You are black and queer, what are you doing in church?

Somizi Mhlongo is probably South Africa’s most popular gay celebrity, this past weekend he walked out of Grace Bible Church because of homophobic preaching. The pastor at the church was preaching that homosexuality is not found in nature, that dogs and lions do not practise homosexual behaviour. After walking out of the church, Somizi posted videos on his Instagram account talking about his ordeal at the Grace Bible Church. I was surprised that Somizi Mhlongo actually went to church. I am always under the impression that interesting people, worldly people, fabulous people, artists, academics, and generally people who don’t give a f*#% don’t go to church.

Of course, like most homophobes, the Ghanaian Bishop Dag Herward-Mils thought he was being clever, referencing nature as proof of the unnaturalness of homosexuality. The bishop is blithely oblivious to the hundreds of examples of homosexuality in the “natural” world. You can read more about these examples, here, here, and here.

According to Wikipedia “no species has been found in which homosexual behaviour has not been shown to exist, with the exception of species that never have sex at all. Moreover, a part of the animal kingdom is hermaphroditic, truly bisexual.” There are hundreds of studies that have debunked this widely held belief that homosexuality is not found in animals, indeed it is thriving in animals.

Also, the idea that “not even animals are homosexual” used by Dag Herward-Mils is based on the assumption that humans are above animals. The notion that we don’t do what animals do because we are better than animals is rubbish. We are a kind of animal. We are part of nature, no matter how far we try and distance ourselves from it. In fact, some environmentalists will argue that it is the problem, that we have distanced ourselves from nature so much and this has lead partly to environmental problems. Humans are not an entity existing outside of nature – we are part of it. The view that sexuality exists on a spectrum has been around since the publication of Alfred Kinsey’s study on “The Sexual Behaviour of the Human Male” in 1948. So the varied ways we experience and express our sexuality is part of the human experience. I doubt if Dag Herward-Mils has ever heard of Alfred Kinsey, or any other study about human sexuality for that matter.

I wonder if we show bishop Dag Herward-Mils that homosexual behaviour does exist in animals, will the bishop approve of homosexuality then?

This is not the first time the church in South Africa is implicated in homophobic rhetoric. The church has a history of homophobic speech throughout post-apartheid South Africa. There was the resistance of the inclusion of the protection of sexual orientation against discrimination in the South African constitution. Once the protection of sexual orientation was included in the constitution, there have been a number of talks about having it removed. The church was resistant to same-sex marriage. Church leaders and members of churches have been known to gather at Gay Pride marches in protest of Gay Pride. There was the court case of the lesbian woman that was dismissed by the Methodist Church because she revealed to her congregation that she was marrying her girlfriend. The homophobia in the church has never been shy, and so this incident with Somizi Mhlongo is an incident in a long line of homophobic incidents.

In the past I have written about how I view the church and the construction of Jesus as violence on black people. My views on black people and the church are clear: black people have no business in believing in god and the concept of Jesus. The concept of Jesus is enslavement. It is a concept designed to tame people, to make people unquestioning, to make people passive in their approach to life’s issues because something out there will solve their problems. It is a tool to quell, a tool to create a submissive population of believers instead of agitators. Therefore my view on black queers and the church is the same: black queers have no business in attending church and believing in the imported story of Jesus.

The most important question for me in this whole Grace Bible Church saga is: what are black queers doing at church? What is Somizi doing attending Grace Bible Church? Grace Bible Church has a “statement of faith” on their website that reads:

“With regards to sexual behaviour, we believe in heterosexual relationships between a natural man and a natural woman within the confines of lawful matrimony. Adherence to this stated principle of sexual behaviour is an inherent requirement of membership of Grace Bible Church.”

In other words, this is a place that has made it clear that it does not want Somizi. In one of the Instagram videos posted by Somizi, he laments that the church must state clearly that it does not want, or like LGBTI people. The “statement of faith” is a clear indication that the church does not endorse LGBTI people. It is clear to me in this statement that Somizi was never welcomed at this church. What is puzzling to me is not that the church is homophobic, that is expected, what I am struggling with is why did it take him so long to realize the church hates him. Why does he think THIS church won’t be homophobic when homophobia and other forms of discrimination are the bedrock of the church?

