Yesterday, on the day those in control would later turn Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’s life support system off, allowing him his final, politically expedient release after months held captive in a purportedly vegetative state, I was driving with my niece Juliette in KwaZulu-Natal, behind a white woman in a bakkie. The passenger seat of the vehicle was empty. In the open back, bumping around in the drizzling rain, sat a black woman in a blue maid’s uniform trimmed, profound irony, with ribbon in the rainbow hued design of the “new” South African flag.
Utterly disgusted, Juliette and I wanted to yell out something as we drove past, something to say that we saw, we recognised, we hated the thoughtless inhumanity of the woman in the driver’s seat, and that we saw, we recognised, we hated that this was a microcosm of the sickness persisting in the world all around us every day… but something in the grim, faraway expression on the face of the woman in the back made us realise that anything we said, however well-intentioned, would only compound her humiliation. Even the clouds were spitting on her.
South Africa still has so far to go before there can be any exaltation about transformation here. Sadly, far too little in the material circumstances of the majority of South Africans has changed since 1994, and for this reason the triumphant official narrative we are bombarded with today, as the media orchestrate the nation’s performance of grief for Mandela’s passing, rings hollow. Despite the man’s humility and admission of his own fallibility, South Africans have fashioned of him a myth, a brand, a magical fetish that distracts from the truth that we are ALL responsible for changing the way we live in this country, this world… and that we will need to do more, much more, before we can talk about freedom from oppression.
My friend Andre Goodrich posted a similar anecdote on Facebook this morning, and I would like to share what he wrote and echo his exhortation:
“From my office window, I can see a young white foreman, a child really, sit watching black men at work. I see this when I look up from marking first year exam essays on the political economy of race and class in South Africa. Alongside the stack of exam papers is a sheet of paper a garden worker used to explain to me how he sees the word ‘location’ as related to the Tswana word for cattle kraal. Between these, the excitement I felt in the 90s for the massive change promised by Mandela’s release from prison feels false and jaded.
I am saddened by Mandela’s death, but I am angered by his leaving such a sense of transformation amid such an absence of it. I encourage you to be angry too, and to hold us all to a better standard than what we have settled for.”
Lala ngoxolo, Madiba. A luta continua.