I am coming home to myself

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, there was a girl who met a boy, suave, tall, dark, handsome. And she fell in love with his afro moon and the way he commanded attention with his charisma. He would write letters, and draw pictures for her, and the moTswana girl would see stars and galaxies when he spoke, shyly flashing the smile she would pass on to her first child, who would be fathered, as it turned out, by this very smooth operator who was the reason she was thinking wedding gowns and cattle already. He looked at her and saw a world beginning, a new world that they would build together and they became, one. This one, gave birth to another one, at the most random time. It was a normal day, and would have been extremely boring had her water not broken in the middle of an isle at Pick n Pay (true story), amongst the soap bars and toothpaste perhaps, with the suggestion of two-for-one specials and 20% off house brand cosmetics beaming at her as she groaned with contractions. I mean, the sky did not move, it was a normal day, when I came, and yet I was here, I too had arrived to this Life that God had made.

As children we read stories that began with “Once upon a time”. It is a decidedly English phrase, very ambitious, I think. It claims a greatness it does not live up to. Once upon a time? Time? Really? Its aim is lofty. But I guess we all have our own ways of storytelling. My once upon a time begins in 1991. It really should have been a “Giringan wa giringan”, or a “Keleketla!”, a “Kwasuka sukela”, or a “Kwath kwathi ngantsomi”. Which are the ways that the vaTsonga, baTswana, amaZulu and amaXhosa respectively, begin their tales.

“Once upon a time”, you see, is not the African way of doing things. In a gathering of say, children and adults, usually women and children, “Giringan wa giringan” is a call to attention. “Gather together”, it beckons, “because a story is about to be told”. The speaker will make the call, and those gathering will respond with “Giringan!”, or “Cozi!”

At different pauses in the story, the listeners will encourage the storyteller with repeated shouts of “Giringan!”, “Keleketla!” or “Cozi!”

So the story would go, for instance:

Storyteller: “Giringan wa giringan”

Listeners: “Giringan”

Storyteller: “Akuri na ntombi yo saseka”

Listeners: “Giringan”

Storyteller: “Leyi a yi tsutsuma ku tlula na vafana va le xikolweni”

Listeners: “Giringan”

And so forth, until such a time as the story is concluded to the teller’s satisfaction. During this interaction, because African folktales are always more dialogue than monologue, the listeners can interject with questions, comments, or even alternate scenes. So it would not be foreign for a listener to say, “Ayi tsutsuma ku va tlula? Njani?” or perhaps, “Jhee!” accompanied by a side eye or some other form of shade. Random story, I know, but my point is that the teller has the prerogative to shape the endings to the audiences’ context, so that the story about how the leopard got its spots ends up with five different variations, because in each context the teller-listener-relationship results in collaboration that presents alternate endings. No two storytellers tell the same story. But at the same time, the listener is implicated in the process; unlike in the tyranny of the text, where a reader is all but held hostage by the fixed nature of the print. In this instance, they are not just listening, they are called on to create as well.


Photo: Dennis Ngango

Now, just a moment: I am most certainly a writer, and I love and believe in the power of the written word. But I do not think that it can exist without oral literature, or as I prefer to call it, orature. In the beginning was the word, and the word begat a story, and the story begat a rhythm, and the rhythm begat a revolution. That rhythm is not limited to written words, though there is value in that. Every important thing must be said in a story. Academia is nice, it is necessary, but if we want to measure the zeitgeist, or define it, or influence conversation, one of the places which we must first look, is stories. Stories do all the important work, really, and they are most effective because they are so unassuming. We do not know it, but when we encounter stories, we are in the classroom.

The moTsonga man with the afro moon and the moTswana woman with the everlasting smile welcomed their little girl into the world with enthusiasm, and vowed to send her into the world a moTsonga girl. This is what is right, this is what culture said they needed to do. You marry, if you are his wife, and are born into, if you are his seed, a man’s culture. In addition, they would send her to a Model C school, they would raise her in a township that was predominantly xiTsonga speaking, and they would speak to her in his language. The little girl’s mother would learn the moTsonga man with the afro moon’s language, though she stumbled through it, she soldiered on. They drew neat lines and built their lives within those boundaries, squashing their daughter’s complex identities into a single way of being. She was never Tsonga enough for the xiTsonga speaking people, and never Tswana enough for the seTswana speakers, and yet, here she was, an inconvenient truth. Everything she knew about culture and identity was one thing, but her life repeatedly presented her with contradictions to the ideals of family and culture. She was a deviant, she was other.

