Sisonke Msi­mang’s mem­o­rable pap mo­ment


I tell Mummy and Baba I am not feel­ing well but the truth is my rage will not al­low me to sit at the ta­ble and pre­tend this house isn’t haunted by the ghosts of colo­nial­ists

I head home for the sum­mer hol­i­days. I am look­ing for­ward to see­ing ev­ery­one — es­pe­cially my sis­ters Mandla and Zeng. But I am also anx­ious about how I will man­age my emo­tions. Amer­ica has em­bold­ened me and quick­ened my tem­per. I have no time for racists — in­deed, my iden­tity now hinges on this im­pa­tience. Be­fore ev­ery­thing else, I am black and I have lit­tle en­ergy for those who don’t un­der­stand or re­spect that. Over the course of the past se­mes­ter I have done a lot of soul search­ing. I love my par­ents but I am con­vinced they sim­ply don’t un­der­stand race and racism. They con­tinue to be naive, to have hope in peo­ple and sys­tems that have never been con­cerned about the well­be­ing of black peo­ple. I an­tic­i­pate the trip will be frus­trat­ing in many ways. Mandla has started her stud­ies at Cor­nell Univer­sity in New York state and we talk on the phone ev­ery week. Mummy and Baba and Zeng are liv­ing in La Lu­cia. Their neigh­bours are all white. Their house has a tiny sliver of a view to the ocean. Mummy is work­ing and so is Baba and Zeng is en­rolled in a pres­ti­gious girls’ school in the city, where her uni­form in­cludes a bon­net. The bon­net — in­deed, the en­tire uni­form — is ridicu­lous and colo­nial and em­blem­atic of the en­dur­ing char­ac­ter of the strange new so­ci­ety into which we have just been trans­planted. I am un­bear­able. I bran­dish my new rad­i­cal pol­i­tics like a sword. I am im­pa­tient with Mummy and Baba, and I have ab­so­lutely no time for whites.

Mummy takes deep breaths and tries to ig­nore me. My sis­ters treat me with a com­bi­na­tion of awe and amuse­ment. I am both hi­lar­i­ous and ut­terly mad.

At­ti­tude prob­lem

In the af­ter­math of Un­cle Chris [Hani]’s death a timetable has been put in place for the tran­si­tion to be fi­nalised. Elec­tions have been sched­uled. So, here we are, to­gether for the first time in a while, in South Africa, on the eve of liberation.

Mummy and Baba want us to un­der­stand the his­tory and geography of our new coun­try and to un­der­stand the clashes be­tween the Bri­tish, the Bo­ers and the Zu­lus in par­tic­u­lar. They want us to be fa­mil­iar with the Bat­tle of Isan­dl­wana and the Bat­tle of Blood River and to have an im­age in our minds of how they played out on the land­scape it­self. For us to face the fu­ture, they want us to know our his­tory.

So Mummy plans a fam­ily hol­i­day in the Drak­ens­berg. We load into the car. The three of us are in the back seat, crammed in. I am in a mood. I get why they want us to do this, but I am not so con­vinced of the modus operandi.

I ask Mummy what we will do if the white own­ers of the guest­houses she has booked don’t let us sleep on their sheets and in their beds. Mummy is ir­ri­tated.

She takes the bait. “Stop it Sonke. This at­ti­tude is too much now. This racism thing is an ob­ses­sion. We didn’t send you to Amer­ica to de­velop an at­ti­tude prob­lem.” I am in no mood to be lec­tured about racism. “It’s not an at­ti­tude Mummy, it’s just the facts. We can’t wish racism away, and we can’t pre­tend th­ese peo­ple are just go­ing to change overnight, so I’m just say­ing if we are go­ing to be sleep­ing in their houses we should be aware they might not want us there.”

Mummy has cre­ated a file with brochures and de­tails about the trip. At the top there is a flyer for the first place we will stay, a farm­house called Penny Far­thing. I flick through it, look­ing for more am­mu­ni­tion. “So we’re stay­ing at Penny Far­thing. What does ‘penny far­thing’ mean any way?” I ask. Scorn drips from my mouth. “It sounds ex­tremely colo­nial.” Baba ex­plains that a far­thing is a Bri­tish coin from a long time ago. “Clas­sic,” I re­tort. “This is go­ing to be in­ter­est­ing.”

Loom­ing con­fronta­tion

I read the brochure aloud, in­form­ing the fam­ily in my best David At­ten­bor­ough voice that the farm is “three thou­sand hectares, strate­gi­cally placed near the KwaZulu-Natal bat­tle­fields — near Rorke’s Drift, Isan­dl­wana and Blood River.” Hmmn. “The own­ers have been on the prop­erty since 1847,” I add with a flour­ish.

I am dis­gusted. “White peo­ple steal our land and dec­i­mate our peo­ple and we go and sleep in their houses?” “Dec­i­mate” is a word I use of­ten. Baba is slightly amused by my dis­gust. “The Zulu were never dec­i­mated,” he says. “They routed us, but ‘dec­i­mated’ would im­ply we were vir­tu­ally ex­tin­guished. That was cer­tainly the ex­pe­ri­ence of the San but it wasn’t the case with the Zulu na­tion. If you are go­ing to be an­gry, that is one thing, but do so on the ba­sis of facts,” he says. Mandla and Zeng are tense, sens­ing a se­ri­ous con­fronta­tion loom­ing. This is a mere tech­ni­cal­ity but I bite my tongue. I judge Baba silently, but I am still African child enough to hold my fire when it comes to my fa­ther.