Let me be clear here, even if the church didn’t have this statement, I would still ask the same question: what are black queers doing at church?

I really wasn’t interested in engaging the Grace Bible Church “debate” but the violence of the church on black queers necessitates that I write this.

I have attended the funerals of black queers in South Africa. I have had conversations with my black queer friends about the omission of not only the sexual orientation of diseased black queers, but the omission of life partners, all to save face for the church.

I have seen black bishops like Dag Herward-Mils who preach homophobic hate on the Sunday sermon, but don’t make the connection of the hate they preach to the brutal often fatal violence experienced by black queers, particularly gender non-conforming black queers. The black queers who have survived physical and sexual assaults have told stories of how the perpetrators use the language of “not even dogs do this” or “this is the way God intended it.” With this in mind, I find the statements made by the Grace Bible Church spokesperson Ezekiel Mathole when interviewed by Eusebius McKaiser deplorable. To speak about the homophobic position of the church as if it doesn’t have consequences for people is irresponsible. This is not only irresponsible for Grace Bible Church, but it is irresponsible for all churches in South Africa.

The church in South Africa gets away with murder with being able to preach homophobic hate, and then turn around and call it their “biblical view”, their scripture, while black bodies are mutilated by people using the same rhetoric as the church. The homophobic taunts and jeers that black queers experience on a daily basis are partly born in the church rhetoric. The people who violate us are granted permission and then immunity by the church because people have “the right to believe” their homophobia and to preach their hate speech according to Mr. Ezekeil Mathole.

In South Africa there is a fear of the church. There is often a quiet diplomacy on the wrong doings of the church. The church has too much power in this country. The constitutional ruling on the case of the lesbian Methodist preacher who was let go from her post after she announced intention to marriage is indicative of the power of the church. Even the Constitutional Court shies away from calling the church into order. I am not going to be silenced by the church. What bishop Dag Herward-Mils said at Grace Bible Church is hate speech. That type of speech has no place in a constitutional democracy, in a country that’s recovering from a history of discrimination.

As I have shared before, I find it puzzling that black people are united in the idea of fighting against white imperialism, but do not see the church and the construction of Jesus as part and parcel of white colonial ideology. Jesus, just like Jan Van Riebeeck came on a ship. Jesus might as well have been on the Dromedaris. The concept of Jesus is as foreign as the Jacaranda tree in South Africa. As far as I am concerned, you are not serious about anti-colonial politics if the construction of Jesus remains intact. In fact, I don’t think anti-colonial politics can work with the ideology of believing in a white God and white Jesus that black people are supposed to pray to and submit themselves. The psychological calamity is of epic proportions. You don’t have to go far for evidence of the church madness; black people are eating grass, and drinking petrol for salvation.   There is video evidence of this madness, here and here. The one that really gets me is the buckets of money; I mean literally buckets of money black people give to the church.

The church is a place of hate production. The venom that has also been unleashed by churchgoers on social media platforms in the aftermath of the Grace Bible Church incident is indicative of the hate. The homophobic statements uttered by Dag Herward-Mils are the kind of statements the church thrives on. The statements are not shocking, they are something we expect from the church, which is why the church is not a place for black queers, and not a place for blacks in general. Black people need to abandon the church. Black people need to abandon the fictitious idea of Jesus.

As for Somizi Mhlongo, he has an interesting life and doesn’t need Grace Bible Church. He is probably South Africa’s best choreographer and certainly the most famous gay South Africa celebrity, and I think he should follow in Kathy Griffin’s famous footsteps and tell bishop Dag Herward-Mils “Jesus can suck it.”

Strategic Voting in the elections

As South Africans we are almost always complaining about the state of the nation. What we often don’t do is talk about the ways in which we can solve some of our problems, or at least move towards a direction of solving them. The local elections are upon us, and I propose that the whole country Votes Strategically. I propose that we don’t vote for whom we like, or who has historically been linked to us through our race, but to vote in ways that will unsettle the way power is organised currently.

