy that. Being a “thoroughbred” homo, as it were, I feel I’m far too long in the tooth to experiment with the most widely practiced method to procreate. I’m too broke for a surrogate (also, ethical questions and such). So things aren’t looking up for me in the making my own people department and preserving the family line. Which I’ve learned not to mind really, particularly now. Especially now. For all my life, I’ve only had sisters up until two weeks ago when I discovered that my late father had made a spare. So we may yet save this branch of the family tree.

[This is an unedited version of a piece that appeared in the 1 April 2016 edition of Mail & Guardian's Friday under the title "On code switching and men who love other men". I had hoped the edited version would be available online so I can link it here. In the absence of the link, I have taken a pic of the article as it appeared in the paper and pasted it below. I hope it's readable.]

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Look How Far We’ve Come

Twenty years ago I knew of only one gay person. Apart, of course, from rare characters on the tv screen, who caused me great unease and consternation whenever they appeared during family viewing. They were always white tho - except that one time Sophie Ndaba’s husband lampooned an experience that wasn’t his to perform, of the black amab (assigned male at birth) fem in the hair salon. But at the time I didn’t know things like that. I just knew of this one guy.

The Eastern Cape queer community was thin in numbers - or rather, thin in number of people living full unhidden lives. I remember overhearing a conversation my mother was having with a friend of hers some time when I was in high school. They were talking about a mutual friend of theirs home they knew to be gay who had moved from Johannesburg back to her rural home in the Transkei somewhere. “Yhuuu!”, my mother’s friend exclaimed. “Uzotabaneka nabani ke apho?”. I don’t know if she knew how profound that question is. Having no one to tabaneka with I think is the loneliest experience.

A year later, in my first year at the University of Fort Hare, I came out to a friend, who also happened to be the first out lesbian I had ever met. There were two other guys on campus, she informed me. But they were rarely sighted on account of the fact that they were always in Port Elizabeth, where the social scene was less unwelcoming of queer bodies. Although, my friend didn’t appear to have this problem - but that’s maybe because she bested the dudes at basketball and they had mad respect for her or something. 

Anyway, later she introduced me to that one guy I had known of. He was widely popular in Mdantsane where I grew up, having held the title of Mr Ciskei at some point in the 80s. He was possibly equally notorious for a number of reasons related to his sexuality. His house was like a French salon for those of us who ached to be among others like us, others who felt like us, people to tabaneka with.

We were a small clique of boys and men of varying ages, and as far as we knew, we were the only self-identifying gay men in town. We also knew all the lesbians. We spoke a local dialect of Gayle - the Cape gay slang - peppered with words borrowed from its Zulu equivalent, isiNgqumo. I never did become fluent in either - frankly, my isiNgqumo vocab is non-existent, I only know to recognise the language when it’s spoken in my presence. I know a bit of Gayle, just enough to know in which direction to “kala the vas beulah bag next to Alice”. [Translation: check the hot guy next to “Alice” - Alice is a place holder and can be anything really, depending on the context.]

Over the years this small clique grew and splintered and eventually dissipated as we got older and moved on. I joined the nomadic economic migrant hoards and left for the big city, coming back for iBig Dayz like the rest of them, to find that I knew fewer and fewer of the queer people I was meeting. Many of my friends from that period were felled by the HIV wave that seems to have peaked in the early 2000s.

Today I watch with a little envy as my social media timeline floods with young people from East London and elsewhere in the Eastern Cape, expressing their queerness openly, fearlessly. Expressing thoughts and desires that we only ever mentioned in the safety of the salon - hair or otherwise - or in Gayle when in mixed company. I feel an inescapable surge of pride every time a new video from Moshe drops on the interwebs. 

We have also come a mighty long way from when I knew the names of every out black gay man in East London, and we still have a way to go. Killings of queer women and effeminate gay men in particular are still a fixture of our reality. But man what a time it is to be alive. To live in a time where the mood is decolonisation and everything in its way must fall, is to live in a time where we begin to decolonise the many varied queer experiences lived by millions of Africans also. 

