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Barbara Masekela’s ‘Poli Poli’ resonates deeply for those of us who grew up under apartheid’s evil beginnings

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Professor Mokubung Nkomo is a retired academic who has published research on equality in education in academic journals, and authored, edited and co-edited numerous books over the last four decades.

There are many facets to Masekela’s life story that will ring true with South Africans like me, born during the waning years of the Jan Smuts’ administration and the victory of the National Party in 1948 with DF Malan at the helm followed immediately by Hendrik Verwoerd as the evil genius in charge.

When you pause for a moment and look back at other moments in your past, you will be struck by the common experiences you have with others. Though memoirs are a chronicle of a single individual they invariably are set in time and space shared by others, and pivoted in a broader socio-political space.

In her recently published memoir, Poli Poli (Jonathan Ball) Barbara Masekela lays bare her life story. It is a story encased in an exacting political environment and a tortured social milieu shared with millions of kindred spirits. Managing the interplay of varied personal, familial, social and political variables is done with remarkable fluency.

It is a narrative that reaches back to her forebears, some of whom lived and toiled in the mines and farms of the old Transvaal; memories of the Lutheran Church in Botshabelo near Middleburg which her forebears attended; Ouma’s (maternal grandmother) career journey from servicing white households to running a “civil” township shebeen. Although precarious, the widespread shebeen industry is cast as an act of rebellion against servitude and apartheid restrictions — importantly it also served as a vital alternative income generation activity.

Looming large behind her life story was a political superstructure and system that enveloped all the particularities of ordinary black life in apartheid South Africa. The apartheid superstructure featured a bevy of draconian legislation, complemented by an unforgiving apartheid ideology and a pliant Calvinist faith.

Within the overarching superstructure are the bedevilling day-to-day oppressive conditions purveyed by “a toxic agency that permeates every aspect of the very air we breathe… cuts through the cheer and glooms the air so that the men drink deeper. It is the reason for everything that had to do with everyone I knew. It is the reason why people disappear, die, get sick, lose their houses and their lives,” she intones.

This dreadful situation was described in Masekela’s youth as ikhalabayi (colour bar): a descriptive shorthand for the systemic physical and psychosocial derangements that scarred the country, then and now.

The superstructure and its practical application were at their core totalitarian, defined by a virulent streak of authoritarianism. The United Nations’ declaration of apartheid as a crime against humanity — described by Archbishop Desmond Tutu as “pure evil” was not an unfounded allegation. It was (still is) all empirical — in other words, materially demonstrable. So, it is cruel, and certainly most ignorant, to dismiss personal experiences that can be documented as anecdotal or a figment of imagination.

There are many interesting facets to Masekela’s life story that will resonate with South Africans who were born during the waning years of the Jan Smuts administration and the victory of the National Party in 1948 with DF Malan at the helm, followed immediately by Hendrik Verwoerd as the evil genius in charge. It was an era of rapid legislative enactments of harsh apartheid laws. That is also the period that informed my own formative years, explaining why her life story resonates remarkably with mine, and undoubtedly with millions of other fellow South Africans.

To have firm control of the majority of the population and immiserating it was through the passage of the Bantu (1953), Indian (1963), and Coloured Education Acts (1965), carefully calibrated and consonant with the apartheid hierarchical racial structure. Promulgation of these laws was met with resistance with many good teachers resigning and emigrating; many black parents transferred their children to schools that they perceived to be better — in Masekela’s case, the Coloured High School in Johannesburg and subsequently to Inanda College in KwaZulu-Natal.

Archbishop Tutu’s decision to quit teaching was a result of the imposition of inferior education on black schools. Those today who believe that black education was better under the National Party than it is currently, are, to put it charitably, gravely mistaken.

Her narration of the internal familial engagements on the issue of identity and how she averted the clutches of a manufactured identity that has survived the demise of apartheid with disastrous consequences, is instructive. In many cases, the escape from the devastation of inferior education went as far as changing or modifying surnames, in the case of Barbara Masekela having her surname changed to “Maskell” in order to be admitted to the City & Suburban Coloured School. While this metamorphosis may trigger a chuckle, it is nonetheless a cruel example of how apartheid laws were able to violate the innermost sanctum of personal identity.

If you grew up in any of the many townships of the period, as I did, you will no doubt recognise the now-quaint vistas of vocabularies, colloquialisms, tastes and styles of the times that pepper her narrative. The memoir is replete with words or phrases like, skorokoro (old decrepit car), sebapana lemasenke (potent homemade liquor), izimbamgodi (beer hole diggers), magwinya (fat cakes), arme skepsel (poor thing in Afrikaans), or, “vicissitudes of life” (a phrase used most by those inclined to be verbose or linguistically flamboyant).

Poli Poli brings back memories of a not-too-distant past; it is a necessary antidote to amnesia. The bitterness brought by the ugliness of the past is assuaged by elegant poetic prose that makes Poli Poli enjoyable reading. Poli Poli is the name of the ladybird in isiNdebele. We can only imagine that the choice of ladybird has to do with its magnificent beauty, fragility, and yet resilience in the midst of adversity.

The memoir is enthusiastically endorsed by no less a literary personage than Nuruddin Farah who writes that “Poli Poli… is an adorable book full of childhood thrills and teeming with vignettes of memory retold in brilliant prose”. That says it all. The memoir only covers a fraction of Barbara Masekela’s life story and so it is fair to anticipate a sequel.

The book is indeed a great and must-read; the only slight blemish is the lapses in the copy-editing process. DM

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  • We must remember our past. This sounds like a beautifully written blend of the personal, political and social. Adding to my list of must reads.

  • Thanks for a lucid (and brilliant) review of Barbara’s first sequel of her autobiography. I was privileged to watch what I believe was a re-run of her touching e-NCA interview over the festive break … and now your lovely review. I reserve more words for after reading the book. I will be picking up a copy, the paper version. Though there are good reasons for the electronic version, I still enjoy touching and turning the physical page.