Most of us are dissatisfied with how the ANC led government has ruled the nation, we are also dissatisfied with the way the DA led provincial government in the Western Cape has been operating. We have evidence everywhere of the ways the ANC led government has crippled the economy, is riddled with corruption, how it has run the Eastern Cape to the ground, etc. Although different, but we are also very aware of the shortcomings of the DA led government in the Western Cape. The city of Cape Town has been accused of being a hotbed of racism, and the leadership in the DA has been in denial about this for a long time. Although recently, they have created an anti-racism campaign, a well-intentioned campaign that is problematic as it does not address systematic racism but talks about it only from an individual level. The DA has also made some seriously dubious decisions about public land in the city of Cape Town. Recently the city shoes to sell public land to private individuals without consulting the public, and as pointed out by Reclaim The City the land could be used for public good or low cost housing.

Clearly having one dominant party with too much power is a problem. Political parties need to be kept in check by having a strong opposition. The DA has mostly been the strongest opposition to the ANC, and having this opposition has been good for certain parts of the country. Now we also have the EFF positioned to be a strong opposition nationally and provincially in certain parts of the country. This is good for our democracy to have different parties and different voices representing the people of South Africa. The diversification of parties in parliament and the people who represent us is good for debate but also having real power that can be exercised when people are not doing their jobs.

Now with Strategic Voting, we as South Africans should vote according to what will create healthy oppositions in political parties in all of the provinces. We should vote to unsettle political parties that have too much power in the provinces and by extension nationally. We should avoid voting for parties we belong to. We should avoid voting for parties we like and love. We should avoid voting for parties because we are racially aligned to them. We should avoid voting for parties that we are emotionally attached to. We should vote strategically for the good of the ward, the good of the province, and the good of the nation. We should Strategically Vote for what will be best for the people of South Africa as a whole. It shouldn’t be a given that the ANC will win local and national elections. It shouldn’t be a given that the DA will win elections in the Western Cape either. Although I think it is good that the DA is leading the Western Cape province, the DA still needs to be challenged by other parties so that it doesn’t rest thinking it doesn’t have to work for the people, all the people. Political parties need to know that ONLY when they work for the people will they stay in power.

With Strategic Voting I am suggesting that we vote for parties that will disturb the power of the dominant parties. For example, in the Eastern Cape, the ANC has had a very strong hold since the 1994 elections. The ANC led government has run to the ground the public health and the public school sector in the Eastern Cape. There are still mud schools and some public hospitals can’t even feed their patience. The poor management of the Eastern Cape’s public resources adversely affect poor people and we know poor people in the Eastern Cape are black people. The ANC has lost major support in the Nelson Mandela Bay, what used to be Port Elizabeth. The DA has gained support and is positioned to take the Nelson Mandela Bay. This is necessary for healthy oppositional political party politics. With the upcoming 3 August 2016 elections, it should be the Voting Strategy of everyone in the Eastern Cape to Vote for any party but the ANC. People in the eastern should vote for the UDM, the EFF, or the DA. And the real completion for the province should be between these non-yet-in-power parties.

Voting Strategically enables us to give a new party a chance to show us what they can do with the power they receive. For example, if the EFF ruled the Limpopo Province and the UDM ruled the Eastern Cape, we as a nation would be able to see if these parties are capable of running a province. Also Voting Strategically will also ensure that the same political party does not control the whole of South Africa. In this way power is spread in the provinces, and political parties understand that their positions in power are not guaranteed. Political parties need to understand through the power of the vote that an opposition can replace them. Maybe then they will be more likely to provide services to the people.

Strategic Voting is helpful for us in South Africa because we often are caught between the two horrible political parties. When elections come around, the biggest conundrum for us as South Africans is WHO DO YOU VOTE FOR in this fraught and corrupt political climate? South Africans often have to choose between the lesser of two evils when it comes to political parties. This is where a Strategic Voting systems becomes important because as citizens can vote to ensure that the power is not with political parties in parliament but with the people who Strategically Vote for the political parties in parliament.

Voting Strategically means that we will forever be changing our voting habits because our alliance does not start and end with a particular political party, but with the well being of the citizens of the country. Of course this is not a 100% full proof system, but it is a strategy that can be used to unsettle the power of the dominant party. Also, in unsettling the power of the dominant party, we need to be aware of replacing one dominant party with another. Voting Strategically is important if we are to change the results of the national elections in 2019. We as citizens need to work together to create a political landscape that is beneficial for all of us. With our votes we need to strategically create a future South Africa with political parties that are answerable to the people. This is possible, but we need to be strategic about how we vote.

