Khaya Dlanga

Some sympathy for black fathers

2015-07-15 15:51

Khaya Dlanga

We cannot deny that one of the great crimes apartheid did to South Africa was robbing its black children of fathers and fathers of fatherhood. The ripples of the destruction apartheid created in black families began long ago when the then ruling racist elite devised the Land Act, which was designed to prevent blacks from owning any land. The whole plan was to make sure that blacks could not work for themselves. White capital needed labour. Since blacks could not work for themselves because their land was taken, they had to find a way to feed themselves and their families. They had to find places of work, and those places of work were not near their homes. And so it was that the destruction of the black family was legislated.

Winburg magistrate RN Harley told the commission as it was deliberating: “With increasing stocks and herds, the native has become less inclined to be a servant and more inclined to be the semi-independent nomad.. while the farmer has difficulty in obtaining servants… This system has instilled into the native the belief that he has an equal right with the whites to hire and purchase land.”

The consequences of the Land Act were felt by black people everywhere as it had been intended. As early as the late 1800s, land was taken away from blacks because white farmers had no labour. Men had to leave their families in far-flung places like the Eastern Cape, KZN and various places in their large numbers to big cities to make a living. But they were paid so little and hardly had any leave days in order to go see their families. They were lucky to go home twice a year for a week at a time at most. So some men had one family in Johannesburg and another where they came from.

Black women (who’s contribution in the struggle is greatly suppressed), held families together when their husbands were not sending money home. They were forced to go work in kitchens for white madams because they could not let their children starve. In some instances they stayed with their madams, which meant that they too were unable to see their children for long periods. Their children ended up staying with grandparents. People who thought that they were done raising children but had to start all over again because families were separated from their parents because of apartheid. Black people were able to be reasonably prosperous even though they were still oppressed in the 1800s.

Allow me to quote a column I wrote some time back on the subject: “Historian Colin Bundy documented that as early as 1832, the Xhosa in the Ciskei and Transkei started noting how Europeans were spreading throughout the country. The Xhosa wanted to have their own stake of wealth before the Europeans took it. Bundy quotes a Moravian missionary in the Transkei who wrote, ‘They look… to get money from the labour of their hands, and purchase clothes, spades, ploughs, wagons and other useful articles’."

They started buying land and began farming it. A magistrate in Mzimkhulu described "the growing desire on the part of the natives to become proprietors of land – they have purchased 38 000 acres."

Within three years, 8 000 Xhosa farmers in the area had bought 90 000 acres of land, according to a book by Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson called Why Nations Fail. The black farmers began to be rather prosperous, as recorded in a letter by a Methodist missionary, WJ Davis. He wrote that he had collected £46 in cash "for the Lancashire Cotton Relief Fund", from Xhosa farmers in 1869. Black farmers in South Africa were doing so well that they were donating money to poor workers in England.

The black farmers became so successful that they drove down prices and became such a threat to white farmers that between 1890 and 1913 land was taken away from them through various legislative moves that were designed to prevent them from successfully competing with white farmers and also to prevent them from owning land, but to instead became labourers for the white man. In other words, they were legislated out of prosperity and into poverty.

My father, like my grandfather, had to leave his village in the Eastern Cape to go work in Johannesburg. My grandfather resisted apartheid, becoming a banned a person exiled in Lesotho then being expelled by that government on behest of the apartheid government. As a letter written by the then minister of Home Affairs of Lesotho, as rewritten by my grandmother, because the original she had kept was in tatters:

Order made under the Proclamation 46 of 1907

Whereas in terms of section 4 of Proclamation 46 of 1907 as amended, it has been shown to my satisfaction that the presence of Paulos Dlanga in Lesotho constitutes a danger to the peace, order and good governance of Lesotho. I, Sekhonyana Maseribane, Minister for Home Affairs, make order as follows:

That Paulos Dlanga is to be apprehended and removed from Lesotho to a place without its limits and –
That this order of Removal be affected within 24 hours of service of this Order.

Signed, this 28th day of December, 1966 Minister of Home Affairs

He was arrested and tortured and suffered greatly until he too died young at the tender age of 44.
My father was but a boy when his father died. My father also hardly knew his own father because he was away working and hiding from the authorities as he was seen as an undesirable. My father also died at a tender age of 26. I have a single memory of him. He had me in his arms against his chest. I remember being in my mother’s arms when she passed me over to my dad. That’s the memory. My father holding me in his arms, my bum resting on his arm against the side of his chest. He was speaking to my mother, his wife. A wife he had left for Johannesburg to work but instead vanished in it’s vast greedy belly. My mother left us with her grandparents while she went to work in a completely opposite direction. Her husband had stopped looking after her, so she had to look after her children herself, but she had to look after them by not being there. A great deal of pain for her. For the longest time I believed that I was not attached to that memory of my fahter, but the older I get, the more important it has become to me. (Quick shameless plug) In my book, To Quote Myself, I wrote about how I unattached to it I am. How quickly things change.

Like some people, I have perpetuated the negative lashing of black fathers without even attempting to view the historical context of blackness in South Africa. I have gone straight for the jugular and condemned them. Not to say that they are incapable of seeing that the way some of them have been and are is excusable in anyway. We still need to heal and attempt to mend the family unit that apartheid tried to destroy for over a 100 years. It is also not lost on me that some internet commenters will be very determined to misunderstand this column and say that I am blaming bad fathering solely on apartheid.

Perhaps if there is a parading shift in how we respond to those fathers who are absent, there could be a way to get them back to a better place. It is possible that many of our fathers don’t know how to be fathers because they themselves didn’t see their fathers much. Why, you may ask, must they be understood when they abandon their own? I don’t know. I don’t have an answer.

Our fathers more often than not love us more than they can tell or show us. Sometimes they may be overwhelmed by the responsibility and seem to flee from it because they don’t know how to be the men they know they should be. I don’t believe that any man looks forward to abandoning their offspring.  

I think that sometimes they vanish because they are ashamed by the fact that they didn't take care of us. The less they see us the less guilty they feel, therefore, they stay away. Seeing the children they never see probably compounds an unimaginable guilt in them. I think it is important to love our fathers regardless of their failings. Because in the end, we do turn out okay.

The yoke of apartheid reached and still reaches far and deep. To deny its effects on the black family would be fooling ourselves. Yet our understanding of the system that has attempted to destroy the black family does not mean we should overly understanding of those fathers who refuse to play their part.

Sometimes, simply by welcoming and loving them, we encourage them to become better fathers. And that in turn releases us from the burden and poison that is bitterness.

- Follow Khaya on Twitter.

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