Boet/Sissy – Black. Queer. Xhosa.

I was introduced to Majola’s album, Boet/Sissy by a friend who tagged me on Facebook. I immediately went online to have a quick listen, and then bought the album instantly. The subject matter of the album is of particular interest to me. The album focuses on the experiences of a black gay man, trying to make sense of the world. The album is the life journey of a black gay man predominantly sung in Xhosa. I love this album and I am with Majola in the politics of this album. This album is the epitome of being young, gifted, queer, and black. In this piece I embrace and celebrate Majola’s work talking to all the ways that this album resonates and inspires me. Boet/Sissy is a poignant reminder of the artistic talent in South Africa, but also of the myriad of stories we are yet to tell about what it means to live with the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality, in post-apartheid South Africa.

The first thing that grabs your attention about this album is the title. When I read about the album I was first amused and then really moved by the title Boet/Sissy. You see as an effeminate gay man, I know all too well the weight of the term Boet/Sissy. I’m also acutely aware of the venom that usually accompanies this phrase. Growing up in Xhosa culture (I believe this is the case in other black communities in South Africa) Boet/Sissy was, and to some still is, a derogatory term that is used to bash gay men, especially effeminate gay men. The phrase is directed at effeminate gay men for being men who “act” like women. So Boet (or in Xhosa Bhuti) represents the male side, and then Sissy of course represents the effeminacy. It is a term that is often used interchangeably with “talase” which is a word people call gay me. It is a term that suggests one has both male and female genitalia. So then Boet/Sissy and talase are used as derogatorily synonyms for each other. People who use these words as putdowns often don’t care about the “real” meaning of the words, but are only interested in using the words to shame and to hurt whoever is perceived to be of a different sexual orientation. With the risk of sounding too postmodern, Majola is reclaiming this phrase; he is taking back the power. For me, Majola uses the Boet/Sissy in a productive way, similarly to the ways in which we have reclaimed the word queer. The use of Boet/Sissy is also similar to the way academics and artists have found productive use of shame, shame associated with same-sex sexuality. Majola’s use of Boet/Sissy is a queer thing to do, therefore immensely political. The fact that the album is mostly sung in Xhosa, which means it is directed to a black audience, speaks profoundly of the politics Majola is engaged in. When I saw the name of this album, I immediately thought about the piece I wrote about the complexities of sexual identity and the Xhosa language. In the piece I try to come to terms with having no specific Xhosa words in everyday language to talk about the diversity of sexual and gender identity. This piece sparked a number of conversations over the radio, and it seems the conversation of sexual identity and language continues in a different form with Majola’s album.

boet-sissy1

In the beginning of the album, in the first interlude Majola is standing in front of a judge before he is sentenced to jail. So his first utterances in the whole album is “I stand in this court a man, fully aware that manhood is a narrowly defined subject within society.” This opening lines targets the narrow definitions of manhood, particularly black manhood that often positions black gay men as outside of manhood. And then Majola goes on to define what he thinks is a man. Although I like what he says, and I think that he is politically astute to issues of masculinity, I find the five interludes in the album interruptive.

After the first interlude Majola then proceeds to the first song, track number two. The track is named Khanyisa, and it starts with the birth of a boy named Khanyisa in 1985 (which incidentally is the year I was born). In the song he does this haunting repetition of “kwazalwa indodana” – a boy is born. As Khanyisa grows up, experiences life, trying to discover himself, he gets lost wondering through life. Khanyisa eventually meets a woman called Nobanzi who saves Khanyisa’s life. The friendship that Khanyisa has with Nobanzi   restores him, as this woman loves him. The affection with witch the lyrics are delivered warms the heart. The song is almost homage to the relationship between black women and effeminate black gay men. I have these relationships. These relationships are what got me through high school. I would be nothing, nothing without the love and support of black women. The song sets the tone for the album in a way, as he deals with issues of light and darkness, getting lost and found, and eventually loving yourself.

