The smell of new potatoes

2010-10-23 13:01

When I was a youngster, I would return hungry from school, hoping that there was food in the house. Often I’d be welcomed by the sight of upended pots near the sink, a sure sign that no gastronomic wonders were waiting in the wings.

Strangely enough, that didn’t faze me.What made my heart sink was the smell of new potatoes in the pot. In my young mind, the fresh smell of cooking potatoes meant that supper was a long way off.

To this day, Iassociate poverty and hunger with that smell.Hunger and its concomitants has been a creative crucible for artists and writers worldwide, especially texts or images that have moved us to action. In this sense, artistic activity, instead of being a pastime for the delectation of the moneyed, proves to have a utilitarian purpose.

Many societies of the world agree with the idea of freedom of artistic creativity, mainly because artistic creativity is a measure of how far people have moved from the jungle.

It is said that the appreciation of art is probably the only activity that differentiates human beings from other animals.Artistic creativity – whether in the performing arts, literary activity, graphic arts, music or dance – taps into those parts of the human soul that are neglected by other activities.

Throughout the ages, art has reflected the wishes, aspirations and the superiority of the ruling classes, with kings and princes playing patron to artists and musicians.

In given instances, instead of presenting images that were flattering to the sovereigns in repressive times, artists would use their creativity to subvert them and the power they represent. Sometimes izimbongi (praise singers) or court jesters would compose songs or skits that sought to guide the sovereigns and temper their runaway passions. In medieval Europe, actors devised morality plays, which always had an allegorical message based on some Christian tenet.

These were precursors to the secular theatre of Shakespeare in the later Renaissance. In my earlier schooling years, I read uNomalanga kaNdengezi, a love story by RRR Dhlomo. It tells the story of one Gala. Gala was not your everyday hero in that, while he had accomplished himself well in war, he was also a man of conscience.

When Shaka the Zulu emperor was bereaved, following the death of his mother Nandi in 1827, his grief laid waste to huge swathes of Zululand. People were not allowed to plant or harvest and any semblance of normality was taboo.Thousands died as a result, accompanying – according to the thinking of the time – the late queen mother to the land of the ancestors.

Gala, the story goes, decided that enough was enough. He trekked to the royal kraal in KwaDukuza. When he neared the gates, he started chanting Shaka’s praise songs, shattering a silence that had ruled together with death for weeks on end.

Certain he’d be put to death, he continued nevertheless. In his recital, he told the king, who was now fully attentive, that the country had bled long enough.Shaka woke up to the folly of his ways and called off the siege on his own people. I think he might have killed some of his advisors who had stood by while the country was going to rack and ruin.

In an oblique way, this echoes Stendhal, who noted that if you think of paying court to the men in power, your eternal ruin is assured.Speaking in code or symbolic language has always been the practice of artists, who impart knowledge to society while sidestepping the wrath of the powerful.

I remember the late sculptor Ezrom Legae telling us of the balancing act performed by Mozambican artists during the period of Portuguese tyranny. They would draw images of pot-bellied babies with stick-like legs and when the DGS, the secret police, questioned them – suspecting that these were depictions of kwashiorkor sufferers, therefore an indictment against the state – the artists would say that the big stomachs were a sign of well-fed people who were grateful for the munificence of the Portuguese overlords.

Much later, the legendary muralist Valente Malangatana corroborated this when we met him in Mozambique.Today, after losing bitter and bloody wars with her colonies, Portugal is a member of the European Union (EU).

The EU maintains that freedom of the arts and sciences and academic freedoms are ­extensions of the freedoms of thought and expression.

Under our Constitution, artistic creativity is a manifestation of freedom of expression.Much like holy writ, both the defenders and detractors of the new dispensation invoke the South African Constitution.

It’s a handy, all-purpose document designed to jibe with the meaning of its user, echoing the Humpty Dumpty memorable assertion: “When I use a word,” he said, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” What adds a piquant flavouring to the joke is the realisation that the biggest bone of contention is freedom of expression.

To date, millions of words and whole forests of paper have been expended in the manufacture of newsprint to cover debates about whose version of the truth will stand the test of time.