So for the upcoming local elections, if you are unsatisfied with the local government, or you think the local government needs a shake up, look for the opposition in your area. You don’t have to like the opposition, but you can Strategically Vote for the opposition in your area. Of course, this is not done blindly, you still need to assess the worth of the opposition, but the voting is not about being emotionally attached to a party or a candidate, but what will be good for the country. Vote for what will unsettle the power of the dominant party. We need to be more involved as citizens in the running of our country. We need to be more assertive about what we want and what we will not tolerate as citizens. Democracy is not a spectator sport; we all need to do our bit for team South Africa. On the 3 August 2016, go out there and Vote Strategically.

 

Indigenous language complexities with LGBTI terms

This week one of my pieces titled, iGay, iLesbian, iBisexual – Xhosalisation of English, which focuses on the trouble with indigenous South African languages and the derogatory terms they use to describe and talk about LGBTI communities was discussed on different platforms. The piece also tackles the way that African languages in South Africa are not evolving as fast as they should and their evolution is not documented. I use my mother tongue IsiXhosa as an example, that there is little to no academic work in the vernacular.

The piece was picked up by three other publishing websites. Holaafrica picked it up and then it was picked up by Voices Of Africa and lastly picked up by The Guardian. This obviously exposed me to more readers and subsequently more people engaging with the piece. This is something I am happy about because it means that we are having a broad conversation about this issue.

Towards the end of the week Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk requested a conversation with me about the piece and the issues it raises. Here is a recording of that interview.

The feedback from the piece has been awesome. People have challenged my assertions and some people have affirmed my arguments as they also have experienced the lack of vocabulary in indigenous languages to talk about LGBTI issues. Some people on twitter have argued that some of the derogatory terms in IsiXhosa referring to LGBTI people are not in fact derogatory. Many others and I obviously disagree. In this process I have learned of a new Xhosa term for gay that I didn’t know before that may not necessarily be derogatory from a friend on Facebook, the word is “Omakhanukanodwa” which loosely translates to “those who want their own.”

Here are some of the issues raised and feedback from people while discussing the issue of language and LGBTI terms.

“It’s broad and the issues are varied and intricately intertwined. It’s a conversation that needs to happen at all levels and we, as the LGBTI population should lead it. I think you nailed by linking the derogatory language and discourse used to talk about the LGBTI population and the oppression of African languages in referring to how Western languages and discourse has been nurtured to evolve while “Other” languages have be ignored and not given space to evolve. Or how such evolution is not documented…because in everyday life in the streets the languages remain dynamic.”Thiyane Duda

This is a great exchange I had with Fumbatha May on Facebook:

  • Fumbatha May: There are words like “amakhanukanodwa” and “oodlezinye” that aren’t necessarily derogatory.
  • Lwando Scott: First time hearing “amakhanukanodwa” which is very descriptive. And I’m on the fence with “oodlezinye”. But all in all this language thing is something we should wrestle with a lot more. Particularly in bridging the “culture” gap between LGBTI & Afrikan. Thank you for engaging. I’m learning as I go.
  • Fumbatha May: I enjoyed your article immensely. I have long dreamed of turning the former Pick n Pay building in Bhisho into an Africana library that would house a think tank to tackle the issues you raised in the article. I do, however, disagree with your point about academia being the source of new words to describe human behaviour. Yes, for less “obvious” or “tangible” phenomena like gender identity for instance, it does become necessary for academia to give us the words to describe and explain them. However, we should not preclude the possibility of regular folk coining the phrases and popularising them (e.g. the two words I mentioned in my other comment). Also, social networks are making that process a little easier as words trend like wildfire (e.g. ukutowna – a word that existed only in East Londond, Mthatha and surrounds until it was popularized by Khaya Dlanga).