The third track called Bawo – father – the word is also often used in reference to God. This song is an affirmation of the gay identity. Majola talks about a boy who is cursed out, really chased out by his father for falling in love with other men. Majola begs in this, asking why the father is rejecting the gay son, where will he go? What is this boy to do? There is a theme of redemption in this album, and in this song Majola then continues with the narrative of being lost and found. The gay boy who is cursed out by the father finds his way to the big city and his life spirals out of control. This is a powerful song that speaks to the lives of many lesbians, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTI) young people who escape home because of abuse. The homophobia experienced by young people is sometimes so intolerable that they would rather live elsewhere with friends or on the streets. Majola begs, and pleads for acceptance in this song. The piano keys coupled with Majola’s voice especially as the track fades towards the end has an incredibly haunting sound. I feel like this song is also speaking to the difficult relationship gay men often have with their fathers. A relationship of course that is mediated by the culture of patriarchy which often renders the gay boy useless, not man enough, and therefore not a good son. Having never had a real relationship with my own father, I can relate to this song. Majola is really engaging us in a conversation about masculinity and what it means to be a father to a gay kid.

The Xhosa tradition of men going to the mountain for circumcision is a topic often treated with kid cloves. In the song Mountain View Majola rejects kid gloves and sings about falling in love and having a relationship on the mountain with another initiate. Interestingly, this is the only song on the album sung in English. Majola is bold because not only does he have a love affair on the mountain with another dude, he then sings about it. It is a kind-of middle finger to the homophobic Xhosa culture establishment. Because of what the mountain represents, it is the last place one would expect a same-sex love affair to flourish. But then again, maybe it is the ideal place seeing that it is only men walking around naked often with their penises hanging out. Although men are often all alone on the mountain, there’s often nothing erotic about that space, on the contrary, it can be dangerously homophobic. Maybe Majola is trying to prove to us that you can find love anywhere. I have to say though, getting a boner is not ideal on the mountain seeing that you are trying to heal a wound on the penis. This has got to be the first romantic song about a love affair on the mountain during initiation. The love experienced on the mountain is depicted as raiser sharp. Hot. And saucy. Majola talks about learning to love another man and understanding love. Singing about the lover on the mountain he states: “He was kind to me, patience a gift from him. I understood love, and how to make love from that initiate in the mountain.” Although both men experience great love, the love doesn’t survive beyond the mountain. This is definitely one of my favourite tracks on the album. Audacious. And just awesome.

The second interlude is track number five where Majola talks about being different and the journey to self-love. “I have always felt different to other males, stares of disdain, the name calling, distant affection from elder males and sometimes the violence inflicted on me confirmed that I was indeed different. The price I paid for being different is the excruciating loneliness I felt. Accompanied by guilt, shame and stigma, I overacted being a man and still wasn’t man enough to many … I was a secrete friend to some, and a secrete lover to many. I thought I was deserving of secrete validation, someone had to take a stand for me, and to my luck that someone turned out to be Me.” – Poetic.

Then there’s the title track where Majola captures the anxiety of growing up gay in the township. He speaks of the warnings people often give to visibly gay kids where they warn the young gay about their deviant sexuality. When I was growing up, people would say that you will grow up and become like uNokuku. Nokuku is an effeminate openly gay man that lived in New Brighton and was well know in Port Elizabeth and the surrounding areas. I believe Nokuku still lives in Port Elizabeth. Nokuku is what all young gay kids were warned against, he was used as an example of what one should never be. Nokuku had cult status as an openly gay person in Port Elizabeth, the only gay in the village kind-of status. Majola also references the other warning issued to gay boys that they must not become like the men who are on the Felicia Mabuza Suttle show. You will remember The Felicia Show had a number of episodes that were about members of the LGBTI community. The reference made by Majola of course means that he grew up in the 1990’s, when Felicia Mabuza Suttle was a big talk show host assisting South Africa through the transition to democracy. In the song Majola also makes a reference to “Adam and Eve and not Adam and Steve”. Homophobic heterosexuals often quote this line as if it’s the smartest line ever invented. The phrase ‘it’s not Adam and Steve’ is often accompanied by unintelligent smugness. This phrase needs to die and be buried. In the chorus of the song, Majola repeats “ndingu boet/sissy” –I am Boet/Sissy. He asserts and affirms himself in the song that he is he what he is, “and so what?”

