Madiba was the searing impulse of our freedom

2018-07-01 06:26

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A few days before Easter this year, I was invited by a group of sisters to participate in an exegesis du text (close reading) and discussion of Wole Soyinka’s book Of Africa.

In this book Soyinka, with his customary capacious and delightful erudition, discourses on the turgid dialectic of a continent that is at once enchanting and edifying to the eye and the soul, as it is malevolent and gruesome to some other beholder: “For many, Africa is more a concept than a bounded space, which means, in turn, more ‘concepts’ than simply one. It is at once wish fulfilment and part reality, part projection, part historical distillation, part fiction and part memory.

“It is, of course, generally acknowledged as a warehouse of untapped natural resources. Even as Africa exists as a desire for some, so does it constitute a nightmare from which others pray to be awakened …” He closes the preface with a sumptuous summation of what he intends to do with the text: “A truly illuminating exploration of Africa has yet to take place. It does not pretend to take place even on the pages of this book, whose scope is limited to retrieving a few grains for germination from the wasteful threshing floor of Africa’s existential totality ...”

After the sister, who was leading the discussion, had finished her interpretive exegesis, the floor was opened for the rest of us to offer our responses.

A smart and beautiful sister, Zambian of birth, but who had grown up in these shores since she was about two years old, went on to posit that, of all the Africans she had encountered – and by all accounts this was a well-travelled sister – South Africans seemed to have a disturbingly tenuous connection with the African “soul” or something to that effect.

That our concept of or connection to the motherland seemed to have been sundered and subverted by the reality of “whiteness”, in this country, and its profound effect on our conception of self. In short we seemed to be lost souls, who did not know whether we were coming or going as far as fidelity to the motherland and her ontological injunctions and tropes were concerned.

I responded rather gingerly with a question – whether this perception was limited to South Africans or also extended to the people of the subregion whose reality was also affected and refracted by “whiteness”.

I went on to argue that I, personally, did not think we were any different to Basotho, Zimbabweans, Swazis, Batswana and, for that matter, Mozambicans, in spite of the linguistic differences, as all of us constituted what we used to call the frontline states. These were polities that were in the penumbra of the apartheid monstrosity and were forced to reckon with its menace and dominance.

Zambia was, of course, part of this constellation but the sister had professed a difference between Zambians and us and I was loath to assert and foist a kinship, which she, a native of Zambia, was denying.

As I was making my point, this sister was contorting her face in visceral disagreement. I must say it’s a tad distracting when someone starts contorting her face and hyperventilating as one is making one’s point.

I got a sense that this was a practised stunt, meant to silence, subvert and seduce whomever she was ranged against in debate. But it was very clear that she was acutely condemnatory and disdainful of our claim to be Africans. I must hasten to point out that most of these sisters were not natives of this country.

They lived here but hailed from such far flung locales as Ghana, Congo and Zimbabwe. There were a couple of local sisters and a brother, but, mystifyingly, the two local sisters would also join this chorus of vilification. The gravamen of their argument was that “whiteness” had subverted us and that the “sellout” settlement of 1994 reflected a people or leadership totally bedazzled by “whiteness”.

In a nutshell the midwives of the democratic breakthrough were a bunch of “wimps” and “eunuchs” who had even given up our precious claim to our land, something that is “foundational” to African identity. Without ownership of this land we had, in fact, abandoned our claim to be real Africans.

I made a determined effort to contend that I did not recognise the “eunuchs” they were depicting. This nation, especially its youth, was celebrated globally for the courage it showed in taking on the mightiest army on the Southern hemisphere, a nuclear-armed power, with stones, slings and the AK-47, in the process becoming synonymous with the idea of “struggle”.

Oliver Tambo had aptly christened the 1976 uprising participants as “the death-defying youth of Soweto”. That we had fought this regime to a stalemate with limited means, which gave rise to the negotiations that paved the way for the democratic breakthrough in 1994. And while such a breakthrough or settlement was not perfect – no settlement ever is – it was “perfectible”, but its perfectibility was a multigenerational enterprise.

The lynchpin of this “perfectibility” was a Constitution that sanctioned ever-deepening transformation, through the amendment clause, as long as there was sufficient consensus in the polity, defined as the two-thirds threshold. I was thus not sure what this “selling out” constituted, even on the question of land, an enterprise with which we are seized, and which the Constitution salutes.

But no quarter was given. It was clear to me that something dreadful had happened in the past five years or so. The democratic breakthrough was losing legitimacy with the youth. While many of us characterised the democratic breakthrough as “half-full”, the youth or the most vocal among them saw it as “half-empty” and were assigning blame for this deficit to some of our most cherished icons, such as Madiba, routinely savaged as “sellouts”.

For me, the delicious irony of someone who had led the defiance campaign in the 1950s, was charged for Treason in 1956, formed Umkhonto weSizwe, was ready to die for his beliefs at the Rivonia Trial and would serve 27 years of his life in prison for championing the freedom of his people being called a “sellout” by those bequeathed with that freedom with nary an effort, was positively mind-numbing.

Folks who have never had to throw a stone at a cop, served time in prison, been menaced with death or exile for their beliefs, but have no compunction calling those who bequeathed them the gift of freedom “sellouts”. And this was done in posh locutions, with strains and intimations of Vivaldi – a veritable violin and piano concerto. These were children of privilege.

A privilege midwifed by the blood, sweat and tears of Madiba and the rest of us, who answered the call of freedom. I am not sure how to characterise this grotesque perversion. Is it abject nihilism or ahistorical befuddlement? I know one thing though, it is deeply hurtful to those who bled and died for this freedom.

A lot of wrong things happened in the nine years of the Zupta imperium. The country lost its direction. Hopelessness and despair became a lineament of our existential reality. Racists in the corporate and other spheres became emboldened. They felt verily that their resistance of black rule had been vindicated by this misrule.

This is perhaps the reality that our youth, born in conditions of freedom, increasingly encountered. But that has nothing to do with the democratic breakthrough of 1994. It has a lot to do with a priapic brigand being at the helm of the democratic transition.

Turning our hero and icon Madiba, the searing id of our agitation for freedom, into a cartoon image of treachery on his 100th birthday must be muscularly resisted. It is a perversion of our history. And a people who do not value their history do not deserve its future.

- Mabandla is a businessman

Read more on:    constitution  |  freedom

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