I am ‘other’ – a position of not belonging. Because I am a woman, a Black woman, in a world that hates Black women but demands from them constantly. To create, to hold things together, to not break. I am other because I love God in a world that either blames Him for its injustice, or uses Him to cause it. I am other because I am Black – basically, plankton in the food chain of human life. I am other because my father is a moTsonga in a country that reduces us to stereotypes: loud, what they say is ‘unbearably dark’, ugly, smelly, badly dressed, kwerekwere, and the list continues. I am other because I am both a moTsonga and a moTswana, and despite what society dictates, I embrace all parts of my heritage. I am not either/or, I am both.

I am other because I have lived a life in which as a young girl, my white friends wanted me to be myself, but not too much, lest any part of my Blackness disrupt the serenity of their cushioned realities. White people have the privilege of being themselves without consequence for their race. As Ta Nehisi Coates says about “the invention of racecraft”: “they [meaning white supremacists] made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.”  It is a miracle how we are able to carry on, in spite of… and yet the moment that we ‘show’ ourselves, in a way that is perceived as either negative or positive, we are sanctioned. I understood this as a child, that my place in the world came with the burden of my race, and my womanhood.

Only black people are raced. We could build clubhouses together at the back of the school, but when it came down to it, they would get picked up from school by their mothers, and I would take the bus home, get off at the bus stop, walk home, and open the door to an existence that was as different from theirs as the colour of our skins. And to my Black friends, I was a coconut, the snob who spent too much time with white people, stayed in the house all day, and did not have friends in her own neighbourhood. Always struck me as odd that there were clear lines drawn in the sand for lives that are, very clearly, messy and unpredictable. As though much of our ways of being are not learned and reproduced subconsciously. As though we are not always becoming, shifting and navigating the spaces in which we move and have our being.

We exist in the push and pull. In the tension. Author Ben Okri says of it, “We lead fragmented lives, fragmented identities”. And so the middle, not between two lines but where boundaries touch, exactly at the line that joins two different realities, that is where we live our messy lives.

It is a complicated thing, with a complicated history, but it is not my ending.


Photo: Puno Selesho

Toni Morrison described it best when she said, “We are the subjects of our own narrative, witnesses to and participants in our own experience, and, in no way coincidentally, in the experience of those with whom we have come in contact. We are not, in fact, “other”. We are choices.”

I thought that was so powerful, and it’s a mantra that I live by – “We are choices.” We are crafting a new story each day. We can push back. Despite oppression, despite the fact that my name is not shouted from the rooftops. I slither in silence like a snake, not quite as menacing but twice as deliberate, certain, and present. You will know it when I strike, and I intend to strike.

In every story there is a villain, and mine is a many headed monster: heterosexist patriarchy, is written across the first head. Capitalism, on another. White supremacy, on the next. This is the monster against which I intend to strike.

My country beckons me – it beckons you. Maybe God gave us fragility, our Achilles heel, to remind us that we are only as great as others have allowed us to be. Our greatness is not a solitary project.

In the BBC documentary How My Country Speaks, Lebo Mashile shares what she thinks being a South African means, it is quite lengthy, bear with me:

“South Africa feels like a social experiment with 50 million people trying to figure out where we all fit in. If you are white, you are the descendants of settlers, you don’t fit in. If you are Black you’ve been dispossessed so you don’t fit in. If you are coloured then you’re too complicated, you’re mixed race, you don’t fit in. Everybody can find ten different reasons why they don’t belong to this thing called South African-ness, and that quintessentially is kind of what makes us South African.”

She then goes on to recite a poem. Part of it goes:

“South Africa is a fractured mirror, a paradox of schizophrenic selves who don’t talk to one another, who co-exist together but don’t live with each other. Who fear each other. Who revere each other. Who loathe, and pretend, and try to blend in with each other. And this is the time when you can become the greatest substance of your dreams unless you live in a shack, and don’t speak English and don’t know what this poem means.”

Could it be then, that another head on the monster which is the villain of our South African story, is our wounded-ness? We are haunted by the ghosts of our past, by our pain. Our nostalgic leanings, our desires for an untouched past, to return to a pristine and untouched Africa, are a longing for our wholeness. Coates refers to it as a “return to ourselves”. I think he is talking about healing. He is talking about coming home to ourselves.