Imbali is the next track. It is a track about love. It’s a lovely tune, but it doesn’t do to me what the other songs do. It is a soft song, and Majola holds himself back as he sings the song. Which I suppose is a good thing for an artist to be able to have restraint. It’s plain song for me, and it is preceded by some really marvellous tracks, so it doesn’t shine that much.

Throughout the album there are references to bible scriptures. There is an interesting way that Majola plays with church references. “Khulula ezombadada” is the line said to Moses by God that he needs to take off his sandals because he is standing on holy ground. Sondela is a slow jam. It is about two men making love; it is made that much sweeter by the Xhosa lyrics. Majola speaks of listening to the body parts of his lover, and how these body parts encourage him as they become intimate. The song is beyond courageous. Majola poetically croons about his manhood and the manhood of his lover and all this is done with a persistent haunting sound in the background. My heart skipped a beat when I heard this song for the first time, I had to go back and listen again to make sure what I heard was correct. I am not going to even pretend that hearing a black male artist talk about two men being intimate on a record in Xhosa is not a bit of a mind fuck.

In the third interlude Majola does not shy away to speak directly to the political situation of the African gay. He directs his words to those that prosecute gays all over the African continent. Majola states: “My sexuality is used as political fodder to dissuade from real political issues. Men whose crime is to love other men fill up prisons that should be filled by men who snatch bread from hungry mouths. Who rape and murder daughters and sons of this land. Love is one of the greatest virtues to be possessed by any human being. To be prosecuted for the courage to love is the highest crime committed against life itself.”

After the third interlude there are three tracks that are similar in mood, Ndindedwa, Luthando, and Andizoncama. It is in these tracks that you hear the influence of church or choral music. Although the influence of church music, particularly black Methodist, is felt throughout the album, there’s something about these three tracks for me that really captures that essence. In the title track Majola does make a reference to the Methodist church where he carries the cross in the church procession, but is afraid when he leaves the church that there is a boy that will taunt him on the way home without anyone there to stand up for him. The influence of church music in the album is undeniable. Of course Majola follows in the footsteps of many black artists whose artistry has been “honed” in the church.

Interlude number four is all about loving men. Majola states: “I love men, I love the feeling of being held by another man. In another man’s arms I find comfort, safety, healing, escape, release, pleasure, and unspeakable joy.” These words reminded me of the beautiful piece written by Fumbatha May called a love letter to the black man in the Mail and Guardian. Fumbatha May writes a loving and inspired piece. After speaking these words in the interlude, Majola proceeds to one of the two up-tempo songs on the album. The name of the song is Zithande – Love yourself, which is really an anthem for gay people to practice self-love. Living in a world that is dominated by heterosexist institutions, it becomes political for LGBTI people to love themselves. Majola sings “funda ukuzithanda” – learn to love yourself. In this track I find Majola’s lyrics affirming and reassuring. The way he articulates ‘”learn to love yourself” one can’t help but think of the message of black consciousness, where black people are made to realize that loving themselves is a political act. So in the same way that black love is an act of resistance so is black queers loving themselves.

In queer circles, especially black queer circles Simon Nkoli need no introduction. In the song Simon Nkoli, Majola praises Simon for his activism in the anti-apartheid struggle, the gay liberation struggle, and also his involvement in HIV/Aids activism. Simon Nkoli was a hero and Majola gives him the honour and respect he deserves. In this song Majola gives Simon Nkoli the same reverence that Madikizela-Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko, and Nelson Mandela receive in Thandiswa Mazwai’s Nizalwa Ngobani. Also in this song Majola continues his narrative of darkness and light as he speaks of Simon Nkoli as a light in the darkness. And for many black LGBTI people, Simon Nkoli was just that, a light. The up-tempo beat gives the song a celebratory feel, celebrating a man’s life spent trying to conscientise South African society. This album will now be part of the archive of black queer lives in South Africa, and the fact that it pays homage to legendary people like Simon Nkoli makes it even that much more poignant.