For me, all governments have an obligation to give their citizens the reassurance that there is accountability when it comes to initiatives made in the names of the people. It’s not so much a matter of morality as a measure that gives confidence to the polity. In Ralph Ellison’s prophetic novel Invisible Man, the anonymous hero is forced into a blindfolded battle royal with a couple of other black youths.

When he wins the gruelling boxing bout, supposedly well-meaning white Southerners, who hope that he will be a credit to the black race, give him a briefcase with citations that gain him entry into an all-black university. He is expelled after taking a white sponsor to the wrong side of town, peopled by prescient mental patients and a black sharecropper accused of the crime of incest with his daughter.

Expelled, he is given a pack of letters by the black president of the college with an injunction that he never opens them. Addressed to potential employers in the North, the letters carry the instruction that the addressees should “keep this nigger boy running”.

If ever there was a case of man’s inhumanity to man, Ellison takes it one step further in peeling off the layers that envelop black society, where the portrayal of the antipathy among blacks – as opposed to an idealised rendering of black solidarity – earned the writer a fair ­level of antagonism from some black readers.

Given that the readers were young people growing up during the period of the civil rights movement, many saw the book, brilliant as it was, as a stinging slap in the face – a situation worsened by the understanding that white people were in ­attendance.

The idea of conducting ourselves, black or white people, in total seclusion where only our brethren should be privy to our shortcomings is a fallacy that has led to the fall of great civilisations. Someone once observed that white people, no matter how deluded they may be, will be white no more – and neither will black people continue to find comfort in the crutch of blackness.James Baldwin once remarked that the problem people have is to think that since all our brothers are black, then only blacks are our brothers.

I’ve always believed that those black and white people who want to have it out should be given their choice of weapons and sent to a deserted island. Otherwise, they should keep quiet and help us build this country.Having said this, there is a need for a reality check.

South Africa was built on a lie and we have a responsibility for future generations. In two years’ time, we’ll be celebrating a century since the enactment of the 1913 Land Act. The promulgation was part of a range of measures to destroy a independent African existence in favour of the interest of white settlers.Setting aside 7% of South Africa’s land area, this dispossession created reserves from which mines and urban employers were to draw migrant labour. The act, now largely forgotten but whose effects are present in everyday South Africa, invariably prohibited African land ownership outside of the reserves and created an underclass.

Sol Plaatje, the first secretary-general of the ANC, travelled overseas as part of the protest against the Land Act, where he met Marcus Garvey and WEB du Bois.

A journalist and interpreter, Plaatje wrote that while the Land Act did not actually make black people slaves, it made them pariahs in the land of their birth.The lie attending black land ownership is touched upon by Malcolm X in his message to the grass roots where he spells out that land is the basis of independence.

He cites the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution.They were struggles of the landless against the landlord. He notes that they were all brought about by bloodshed. He then taunts his audience. “You haven’t got a revolution that doesn’t involve bloodshed. And you’re afraid to bleed. I said, you’re afraid to bleed.”

The fear of bleeding that characterises us has left us without land. It has left us with poor people, the majority of our country. Everywhere you go, poverty is on the increase.To me, this poses the greatest threat to the flimsy stability that has been maintained since the establishment of a democratic South Africa, which, like all constructs not grounded on reality, may go up in smoke.

The underclass, so long on the margins, sees our conspicuous consumption. It watches as we cruise past in our imported German sedans. The poor witness the spectacle of our children being transported to exclusive schools while theirs make do with tumbledown buildings and perish in taxi accidents.

They stay in hovels that are firetraps in winter and furnaces in summer while we splurge on mansions subsidised by their blood.

The beggars who knock on our car windows for a hand-out and whose placards announce their desperation will one day cry “enough!”. But unlike Gala, they won’t be singing praises when they storm the citadels.This is a priority and everything else is a luxury, a sideshow that detracts us from the work we have to do.

» This is an edited version of a talk ­delivered to a symposium organised by the South African National Editors’ ­Forum and Wits University to commemorate Black Wednesday, the day in 1977 when ­newspapers were banned and journalists were jailed

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