I am not talking about the model that the truth and reconciliation commission set forth at the dawn of democracy. It was with noble intentions that they did that, but what it did, was suppress Black pain, and let unrepentant murderers go scot free. The TRC and Rainbow Nation-ism, are part of why I am skeptical when I hear white people, and even some Black people, use the word ‘ubuntu’, or ‘botho’. What they should be meaning is justice. Instead what they mean, more often than not, is absolution from crimes they did not intend to pay for, and the chance to not think about their privilege too much. Think Chris Hani and the wounds his family still carries. Think Nokuthula Simelane and her family’s search for truth for over thirty years. Their blood still cries out. Do you hear it? Or are you more concerned, with living a comfortable life?

We want desperately to know, who is African? Who is not ‘othered’ here? Who gets to ‘belong’, here?

Personally I think that anyone may belong here, whatever race they are, for as long as they get with the program, so to speak. Africa is a state of mind. What drives you? Shared responsibility, common justice and equity? Africa is a commitment. For whom do we build our futures? How do we build? Are we willing to decolonise, so that we can build something new?

Sonia Sanchez said it so beautifully when she said, and I live by this mantra, “I will become, I will become a collector of me, and put meat on my soul.”

And so I would like to start my story again, because mind you, my story is always starting and ending and starting and that is its greatest continuity, the birth and death that is always happening. So yes, let me start again, Giringan wa giringan?

**This essay was presented as a talk at The Park Exchange’s first speaker edition. The theme was “Race, Identity, and what it means to be an African”. It has been edited for brevity and clarity. Look out for the next speaker edition, happening in Pretoria this Saturday.

Power, strength, healing, and happy Africa Day.


No one is original. Everyone is derivative. ~ Sonny Rollins


When Women Stand Up

To the women of the revolution
Who don lipstick like war paint
Headwraps like armour
Defying the sky defying the patriarchy
You are magic.
As we took to the streets
There was thunder in the sky
And thunder in our hearts
And the most curious thing
Is that it rained
But did not dampen our spirits.
Watch how iimbokodo march the streets
And trample white supremacist capitalist heterosexist patriarchy
In the same breadth
As we trample racism.
Because this revolution will be intersectional
Or it will be bollocks.

See how we march with grace, with fierceness, with violent spirits
With a roar
And such beauty!
How are we not magic?
Mbokodo, lead.

Yours in power,
The Black Feather (AKA Relebone Rirhandzu eAfrika AKA Dusty Soul)

**This post was first published on black on white’s blog here.

“How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!” ~ Maya Angelou

The Day South Africa Broke My Heart

I have never felt South African, not completely. You see, I am that curious thing in South Africa I call a ‘middle child’, not Tswana enough for Tswana people, not Tsonga enough for Tsonga people. I live somewhere in the grey, in the middle where most things are, anyway. Because of that people don’t know what to do with me. They say, because my dad is a moTsonga, I am by right and tradition Tsonga. But my experience is that I have never been accepted as truly being part of any of my parent’s cultures. That’s a story for another day. Let me talk about my Tsonga heritage for a minute.

Being Tsonga, or Shangaan, is to be rejected in South Africa. We never talk about it. We never talk about how, when we’re in the city eJoni, we’re clumped together with people who are considered makwerekwere. How we must learn other languages if we ever want to be spoken to and understood. I’ve found myself being apologetic about it. “I’m half Tsonga” and “My mother is Tswana” I’ll say, quicker than melting butter. Because I’ve always just wanted to be accepted as South African. She’s all I know, but she doesn’t know me. She doesn’t care to.

What I’ve heard many times? “You’re not dark enough to be Tsonga”, “You’re too pretty to be Tsonga”, “You’re half Tswana, that explains your beauty” and many more messed up things.

I’m conflicted half the time. Most of the time.

Yesterday I saw the words, “Singa makwerekwere sonke” spray-painted onto a wall. The taxi drove past but I kept seeing them in my head. It’s true, you know. Everyone is a foreigner somewhere, but more than that, who can claim to truly belong to a place? What is it to be? What is it to belong? Who gets to belong?

We’ve been here before. 2008. We’ve been hating on our brothers and sisters from other countries for a long time. We laugh about stereotypes and agree that, “that’s how they are”. We let colonialism’s arbitrary drawing of lines tell us that we’re not from the same bloodline. They drew a map, they drew lines, and scrambled for owenership.

Africa is a country. Africa is a state of mind. Africa is you and me.

My paternal grandfather was a soldier in Mozambique. I never hear much about him, except that he was a soldier and he came to this country, married my grandmother, and years later I am here. I always speculate that he must have been part of Frelimo. I speculate that he was a man of honour. I quip that one day, I’ll take a journey to his home to find out who I am. Because I long for that part of me that he was. I am not truly South African. But what is it, to be South African?