The fifth interlude is the sentencing of Majola from the judge who he stood in front of at the beginning of the record. The judge then proceeds to read his sentencing.

The closing track Majola sings about Ikhaya lam – my home. In this track he goes back to his melancholic sound that was interrupted by the two previous tracks. Interestingly, the question of home has been a topic of conversation within my friendship circle. I was born in Port Elizabeth. Many of my friends come from diverse backgrounds and different cities from all over the world, and the question of what is home is always a topic of discussion. Although I call Cape Town home, it is never without qualification. Majola asks for his home to take care of him, to protect him from the world. Home for Majola is a place where he finds safety, a place that offers protection. In this song Majola concludes with the narrative of darkness and light, talking about wanting protection from the darkness of the world. Again, it is hard to miss the biblical undertones. Bible references and all, Majola has given us an amazing piece of art. The album is a bold queer statement. The subject matter of this album is about what it means to be black and gay and live in South Africa. Majola takes us on a journey of a black gay boy, negotiating manhood, falling in love with other men, and experiencing rejection from family. Although one can claim universality in the experiences described by Majola in this album, this is an album about the life experience of a black gay boy. Majola bares himself and speaks his truth, and in the process holds a mirror for me to see myself and I am grateful for it.

 

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

Chomi – the black gay experience

                                      chomi

Written by Lwando Scott 

The play Chomi was long overdue. The play focuses on the intricacies of the lives of four middle class openly gay black men who live in Johannesburg. The play was part of the 10th Anniversary Spring Drama Season at Artscape. The program brochure said that the playwright Pfarelo Nemakonde who wrote Chomi wanted to “explore the relationships, friendships and otherwise, experienced by black gay men and the complexities that arise.” Mr Nemakinde achieved this goal. It was exciting to see the lives of black gay men presented on stage in a nuanced and affectionate manner, something that happens very seldom. This play felt fresh, and nicely captured aspects of the black gay experience; it felt both affirming and largely true.

I loved seeing black gay men being represented on stage in mostly non-stereotypical ways. The characters were presented as having intricate lives that were emotionally complex. Yet it did not shying away from exploring the self-destructive tendencies of some of the characters.

Watching the four friends interact with each other on stage reminded me of my relationships with my own gay friends. It reminded me of the special bond I have with my gay friends, cemented by our common experience of homophobia and racism. The friendship between these four gay men reminded me of the “family” we often choose for ourselves as LGBTI people because we don’t always connect with our kin. It’s not going on limb to say that my close gay friends are my family, and they know me better than my kin family does. It was great fun to try and match the characters’ personalities in the play to the personalities of my friends.

Watching this play was like seeing my life and the lives of my friends reflected back at me and that was a powerful and affirming feeling. The representation of black gay lives in our cultural institutions and productions reflect a new maturity of our democracy. When the black gay experience becomes part of the cultural landscape of the country, we know that we are moving in the right direction in dignifying the experiences of LGBTI people.

Part of our marginalisation and oppression as black people and as gay people stem from the fact that we do not always see ourselves represented in mainstream culture (whatever that may mean). The politics of representation continue to “other” us – in gay publications, events, and gay clubs. We can’t underestimate the politics of representation because not representing the black LGBTI experience in the cultural realm reinforces an already strong narrative of LGBTI people being “unAfrican.” Not seeing representations of the black LGBTI experience, young black LGBTI youth are denied opportunities to develop positive images of themselves represented in cultural spaces.

When I say the play provides positive images of gay black lives, I do not mean sanitised and unrealistically idealised images of black gay men. These men have sex and talk about it. They have other types of fun too. They are real people: neither the stereotype of saintly, innocent victims, nor the stereotype of the hysterical, shallow pleasure seeker, has any place in this play.

The one gripe I had with the play is the way gender is performed. The play does not avoid the stereotypical notion that “tops” are masculine guys, and “bottoms” are feminine guys. Although these stereotypes do exist in people’s lives, there are other diverse ways in which gay black men live their sexualities and I wish there was a more nuanced take on gender performance and its link to sexual acts.