 And lastly here are some exchanges on twitter:

 

Reflections: The Quiet Violence of Dreams

“Growing up is a treacherous activity. You never see it coming.” – Mmabatho

For my birthday last year, a good friend of mine gave me K Sello Duiker’s The Quiet Violence of Dreams. I had never read the book and my friend insisted that I read it, so he bought it for me. I often like to relate how books come to me because the journey of the book into my tiny library is often telling about the book itself. So there is a story about the book before I even get to the story in the book. Just before I started reading this book, I saw it was listed on “100 African reads” and so I was excited to start reading it.

The tittle is captivating, The Quiet Violence of Dreams, and it absolutely captures the essence of K Sello Duiker’s work. Mental health is one of the least talked about issue in black South African communities, and this book places it centre stage. Growing up people with mental illness were often referred to as people who were bewitched, and often they received no real treatment. Even today people with metal illness roam the streets of South African townships without any real medical assistance. This book shows up how people without mental illness are so ill equipped to deal with people who have mental illness.

We often think we know the line between good and bad, normal and abnormal, crazy and sane, but reality is a bit more complex than these binaries. When Tshepo, the protagonist, is admitted to a mental institution in Cape Town he makes this observation, which I thought was very telling:

“In here everyone knows that there are more crazy people out there, and that most of them are politicians, lawyers, judges, accountants & bankers. It seems only a matter of chance that we are in here and they are out there.”

Tshepo is spot on here about the unpredictability of life and how only so much is up to us and the rest we are left at the whims of the universe (whatever form the universe is represented in your life). The unpredictability of life and options being left to chance is revealed later in the book when we learn about the traumatic incident that Tshepo went through when he was a child living at home and the subsequent troubled relationship he has with his father.

I never knew Duiker personally, but reading this book I am inclined to believe that he was a feminist or believed in feminist philosophy. Through the character of Mmabatho we see the sometimes heart wrenching difficulty women have navigating relationships with men in a patriarchal society like ours. I treasured the moments Mmabatho had in dialogue with herself about her tumultuous relationships with men; it’s captured when she says:

“I’ve been carrying residual depression from failed relationships for too long… I’ve been kidding myself that I could tame love, that I could meet a man on my terms when it suits me. I’ve been reading too many magazines, listening to too much pop psychology and experts who only seem to have succeeded in leading me further into confusion…. And the sad thing is he will never know. He will never know the amount of preparation it takes to be a woman, the degree of caution. He will never know how I struggle with myself, with other women. To him I will be just another woman bawling her eyes out because women do that… A woman has to go far to look for herself.”

dreams

Cape Town and its racial, spatial, class, gender, and sexuality complexities are a prominent feature in the novel, and brilliantly so. Tshepo even has a theory of Cape Town and it’s damning. His theory of Cape Town would support some of the recent accusations that Cape Town is racist and does not work for people who live in the Cape Flats and Gugulethu. The articles were published here, here, and here. When Tshepo, who is black, gets to know Chris, who is coloured, you see the residue of apartheid in the way they interact with each other. You see the boxes that South Africans put each other in, and how we don’t know much about each other, and seemingly don’t care to. Chris’s reading of Tshepo is comical and enlightening when he describes him:

“He’s a little spoiled, one of those darkies who went to larney schools and learned to talk to them (whites). He also dresses like them (whites). Doesn’t wear All Star tackies like the others (blacks), never eats white bread – you know how they (whites) are about health – and sometimes listens to 5fm.”

Although the forces of darkness eventually swallow the relationship between Chris and Tshepo, when Chris does the unthinkable to Tshepo, it is this relationship that we first experience the homosexual tendencies of Tsepo. Tshepo falls in love with Chris but never really lets Chris know. Reading the two pages dedicated exclusively to the way Tshepo feels about Chris, it stirred emotions in me, of when I used to fall for my straight friends growing up and not knowing what’s going on and how to channel those feelings. The realisation that you are in love is at once exhilarating and bewildering. Tshepo describes his crush on Chris:

“There is determination about his eyes, like someone madly chasing the sun even though it only wants to set peacefully. There is a do-or-die resolve about him. It is devastating to look at him. I just want to run towards him and be swallowed whole by his sensual presence. I want to disappear forever in his eyes.”

I am always in favour of stories depicting black men falling in love with other black men. It’s a narrative that is lacking in South African literature and it’s always such a pleasure to read such stories. Many have lamented that black men loving other black men is a revolutionary act, and I am inclined to agree.