We pull up to the house af­ter the long drive from Dur­ban and the old woman who comes out to greet us seems both pleased to see us and slightly be­wil­dered. She is faced with an African fam­ily of five. Three tall teenage girls, a short mother and an im­pos­ing fa­ther.

Im­me­di­ately, Mummy charms the old lady with some lit­tle chatter about the drive. Baba im­presses her with his knowl­edge of the re­gion. The three of us are gan­gly and quiet — but we greet her po­litely and in im­pec­ca­ble English so she seems pleased. She walks us into the house and shows us around wear­ing an air of in­dul­gent be­fud­dle­ment.

We set­tle into our rooms and rest a bit be­fore din­ner. Over din­ner I am surly and I ex­cuse my­self early. I tell Mummy and Baba I am not feel­ing well but the truth is my rage will not al­low me to sit at the ta­ble with the other guests and pre­tend this house isn’t haunted by the ghosts of colo­nial­ists. In the morn­ing I am rav­en­ous so there is no avoid­ing break­fast. We sit at the ta­ble and the smell of mdogo wafts through the house. My favourite — sour por­ridge. I dig in. “You are en­joy­ing your por­ridge young lady?” says our host. “I am,” I say. “It’s won­der­ful, isn’t it? My Zulu made it.” I am stunned. Mummy and Baba are stunned. Mandla and Zeng are stunned. I put my spoon down. “Who made it?” I ask, giv­ing her a chance to self-cor­rect. “My Zulu made it,” she says, obliv­i­ous to her racism. “Is she yours?” I be­gin to ask. “Like, as in, you own —” Mummy cuts me off. “Sonke . . .” she warns. I look from her face to Baba’s. He looks amused — as if he is pre­pared to let the chips fall where they may.

I de­cide to go for it. Mummy’s warn­ing lingers in the air, though; it has suc­ceeded in slow­ing me down. “I am just won­der­ing,” I con­tinue, “whether she has a name. The per­son who makes the por­ridge. Be­cause she isn’t your Zulu. She is a per­son.”

A Zulu to cook us por­ridge

I am an­gry that I have not been di­rect enough. If I were at school, in Min­nesota with my friends, cloaked in the anonymity of not hav­ing Mummy and Baba around, I would sim­ply say, “This is racist bull­shit.”

But I am not in Min­nesota. I am in South Africa and my par­ents are watch­ing me so I go easy on the old lady and be­rate my­self in­ter­nally for it. She does not see it the same way. “Yes I know she has a name but there is noth­ing wrong with me calling her my Zulu. That is what we do here and no­body minds.” “How do you know?” I am seething now. “No one has ever said a word about it,” she con­tin­ues blithely. “Well that’s that then,” I say evenly. I look at her with con­tempt. She looks slightly scared, though she isn’t sure why she is scared. The ta­ble is silent for a long un­com­fort­able mo­ment. No one chews or swallows. We do not touch our food. Mummy breaks the si­lence. “Well, I think it’s time for us to start our day,” she says in an up­beat and cheery way. “We have a lot of walk­ing to do to­day.”

The old lady’s Zulu bus­tles in the back­ground, col­lect­ing plates and wash­ing dishes.

We gather our things from the bed­rooms. We load them into the car in si­lence. We get in the car and Baba drives. We sit in si­lence.

Fi­nally Baba says, “We shall have to make sure there is a Zulu to cook us some por­ridge at the next place we stay, guys.” We burst into laugh­ter — re­lieved and an­gry all at once. ‘Wowowowowow,’ says Mandla, dead­pan but with char­ac­ter­is­tic wry­ness. “Wow,” agrees Mummy — also dead­pan. “Wow,” says Zeng. “Wow,” I add. “What a wow,” says Baba. We drive to the bat­tle­field of Rorke’s Drift, to hear about how our peo­ple fought bravely but were de­feated.

A fu­ture she no longer un­der­stands

. . . Years later, I dis­cover a penny-far­thing is an odd-shaped bike — the ones with an enor­mous front wheel and a tiny rear one. I google it and Wikipedia throws me a gem: “An at­tribute of the penny-far­thing is that the rider sits high and nearly over the front axle. When the wheel strikes rocks and ruts, or un­der hard brak­ing, the rider can be pitched for­ward off the bi­cy­cle head-first. Head­ers were rel­a­tively com­mon and a sig­nif­i­cant, some­times fa­tal, hazard.”

I wish I had known then — I would have had even more bit­ing fod­der for Mummy. With the pas­sage of time and ev­ery­thing I now know about what South Africa has be­come, it seems apt that our at­tempt to get to know our his­tory bet­ter was launched in a farm­house named af­ter an ob­so­lete Bri­tish in­ven­tion.

I imag­ine the old lady as she was 20 years ago. In my day­dream, in­stead of rid­ing in a bakkie in keep­ing with her lo­cal cir­cum­stances, she is sit­ting atop a high-wheeler bi­cy­cle. She is bump­ing along, pro­pel­ling her­self to­wards a fu­ture in which she no longer un­der­stands the land­scape. She rides over the fields where Zulu fought Brit and lost. Sud­denly she looks down and re­alises she is rid­ing over the bones of the dead. She loses con­trol. The penny-far­thing be­gins a slow side­ways fall. In the process she is hurled off it and into the air. I see her frail frame sus­pended mid-flight — a grey blot in a blue Mid­lands sky. Can you see her? She is up in the air like so many of her time and her gen­er­a­tion. If you lis­ten closely, you may just hear her calling out for her Zulu.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Car­los Amato

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