With that being said, I really applaud Mr Nemakonde for the way he scripted the sex and the sex scenes in the play. Although gay sex whether in theatre, television, or even in books has come a long way in terms of being visible, it is still a thorny issue. Remember the drama a couple of years ago when the local soap opera Generation had warning signs scrawling down on the television screen when the characters Jason and Senzo were to have their first onscreen kiss.

Scripting gay sex and doing it right can be tricky because of the tightly monitored boundaries of gender performance underpinned by a heteronormative framework of understanding sex and intimacy. This framework is often embodied in questions such as “who is the man and who is the woman”, “who is the bottom and who is the top” and these constructs are often limiting and they seek to imprison our sexualities within heterosexual binaries. One of the characters in Chomi really takes ownership of his sexuality. The character has a monologue where he goes on about his love for sex and loving being penetrated and I think that was a revolutionary moment because even in some gay circles bottoming has a negative stigma attached to it.

What Chomi has shown me is that we really need to be intentional about representing the black LGBTI experience in South Africa. We need to be conscious of and actively support the insertion of black LGBTI experiences in the cultural sphere. And most importantly we need to support these creative efforts. I want this play to come back. I think it needs to be seen and appreciated by many more audiences. Mr Nemakonde has created something beautiful and we should follow his lead and create more black LGBTI affirming productions in more plays and more books, where black LGBTI experiences are the centre.

Only after watching Chomi did I realise just how thirsty I am for black LGBTI storylines in books, on television, in theatre plays, in magazines; stories that appreciate the complexity of black LGBTI life in South Africa. Chomi really quenched that thirst and I want to thank Pfarelo Nemakonde for his work. I hope to see more productions like this not only from Mr Nemakonde but others as well. I for one am very inspired by Chomi!

Reflections: Memoirs of a Born Free

                                               Malaika

Author: Malaika Wa Azania

Written by: Lwando Scott 

When I saw this book, I knew I had to read it. I have a thing for clever book tittles and I love smart book covers. There’s even a book covers archive that I visit more often than I should. Memoirs of a Born Free touches on subjects that almost every black South African will have experienced. Reading this book I could see myself and I could remember the experiences I’ve had navigating South African society. I could see the lives of thousands other young black people who have travelled a similar road as Maliaka Wa Azania.

Firstly I love how Setswana is peppered throughout the book. The use of the African language in this book is reminiscent of the way we speak; it is the way black people converse in everyday life. The code switching between English and multiple vernacular languages that is present in my everyday conversation with other black people is very much present in this book. Malaika Wa Azania succeeds in translating everyday reality, the everydayness of her life into paper and it is such a pleasure to read. She also tries to convert certain vernacular phrases like “njengamathe no lwimi” into English “inseparable as a tongue and saliva” and obviously it doesn’t sound as punchy in English as it does in the vernacular, but the message is sent.

Malaika Wa Azania’s battles with navigating white spaces and white culture is a recurring theme in the book. She addresses her dealings with white supremacists culture when she talks about how when she attended Melpark Primary School, which is a former Model-C school with predominantly white students and white teachers, and felt like part of her was left in the township of Meadowlands Zone 8. That part of her was not welcomed in this white establishment.

What connects me to this book is also what frustrates. On the one hand I am glad that I have someone who understands what it means to be young and black in South Africa, but it also means that there’s something horribly wrong with social structure of South Africa that young black people are experiencing similar racial and class problems. Black people navigating predominantly white spaces are constantly complaining about the need to assimilate in order to be taken seriously, or seen as part of institutions in South Africa. The irony of-course is that assimilation often results in just as much alienation and humiliation as non-assimilation.

Reading this section of the book reminded me of three studies that have been conducted at the University of Cape Town about black students struggling to navigate the former whites only university. These are the studies:

  1. Like that statue at Jammie stairs”: Some student perceptions and experiences of institutional culture at the university of Cape Town. By Melissa Steyn and Mikki van Zyle (1999).
  2. Not naming Race: some medical students’ perceptions and experiences of ‘race’ and racism at the Health Sciences faculty of the University of Cape Town. By Zimitri Erasmus and Jacques de Wet (2003).
  3. Coming to UCT: Black students, transformation and the politics of race.” HUMA Seminar presented by Dr. Shose Kessi (2014).