You broke my heart a million times before, Mzansi, when you told me that I don’t fit the bill. That I don’t qualify as being part of you. But I can handle your rejection. What I can’t take is the murder. The beatings. The fire. Why do you hate our brothers and sisters so much? Why do you hate yourself so much?

Source: Al Jazeera http://bit.ly/1GWUxBx

There’s a video doing the rounds on facebook made by Dr Nomalanga Mkhize. It’s not in my language but I understand it because for Tsonga people everywhere, we must know other languages, as a matter of survival. But other people don’t know our tongue, they will never know it, because they can’t see past their blinders. Like the survivors we are we shoulder the responsibility for crossing lines and move on. We move like burdens through the world.

Dr Mkhize said in the video, “Ziyafana inkanga zethu”. So why you frontin’ Mzansi? Who made you God?

Put down the fire.



Shit, ain’t hard to choose me there’s only one me, man
(So hard to choose)
That’s why I chose to be that
Because where I’m from it ain’t cool to be wack
And I’m so pro-black
Though they don’t choose me back and that’s some choosy shit

~ Rapsody, “Hard to Choose”

“To the same degree that your understanding of and attitude towards Afrika becomes more positive, your understanding of and attitude towards yourself will also becomes more positive…” ~ Malcom X

Ideas make the world go round

“If bands make her dance imagine what knowledge can do…”

That line comes from last year’s 16 for 16s project “No Time Out”, presented by Motif records, combining the efforts of 16 artists/ entertainers to commemorate the uprisings of June 16 1976. That line struck me as profound because, well, it is; and it’s witty. But also, it struck me as profound because it captured well the essence of June 16 – young people who were so moved by the knowledge of an idea that they took to the streets for it. An idea so powerful that even though apartheid thugs responded to schoolchildren in uniform with bullets and teargas (bullets and teargas bafwethu – BULLETS AND TEARGAS!), they went anyway. Imagine that.

The artists who collaborated on the song. Source: Motif Records

The artists who collaborated on the song. Source: Motif Records

One of the wonderful things about this millennium and all its technology, is how it has enabled us to ‘hear’ more voices, particularly from groups marginalised by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (to borrow hook’s term). To be sure, there are still those who do not have access to many of the luxuries of the technoratti, but for the most part now more than ever before, we have more platforms to speak out and be heard (and connect) widely across boundaries.

The downside is that less people are willing (or is it less brave?) to think for themselves. That is a little pessimistic, I know, and I do think it is great that we can have conversations across the diaspora and engage with one another intellectually. I guess it’s just clear to me, that ideas make the world go round, and I wonder – are we as passionate as the youth of that day, or do we lack something to believe in that will move us as poignantly as they were?

The entire world moves on the axis of ideas: the idea of money (which is only given value by how we esteem it, what we accept, collectively, it can and should do for us), the idea of power, the idea of potential. I’m just hoping that we are brave enough to step out and express a few of our own, unapologetically. Already there are some who have taken that leap, innovators and trailblazers in art, politics, commerce, science… And I commend them. They are what’s right with this world. No matter how pessimistic I can be about our generation and our future sometimes, something always pulls me back from that into an ocean of optimism. That thing is the knowledge that the bright future I’m looking for isn’t hidden in history – it’s in you and me.



“The whole point of being an artist is to make a statement with your art. So I don’t have to tell you who I am. You can listen to that record and say, ‘Oh, I get that girl’.” Lalah Hathaway


The Original Camp Masters: shaking off (neo?)colonial attitudes in the 21st century

The panic only really started to escalate when Christmas Eve knocked on the door, and we realised we wouldn’t be able to do Christmas like we had previously. So after the neighbourhood families had gathered to talk it out and try to find solutions, it was decided that the men would get on a bakkie and head for the municipality.

In the meantime, the womenfolk began to prepare for the Christmas celebrations: cleaning the house, the yard, peeling, cooking, peeling (urgh) and checking anything else domestic that was relegated to the domain of women. I was musing over why it was given to the men to do the fun stuff (head to head with the municipality and heated conversations? The journalist in me craved to be there, but, alas. You know.), when my attention moved to all the labouring my grandmothers were doing at the back of the garage. Since it was lights out all round, the old drievoet was hauled out, someone got the fire going, and all the peeled and chopped foods were brought outside to meet their fiery fate. We were goin’ old school.