One of the striking characteristics about Tshepo is how he lies to everyone. Almost everything in his life is concealed from the people who are his friends and acquaintances. I suppose he feels he can’t trust anyone with the truth, his truth, and so he is compelled to lie even about small things that do not really necessitate lying. This made me think of the culture of lying in this country and how pervasive it is, from the highest people in government to lay people on the streets. Even when telling the truth will not cause damage or embarrassment, people choose to lie.

Tshepo’s journey leads him to work as a sex worker at a male “massage parlour” in the gay district. Ironically (or maybe not ironic at all) it is during his stint as a sex worker that Tshepo discovers himself. This is where he explores his own sexuality, and how to be somewhat comfortable with that sexuality in the world. Through working at the underground escort agency he learns much about people and their different journeys through interacting with them as co-workers and as clients. One such interaction is with Afrikaans speaking West, a fellow escort employee who becomes a close friend, and says he became a sex worker because he “wasn’t prepared to be a casualty of mediocre.” And he describes mediocre as marrying, having children and then getting a divorce. Another arresting interaction is with a client called Peter, who says to Tsepo:

“The truth is I have become lazy, complacent. It’s an English South African thing… Back in the old days I learned that hating Afrikaans was a convenient way of suggesting you are condemning the government without having to do anything about it. It was cop-out because while the Boers took the blame we, generally, took advantage.”

K Sello Duiker really captures the intersection of race, class, sexuality that permeate South African’s experiences in this marvellous novel. He captures the hardness of South African society and the violent nature of restricting people’s identities and choices. He particularly captures the hardships that even “larney” middle class black people experience navigating the die-hard beliefs and stereotypes about blacks from apartheid years.

Towards the end of the book, the protagonist Tshepo says, “perhaps I sense that I will die young…. Death is begging at my heels in my dreams.” This is poignant only because K Sello Duiker committed suicide in 2005, and reading this book I was struck by the “life imitating art” sense of that passage. In that sense I can’t but agree with Siphiwo Mahala who described K Sello Duiker saying “Duiker is to literature what Steve Biko was to politics, both having died at the tender age of thirty but leaving indelible footprints in our collective memory.” And I would add, although under different circumstances, both of them somewhat professed their deaths.

What I take from this novel and what this novel represents for me is captured in the interaction between Tshepo and West after making love for the first time and going for a swim after. West says to Tshepo as they lie in the dark in different beds in the same room somewhere in Stellenbosch “you must go where love leads you, even when you are going towards trouble.” Imagine a South Africa where we all did that.

Lwando Scott

“Respect your elders” – critiquing older black people

A couple of months ago I went to a conference on African development and the presenters at the conference were talking about the possibilities of development in different parts of Africa. As the conference proceeded with dignitaries from different African countries and representatives from different developmental agencies I asked a few critical questions about development, which were left unanswered. Developmental agencies have the habit of speaking about development without saying anything. At some point during the conference after expressing concern about the motives of development in Africa I was shushed by an older black man who said, “you need to respect your elders.” This statement shocked me because I was really not expecting it in that setting, but there it was. Now, this is not the first time I have been shushed by someone using this statement, in fact I here it almost too often.

When I ask difficult questions to older people, particularly black older people, I am told that I should not speak to elders “that way.” I have learned that “respect your elders” means that do not be critical, it means do not ask questions that are potentially embarrassing for older people, and do not contradict older people. This can be really tricky for us young black people who want to question the ideas of older people in our communities, who want to ask difficult questions about our cultures, and who want to hold older people accountable for their actions. Without being disrespectful.

It is easy to understand that people who are older have gone through life and have accumulated experience and can make sound judgement because of that experience. But it is also true that young people might have a different vision of the future and that future vision can contradict the current ways of doing things. I do not think however silencing young people by saying, “respect your elders” is a productive way of dealing with dissenting voices.

Of course “respect your elders” can easily be translated to “do not question your elders” and I find this problematic on many levels. The big fallacy behind the “respect your elders” statement is that older people, or more precisely older people in positions of authority, know better. We know this is false because history has shown us that older people sometimes do not know any better. Just as history has shown us that young people, like the recent 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner, do sometimes know more than older people. Age is not a barometer of good or bad ideas. Age should not be used to silence people with opposing ideas. There has to be a free flow of ideas, even when people disagree on those ideas.