All of these studies point to the alienating and humiliating nature of former whites only institutions that are refusing to transform and culturally embrace the post 1994 student body. What Malaika Wa Azania’s experiences growing up as a “Born Free” is indicative of the experiences that black students on different schools and campuses around the country.

The alienation depicted in this book is worsened by the humiliation of poverty. Although Malaika Wa Azania writes about “drawing strength from poverty”, it is painful to be reminded about one’s poverty on a daily basis at predominantly white schools by whites and sometimes black kids from middle class homes.

While reading the book I had a laugh out loud moment when Maliaka was insensitive to a school teacher who was crying in front of her class over her dog that had recently died by laughing at the woman’s tears. Malaika couldn’t understand why someone would cry over the death of a dog, so different the worlds that Malaika and her teachers and fellow students lived in. The relationships white people have with their pets was humorous to a township kid who grew up with stray dogs. In the township even yard dogs never reduced their owners to tears when they died.

I personally identified with the struggle for education in Malaika Wa Azania’s memoir. She passionately discusses the impossible task of trying to get a decent education in this country if you are poor or from a working class background. The odds are against you in every possible way, and reading this book, I couldn’t help but think of my own quest for education which has not been easy, particularly when I was finishing matric and about to starting university. Just like Malaika Wa Azania, my mother lost her Pick n’ Pay job in my matric year, and the future was so uncertain at that time. I was anxious about a future that could possibly never be because all my hope was in getting a decent education in order to escape poverty. And in this country, a decent education requires a decent income.

Not having money to register at her first choice high school, Malaika ends up going to another school, and she was grateful that the school had proper facilities unlike the townships schools. The poor education and poor infrastructure that is common in townships schools inhibits the success of black pupils. In the past 20 years township schools have only deteriorated and some have shut down. Where I grew up in Kwazakhele, Port Elizabeth, about three schools close to my house have closed. The ones in operation, including the one I went to as a kid, are falling apart with toilets not properly working and sometimes with no running water.

Malaika’s mom valued education and she does whatever is necessary to ensure that her kids go to school, to the point where she worked herself into a psychiatric hospital. Whoever said hard work doesn’t kill, has never met black South African single mothers. It would seem that Malaika’s mother, just like my mother, took Nelson Mandela’s words to heart that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” These words have propelled me to aggressively pursue my education even in the hardest of times.

The one aspect in the book that left me feeling a little ambivalent was when Malaika Wa Azania was talking about being taught about apartheid by her family. I imagine that white young people are also getting a version of apartheid from their parents, and I am interested in how the white telling of apartheid would be similar or different from the black telling of apartheid. Although I think that apartheid history is important to teach and to be talked about, I am concerned about one-sided stories about the past from families. I wonder what this “family education” does because we need to be mindful of transforming South African society, and not create another generation of people who think along apartheid lines.

Malaika Wa Azania says that “merely by being born black in this country you had problems.” Malaika speaks to the ways in which our society is structured; that your blackness ensures that you are positioned at a disadvantage is South African society. Transforming this country is harder than people anticipated it would be in 1994. Memoirs of a Born Free is a book I want all my friends, my cousins, and my professors to read. This book is a reflection of our country told by a young black woman who is trying to find her place in the world and South Africans have so much to learn from it. Malaika Wa Azania chronicles the everyday struggles of young black people in the “new” South Africa. Malaika is the embodiment of Nina Simone’s “to be young, gifted, and black” and I am super excited that I live in a South Africa where young people like Malaika are taking their place.

Reflections: This Book Betrays My Brother

brother

Author: Kagiso Lesego Molope

I love the tittle of this book. And after reading the book you realise even more how smart titled this book is. This book was published in 2012 but I only read it this year after my friend Siphokazi posted a quote from the book on Facebook. I was intrigued by the quote and decided to buy the book. The quote:

 “First of all, any album worth listening to is released in December, and the songs often mention the time of the year. In northern countries songs are about summertime, but here you will hear “December.” One of the most popular songs the year before I left home for varsity starts with: ‘Hello! Hello, December!’”

