Ek, skheberesh: A letter to Andile Mngxitama – by Aryan Kaganof
As a kid I was taught to fear God, hate kaffirs and love money. I failed at all three. Instead I sacrificed all of my potential at the altar of non-participation in a world predicated on cant and the illusion of free will. This sacrifice was my gift to the god I don’t believe in. But no matter how outside of the system one pretends to be we’re all secretly, mutely, legitimizing that system until that great day when we take up arms and storm the barricades. Well at least that’s how I feel on my up days. On my down days I can’t imagine anything more ludicrous than taking up arms and perpetuating the same old rise-decline and inevitable fall that all revolutions merely play out. Which is partly why I’m at the launch of a pamphlet style publication called New Frank Talk 6, written by Andile Mngxitama in critique of the way the South African government sold its people out in order to be taken seriously by the “international community” (read: “the whites”).
Now the first thing one does at these revolutionary meetings is look around for the spies. Anybody who gets there on time is suspicious, anybody actually early is obviously with the CIA. That would be the two earnest white ladies in their mid-twenties to my left, one of whom is frantically taking notes in longhand (don’t see much of that these days), the other one taking photographs of everyone else in the room using a camera implanted in what used to be her right eye. Her name’s probably Bionic Woman. Then there are the three gents dressed in smart tailored black at the back, their necks rotating constantly, they’ve been trained not to miss a beat and consequently give themselves away almost before their recording wires are pushed “ON”.
The meeting commences with comrade Athi Mongezeleli Joja introducing comrade Reamogetse Jah’key Dichabe who introduces comrade Andile Mngxitama. The poor CIA lady on my left is struggling so hard to spell these unpronounceable names that the sweat beads from her forehead drop onto her page leaving ugly blotches that only serve to make those unpronounceable names unreadable as well.
In front of me a youngish man makes a poignant entry into the debate. “It’s hard to speak in this country. It’s hard to stand up and speak. We still talk a foreign language.” Comrade Andile winces, he’s got no time for this language stuff that tastes like nostalgia to him, he only wants to move on with what’s good for all black people now. But I can hear my mentor Bra’ Geoff Mphakathi’s strident voice intoning “Go fitlhela re bua maleme a rona ga go sepe se se tla re lokelang!” (Until we speak our own languages we are lost!) and a part of me wants to break down and weep. The meeting of course is conducted in English, in order to communicate across tribal divides but fundamentally this means that the content of the discussion is sieved into a colonial form. Black revolution is framed in white words. The tongues are all speaking in His Master’s Voice… and it really doesn’t matter what they are saying, the staging of the debate in a colonial language means that the black revolution will always be the property of whites.
But comrade Mngxitama is little interested in these philosophical nuances of language that he considers beside the point which is to galvanize black people into action now. He is not here to bury Biko nor to praise him. “We don’t care about the history of heroes.” A sister from Paarl who clearly stems from Poqo royalty stridently (and somewhat wryly) declares, “Black people have been queueing for so long for everything, now we gonna queue for revolution?” And she has a good point. How long? Gibson Kente wrote back in the seventies. In The Bus Queue was a choir standard back in the days of King Kong. Generations of South African blacks have been patiently standing in this metaphorical queue, occasionally slipping into symbolic disorder, but by and large (and contrary to the received white vision of them as unruly and anarchic) exhibiting an incomprehensible patience. It’s not that they have the patience of Job, the blacks exhibit the patience of stone.
When we drive convoy to Tagores in Obs Comrade Thabo lets slip to Comrade Mngxitama and I that he’s in a mystical mode tonight and that might explain why Comrade Joja did his best to keep Comrade Thabo away from the mic all through the meeting. Me I’m less inclined to fall for the spiritualism schtick and more inclined to believe my nose that tells me Comrade Thabo has been spliffing some mighty herb before during and after that political meeting and those of us with rastaman vibrations in our veins know that good weed and hard politics are two sauces that simply don’t mix.
At Tagores Tete’s Mbambisa’s Umthsakazi is playing; that’s the rousing opener from his 1976 classic Tete’s Big Sound. This is music that tells you you are in South Africa. Wherever that may be. Tells you that you are home. Whoever you might be. The barman from Jamaica is as unfriendly as unfriendly gets. Well that’s all right with me. I always feel compromised when people are friendly. What do they want? There’s inevitably an angle. I keep my trap shut and furiously try to figure it out before the fast one gets pulled. On me? Not a chance. I’m too wys for that. Not born yesterday. Born 46 years ago in fact. That’s a long time. Since before Pa fell off the bus.
Upstairs at Tagores the smell of skyf is thick and sweet but the comrades have forgotten to tell the whites they’re not welcome. It’s an amazing thing to watch. The whites always colonize any space they are in. It’s happening right now here in Tagores. There are only two of them but gradually the sound of black fire diminishes until it is only the cackling of the white hen in the middle of the room that can be heard. Everybody else is holding their breath. Is it politeness that damns the blacks? Or do they really deep in their hearts believe that whites have something interesting to say? Actually you can’t even hold this colonizing tendency against the whites. Would you hold it against a frog that it croaks?
