‘Imagine ourselves into being’

dscn0919This slogan of the first Abantu literary festival ignited my imagination into thinking, what would that entail? Here we can take a leaf out of recent events in America. Concerned about Donald Trump becoming president, most literary magazines set a challenge to their writers – write, explore the implications.

An example, PenSA currently has on its website a competition by Junot Diaz to write dystopian fiction. Lydia Yuknavitch, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Toni Morrison, Lance Olsen, and Rebecca Solnit, are all dealing with the political landscape in interviews, on social media and in their writing.

I feel that in South Africa we can do more. In order to move forward you need to know where you come from. That place, where we come from, our history, has not been interrogated enough. The deep pain in the black communities hasn’t been addressed as much as it should be.

There is the belief that you should show the enemy strength by hiding how he has broken you. That is commendable. But then it means that that pain is buried so deep that it’s only expression can be anger (and violence).

I don’t pretend to know how to do it. We have a wonderful sense of humour in South Africa. After every calamity, such as the Gupta saga, there are memes to make fun of it. Maybe this is one way to address it? If you look carefully at Trevor Noah’s humour, it is based on not fitting in. Humour can be used in various ways to address serious topics.

In our communities there is knowledge about the recent past of the ANC and the struggle but not about our history since Jan van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape. The history we learnt at school, at least during my generation, history with a purpose, cannot be trusted.

The goal was to present the Afrikaner as a hero. Think of the story of Rageltjie De Beer freezing to death, protecting her brother (because that is what we women are supposed to do); Paul Kruger killing a lion with his bare hands, and our own Paul Revere story about someone on his horse riding through difficulty to warn of the approaching enemy.

Because it was purpose driven, it left out certain things or presented them as mild. Like slavery. That beautiful picture of the attractive Van Riebeeck looking like a star is misleading. As soon as he set foot on the continent he petitioned the Dutch East India Company (VOC) for slaves.

We have to reclaim that history. Unlike in the American South where the north arranged for people to record the experiences of the slaves, we have nothing. Only Katie Jacobs who was interviewed in her nineties and told a story about being set free but the madam said how can you leave, the children need you. And like a good servant she stayed for another four years. (It would be interesting to know how the madam compensated her for that).

The true face of slavery was hidden and because it was hidden many of the apartheid laws sprouted from it, like carrying a pass. The slaves had to have a letter from their employer when they were out and about.

This hidden history has severely affected the brown people. All I know about the Khoena, which form a large part of my ancestry, is that they wore animal skins and rubbed themselves with animal fat. And, appropriately, everyone in my class said ‘ewe’.

As writers we know that the way you present information is to create a certain effect, a certain response. The presentation of the Khoena in our history books was to evoke shame (and contempt?) and it did. We know nothing about them inventing the original braai, about making shoes from animal skin, about their contribution, together with the slaves, to the creation of the Afrikaans language, about their religion based on Heitse Eibib.

The most potent weapon of war is the mind of the oppressed. Steve Biko. How has your mind been oppressed? We should interrogate the processes. Slowly, carefully, thoroughly. Analyse, think. Do you know what ‘total onslaught’ during apartheid really meant? I also don’t, so we have to learn – read and learn.

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