I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills; from whence cometh my help?
– Psalm 121:1
I have always wondered what it must have been like to sing ‘we miss you Manelo, where are you?’ by South African musician Chicco, during the time of apartheid. To avoid state censorship Chicco had to change Mandela to Manelo. It is a striking song, evident in its intensity of emotion and eagerness for Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. In it, one can sense that distant and forgotten yearning for that day of deliverance.
It was a time when all else was bleak and there was only death and chaos in the world – not far away in some distant country but close and intimate. I can only imagine how they might have felt like: the uncertainty of how one’s day will unfold tomorrow. And to sing longingly the song for his return.
And then it finally happens; Mandela is released and it is the dawn of a new day. ‘We are free’ they would have shouted. ‘We no longer need to say aluta continua, there is no need for that anymore’ they might have thought to themselves. In the imagination of those who believed that this was true freedom, it must have been glorious. A culmination of those years of struggle and resistance and hopes and prayers.
It is an astonishing piece of narrative – one that has endured the ages, and stood the test of time, and one that continues its reach today; that the black race is led to believe and has for so long believed that its liberation shall come from elsewhere – a saviour outside of themselves.
‘Black people need a leader’, one hears on the streets today, ‘You see Mandela, Tambo and the rest, now those were something’. ‘You are wrong baba’ another retorts, ‘Sobukwe was our leader. UPoqo aka bethwa’. And so the conversation goes. Men and women in the streets of Hilbrow, in the cramped up shacks of Soweto; the dusty roads of Malamulele, reminisce of an age of heroes.
They wonder to themselves, from whence came a Nkrumah or a Samora? And what was the making of a Sankara and a Lumumba?
And it is at the thought of these matters that a question enters into minds of Africans on a daily basis. A question that lowers their brow and distorts their face, removing their smile that was once there. This question holds them captive to a deep sadness at the consideration of their circumstance. And so they wonder, “will we ever see their kind again?”
The sleeping giant, that is Africa, continues its dreadful slumber. And in that sleep, we are all too familiar of the dreams that do come. It is a nightmare. A life of poverty and dehumanization. The black race is forced to live; or rather survive, on the scraps that fall from the table of global neo-colonialism.
And so when the young black girl or young black boy comes of age – those who imagine themselves to have a budding future and a life of possibilities- they are soon confronted with the shocking and harsh reality of blackness. And it is the reality that poverty has a face, and it is a black face, and it is face that belongs to them. One that is found all around, in Khayelitsha, in Alexandre and in Umtata. And it is a face they would like to escape, and certainly do try.
For God knows every black person has once wished they were not black.
This nicely crafted fiction – that which lulls the will and quells agency – of a black liberation leader, has so infiltrated the black psyche, that there is hardly any fight in them. It is only when roused in anger at the populist rhetoric of another, that the corpse feels some heat, and jerks and twitches through sparks pf protests and destruction of property. We have been so convinced that another shall bring back the land and fight the struggle for us. We are waiting for a black Godot.
From the advent of the Decolonial project of the 1960’s, and all the liberation movements that came after, there has been a personality at the helm. A black Prometheus who has stolen the colonial fire through his mastery of the fiery colonial education, to alight the black resistance flame of the people.
This brave soul, is singularly capable, braver and more educated. He comes, then, to a people who not only lack self-respect but the entire concept of it. But alas just like the fire stealing god, this black Prometheus also meet his demise. He is either assassinated, imprisoned or exiled. And his death holds a more sinister result: the death of the revolution.
It would do us well to soon accept history’s true path: the cycle of oppression. If we are to do better than our predecessors we need to be aware how oppression operates over the years and shape-shifts in every generation. Whether one lives under apartheid South Africa or an ANC-led one, what permeates through all of this is black exploitation and landlessness.
And the black middle class – a concessional offshoot of a white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchal society, is put forward as a mirage of change and progress. This class stands as false evidence for the emancipation of the black race.
When one wants to speak out about one’s feeling of exploitation, it is this group that most point to: ‘look at this black person, she made it even though she is also from Soweto’ they say ‘why can’t you?’ Neglecting the majority who cannot escape their poverty because of historical dispossession and a neglectful liberation party.
And this of course has an effect on the mind of the unsuspecting youth. He is convinced that all he have to do is work hard, and pull himself up by the bootstraps. And sure to its promise the white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchal society will make a place for this youth; a seat at the table. He then will stand as an example of black excellence and the fruits of hard work.
But the youth soon realises that there is only a number of seats at this table. Of which most of them have been taken. Corporate South Africa is exclusive and elite. The youth then learns another lesson, and that is, table manners dictate a certain behavior. He is not free to speak out his truth at this table – his black experience. There will be no mention of privilege nor reparation nor expropriation (at least without compensation).
He then feels trapped by the system he has fought so hard to be admitted into and which he is now dependent on. He fears for his livelihood – the car payment, the home loan and the black tax. One does not bite the hand that feeds you. He learns the art of silence about his seemingly radical views. It is a silence which has characterized black people for a long time in this country, broken only in our most private spaces where there is no threat of retribution.
And so we wait, for that Sobukwe voice; for our Black Godot.