When I read this I knew immediately what the author was talking about. I knew I had to get this book because it already referenced a part of my life with fond memories of dancing to TKZee. I was a senior in primary school, getting ready for high school, when Halloween by TKZee came out. It was the biggest Kwaito album of all time, and it remains a staple for dance floors across South African townships. I used to spend December holidays with my cousins in Motherwell, Port Elizabeth and the December Halloween came out was one of the best Decembers of my life.

So it is through Siphokazi that I come to this book. After reading This Book Betrays My Brother I remember thinking what a South African story. This is a story about how gender operates in South African communities. It is evident in the way Kagiso Lesego Molope lays out the story how she has been paying attention to the ubiquitous-ness, the taken for granted, and ultimately the destructive nature of a misogynistic culture like the one we have in South Africa. The detailing of the seemingly innocent ways boys are praised and girls are cautioned is revealing.

This is a story a sister tells about her brother who she idolises but then she is witness to a darker side of him. What Kagiso Lesego Molope accomplishes in this beautiful yet heart-wrenching novel is the detailing of the familial and societal structures that create her brother – Basimane – the man and the things he is capable of. The book opens with the details of Basimane’s birth that was so monumental it crossed country borders. His birth was like the coming of Jesus and then he was treated like a king throughout his life and Naledi his sister, who is the narrator, is basically invisible in his shadow.

The politics of social mobility in this book speak to the ambivalent place that some black South Africans find themselves. Naledi and Basimane and their family move out of the poor section of the location into the more middle class section but Basimane more than anyone else in the family retains strong affiliation with the “real” township to the dismay of his mother. The fissures that class creates amongst black South Africans are not adequately dealt with in everyday conversation and it is also absent in fiction. When black families move out of the township there are all kinds changes that need to be negotiated from new neighbours to the new relationship one has with the township one comes from and the people in it.

A very strong thread in this book is that the people we know and love are capable of some horrible things. It is really difficult to call to order family members for their wrongdoing. How does one call out a family member for doing something wrong to someone else who is not a family member without being seen as betraying the family? How does one hold an esteemed family member accountable when they have inflicted pain on someone who is not family, and you know the family member is wrong? These are questions I grappled with growing up when I would witness my uncles cheating on their girlfriends. It would be taken for granted that I would be loyal to my uncle and say nothing. I was both being socialised into the world of men and also learning about family loyalty; that you protect family even when they are in the wrong.

As an only child the brother and sister relationship between Basimane and Naledi and the loyalties that are expected of this relationship fascinated me. As Naledi grows older and she starts to experience the world as a young woman, she starts to see her brother in a different light and that dark incident one afternoon changes her view of her brother. This book makes you question how well you think you know your siblings and what they are capable of.

In the end it is Naledi who carries the guilt of what her brother does. The brother moves on while his family and his community protect him. He is unscathed by his own bad actions. In fact Basimane is defended by his family and by his community without really engaging the fact that he might be guilty of wrongdoing.

The author calls to attention the ways in which families and society nurture boys. This book calls into question the expectations we have of young men like Basimane. This book unveils the built in nature of the unequal gender system in operation in our communities; a system where women are already disadvantaged by the mere fact of being born women. This built in system of protecting male privilege at the expense of women is captured in laugh-it-off phrases like “boys will be boys” which endorse destructive behaviour. This is a South African story that exposes our troubled gender relations. This is a story that left me feeling like we have a lot of work to do in undoing gender. We have come a long away particularly with legislating gender equality, but we are far away from making constitutional gender equality a reality in women’s everyday lives.

Reflections: In Search of Happiness

In-Search-of-Happiness-Cover

Author: Sonswabiso Ngcowa

Written by Lwando Scott 

“This novel is dedicated to all young people who feel and know that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex. Your love is as beautiful as love can be. One day all people will understand and respect love, however it comes.This time will come. Sometimes it is here.”