[This is the unedited version of a column that appeared in the Mail & Guardian of 11 March 2016 under the headline "Queer How Far We've Come". The edited published version does not differ significantly from this one.]

Monday, August 24, 2015

"Don't buy City Press! Don't buy!"

Yesterday’s City Press (23 August 2015) is the perfect expression of everything I cannot stand with the current state of journalism in South Africa and why I believe print media will continue its slow, torturous and somewhat deserved spiral into the abyss of forgotten things. The lead story, about Mbuso Mandela’s latest scandal, lies prominently across its front page, accompanied only by a speculatory insert on who leads the running to act in the national police commissioner’s place when she is inevitably suspended sometime later this week (I’ll give you a hint: it’s not not her 2.I.C) and who else is also in the running (another hint: every other deputy commissioner).

Of course, no edition of this once proud people’s paper could be complete without an episode of Who Wants To Be President? The weekly telenovella about which palace stooge is likely to succeed the incumbent Chief Jester-In-Chief, aka #1, aka Showerhead, aka The Worst Idea Anyone Has Ever Had. Almost one and a half pages dedicated to such asininities as hypothesized presidential scenarios, which include a Gwede Mantashe/Jeff Radebe (and vice versa) presidency.

Apart from the half page MTN ad on page 5, there’s also a small piece about DA financial mismanagement in the Western Cape (running out of money is financial mismanagement finish and klaar!). And also buried into a corner of insignificance on page 6 is a really important story about a young man named Speech and the significance of his victory in Ward 30 of the Nelson Mandela Metro.

Let’s begin with the Mandela story. Oh, but where to begin with that tho?

How about rape culture? Yes, let’s start there. Now, far be it for me to dictate to women and to exercise my privilege as a man to tell women what to speak up about and against. To stand here and lecture women on what is acceptable reportage when telling stories that affect other women would be a gross violation of the trust I hope to engender as an ally. So I won’t do that. I believe that my job as an ally is to share information and ideas about what it is we as men are doing that makes life harder for our fellow humans, and to present alternative ways of engagement with women especially, and with us all in general, that are non-threatening and foster trust and congenial relations between man and woman, and between man and man. So it makes my job that much harder when the front page of one of the most popular Sunday papers leads with a story on a rape accusation with the following sub-header:

“Madiba’s troubled grandson says sex was consensual. Club staff say (sic) the two behaved like lovers”

Now I have the utmost respect for Ferial Haffajee. No, I lie. I have the utmost respect for what she represents: a woman of colour in a position of power. I don’t think I have much respect for her as a person. I have never met her, so I cannot conclusively say I don’t respect her at all. There may be some baseline qualities about her that I may yet come to respect were I to meet her in person, but as a public figure she does not inspire much more than indifference from me. I do, however, find myself disheartened and disappointed to find that a woman editor would sign off on a story on rape written by a woman journalist that proudly perpetuates such elements of rape culture as those espoused in the sub-header. There is more in the story that offends me, but I will not dwell on those. I do not wish to say more about the actual incident itself as I wish to reserve my comment until after the dust settles. Whenever that may be.

No really, but who wants to be president of this shithole tho?

Look, I love this country. I love this continent. I just hate what it’s all become. (Although I remain hopeful of what it yet may be.) But must we be subjected, week after week, to speculation and conjecture from anonymous sources and wild inferences from trigger-happy journos over who may or may not be the next president of the republic? Is this a bukkake circle jerk and are we the piggy in the middle?

Does anyone actually even really care at this point? Were ANC acolytes and sycophants not at pains to reassure us that they don’t vote for the president but for the party, so what difference does it make to us, the general public, who the president of the ANC is if it’s going to be the same party in power anyway? We hear of which faction is backing which candidate but has anyone ever found out why? I mean, apart from the assumed tribalistic and pseudo-idelogical grounds (like, referring to the SACP as communists is irony and oxymoron wrapped up in ALL OF THE LOLZ!) You know what I would like to know about all these candidates? What are their policy positions? What discussion documents have they written for circulation in the ANC? Where do they stand on the issues that really matter? But, I know, ain’t nobody got time for that? Amirite?