Of course the idea of “respect your elders” is not unlinked to the ubiquitous belief that black people must agree on everything and they must stand by each other no matter what. The idea that older black people can’t be critiqued is unsound and it is a destructive way of living our lives and building a better South Africa. Even when people are related they sometimes disagree. We can’t be afraid of critiquing each other as black people for fear that you are going to be regarded to be as a traitor. We need to have dissenting voices and we need to be able to call each other out and hold each other responsible in order to build great communities. Critiquing another black person is not an automatic solidarity to whiteness; on the contrary I think being able to critique each other strengthen us as communities.

The idea of being able to ask difficult questions, and critique each other also has to do with our ability to be honest with each other. It is a way to keep each other accountable to each other as community members. If we aren’t able to call each other out, who will? If we can’t set each other straight, who will? How are we supposed to build a strong society with functional communities if we can’t be honest with the critique we give each other? This is not to say that the critique can’t be given in a respectful manner, but it has to be given. It is necessary to critique the current structures of society like the government and/or our current cultural practises that are unhelpful in the building of a functioning and healthy society.

I think it would be helpful for all of us to understand and function under the philosophy that no one is above criticism. No one is above being called out particularly if they are engaging with people in a public forum. This is even more so for individuals who represent people in any government office. Ward councillors are not above criticism, professors at university are not above criticism, radio presenters are not above criticism, religion in all its varieties is not above criticism, President Zuma and his ministers are not above criticism, and even my mother is not above criticism.

After understanding the idea of everyone being open for critique, particularly people in public office, South Africans need to cultivate a culture of critiquing each other’s ideas without attacking the person who presents the idea. For example, there is a difference between critiquing the idea of assisted suicide from attacking and vilifying the person who believes in assisted suicide. It is possible to critique the idea of assisted suicide without talking about the personality or what you personally think of the person who is arguing for assisted suicide.

The issue of being able to critique elders is not easy because South Africa’s past of colonisation and then apartheid, in that many people feel African practises like the rule of “respect your elders” are not adhered to because they are destroyed by the previous oppressive regimes. This is a legitimate point of contention, and needs to be discussed at length on its own. I understand the complexity of living in 21st century Africa where traditional values are jostling with western culture for the dominant narrative. But in the same ways we critique and reject western ideas of normality that dominate our lives, we need to have space where we call into question African traditional cultural practices that are problematic and sometimes destructive. I refuse to participate in the charade where African traditional cultural practices are used as a way to escape accountability by silencing dissenting ideas.

Township life and black psychological impairment

Going back to where I grew up is always an interesting experience because I run into my younger self in weird ways and I am confronted with the many ways I have changed since I left Port Elizabeth. I am confronted by the life I knew I never wanted hence I escaped to Cape Town. This past week I visited my mother who still lives in KwaZakhele, Port Elizabeth, where I spent the first twenty years of my life. I often visit at least once a year. It was depressing to visit the area I once called home, I suppose in some ways it is still home. Although, now I call Cape Town home – politics of a black person from the “Eastern Cape” calling Cape Town home notwithstanding. When I arrived in KwaZakhele from the airport I was welcomed by a smell of disappointment and total neglect. Instead of the area improving in post-apartheid times, it is depreciating. When entering KwaZakhele, from whichever direction you are welcomed by rubbish everywhere. Old decaying buildings close to people’s homes have turned into dumping grounds. People are living amongst rubbish and life just goes on. My mother told me that she takes her own rubbish to a waste-disposing site about 10 kilometres from where she lives because waste pickup in so erratic and inconvenient.

When I arrived, about 5 houses from where I grew up, the floodlight that provides light for a massive area at night was lying on the ground. My mother informed me that the light was taken down around March/April 2014 to be fixed and it’s been lying on the ground ever since. The area gets really dark at night and people don’t feel safe, not to mention that some people still use the outside lavatories at night and so it’s difficult for people who don’t have well lit back yards. Some homes are so poor in this area that having a light bulb outside is a luxury. Rumour has it that when the people asked the ward councillor about why the light was taking so long to fix, he keeps on giving people nonsense excuses about parts of the light coming from overseas, but the best one was that there’s only one person who can fix the light and he was currently in Cape Town on another project.