Of course the white lady talking used to be a sangoma and that’s when I lose my pickle. I mean really, what language did her ancestors talk to her in? She lets rip with a howler: “It was isiXhosa. I didn’t understand a word they were saying…” Lunatics. These are the kind of people that would not find one single white person out there in the world of humans to take them seriously, but here in the heart of our Blackwash tribe there is a polite silence while this chick simply rabbits on and on. She’s delivering a litany of digressions. I wonder to myself, despairingly, will she ever get to the point? She grins, “Well I’m glad I gave you some material. How do I get in touch with my schizophrenic voices?” At least she knows she’s mad. Do any of the Blackwash comrades know how mad they are? I mean if they were sane they would have thrashed this white lady to within an inch of her life! Beaten her right here and now in Tagores with their belts and their shoes and their caps and their sticks! Instead it’s more zoned out politeness. Blacks zone out when whites talk. They zone out like they do when they are waiting for a bus. They have infinite patience because they’re not all there. Oh yes their black bodies occupy volume in space. But their black minds simply vanish. They go into that place where most of the universe is hiding. It’s called – and not by any accident let me tell you – dark matter. Yes it is true, most of the universe consists of black people waiting for some white person to shut up!
But I’m not going to!
I’m not finished yet!
(This by why of an auto-critique, you see, I’m no bladdy exception to the rule motherfuckers!)
Why do blacks even bother to engage with whites? Here opposite me in Tagores with Tete Mbambisa’s Stay Cool blazing out the speakers this white academic is lecturing comrade Athi about his oppression. As if Athi doesn’t know that, and how, he’s oppressed. The white always assumes that he’s got the real goods to offer. The white always holds the keys to the kingdom of true knowledge that is denied the black a priori because of his blackness. I have known white men to drive through a township once without stopping and come out on the other end EXPERTS ON TOWNSHIP BEHAVIOUR. Man they will write a 457 page book about their encounter with township life, they will appear on national television in talk shows discussing their “ENCOUNTER” with the blacks! A white who spends ten minutes with a black is an immediate expert on race relations. A black who has spent his or her entire life negotiating the white world is always and only a spectator at the trough of the real, at best able to nod mutely at his or her own exclusion from the Ta Ta Ma Chance glistening at the end of the white rainbow. But still they sit there quietly, lapping up this white verbal garbage that is pouring out of this lady’s mouth at twice the speed of light, let alone sound. I mean this lady is TALKING FAST. At some point she says “My father talks a lot” and I say “I’m very surprised” and she does not get it, she simply lacks any layer of self-reflection, there is no irony in this white, no interiority, it is all and only this monstrous colonizing exertion of verbal force outwards into the room. It is simply what she is, beyond her sympathies with the blacks, and even her literal kinship with them, she can do nothing else but COLONIZE. That is what whites are. Colonizers. If you are going to be with them you are going to accept that and be colonized. That’s it.
For the white radical, black desperate people are a captive audience. No whites would ever bother listening to his/her shrill ranting. So what and who’s not? Ultimately my interest is purely aesthetic. This smoky room upstairs at Tagores is pulsating with history. Tete Mbambisa’s 1976 classic Black Hero’s is playing. All around me the black heroes of now are playing out their tragic part in this great tragedy called South Africa. Everything is heightened now. It feels like how real life should. Comrade Mngxitama laughs deeply and points at the burly brudda Joja, “Comrade Athi is not disciplined. That’s why the comrades put him among the white people.” Then I get it. The whole thing’s a fucken comedy after all. Black suffering is a spiritual thing. Comrade Thabo was right after all. Whites are there as an ordeal to go through in order to get to the other side of the wide road of the soul where they will find… A CHICKEN. But not just any chicken, a chicken that speaks indigenous languages!!! “Go fitlhela re bua….” Bra’ geoff’s majestic voice roars at me from out of the dark soul of the night. It’s time to go home.
But back at my car I discover that Comrade Thabo has left all the New Frank Talks as well as his backpack filled with the molotov cocktails, the 5D and the 7D as well as all the ammunition underneath my 2 year old daughter’s portable car seat. I heft the backpack over my shoulder and lug the box full of anti-white propaganda back into the nicely crowded Tagores where Tete Mbambisa’s heroic Demdese is now playing. Drop all the goetes off with comrade Phumzile who frowns and asks “What are you doing with our books and our bombs?”
“Heish Phumz, Comrade Thabo forgot them in the car…”
“Oh right, well thanks boss.”
So it goes…
Finally back home and listening to the great Tete Mbambisa’s Unity – the final track on that classic 1976 album, I wonder, have you ever noticed how one white person’s personal tragedy is always more important than the entire black condition?