I mean it’s pretty damn ironic that the ANC once led a chant of “Don’t buy City Press! Don’t buy!” when the City Press is doing a bang up job of advertising their succession plan and feeling out the mood of ANC members on the list of possible candidates for the top job. Hell, I think at this point the ANC ought to start paying City Press a fee for campaign management services and sundry.

And the DA should pay them for sweeping their misdeeds quietly under the carpet – like a dinner guest dropping unwanted food under the table while retaining a cool visage. Such softly-softly language they use – “cash squeeze”. Andisiwe Makinana is a great journalist and her integrity comes shining through in the first paragraph of her piece on how the Western Cape government is basically working public servants like slaves. You’d never think the DA in that part of the country would ever have to apply austerity measures. Aren’t they the ones always gaaning aan about how wonderful they are with the numbers and how prosperous all the places they are in charge of have become in the last 20 years? I really wanted to know more about this story. As a data analyst, I like to see numbers and comparisons and trends and things when I read. I think readers would benefit greatly from even the most rudimentary quantitative analysis about things like a “cash squeeze”. And I think South Africans, and indeed all people the world over, should demand more of such analyses when it pertains to public finances especially. But the amount of space allocated this story was enough for only one number of any real import: R68 000. No other numbers are provided to compare with this single, lone figure. Which detracts from the consequence of the story and frankly leaves it performing the part of space-filler – which is an insult to the talents of a journalist of Makinana’s stature. But with the mood of the entire paper being intrigue and speculation, it falls on the reader to ask questions that I’m pretty sure the reporter did ask, but the answers to which could not fit the small space allocated. Space taken up by a gigantic picture of Jeff Radebe, ironically gesturing with his hands to indicate size. It’s the second image of #1’s BFF in as many pages. Surely we could have done without seeing his face twice?

On the next page, the repetitive use of an image of the same person is done with such poetic dexterity.  But to get to that, you have to go through a long column headlined “The playlists of SA’s top leaders”. A column inspired by the recent publication on social media of Barack Obama’s Spotify playlist. None of “SA’s top leaders” were interviewed of course, and the entire thing is pure supposition (not even hearsay). But it’s news. But I digress…

The repeated image I alluded to is actually a single picture of Mandla Faltein (affectionately known in KwaMagxaki and Veeplaas, in Port Elizabeth as Speech) standing in front of a UDM campaign vehicle, his smiling face proudly prominent on the poster and the t-shirt he has on, both announcing his candidacy for the 19 August by-election in Ward 30. Speech did what was once unthinkable this past weekend and wrested the ward encompassing those two townships from the clutches of the ANC. His win is of course significant for a number of reasons, chief of which is the following quote from the man himself:

“We beat the ANC at their own game. They no longer conduct door-to-doors which is what made the difference for us in this election. All they do is motorcades, driving around in fancy cars in front of poor people, speaking on loudhailers and chanting slogans, hoping people will come and vote. But little did they know that time is gone. People want substance and tangible objectives.”

The profundity in the statement is self-evident. It is an allegory of the macrocosm, which the City Press would distract us from with talk of succession and the tabloidization of the very real societal pox that is rape. That is, unless you make it to page 6. I’m impressed I did, seething as I already was with frustration. But I could go no further.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Review: May I Have This Last Dance

