Zama Ndlovu

My emotional reaction to The Spear

2012-05-30 07:25

Zama Ndlovu

My mother, who was born in the same year as apartheid, keeps her dompas on her dressing table. It has been there for years, and every time I walk into her bedroom I’m drawn to it. I can only imagine the scars it carries. We’ve never really talked about her experience, just one story of how she bleached a stamp once, so she could extend her stay in Pretoria a little longer.

Generally, parents have no intention of leaving an inheritance of pain for their children, nor an inferiority complex. But children see what their parents think is hidden.  I have vivid memories of watching my mother, a tall majestic Zulu woman, reduced to barely a whisper as a white person spoke to her with condescension for failing to move out of their way in time.

I never quite grew accustomed to the high-pitched almost child-like voice my dad would take on when he spoke to his manager, and the way he’d avoid my gaze after witnessing him near-grovelling to another man. The contrast in my parents’ demeanour at home versus in presence of a white person was far too obvious for a child to ignore.

When my parents queued to vote, it was not just about choosing a truly democratically elected leader, it was also about affirming their own dignity. I was eleven years old in 1994, old enough to understand the promise of that day, and it wasn’t long before the promise was broken in my own experiences.

Emotional baggage

While the law said we were equal, and the press proclaimed a rainbow nation, I was being kicked out of a “whites only” restaurant in Kuruman in my first year of vocational work for a mining company, and later I was forced to translate an entire operating manual from Afrikaans to English because my Afrikaans senior manager refused to explain anything to me in English. Just this Sunday I was pushed hard by a large white man, right in front of a security guard at Menlyn Park and all I got was a familiar look from the guard, begging me not to make a big deal of it.

It is with this burden, this emotional baggage that I met Brett Murray’s depiction of the president, and this led to a subjective, emotional and academically unfounded reaction to The Spear. Having more time to think it over, I feel I must apologise.

As South Africans, we must learn to converse about matters of race, culture, and free expression with enough civility that those with opposite views can listen and respond with civility. We may never convince each other, but at least we'll be reassured that we are all human beings. Comrades, we must calm down.

The option to disagree

Granted, there are not many models out there which we can base this conversation on. Politics in the US, Britain, France and even the birthplace of democracy, Greece, is all toxic these days, and at least we still have the option to disagree.

When called to argue in a case against two competing rights, one should learn to bring logic and not emotion to that fight. There are no studies, statistics, or quotes from great men that justify emotional responses based on pain, and certainly not strong legal arguments that pain should even matter.

I expected that by stating that this hurts me that would be enough. In retrospect, it is selfish to expect freedom of expression to take second place to a pain that I cannot verify is shared by everyone of my race. In fact, it is quite unfair to place a blanket statement on how blackness is affected, when blackness itself has not convened to decide. I was hurt, but mine was just one of many reactions.

At some point I felt a strong palpable resentment towards our shared libertarian constitution that seemed more a tool to shield a few from the wrath of the many, but a tool which seems incapable of protecting the many from more injury. I viewed dignity differently than respect, a right that is promised to even the worst criminal in our state. To imply that good behaviour is a precondition to a right endangers my own right in future.


But I’m one of 50 million, and it is highly unlikely that every word in that Constitution will be to my liking. It should reflect a bit of everyone, but cannot be everything to all people. The Constitution is South Africa’s highest vision of itself; it is a tool for justice and fairness, and not one for revenge and punishment.

It’s really me I’m most angry at, for not quantifying the possible costs of vulnerability. Like so many, I had expectations for what others needed to contribute towards this democracy. But what I have come to realise is that there have been many expectations based on assumptions, and not a tangible agreement.

I cannot be angry for a broken promise when it was never made. In order to move on from this point forward with little resentment, I must only give what I’m willing to lose because this is not an exchange.

This is Democracy.

- Zama Ndlovu is a management consultant, managing director of Youth Lab, writer, activist, and anything else you'd like her to be. Follow her on Twitter: @JoziGoddess

News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent  the views of News24.

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