I will be free when all are free

2014-03-18 10:00

The Brand SA Twitter account (@Brand_SA) asked me this week what 20 years of freedom means to me.

After being asked these kinds of leading questions recently by other corporate accounts, I knew this was not a genuine attempt to solicit my thoughts or the thoughts of the many others who were asked this question.

It was, in this case, a digital marketer’s attempt to get the #20YearReview hashtag to trend at the same time President Jacob Zuma was releasing a report of the same name.

The report ostensibly “reviews government’s performance through a 20-year lens, elaborating on the achievements and progress made in the democratic era, and painting a picture of the journey we have travelled in getting where we are today”.

For a black boy whose first experiences of life were in four rooms on a dusty street in Temba near Hammanskraal, my journey of freedom has been nothing short of a transformation. So I supposed I could have told Brand SA the story it wanted to hear.

But that story would neither be fair nor accurate.

There have been watershed moments over the past 20?years that altered my understanding of the world.

Moments like witnessing the riots and attempted coup in Bophuthatswana in 1994, and voting for the first time in 1999. And there have been other moments that altered the trajectory of my life, like when my sister convinced me to return to the offices of a company that had offered me a partial bursary to demand a full bursary.

She told me I deserved it. My time at Rhodes might have been spent worrying about the strain my parents were under had she not said that to me.

By the time I left for university, my life was already different from that determined by the material circumstances of my birth – and it continued to transform. Temba was but a distant memory, though it came back in snatches.

A visit to the Pretoria Zoo marred by a racist incident. A hiding I got for having the genius idea of testing if my mother’s calculator was waterproof. Biting into the flesh of the sweet, sticky mangoes that weighed down the thick branches of the squat tree in our back yard every summer.

And my sister’s birthday party, where I was dared to kiss my best friend Jane.

Jane and I were inseparable. But oh, how different our respective 20 years of freedom have panned out. I heard in passing she had died. But how? Well, living in socioeconomic deprivation is now the top killer of black people, especially women, in South Africa.

Bet you didn’t read that in the 20-year review. Instead, you read about how average life expectancy has increased to 59.6?years, with the tiny detail left out that this number still varies significantly by race and class.

Temba has not changed much since I left, at least not as much as my life has. Employment prospects are few, especially for young people.

Many of those who have jobs commute to work by bus, taxi or train for nearly two hours each way to Pretoria and elsewhere. It’s a commute like those undertaken by generations of Temba’s residents in the years when the town served as a labour reserve for the apartheid economy.

Just last month, some of the location’s residents and those from the other locations around Hammanskraal came to blows over the allocation of jobs at a government wastewater treatment project.

The project has been plagued by allegations of wheeling and dealing that put the politically connected at the front of the queue for jobs. Last year, after an earlier skirmish, the Tshwane municipality said it would resolve the issue to the satisfaction of all affected.

But it seems time moves more slowly in places like Temba. Things that should take a few weeks stretch out over months – and 20 years is a lifetime.

Temba now looms large in my peripheral vision.

I see it here in my new home in Western Cape: in the locations of Khayelitsha, Nyanga, Langa, Delft, Philippi, Atlantis and Blikkiesdorp.

I see it in the four kids who died of hunger in Verdwaal, near Lichtenburg.

I see it in Andries Tatane, Mothutlung, Bekkersdal and in Marikana.

I see it and the transformation my life has undergone is rendered utterly meaningless. So, Brand SA, you want to know what 20 years of freedom means to me?

This freedom is an ever-present reminder that I am not truly free until everyone is free.

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