Over the past two decades many black families of the Eastern Cape have gradually reclaimed their history. Across the province known affectionately by its diaspora as Ephondweni (literally “the province”) or Emakhaya (literally “our homes”), many prominent families from Tsomo to Xhonxa to Mxhelo have erected impressive stone monuments to their ancestry - some tracing their lineage as far back as 300 years and more. AmaXhosa and many other African language speaking peoples rely heavily on oral traditions such as that of iimbongi, as well as also what is known as ukuzithutha. More than mere “praise singers”, as the crude translation will have us believe, iimbongi are custodians of oral history of the highest echelon akin to the griots of West Africa or the Anglo-Saxon heralds of medieval times. Ukuzithutha is a heraldic practice through which each Xhosa speaker is able to trace her ancestry by poetically reciting the succession of male ancestors in her lineage up to and including the ancestor from which her clan derives its name. Some fortunate families are able to continue this poetic recitation to include those who came after the clan name ancestor up to the present generation of family elders.

Mama Connie Manise Ngcaba’s memoir, May I Have This Dance (Face2Face) is an attempt at augmenting the oral record of history, which often overlooks the intimate details and achievements of family members other than the patriarchs of the family. The book opens with a family tree spanning four generations, beginning with MaNgcaba’s parents and the parents of her husband of sixty years, the late Bro Sol Ngcaba. It closes with a family constitution, complete with a vision and a mission, as well as descriptions of the various organisational structures and committees the constitution is meant to give life to. It’s a modern extension and a formalisation of an unwritten code of conduct amongst Xhosa families. It gives shape to what is currently a loosely configured organisation of the extended family structure and provides clear objectives and responsibilities to individual members of the broader family and the family structures on which they may volunteer to serve.

Far from being some dry family  text or manual, this is a story of one woman’s 85 year-long journey. She describes the carefree days of her childhood, safe in the loving cocoon of both her immediate and extended families growing up in the hinterland that is the former Transkei where she was born, to her present position as the matriarch of a family that has made an indelible mark on not only the East London community that is now the family’s home, but also on the greater South African community at large (her fourth son, Andile, was the first director general of the Department of Communications during Nelson Mandela’s presidency). The story is written in a very simple and easy style that traces a deceptively linear arc. This belies the complex nature of real life, which is often much more nuanced than any work of fiction.

There’s a particularly enthralling passage where she describes the nightly ritual of bathing her children. By the time they had all arrived – six in total – the Ngcaba’s had been allocated a “nice, four-roomed house” in Duncan Village, East London through MaNgcaba’s state of employment as a nurse in the local clinic. By then her first-born son was nearly a teenager and the youngest of her six children was but a toddler. She tells of how the feat that was bath time in the Ngcaba’s Bashe Street home was successfully accomplished through much conscientious effort and inventiveness on the parts of both her and her husband, Bro Sol. Through a system of improvised devices and a laissez-faire attitude with regards to getting the kitchen floor flooded by four boisterous boys in two zinc bath tubs, the Ngcaba’s were able to accomplish this and come out on the other side with a fascinating story to tell. Juxtaposed against the time later in her life where she was detained for 3 months for assisting her community in those heady days of apartheid resistance, MaNgcaba’s story is at times comical while also awe-inspiring and even tragic. This is the essence of MaNgcaba’s memoir – a fascinating story of modest origins that has led to equally modest, though immeasurably impactful, outcomes. It is ultimately a story of triumph.

There are many clues that make it clear that this is not the work of a literary scholar or a budding biographer, such as the brevity of the chapters, the concise sentence structure and minimal use of metaphor and other sophisticated language devices – all of which confirm the MaNgcaba’s unyielding pragmatism. It is, however, a succinct archive of a piece of history that is often lost to many families. In this she does not only her family a service, but renders a service to posterity. MaNgcaba’s memoir provides a picture of the participation of ordinary South Africans in world events as it spans the two World Wars, the entirety of the apartheid years, and culminates in the birth of democracy in South Africa. Her account shows how all these events impacted on the lives of ordinary folk in general and the Ngcaba family in particular without getting too bogged down in the details.

