“In January 2004, Nelson Chisale, a black farm worker, was tied to a tree, beaten unconscious and then fed to a pride of lions by his former white employer, Mark Scott-Crossley. Another black worker, Simon Mathebula, was an accomplice in this murder” (Erasmus, 2008: 173).
As I read the above quote in my Race, Class, and Gender reader I gripped my face and exclaimed “no!” out loud, within my quiet apartment at 11:35pm on Friday the 15th of August. On that same Friday I participated in a Marikana march from 2pm until about 5pm, impromptu Marikana protest theatre, and saw Eve Ensler’s Emotional Creatures before going back to my apartment to read. And of course we have the infamous Mike Brown case back home, spurring the hashtag: #iftheygunnedmedown. Abroad we have the Gaza conflict on one side and recent Ebola outbreaks on the other. Needless to say, I’ve been in a very emotional state of being recently and I’m not quite sure what to do at the exact moment but write.
You know that phrase, ‘knowledge is power?’ Knowledge is also pain. The more I learn, the angrier and more powerless I feel sometimes. How do I effect change? Where do I go from here? Without being too melodramatic, what the fuck can I do?
I have the privilege to study abroad, and I chose South Africa. The parallels to the United States are many, but what has been most stimulating for me has been my response. Since arriving I have been on my own a lot. And I like it, it gives me time to process. I have thought about the privilege of my American passport. I have thought about the privilege of being able to actually leave my country and enter another with relative ease. But mostly, I have confirmed what I already wish I didn’t know; the world is depressing. From learning about the sordid history of European colonialism in my South African history course to humiliating tests such as the pencil test or the 1950 aptitude tests, I find it hard to take it in stride. It would be one thing if this history was just that. Then I might be able to separate it and think “well I’m glad it isn’t like that anymore.” And yes, South Africa and the U.S. have made progress in many ways, I do not deny that. But the more I read, the more I learn, the more oral history I receive, the more I realize that it is a very slow process. And just like Michelle Alexander asserts that the prison industrial complex is ‘The New Jim Crow,’ apartheid still rages on powerfully within South Africa today, despite many attempts to deny it.
I’m not being an idealist, though. I realize that 20 years of democracy make for a young country, but it [irrationally] upsets me that I constantly have to be both shocked and unfazed at the tragic events I read about. What is going on with the Mike Brown case is not surprising, given the history of countless other incidents. It is sad that I, like many of my fellow Black Americans, expect it. Reading about Nelson Chisale’s beating was not surprising. Reading about him being fed to a lion, on the other hand, I mean…what the fuck? The physical reaction and accompanying tears gave me a tough time. I know this was an ‘isolated’ incident and that there are some sick people in the world, but the way we treat each other is sometimes really hard to process.
My journey to the dawn of my ignorance began with UC Berkeley and has continued here at the University of Cape Town. I don’t know shit. And to generalize, a lot of people don’t, and that’s okay. Except that so much of what happens on a daily basis, primarily to “non-White” people, is not okay and much more attention needs to be paid to it. It is clear that there are systematic issues back home in the U.S. and here in South Africa. And when you factor in Gaza, and all of the horrible things going on that are not even being discussed, it gets overwhelming. I’m truly at a loss of what to do.
On this same Friday I’m referencing, I skipped my lecture to attend a Marikana march. I stood outside of the Cape Town police station with around forty other protesters in solidarity against the police brutality that seems to be a worldwide phenomenon. Two years ago, on August 16th, 2012, 34 men were killed in the Marikana massacre. I’m not sure if I was busy getting ready for my birthday that year, if I wasn’t reading the news very diligently that week, or if the news just never made it over to my side of the world. But the sad fact is that I did not learn about this massacre until I landed in South Africa. Much like I have only recently been learning about many events and key players within the Black Power movement. Much like I didn’t learn about HeLa cells or the Tuskegee Syphilis study until about four years ago. This is not to blame anyone, as I am a 24-year-old Black male. I can choose to educate myself with the power of the library or Google, but it does not make me feel good that many of these life-changing events are not taught in school, at home—in some cases—, and definitely not discussed enough in general. I’ve taken to reading more because I’m behind. I need to catch up. I shouldn’t have to be an African-American Studies major to learn about Solomon Northup. I shouldn’t have to be a Chicano Studies major to learn about Che Guevara. I shouldn’t have to…you get my point.
But then that brings me back to my question from earlier. What is the next step? As I consider the fact that the contracted unemployment rate in South Africa is over 25%, but obviously much higher when you factor in discouraged job seekers, I can’t help but think: fuck. The cost of living is lower, yes, but still. R7 for a U.S. citizen is cheap, but doing the math as a South African domestic worker is a little different. When you consider than a taxi from Rondebosch to the city is R7, times two trips a day, times five days a week, you come out with R70. Multiply that times four weeks in the month, and you have R280 going to transport if you do not have a transportation subsidy. And that’s not only if you have a job in the city, but also if you are just seeking work. I’m not even sure of the costs from the townships to the city, but I do know that many workers come from the townships to the city to work. Whether that is in the factors, as domestic workers, or as the taxi drivers themselves, commuting is not easy, fast, or cheap [relatively]. So what do the citizens of Cape Town do? What do I do? For now:
I [try to] listen.
I hope that the plan to pursue my doctorate is the right decision.
I hope that feeling wronged, powerless, mistreated, misinformed and under informed continues to leave me pissed off and generally disgruntled until I start the cycle all over again and do something about it.
I learn that I cannot take every issue personally, and I cannot be Superman; I cannot solve all the problems of the world. But the anger I feel sometimes can be cooled to passion, and that passion can act me to move. Outside of the money I have donated, strikes I have participated in, and theatre I have hoped made a difference, I’m hoping that my future scholarship will spark ideas. I hope that the protest theatre I was involved in on Friday brought out some curiosity, courage, or fighting spirit in someone else. I hope that among my friends and colleagues we have another Angela Davis, Bayard Rustin, or Fannie Lou Hamer.
To quote the famous philosopher J. Cole, “STOP FUCKIN KILL US.”
If you’re curious about my adventures, follow me on instagram under the hashtag #AntinAfrica. Reference for the first quote below.
Erasmus, Z. 2008. Race. (In Shepard, N., & Robins, S. (eds). New South African Keywords. Ohio University Press: Ohio. Pp. 169-179)