OPEN BOOK FESTIVAL
Reflections of ‘extraordinary’ journeys beyond the brutal challenges of apartheid
This year’s Open Book Festival in Cape Town from 8-10 September featured more than 60 events that included a session where panellists dissected the challenges during and post apartheid.
‘Extraordinary Lives” was one of the first events hosted at this year’s Open Book Festival. Hosted by journalist Firdose Moonda, the session revealed the ways in which panellists – Banyana Banyana head coach Desiree Ellis, renowned South African writer Sindiwe Magona and former liberation movement cadre Patric Tariq Mellet – thrived and overcame the “horrendous impact of apartheid”.
South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world post apartheid. Although apartheid should be ancient history, we still find the country speckled with racism and discrimination. The effects of the apartheid era are still very much alive and visible in the way that marginalised and oppressed groups are still the victims of abject poverty based on the colour of their skin.
Sindiwe Magona, who has felt the rawness and the brutality of apartheid first hand, argued that “we are all racists”. The author explained that we can all distinguish the difference between people by looking at the skin first, and that act alone is racism.
“Human beings have eyes so we see, it’s natural. Human beings have skin, we all live inside our skin. Remove the skin, we are the same but we look at the skin and we see difference so we are racist. That is natural. Do not go around saying ‘I do not see colour’ because that is really just… I don’t know what it is. I won’t even call it stupid.
“You are human, you see colour, it’s there and it is natural. What is not good is when you interpret that to mean anything about the person at whom you are looking,” said Magona.
Magona goes on to explain that because of centuries of “bad learning, we have been taught that skin colour has meaning and this is something that everybody has inside them”.
According to Magona, the cure to discrimination is accepting the “indoctrinated learning of racism” and calling yourself out when the voluntary or involuntary learning outweighs your humanity by treating someone differently because of the colour of their skin.
Unfortunately for Magona, the apartheid era thrived on belittling others based on the colour of their skin, an act that would go on to obscure the reality of generations whose possibilities and aspirations would be limited to the meaning of their appearance.
All three panellists reflected on the turbulent journey of pursuing their dreams and the perseverance and resilience of trying to break away from the life that they were subjected to during apartheid because of their heavy production of melanin.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “All these years later, race, exclusion and inequality are still central to our political reality”
Redefining the norm
Former soccer star and now head coach of the women’s national team, Banyana Banyana, Desiree Ellis talks about the scarcity of role models in her biography Magic: Desiree Ellis – from Salt River to the 2023 World Cup (by Luke Alfred).
“Back then, it was not normal for girls to play football. I was told that I wanted to be a boy. I regularly had to pull down my pants because people used to say ‘girls don’t play football like that’ but I just wanted to play what I loved doing and I urge parents to allow kids to be and do whatever they want to do, not what parents want them to do but what they want to do,” said Ellis.
Ellis has been associated with the national team for the past 30 years, a childhood dream come true. But bringing this dream to life was no walk in the park as apartheid laws limited black lives.
Ellis began playing for the national team only in 1994 because before then she was not allowed to participate as a member of the team because of her colour. Through determination and passion, Ellis became a star player and was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga in Gold by President Cyril Ramaphosa earlier this year.
“I have always loved the game of football since a very young age. Football has taken me to places I have never thought I could go to. Football has given me opportunities that I never thought I could have.
“I’m in a male-dominated environment and I remember former Miss Universe Zozi [Zozi Tunzi] said that space there doesn’t have a name on. It doesn’t have a male or female name, but we are afraid to step out of our comfort zones, we are afraid to step out and take that opportunity. What is the worst thing that can happen? You fail? Through that you survive and get success,” said Ellis.
Ellis understands that she has to be resilient and keep going because she is a beacon of hope for others out there and believes that failure builds character.
“We did not go to the Olympics after the World Cup and that was probably the biggest downer compared to the highlight of qualifying, but it pushed us up a little bit further. There will be bumps in the road, but that happens because that builds character,” said Ellis.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Apartheid and colonialism still define South Africa’s politics despite our liberal social democratic Constitution
‘Do not choose poverty’
At the age of 23, Sindiwe Magona was “forced to grow” up when her husband left her to raise three children on her own. Magona, who has managed to turn her life around, started off as a teacher and then became a domestic worker. After the experience of mopping floors and washing windows, Magona vowed that none of her children would become domestic servants after three generations of women in her bloodline had fallen into that same pit.
“My parents did so much for me and I needed to do more for my children. While I was a domestic worker, I vowed that neither of my two daughters will ever be domestic workers, my son will not be a garden boy. I don’t look down on those jobs, but while I was doing them, it felt like it should be a stepping stone to something else. When I saw three generations… grandmother working as a domestic servant, mother is… and you are 16 and you are going to this… something is wrong. This is no stepping stone,” said Magona.
Magona decided to further her studies in order to better her life and that of her children. She worked hard in school and eventually got the opportunity to study for her master’s degree at Columbia University through a scholarship.
“Each time I got a better qualification, I got a better job. My life changed. That is why I say do not choose poverty. Life happens, you will be in the dumps, don’t sit there. You are choosing poverty. Find a way out and you do, there’s ample help around. There is a lot of help for people who are trying to do better for themselves. There are scholarships, there are all kinds of things inside here in South Africa and outside. You want to be somebody? You will be,” said Magona.
In her journey of leaving poverty, Magona has written novels, children’s books, short stories, poetry, biographies, autobiographies, essays, radio plays and a screenplay.
She too received the Order of Ikhamanga in Gold 12 years ago and is a senior research fellow at the University of the Western Cape.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Our unemployment and poverty trap is apartheid’s legacy that is perpetuated by our government
‘South Africa is still segregated post apartheid’
Former liberation movement cadre who returned from exile in 1990, Patric Tariq Mellet, was appointed to the Governance Council of the South African Heritage Resources Agency in 2019 by the minister of sport, arts and culture. He believes that South Africa is still heavily segregated post apartheid.
“Everything that motivated me when I was a child or teen to get involved in the Struggle… everything is still here. We have made some progress to some level, I can’t deny that. We have a youth population with 70% unemployed. We have people living in shanty towns much bigger than when I was smaller. We have incidents of individual racism, violence, racial violence that is happening particularly in rural areas in which the victim is black people… people who are not Europeans.
“All of these things exist at a level at which none of us can sit and say ‘well, the Struggle is over’, it is not over. That Struggle continues and it will continue after I die and my message to young people is to not be complacent,” said Mellet.
He urged the youth of South Africa to “do as I and other young people did when we were young. Say no, it is not acceptable.”
Mellet said that racism still angers him and he does not tolerate it, he does something about it. He shared an incident where he was grocery shopping and a white customer lashed out at a black person.
“On a daily basis at the shop I look at the attitude of white people to the people serving them behind the tills and it is like they own people, they are rude. I said something about it there and then. I caused a commotion. Take action, that is what we need to do,” said Mellet.
“I come from a liberation movement, but that party I do not recognise any more. It’s not what I joined. It is betraying people in many ways,” said Mellet. DM