Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Where you from Van Damme?

Athambile Masola, Thought Leader
Athambile Masola
“Every black African everywhere is rightly or wrongly perceived to originate — a contentious concept in itself — from somewhere. Almost overwhelmingly that somewhere is consensually assumed, indeed believed, to be an idyllic village perched somewhere far away in rural crevices. Even today, when someone asks you in the city, or at a dinner table somewhere in a little town, where you come from, your heart beats a millisecond faster than before. You break into a cold sweat, the wine and cognac you just consumed quickly evaporates through the pores as you over-contemplate: Does he want to know where I pay my taxes and my children go to school or where my folks, mainly my grandparents, come from? It can be unsettling.”
— Bongani Madondo

And Phumzile Van Damme has been unsettled. I saw the headline in the Sunday Times before I read the article: “DA MP a liar and a fraud”. Looking at the headline alone one would think the article is about the DA MP being caught red-handed with her hand in the corruption cookie jar. I was surprised to read further that this is a case of identity, place and citizenship. The alarmist headline misrepresents an issue that black Africans have to deal with on a daily basis: movement and belonging. But of course, if one is an MP, the stakes are probably higher.

Van Damme’s case is nothing new in South Africa; it’s just a pity the writers of the article didn’t take into account the context and often complexity of what freedom of movement has meant for black Africans. The extract above is from Madondo’s collection of essays reflecting on the life and times of Brenda Fassie: I’m Not Your Weekend Special. As soon as I read these words in the book I was relieved to find that the question of place and identity is anxiety-inducing for more than just a few black people. The idea that we always originate from somewhere far from the city is one that seeks to delegitimise the movement that black Africans can and should be able to make — their freedom of movement. There are numerous examples of what movement has meant for black Africans: movement in the 18th and 19th century was a result of war and conflict, where people couldn’t find a way to live together.

Among Xhosa people, the Mfengus and the Bhacas are the perfect example of this movement (the very word mfengu means to be in search or wandering around and when one is a bhaca they have run away, akin to being a refugee). The conflicts among black Africans meant that people have always been in movement searching for peace and a place to start over again. The colonial conquest added to this movement where missionaries came and set up among black Africans, often replacing their way of life with their own. The frontier wars meant more movement and disruptions for black Africans. The loss of land speaks to the recognition that movement became a punishment for being at the mercy of the imperialists who took land as they conquered space for themselves.

With the formalised Group Areas Act during apartheid, black Africans were forcibly removed from land and homes they saw as their own. And then of course, there’s exile where people chose to leave the country. The idea of choice became complicated in this instance because when staying means oppression, persecution or even death, the choice isn’t really a choice but rather a cruel game of survival and circumstance. And even in the new South Africa, evictions take place regularly where informal settlements such as Lwandle have to make room in the name of the development of infrastructure. Movement for black Africans is either a punishment, a fluke or a calculated decision. Freedom of movement is perhaps for the privileged few if at all.

Around the time I moved to Cape Town in 2012, the leader of the DA, Helen Zille, had sent the country into yet another outrage when she referred to students leaving the Eastern Cape, moving to the Western Cape for better schools, as refugees — education refugees. Her choice of words was debated for weeks and we all agreed that the word refugee limited and even diminished the right of movement of mostly poor people leaving the Eastern Cape for better opportunities. The subtext of her faux pas also further entrenched the perceptions that the Western Cape (read Cape Town) is hostile to the influx of black people who may tarnish the Republic of the Western Cape that is efficiently run by the DA (and so Cape Town is the city that works for a few). I was lumped into the group of education refugees as I too had moved to the Western Cape to be a teacher since I could not find a teaching post in the Eastern Cape. At the time, the administration of provincial education in the Eastern Cape was shifting from bad to worse and there was no information available for new posts. Temporary teachers were not being paid their salaries yet they were expected to work in the hope they would be paid eventually.

The constant reminder that I wasn’t a Capetonian (not that I was seeking the citizenship of Cape Town) took me back to primary school when I first encountered students who were foreign nationals at school. The default setting at the time was xenophobia. We didn’t have a word for it as 10 year olds so we would tease anyone who was different from us because they had a different name or surname we couldn’t pronounce. At the height of our xenophobia, friends and I would joke “go back to where you come from” because when you constantly remind someone that their decision to exercise their freedom of movement is not acceptable, you may as well tell them to leave, that they do not belong where they have chosen to settle.

Movement is a human narrative. To remove that complexity from the human condition means we are then left reading headlines and articles that refer to people as liars and frauds. Van Damme’s case is nothing new. There are many black Africans who had to decide where to place themselves at certain times in history. Van Damme’s case is still under investigation (or is it?) and the outcome will be interesting.

Her story highlights that there have to be better ways to write about the movement of a family when they had very few choices and were searching for a semblance of dignity where dignity was not guaranteed for black Africans.