Book Extract | My Land Obsession: The greys within the rainbow

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Bulelwa Mabasa's book My Land Obsession is no available. It details the impact of the Group Areas Act and the forced removal of her grandparents from Sophiatown to Meadowlands. Photo: Twitter/@mabasa_bulelwa
Bulelwa Mabasa's book My Land Obsession is no available. It details the impact of the Group Areas Act and the forced removal of her grandparents from Sophiatown to Meadowlands. Photo: Twitter/@mabasa_bulelwa


In this extract from her book My Land Obsession: A Memoir, lawyer and author Bulelwa Mabasa turns the spotlight on the euphoria that followed the demise of apartheid, and the immediate challenges that faced the first post-apartheid government.

Not only were we now living in leafy and pristine suburbia, Nani and I were enrolled in a new school in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg – Waverley Girls’ High School in Highlands North. Intrigued by seeing long-bearded men in black hats and jackets walking in packs and sometimes with their young children did not at first register to us as an indicator of a neighbourhood that was occupied predominantly by Jewish people.

I had not even heard of the existence of the religion or the community until then, nor did I question or associate the fact that school ended early at 11.30 am on Fridays as a signifier of a particular religious inclination or a community that was different from where I came from. I had observed that some teachers clearly wore wigs, without realising that was in fact a religious practice for orthodox Jewish women.

It was increasingly evident that the election of the first black president was not suddenly going to eradicate apartheid in its form or substance. Our parents’ financial upward trajectory and their ability to afford a better-resourced school were not enough for us to be enrolled at a school of choice without a hassle. Apartheid’s spatial planning remained as racist as it was the day before Mandela was inaugurated as president. White people still largely lived in the white suburbs, with sprinkles of a few black families that had somehow escaped the shackles of a racist regime. The reconciliation project was not seeping into white establishments fast enough, if at all, and schools were not spared. Most private and state white schools still maintained policies that required learners to reside close to the school. What this meant was that it was difficult, if not impossible, for a child who lived in the black townships to access education in schools that were located in the white suburbs.

Babam, ever so resourceful (and stubborn), managed to get us enrolled at Waverley by using the residential address of one of the Soweto String Quartet’s Jewish managers who lived in Highlands North.

The lack of a residential address in Highlands North and its surrounds was not the last of our woes. It was just the beginning. It was an uncanny introduction to systemic years of subconscious othering, exclusion and subliminal racism that was meted out to black girls at the school. It was not overt, but it was pervasive and effective. It played on our individual and collective psyche and self-conceptualisation.

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Black girls were overwhelmingly in the minority at the school. Common utterances from some teachers included: ‘Don’t speak that language here.’ ‘This is not Soweto.’ ‘Why are you girls so loud?’ ‘This is not a taxi rank.’ We knew that our presence at the school was merely tolerated. I could not shake the feeling that I did not belong. A small gathering of a group of black girls somehow signalled danger, and an effort was always made to ‘separate’ us.

The curriculum did not speak of African excellence and brilliance, let alone the languages and their place within the African continent. I could not find my ancestors in narratives about glory and triumph. I could not locate Mawe and Tata’s uprooting from Sophiatown in history lessons, nor was Tata’s history as a mineworker digging for gold even a topic. My history lessons spoke nothing about the violent and bloody ways in which my ancestors defended the land of their birth. I did not learn of the contribution of African people to the advancement of mathematics. Achebe, Serote and Wa Thiong’o were absent from English literature.

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Learning about Louis XVI, Bismarck and Napoleon felt so farfetched and ultimately erased the little sense of self that I had left. Each time I listened and learned about the various wars and battles of white men of yesteryear, I wondered whether these white men’s appetites for power and domination over others were somewhat of an inherent trait that came with whiteness. Each time I came across a depiction or impression of their faces in textbooks, my mind drifted and wondered if they looked in any way like Malan and Verwoerd – both names that were vilified as enemies of black people.

In my teenage mind, there was everything fundamentally wrong with my mother tongue, my complexion, the size of my nose, the hair on my scalp and, indeed, where I came from. I wanted so desperately to be seen and to matter, and the only way I figured I could achieve this was as clear as the light of day: I needed to un-black myself. Thoroughly so. I needed to clothe myself in whiteness, learn it and mimic it until I reached acceptable levels of palatability. I was undone. The years of standing firmly fortified by my grandparents and parents were whitewashed, simply because that was the price to be paid to access decent education and some semblance of peace of mind.

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My accent subconsciously became progressively anglicised into a suburban twang as I paid extra attention to my teachers’ and friends’ accents, intonation and how and where the tongue rolled and twisted. My natural, short hair felt crusty to me, leading me to relax it. I found myself softening my voice and altering my mannerisms to appear more delicate. There was a need to distance myself from the imposing boldness, loudness and sometimes even the hardness that was associated with blackness. Soon enough, no thought was paid to how easily the words rolled off my tongue.

The change in the law regarding the admission of black children to white schools and the installation of the new government did not offer protection against the feelings of unworthiness that black girls brought from their poorer homes. They did not shield us from the fact that we had to be up at least three hours before our white counterparts, just to access better education that came with resources and sporting codes we had never heard of before. We arrived home at sunset, having taken two taxis and a bus twice in the day. Most of the other black girls were also caregivers to their grandparents and younger siblings. Housework was not a chore but a responsibility and a way of life.

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The danger of the reconciliation project was that it was a further denial of the structural existence of apartheid in every sphere of life. It lacked an important aspect – that of reparations and social justice. It required of black people not only to awaken themselves from the trauma of an inhumane system but also a denial of a moment to pause and reflect. The euphoria of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ overshadowed the need for meaningful and substantive change and an intentional effort to understand who we were and how it was that we came to be where we were. There was no room to process our trauma, let alone possess the language for it. The black townships remained as black occupation camps, and public transport remained overcrowded, under-resourced and unreliable in the form of taxis, trains and buses. The mine dumps remained prominent on the outskirts of the townships as reminders and fortresses of the apartheid system.

Mabasa is a mother of four who lives in Johannesburg. She is a director at Werksmans Attorneys, and was appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa as the only attorney on the Presidential Expert Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture in 2018.

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