The minute I arrived home it was one horror story after another about crime in the area. It’s so unsettling to realize that your family members are living in such a dangerous place particularly because I live in a predominantly white neighbourhood in Cape Town – which of course does come with it’s own set of issues. Most of what I saw and experienced in KwaZakhele this past week I have read about and I have seen it in townships in Cape Town, but what really struck me about KwaZakhele was the continued downward spiral of the area and people’s lives. Since I have left KwaZakhele, every time I go back it seems to be more depressing than the last time I visited. The area feels like people have just given up on life. It looks and feels like young people have no dreams about their futures. Many of the people I went to school with are unemployed and wake up to stand on street corners and ask for spare change from a passer-by who looks like they might have a coin to spare.

Like many townships around the country, KwaZakhele is a product of the Group Areas Act. KwaZakhele is an area created during apartheid to house black people in Port Elizabeth. There are many other township areas around South Africa that are just like KwaZakhele. So, in a sense there’s nothing unique about KwaZakhele. Like many townships KwaZakhele has 4-roomed matchbox houses that were built by the apartheid government in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The area was even nicknamed “4rooms” after the houses that were built in the area. Some families added more rooms to their houses using either bricks and cement or corrugated iron, or plywood amongst other materials. What is troubling is that these matchbox style types of township houses and areas are still under production by the ANC government. New houses and areas have been created to house black people and often these new areas are in the outskirts of cities, which is really the continuation of apartheid geography where black people live far away from white suburbs and the city centres.

My trip to KwaZakhele left me asking myself, why are people not more upset about the state of things where they live? Why are people not doing more to improve their lives in townships? Why are people not putting more pressure on their ward councillors for better services? Why aren’t people shaming their ward councillors on local newspapers? Why aren’t people taking care of the areas they live in? Why aren’t people requiring better infrastructures in the new areas where they live? I am sure there are a number of possible answers to these questions, and I won’t try to tackle all of them.

Although there are many service delivery protests around the country, I think one of the major problems in KwaZakhele and possibly other townships is that people don’t really believe they deserve better. This is captured succinctly by the popular phrase in Xhosa “ubungenayo nale indlu” (you didn’t even have that house) that often shocks me when I ask people about rejecting poorly build government houses. People often say that you can’t reject what you have been given by the government because you didn’t even have it in the first place. So people accept whatever they get. I find this troubling because it speaks to a deep-seated inferiority complex.

Although there are a number of processes in place in post-apartheid South Africa aimed at redress like affirmative action and land redistribution, although both imperfect they are mechanisms to redress South Africa’s gross inequality. What has been neglected in post-apartheid South Africa in the quest to redress the past is the psychological effects of colonisation and apartheid on black South Africans. I think as a country we underestimate the psychological violence that has been visited on black minds by the past regimes, a violence that continues in varied ways in post-apartheid South Africa. A more cynical view would say that white capital and the black government understand the psychological impairment caused by colonialism and apartheid of black South Africans and use it to retain power and control of the masses. What I witnessed in KwaZakhele this past week cemented to me that black people in KwaZakhele, quite possibly in many townships around the country, don’t believe they deserve better than the lives they are living. People have bought into the inferiority they have been fed by colonialism and later apartheid and the current black government doesn’t seem interested in reconstructing the psychological health of black South Africans.

The psychological effects of colonialism and apartheid does not just affect poor black people who live in townships, it affects middle class black people in white suburbs, who navigate their new surroundings as if they don’t belong there. It affects our government officials who seem to be blind to the levels of poverty, crime, and general degradation of places inhabited by black people. I think that a psychologically healthy black population is necessary in order to have a relatively functional democracy in South Africa. White South Africans also need their own projects on working on their psychological damage done by colonialism and apartheid. People often think white South Africans are spared psychological damage because they are on the other side of power, but they are also psychologically screwed up and need to unpack the ways they are implicated in the continued degradation of black life in this country and what they are doing about it.

Written by Lwando Scott