When I was a little boy growing up in rural Mpumalanga, South Africa, I learned about the Tokoloshe. This short mythical menace would come out at night and terrorise people in ways too hideous to describe. Our domestic worker who lived in a small room adjacent to our garage, would stack bricks one on top of the other under her bed-posts to raise her in the air as she slept, in the hope that the Tokoloshe would pass her by as it roamed the night in search of the vulnerable.
I never saw the Tokoloshe, but I heard stories about him as I sat on the small concrete step outside Gladys’ room, watching her pan her fingers full of marogo, a boiled spinach-like herb, dipping the saucy grub before dragging it through a stiff lump of what we called phutu-pap. The Tokoloshe sounded like a horrible creature from a devilish underworld. Gladys was right to be scared of him. There we were, Gladys telling ghost stories to her charge to pass the time in the hot summer sun.
As I grew up the Tokoloshe faded from my mind and I began to worry about other things, such as how to pay for my education, where to find a job and later how to pay for my kids’ school fees. These new Tokoloshes of adult-life also come out at night, but they live in the real world of economics and middle class living rather than the mythical world of witchcraft and superstition.
This morning I stumbled on a social media post by Vusi Thembekwayo, the entrepreneurial public speaking super-star, talking about “white people” and their lack of commitment to the “rainbow nation” that South Africa was supposed to become. The video reminded me of the Tokoloshe. Not that Vusi himself is a scary little gremlin. On the contrary, he is a large well-dressed businessman with great taste in ties and shoes and a private boys-only school accent from some leafy suburb. He doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would concern himself with the underworld of Tokoloshes. No, what reminded me of the Tokoloshe was Vusi’s characterisation of South African “white people”.
In Vusi’s description whites seem to be a race of deviant stalkers who are trying to undermine black people, roaming around at night, plotting to attack blacks in their beds as they sleep. Vusi’s whites block “black tenders”, manipulate “black entrepreneurs”, fronting, falsifying and feasting off the vulnerable black masses. It all sounded pretty scary.
Vusi is of course describing the very real and concrete experiences of many blacks who suffered at the hands of white oppressors during apartheid and today still suffer the lingering effects of generations of exclusion. These wrongs were a nest of economic, social, political and psychological assaults that instilled a spirit of fear and loathing in the hearts of generations of long-suffering victims. Their nightmares were not of the mythical Tokoloshe. They were of real white people, usually men, who arrested, assaulted, intimidated and threatened their freedom and their dignity.
What left me shocked though, was that Vusi’s nightmarish Tokoloshe was “white South Africans” as a whole group.
I wondered, are all Tokoloshes bad? Are there good, friendly ones? Are there Tokoloshes who want the same things that blacks want, such as a country that works well for all where blacks and Tokoloshes can live together in harmony? Well, I can appreciate why for Gladys, that prospect could never be possible. She could never trust a Tokoloshe. The stories of the suffering of others at the hand of the Tokoloshe had been too great and the terror too deeply felt.
Except for a handful of barbaric stories of violent and racist attacks by whites on blacks on remote farms or social media rants at the margin of our society, the violence of apartheid seems to have ended. Comparatively, massive swells of other forms of violence have overtaken it – against women, babies, even Taxify drivers and security guards at soccer stadiums.
Maybe the tables have turned. Maybe Vusi is now the young charge and someone else is shaping his view of the world with vague stories of menacing evil. Experience has shown me that the vast majority of white South Africans are self-interested but harmless. They are not plotting against blacks. They are plotting about how to pay their bills and saving for a vacation from their relentless day-jobs as teachers, office workers, plumbers and other “dream careers” that their parents talked them into studying and working to secure. There are many racists among them, with hateful bile towards “black people” – even though often their only experience of these people is that of seeing them in large numbers at taxi ranks. They fear their own version of the Tokoloshe. But their fears are also mostly unfounded. Like Vusi, they hear of violent blacks and consequently fear “black people” as a whole.
I wonder what stories are told to the children who are seated on the collective steps of South Africa today? I wonder if they are honest stories about real threats and real people? I wonder what would happen if the scared blacks and the scared whites accidentally ran into one another one night? If as Vusi said, they were suddenly confronted by their fearsome enemy in this “war”, as he describes it?
Words matter. Stories about the Tokoloshe captured my imagination as a child and caused a grown woman to brick herself off the ground into a limbo of superstitious fear. Talking of “white people” and “black people” as the Vusis of today are doing matter, because they capture our collective imagination in the most unhelpful ways. They suspend us in mid air and prevent our progress in the real world.
My own take is that the real Tokoloshe threatening South Africa is that; we have 11-million people of working age with no prospect of a job, 23-million young people under the age of 35, most of whom have very little by way of skill with commercial value, and that they are being promised a better life though means that will only deliver more pain.
The Tokoloshe is that unlike Vusi, most blacks don’t yet have a smooth globally-attuned accent, education and opportunities, the cluster of competitive factors to afford them a chance at buying the things that will make them feel valued and dignified. Systemic exclusion is the Tokoloshe that comes to attack us while we sleep. The growing number of poor white South Africans are ironically victims of this same menace. Our greatest enemy is our fear and the way it prevents us from solving problems together so that our young people can all have a place in the African sun. Perhaps it is time we stopped telling ghost stories and had a conversation about our real problems and how to address them, together. DM
Marius Oosthuizen is a member of faculty at GIBS. He teaches leadership, strategy and ethics, and uses scenario planning to think about the future of South Africa, Africa and BRICS