Watching the images of violence happening near my home in Johannesburg city centre, I think about my uncle. A mine worker who brought us endless stories of this and that workmate from Mozambique, Malawi, Lesotho, Zimbabwe…somewhere in our region. We knew the names of these places from him before we learnt them at school. His stories about how things are in Russia, in Cuba, Bangladesh, Taiwan. He said, in Russia or Cuba, you could go into any shop and get sweets and no one would say you are stealing. There is no one shop owner; everyone owns everything. You see a bicycle in the street and you ride it where you want and leave it there, no one will arrest you. How I wished this version of socialism had been true when I grew older.
A few times he brought one or so of these Bhutis who spoke fanigalo with a tinge of Portuguese or Chichewa or such home. I could listen to them the whole time, we were little and found the smallest things interesting then. When I grew older I got to understand how much of the South African mining sector had been built on the shoulders of the black man, the social reproductive labour of black women in many parts of South Africa, Lesotho, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Botswana, Zambia, etc. These black bodies who dug up the shiny stuff for, at the time white monopoly extractive capital to ship off to Europe, Israel for polishing or some such, making people who’ll never know their names or care about them, who just get richer, while they take away their old age, battered bodies, suspended dreams, often disease or some sort or the other and the strange tone in their accent from speaking too much fanigalore.
And the black African woman from some village in Mozambique, Lesotho, Zambia, Malawi, Botswana, sometimes Tanzania, etc, got nothing for her productive labour which subsidised big extractive capital.
Then when we grew up, how we learnt about Samora Machel, Joshua Nkomo, Julius Nyerere, next to our Mandelas and Bikos and Cyril Ramaphosas (that one Cyril who had my favourite face, plumpy cheeks and lots of life in his eyes then, and that killer Afro! Well, don’t ask me what I see in those eyes now, I try not to look at them). Fast forward to mid high school, where we learn about the destruction the Apartheid regime wrought on the people of Mozambique, Angola, other parts of our region, how those Africans hopping on one leg or missing some limb in Angola or Mozambique paid for shielding South African Liberation fighters, among other things. I cannot imagine life was like Hollywood then, so I cannot dispute it with facts when Lindiwe Zulu says it wasn’t as romantic as we whom she claims overplay this Africa housed us, fed us, shielded us, gave us an identity to claim for ourselves when South Africanness was denied us by the repressive regime line.
All I can say is that our liberation fighters were on our soil. The Limbless people of Angola, Mozambique, and others who carry different kinds of the scars of the backlash the apartheid regime meted out count for much more than we today give them credit. Forward to some time in the early 2000s, when I start to travel for work in our continent and I see all these South African shops in Botswana and as far as Ghana. I start to read more about South Africa’s economic footprint in our continent. In Lesotho a few years ago I hear how one major retail shop single-handedly destroyed Lesotho’s poultry farming sector by insisting on certain procurement arrangements with a government in a weak and desperate position for “investment”. There are many stories.
Fast forward to late 2000’s. At Human Rights Watch, there is this very smart, knowledgeable researcher who knows lots of what she knows about the Congo. She does this thing with a bunch of us newbies being trained on advocacy in some room in some New York skyscraper. She makes us lift up our phones, then she goes on to explain how all of us are carrying a piece of the Congo in our hands. How the Congo is in our bathrooms. Coltan powers so much of today’s electronics, technological gadgets and utensils. That is just one piece of the Congo, do not get me started.
We grew up on the rich, Africanist literature of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, Mariama Ba, Ousmane Sembene, Wole Soyinka, who gave us permission and the gift of the decolonising process of telling, consuming our own stories as Africans. With the African Feminist movement, well, you towering witches and wizards, where do I begin? Suffice to say you gave me a language to live by, a higher universe to inhabit, and that is everything. The point I wanted to remind myself of is just how much this continent and its peoples have made us, fed us, gifted us, shielded us, how it defines so much of who we are, how indisputable it is that as South Africa, we stand firmly, always have, on the shoulders of the giant that is this continent and its peoples. That’s all for now. Thank you Africa!
(Photo Credit: Ainhoa Goma / Oxfam)