One of the things the translation “praise singer” misses completely about the task and role of iimbongi is that they do not merely heap praises on their subjects. As custodians of history and truth, they are duty bound to tell the story of the past truthfully, without fear or favour. As such, they operate under poetic license to offend and shock if needs be. MaNgcaba has written a story that does not sugarcoat her experience and makes little attempt to glorify herself or her family. In a way, she has achieved the task of imbongi  and will hopefully inspire other families to record their histories in similar ways.

(edited by Mary Corrigall and published in the Sunday Independent's 8 February 2015 edition)

Monday, December 8, 2014

Foundations of Morality and Renewal - A Review of Raising The Bar: Hope and Renewal in South Africa by Songezo Zibi

Songezo Zibi’s manifesto, Raising The Bar (Picador Africa) may not come across as revolutionary to most people. After all, literature of this sort – the kind that tackles social ills such as racism, sexism and other social phobias stemming from a combination of the aforementioned with nationalism of some form or other – does tend to attract the type of audience that is generally predisposed to agreeing with most if not all the arguments presented within its covers. A lot like how feminist literature is most likely to be read by feminists, and religious literature is most likely to be read by those who subscribe to religion. In short, it’s a little like preaching to the choir.

Using a combination of some of the more recent scholarly works by thinkers like Cornel West, Xiabobo Lü and Slavoj Žižek amongst others; news items from the first two decades of South Africa’s democratic era; as well as anecdotes from his personal life (the most endearing of which relate to the period during which he was in his grandparents’ care, in rural Transkei); Zibi weaves together a compelling argument that objectively assesses the current ills that afflict contemporary South African society, and in particular its politics. He does all this while providing some rather elementary solutions. That is not to say that Zibi’s analysis is not sophisticated or incisive. In fact, his exposition offers an Occam’s Razor that leaves you wondering why you hadn’t thought of his propositions before, let alone execute them in our own way as per his suggestion.  

For an example, in the third chapter of the book, entitled A Bright Future Is Possible, the Business Day editor suggests that in the process of tackling the race question leaders should view redress as a matter of ethics and justice, as a opposed to one of revenge. This is a call that does not necessarily apply to “leaders” alone, but to all South Africans, as evidenced by the tendency for public discourse to degenerate into a tit-for-tat debate that centres on retributive justice almost to the exclusion of all other forms of justice.

Another example is the chapter on Politics which provides three scenarios that may bring about the change required – the first is a catastrophic event such as a civil war, the second is the emergence of “an intellectual breath of fresh air, which follows a period of deep introspection”, and the third a combination of the two. It is the second that speaks directly to individual South Africans and asks of each of us to become the change that we would like to see in the world, as the hackneyed modern proverb goes.

Raising The Bar is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a flawless work. Each reader will take away from it what they can and quietly (or not, in the case of the ever militant and seldom satisfied #peoplestwitter) observe those passages in the book that deserve further interrogation and scrutiny. One of the troublesome elements of Zibi’s otherwise lucid and cogent analysis, is his insistence on singling out the role of The Church (or churches) in this grand project of “hope  and renewal in South Africa”. You cannot help but wonder if his narrow definition of what may also be understood to refer to human spirituality in general would not be lost on some readers if for no other reason besides the fact that not everyone subscribes to Christianity.

We South Africans are notorious for what National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) secretary general, Irvin Jim, once cleverly phrased as to “listen with your mouth”. That is to say, listening not with the intent to process and understand that which we have heard (or read), but instead listening with the intent to respond. Responding regardless of whether or not we have understood the position or argument to which we are responding – responding merely for the sake of responding.

For this reason it is fair to be concerned that an important work such as this  may get lost in the milieu of 50 million-plus voices expressing their opinion – valid or no. Voices weighing in on an argument which Zibi has, no doubt, developed over a long period of time, applying the requisite measure of careful thought as one might expect from the editor of one of the biggest business dailies in South Africa Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the singling out of churches, and churches alone, as a bastion for morality raises further issues which may or may not be related to each other.