The Original Camp Masters: Koko Sina (right) and Koko Dora (left). December 2011.

The Original Camp Masters: Koko Sina (left) and Koko Dora (right). December 2011.

I admired how my grandmothers immediately got into work mode (as the women in my family are wont to do in crises), finding solutions to our 21st century gripes. They relished the opportunity to bend over the fire again, because you know, they hadn’t done it in oh-so-long and this is how they grew up and don’t you all know how to cook by fire and all that jazz; but also, I suspect, because they relished the nostalgia.

As I shared the throwback photo that made me remember that Christmas, one I had taken of my grandmothers cooking over the fire; I got to thinking about culture, versions of progress, and the colonial mindset that African culture is backward and stagnant; and how a lot of these attitudes are still around today. A lot of my generation is obsessed with image/status, showing the world how much we’ve got, where we’re going, what we’re doing. We care little for the attitudes and insights of our grandparents’ generation.

Post-colonial studies into the African continent have often been concerned with ‘rootedness’ and authenticity: a fixation, in some strains of theory, with returning to a pristine and pure Africa. I suppose the intent was to legitimise what had been before considered a deviant and dark continent, but diving into this discourse about what defines ‘African’ has been/is tricky. Theories concerned with the hybridisation and syncretising of cultures have fought essentialist notions of African, Africa and culture ferociously. They have sought to destabilise colonial ideologies of our continent that are patronising. These theories are valuable because they recognise (as popularised by Homi Bhabha) cultural hybridity as the cultural product of interaction between coloniser and colonised. They do not ignore the hegemonic advantage of coloniser over colonised; as Peter Burke writes, “the price of hybridisation… also includes the loss of regional traditions and of local roots”.

Traditional Tsonga dance.  Source: wikipedia commons

Traditional Tsonga dance. Source: wikipedia commons

You could say we’ve seen a move towards reclaiming those regional traditions and local roots, especially at the height of and since the Black Consciousness and similar movements around the world gained momentum, but much of that colonial attitude of doing away with ‘old backward Africa’ still remains. And it transcends race, because even amongst young Black folk there is a tendency to look on the way our ancestors did things as inferior, and behave with disdain towards those who still uphold some of those values, practices and traditions. So cultural hybridity (as a theory) explained the ‘why’ and ‘how’ and ‘who’ of the erasure of our cultures, but it made no attempt to reclaim the ‘what’, which is to say, it steered away from rebuilding our cultures in the name of anti-essentialism. This Kompridis dude put it the way I thought it, check it:

Unfortunately, by rejecting outright a holistic understanding of culture (and, therefore, of language, social practice, tradition, form of life, etc.), Benhabib must do without any means by which one culture could be individuated from another. Thus, she commits herself to a view of culture which makes culture radically nonidentical with itself-a view that so exaggerates the fluidity and hybridity of cultures that no culture could ever be identical with itself long enough to be identified as one. Instead of a wholesale repudiation of holism, we need to distinguish between strong forms of holism which essentialise the identity of culture from weak forms of holism which allow us to recognize cultural differences without reifying them. One’s approach to culture can be happily holistic and historicist: holism about culture (and meaning, in general) does not reduce to, and is distinct from, essentialism.

There may be no way of telling how life would be today if colonialism had not ravaged Africa and her way of life, but  to completely disregard culture in our personal lives (which are political, to be sure) is to do a disservice to more than just those who came before us: it is a disservice to ourselves and those who will come after, a return to a state of pre-cognitive liberation (or is it that we never really reached that consciousness?). What we think of the continent’s heritage shows us what we think of our future.

We assume that what made/ makes African cultures what they were/ are was the clothes, the houses: what I think is largely the ‘frills’ of tradition. And we get hung up on that. As much as I respect our freedom to choose who we want to be, it would be cool to see us pay homage to African heritage, to the original ‘camp masters’; those kings and queens who could survive without even half of the ‘conveniences’ (read distractions) that we have today. Let’s uphold the principles and philosophies that informed their values and actions and relationships. We can keep that. Gosh I hope we keep that.

**Texts I derived some of my thoughts on this matter include:

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of  Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Burke, P. Cultural Hybridity. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009.

Kompridis, N. “Normativizing Hybridity/ Neutralizing Culture.” Political Theory. Vol 33 (No3) (2005): 318-343.

Power, strength, honour,


“To the same degree that your understanding of and attitude towards Afrika becomes more positive, your understanding of and attitude towards yourself will also become more positive…” – Malcom X