Not all struggles are equal

2014-11-26 06:00

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The stalwarts of the fight against apartheid have become immortalised, while the everyday heroes have been forgotten

Abject poverty in its various manifestations is epitomised by:

-?The single mother of five balancing a bucket of water on her head on her way from the river 2km away on the hilly terrain of the old Transkei;

-?A young father who visits the rubbish dumps to scavenge a living off the scraps of the wealthy;

-?An old woman in a village in Limpopo who has never used an electric switch even though she has seen 10 governments come and go;

- A domestic worker who has endured humiliations too traumatic to recount to raise her four daughters; and

-?A middle-aged man who has been visiting his father in prison for 30 years after he was jailed on dubious grounds by the apartheid government.

Each of the lives outlined here have a story that reaches back into our collective apartheid past.

Neither of the traumas is more or less important than the other.

Then we have the Sisulus, Mandelas and Tambos, icons of our struggle past.

In the past 20 years, South Africa has expressed its gratitude to these figures through literature, films, statues, plaques, songs, plays, museums, road names and leadership positions in government, business and civil society.

We have also created our own royalty.

Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu is the presiding queen. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela sits in the uncomfortable position of a dethroned yet powerful queen.

Then we have a number of princes and princesses. Think Dali and Tselani Tambo, ambassadors Zindzi and Zenani Mandela, Shaka Sisulu and Ndaba Mandela. We might want to throw in challengers to the castle in the form of Makaziwe Mandela, Chief Mandla Mandela and the Hani children.

Dali Tambo

The Luthulis and Mbekis reside in minor castles with no apparent heirs.

The Zuma line is buying its status at the bank and many heirs are setting up shop in government departments and the tender business.

The new castle in Nkandla is by far the grandest and most ostentatious.

In the margins, the Tshwetes are catching up fast. Watch this space for the Msimangs, Radebes, Mbetes and Ramaphosas. Others are careful to stay away from public scrutiny while amassing their wealth.

Struggle royalty derives its legitimacy from the dividends of Robben Island and from exile.

I forecast a business royalty from the Motsepes and Nqcukas in the same way the Oppenheimers and Ruperts have cemented their place in history.

What the struggle royalty has in common is that it takes up public space in ways that delegitimise the past and ongoing struggles of the people I described in the opening lines of this article.

Their occupation of the public space is at the expense of other more “ordinary” and quotidian narratives.

Our claims to apartheid injuries are rendered wanting in the shadows of struggle royalty. When we think of our grandparents’ humiliations and daily struggles, the grand and public narratives of the Islanders render our stories ordinary and less significant.

We need to slowly chip away at understanding the past as an apartheid pain contest and “struggle Olympics”. It is our collective struggles that liberated South Africa.

When we begin to compare the size of our scars, we do a disservice to those on the margins of our society.

Wherever it exists, royalty has always been at the expense of others. It goes with entitlement. Ask the Europeans.

We need to challenge the space occupied by the royals so we can reclaim our collective past and make demands for a more just present and future.

Can we think of Lindiwe Sisulu as a public servant when her status as heiress of the dynasty looms large?

Lindiwe Sisulu

Our criticisms of Sisulu as a public servant are tempered by our recollections of the struggles of her parents, even when it is clear that she has drifted from their ideals.

This was brought into sharp relief when, as human settlements minister, Sisulu said people under the age of 40 had no business expecting government housing because they had no experience of apartheid. She must tell this to the orphans of apartheid violence.

Here she was telling us how to own and interpret our past when she lives in accommodation funded by the public purse. Remember the air miles she racked up on the chartered planes while in the defence portfolio?

The brazenness of her assertion is bolstered by claims to the public space that have been realised by riding on the coat-tails of her parents and her time in exile.

We need to speak back to our royals for them to realise that equality needs to be the basis of our democracy.

We did not sign up for a royal society and we should be indignant when Jacob Zuma’s young offspring become executives in state departments filled with more capable people who have served the government with distinction in their long careers.

We must be wary when the only differentiating feature of our business elite is its connection to a struggle past because it assumes that our pasts are less important and the pain of our grandparents is less real.

Canham is an academic and invites ordinary stories of our apartheid past to be submitted to the online research portal

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