South Africa: “She bursts with pain and continues walking”

What is pain? This question underwrites a particular narrative that is part of what is called South Africa. Two articles yesterday suggested it’s time to pay attention, greater attention, any attention, to pain, to the pain people suffer and to the pain that engulfs people, individuals and communities, swallows them whole and then … continues walking?

Thirty years ago, February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela walked out of incarceration, hand in hand with his then partner Winnie Madikizela Mandela. He walked forth into the strong summer sun of Cape Town and addressed the nation and the world: “Friends, comrades and fellow South Africans. I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all.” Mandela went on to greet, salute and pay tribute to all the various sectors and groups that had worked for and would continue to work for the liberation of South Africa and beyond. His tributes end with the invocation of pain: “I pay tribute to the mothers and wives and sisters of our nation. You are the rock-hard foundation of our struggle. Apartheid has inflicted more pain on you than on anyone else … My salutations would be incomplete without expressing my deep appreciation for the strength given to me during my long and lonely years in prison by my beloved wife and family. I am convinced that your pain and suffering was far greater than my own.”

Women: apartheid has inflicted more pain on you than on anyone else. Wife and family: Your pain and suffering was far greater than my own. What is that pain? 

On the same day this week that news outlets in South Africa were sharing Madiba’s speech, and reflecting on and remembering that fateful day, an article appeared with the headline, “South Africans describe the pain of unemployment”. The report distilled the findings of a study based in two South African townships, Orange Farm and Boipatong, both very near and very far from “the economic hub of Johannesburg.” In the original study, one “participant explained that unemployment brings `a black heart full of sorrow and pain; the heart is broken, angry, sore and sad.” This black heart full of sorrow and pain extends to the entire township: “They viewed their township environment as a filthy, painful, sad, and forgotten place with dilapidated infrastructure and resources.” In the shorter, more recent article, the authors tell the story of one of the participants, a woman, who, when “asked to depict what she associated with unemployment …, took a few minutes to think, and there, on the spot, she wrote this poem:

The dry lands filled
with sorrow and tears.
The cascade of showers
of death implemented by
unemployment.
The fatigue that has
impacted to the community
that is left flustered because
of unemployment.
The land filled with fake promises
by fake leaders.
The people who try to contrive
the pain of being unemployed.”

What is this pain?

South African poet Karen Press’s poem “Heart’s Hunger” speaks to that question:

“She dreams of an enormous mother beckoning her. 
She carries her father on her journey’s back.
Her stomach is filled with his bones.
She bursts with pain and continues walking.”

Across the country and across the decades, every day and day after day, she bursts with pain and continues walking, and we still have the State in which women are made to burst with pain and continue walking.

(Image Credit: Clementina Ceramics

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.