Defend Truth


April’s story: Freedom begins when we turn away from the centre


Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

With no vision at the national level, we must turn from where there is no direction, towards the places where there is energy and integrity and wisdom.

“The habit of looking at the spectacle has forced us to gloss over the nooks and crannies.” – Njabulo Ndebele

A few Aprils ago I was at a meeting on reconciliation and justice. I had been invited to speak but as is always the case with these events, the keynote address is seldom the highlight. The most important moment took place when a young Afrikaans man – a theology student ­­–­ stood up and shared a story that has stuck with me, perhaps because its details were so very ordinary and so deeply sorrowful.

I have paraphrased, but what he told us went along these lines:

The young man (let’s call him Fricke) grew up in a small town, one of many that dot South Africa’s countryside as you drive from one big city to another. Because of this there were only a few schools in the town. After Apartheid ended, life in Fricke’s small town was largely the same as it had been before. The township got a bit bigger, the faces on SABC got browner, but the children at school continued to all look like him. It remained the white Afrikaans-speaking enclave it had always been.

When Fricke entered high school big changes were taking place. Black students started attending his school in a new programme. Suddenly they were there in overwhelming numbers, in the hallways and milling around on the street in front of school before the bell rang. Many of the white parents pulled their children out of this high school and moved them to one of the white ones that had been untouched by the onslaught of post-Apartheid’s changes. Fricke stayed on.

Fricke was one of very few white students left in the school and he and his new schoolmates got on fine. On the sports grounds especially, all the tension they might feel during class time just melted away. It was as though everyone agreed to suspend disbelief and cynicism and all the things about their lives that mattered, while they ran around on the pitch.

Early one term an inter-school match was scheduled. This was the first time his school was fielding a mixed team of players. The opposing school of course was not doing this, because it had no black learners; it had managed to avoid this ignoble fate.

In the weeks before the match (I do not recall the sport the boys were playing but it doesn’t matter for the purpose of telling this story) some of the parents from the opposing school threatened not to let their children play against “the black team” of which he was a member.

The game went forward but what happened that day would have made the heavens weep had Fricke and his community been living in biblical times. Angry white parents stood on the sidelines raging against the young man’s team. There was so much bitterness it seemed the pitch might drown in it.

The players on the other team took every opportunity to sneer at Fricke and his teammates. Up close they spat at him and called him ‘kaffir boetie’ under their breath, they played dirty, aiming to wound. Fricke and his teammates blinked tears into the sweat on their faces as they chased the ball. Humiliated and confused, they kept running. The 15 years or so that each of them had spent on this planet could not have prepared them for this kind of fury.

At half time, as the players filed off the field, a big, red angry father let loose. He hurled abuse at them and he roared at the coaches. Then he turned and singled out one poor scared soul. He shouted at the poor lone white boy on the team. His words were like fire: Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? Being forced to school with them is one thing, but choosing to play with them? Disgusting.

Fricke left the match that day ashamed and exhausted.

It is hard not to be empathetic to everything that Fricke was trying to be: a full and decent citizen in a place that was shifting beneath his feet. The son of nobody important, he was insisting on being a team member and a friend in a deeply hostile environment. It is impossible too, not to think about what it must have felt like to be one of those black boys far away from the familiarity of their township streets, on the receiving end of vitriol poured out by a man three times their age, far bigger and (given everything) likely to be armed.

Safe is always relative in this country of ours.

Even as he told the story – half a decade after the incident – you could feel the shame burning his neck and watering his eyes. Although he offered in a deeply personal way, the story was in its essence, about the impact that institutional failures have on real people.

As bad as the violent eruption on the field was that distant day in Fricke’s memory, it is perhaps worse nobody saw what happened as a crisis. The life of the school went on as it always had. No intervention was made.

This is extraordinary but of course not unusual. There is no better example of this than how we have treated the death of Emmanuel Sithole. The Sunday Times’ account of what happened as help was sought to save Sithole’s life is a study in callousness and contempt. Poor people count for nothing in South Africa. They never have.

Sithole’s death may have been preventable. Who knows? No one knows. The Alexandra Day Clinic where he was first taken couldn’t help him, so he had to be taken to Edenvale Hospital. Arriving at Edenvale Hospital, Oatway pleaded for help. The man in the car was critical, he said.

Slowly one porter rose and scribbled in a book. Then the other, both now ambling towards the hospital entrance.” Inside the car… [Sithole] looked lifeless.

“He’s dead. We can’t take him,” one porter pronounced.

There was no pulse. Then a gag reflex. He’s alive.

Sithole died minutes later in ICU.”

I want to write another story. One in which the principals of both schools pre-empt drama by making sure that the angry red man and his boy don’t attend the match. In my version, the district education office convenes an urgent meeting in the weeks before the match and everyone agrees that regardless of their views on black and white, the kids should be allowed to play. At this meeting someone stands up and says the angry red man is always making trouble anyway. Because communities know their members very well, others nod their heads and the angry red man lowers his head in shame.

Forgive me if my version sounds like Invictus. It is not easy to talk about good things when they seem sometimes so far from reach. I am trying to demonstrate in my own awkward way, that we will need to begin to factor the bureaucrats and the small thinkers and the people at the centre out of our plans. We will need to learn how to pretend that the national leaders and national departments, to whom we wish we could turn for guidance, but who always, always let us down, simply do not exist. In our context, national and central things block and take and are invested in nothing but their own power.

The architects of Apartheid had a vision and so they required strong centralist leadership. The freedom fighters to whom we must all be grateful, especially as we think about our freedom, had a vision and so they too provided a centralist model for us. Today there is no vision at the national level and so we must turn from where there is no direction, towards the places where there is energy and integrity and wisdom.

The days of dealing only with the symptoms and addressing after-the-fact outrage must end. It looks more difficult than it is. But we must make a start. We must commandeer the margins; the places where people live and die and where we have room to manoeuvre. There are the only spaces we have left.

It feels impossible but it is not. As June Jordan says, “To begin is no more agony than opening your hand.” DM


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