Almost every chapter of Raising the Bar constitutes a clarion call for a return to a single, commonly held set of morals as a panacea to almost all - if not, in fact, all - that ails us as a nation. This is not the first time such a call has been made. During the period in which the current South African president, Jacob Zuma, deputised for then state president, Thabo Mbeki, he was tasked with the noble responsibility of overseeing the nation’s moral regeneration. An assignment which, in hindsight, made for comical irony.

Morality is a very tricky animal to capture because it is almost always the outcome of whatever reasoning and rationalisation predominates within each culturally distinct place and time. It is only the most fundamental of moral tenets that bear a universal quality. In his 2008 essay for the New York Times Magazine’s online edition, titled The Moral Instinct, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker borrows from the moral foundations hypothesis – an idea developed by a trio of academics led by New York University Professor of Ethical Leadership, Jonathan Haidt – to describe these psychological foundations as “harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity”. The hypothesis suggests that the reason for morality to take on a seemingly fluid and variable character as one moves from one culture to another is due to how much emphasis different communities place on each of these moral foundations. In the same essay, Pinker also fleetingly mentions the concept of a “universal moral grammar”, analogous to the “universal grammar” first theorised by linguistics professor Noam Chomsky who describes it as “genetic endowment, which sets limits on the attainable languages, thereby making language acquisition possible”. To apply the analogy, universal moral grammar, therefore, would be the genetic endowment that allows for the acquisition of moral sense, while limiting which moral senses will be acquired and sharpened.

South African society has suffered a protracted and repeated defilement of its moral fabric throughout its history; from the introduction of slavery in the Cape during the time of the Dutch East India Company’s tenure, onwards to the establishment of concentration camps by the British during the South African War and well into the 20th century with its hallmarks of massacres and states of emergency during apartheid’s zenith. The timeframe within which this unrelenting assault on South African morality has sustained itself may perhaps even be thought of as evolutionary in its impact on the hearts and minds of present-day South Africans. In fact, if we apply the language analogy to this specific situation, it would behoove any observer to note the stark changes in the linguistic landscape from the lands that were the hunting grounds of the Khoisan and the farmlands of the Xhosa and the Zulu and others, before they were British colonies and Afrikaner volkstaats; to the beleaguered republic we see today.

An expectation of moral regeneration driven from the top down, as Zuma was tasked, or as proposed by Zibi in his suggestion that churches be called to lead the cause, is one that is laudable in its ambition but weak in opportunity for success. For one thing, being that churches are already the self-appointed custodians of morality (this being their chief raison d’etre in the race to prepare good Christian souls for an eternity in heaven), had there been a single iota of hope for their success in this bold new incarnation proposed in Raising the Bar, one would expect the fruits of this success to have already had an impact on South African society or at least be at such an advanced stage of pre-deployment that the anticipation would be palpable to most, if not all, citizens. Judging from the unabated degeneration of the societal moral fibre, as evidenced by daily reports of astounding violations visited by citizens on fellow citizens, it would be safe to assume, sub specie aeternitatis, that churches have not been, and possibly may not be, successful in this regard.

That being said, the book actually reads like a user’s guide to good citizenship and should probably – no, definitely be issued to all living South Africans with immediate haste. One of the many shining moments that struck me was the suggestion that civics should be included in the school curriculum. This book would make an excellent setwork book for such a class. It is of no use for citizens to moralise ad nauseum about the present situation when many of us shirk even the most basic of civic duties, which is to vote.

To be taught the qualities and duties of good citizenship from an early age, would augur well for the establishment of an active and involved citizenry. In place of a campaign for common morality, which is near impossible given the much lauded cultural diversity held within the borders of South Africa, it would seem more logical that a path towards a state of universal mindfulness be sought, governed by such philosophical principles as to inspire a culture of introspection and self-correction, instead of the lazy method currently consuming our society of seeking retributive justice for behaviour that is deemed morally reprehensible.

(edited beautifully by Mary Corrigall. a version of this review appeared in the Sunday Independent of the 7th of December 2014)