In Search of Happiness gripped me from the dedication page. The dedication is an affirming beginning and sets out the tone for the book. A book about self-discovery, family, loss, and ultimately love. Sonwabiso Ngcowa’s In Search of Happiness succeeds because of its accessibility, the book that can be read by teenagers and adults. It succeeds because it is a story about a black young woman, Nanase, and her journey from the Eastern Cape to the Western Cape. It succeeds because it is about discovering that you can find love in places you never thought it could be. This book succeeds because it centres the life of a young black woman who falls in love with another young black woman. This book succeeds because it centralises a love story that is often not seen as a love story in this country.

While many may still consider LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex) lives a taboo subject, Sonwabiso dares to go there. LGBTI South Africans are often depicted as people without friends, without brothers and sisters, without parents. They are rarely seen as parents themselves. Sonwabiso’s lead character, Nanase, is a young woman with friends, a grandmother that she loves, she has a mother and father, and she has siblings. Nanase’s story helps society see LGBTI people as part of social circles and coming from families and that homophobia doesn’t just hurt the individual but entire families.

There is something very real about Nanase’s journey of discovering her attraction to another woman when she moves to Masiphumelele, Cape Town. Although there is a sense of ambivalence in Nanase while she is in the Eastern Cape about her sexual identity, it is not until she moves to Masiphumelele and she meets Agnes that she fully comprehends what’s going on inside her. In Agnes she finds someone she can experience and experiment her feelings with that she had bottled up inside her.

Every chapter tittle in the book is in English but is accompanied by a Xhosa translation. I like this infusion of vernacular language in English texts; maybe we are moving into a time where English fiction will be heavily infused with the vernacular. That is after all how many South Africans speak. Sonwabiso captures the way people in the Eastern Cape view Cape Town. In the Eastern Cape, Cape Town is seen and talked about as the place of dreams, a place where people go and realize their dreams hence the popular phrase “iKapa lodumo” which translates to “the Cape of Fame.” Of course, like most people from the Eastern Cape, Nanase soon finds out that iKapa lodumo is not exactly what it is cracked up to be because it comes with it’s own set of challenges.

When Nanase comes out to her parents it is predictably a very tough conversation and is handled poorly by her parents. She comes out of the experience feeling confused and bewildered and it struck me how family and friends – straight people in general – make coming out all about them and ignore the emotional turmoil of the person coming out. Coming out is a very peculiar experience in the township because unlike in Western society, people don’t often talk about sex/sexuality regardless of orientation. So like Nanase, most LGBTI identified young people in townships struggle with a way to package what is going on in their lives in a way that won’t be read as disrespectful and foreign. Sonwabiso handles the coming out conversation in a relatable manner and I think we need more South African literature that deal with the messiness of coming in the South African context. If we can even call it “coming out.”

Sonwabiso gently manages the issue of difference in this book. South Africans pride themselves of being a diverse country, but at the same time South Africans are intolerant of difference. Difference in South Africa must come in neat and familiar ways in order for it to be palatable. As Nanase discovers that she is different and that her neighbour is also different, she has to deal with intolerance of the community and her friends at school. She has to deal with the mean spirit of people who refuse to constructively engage with difference.

This book is an easy read that touches on very complex issues that people living in townships of South Africa are dealing with. Sonwabiso touches on homophobia, xenophobia, sexual assault, and poverty. These are hard issues to deal with, but Sonwabiso manages to mindfully weave these things together showing us that they are connected. Where you find gender violence you are likely to find homophobia and where you find homophobia you are likely to find xenophobia and so it goes.

In Search of Happiness is aptly titled because we all share this quest for a happier and a more fulfilling life. Like the rest of us Nanase is trying to find her way through a world structured to her disadvantage. In Search of Happiness is the type of book I wish someone had given me when I was in high school going through my own self-discovery phase.

To say this book is timely would be an understatement. This is a must read for high school going young people. It is a must read for all South Africans who are interested in what it means to be young in post-apartheid South Africa. This is a must read if you are interested in stories about young black people written by young black people.