South Africa broke me last week. I haven’t had the strength, wisdom or courage to say anything about the violence in our streets, against our brothers and sisters with whom we share the soil of our continental home. Between the marathon commentary on social media, the terrifying images, armchair analyses, the news, #RhodesMustFall, social media itself, the air is a miasma of extremes. I have found solace in retreating, disengaging from things in the past when there is no more room to feel, when the feelings need to make room for survival. This space is the conduit to escapism.
In a moment of complete loss for what to say or feel, let’s say being perfectly stumped, at the height of the noise last week, I decided I would go to the movies for a short foray into another world, a dream world where Afrophobia, violence, white supremacy, capitalism, the scramble for resources and patriarchy aren’t central to the psycho-social narrative. I love going to the movies by myself, especially at odd hours when it is likely to be empty. I went to see a rather morbid film at Cinema Nouvou at 3pm but my wish of being the only one in the theatre came true. For two hours, I forgot about everything. I watched the film until the credits rolled up, and only when the lights came on did I get up from my seat. As I was putting my stuff in my bag, two white women came into the movie theatre and our eyes met. Nothing was special about this moment so I looked back down and continued putting my stuff into my handbag. ”Excuse me”, said one of them and I looked up thinking nothing of it. ”Have you finished cleaning?”, she asked me.
The irony of this moment suspended my thinking for a few seconds. I didn’t have time to think about a response that would invite these women to step outside of themselves to think about what they have just asked me so I simply told the truth, ”I just finished watching a movie”, I said with a dead pan expression and looked down again, dazed. As we walked in opposite directions, them going to sit down and me getting out, I laughed out loud at the nerve of my problems to come and find me, to seek me out in this way. The first person I saw as I left the theatre was Gugulethu Mhlungu and her affirming face, the perfect person to tell this to. We laughed about the power of whiteness and she shared a similar incident at Rosebank mall when a white woman asked her if she had finished cleaning an ATM while Gugu was standing at the ATM with a towel on her shoulder and her water bottle after a gym session, doing what one does at the ATM, taking out her hard earned money. I can’t be shocked anymore because there is no more room in me to react to this and everything else and still attempt to survive and lead a normal life.
The problem with this situation is not that I was mistaken for a cleaner. There are many people who are cleaners, many people whom I have a lot more respect for than the ones who are of my social class. The problem here is about how my black body is viewed in such limited dimensions by those white women, how trained people’s minds are in seeing black bodies in one form of entropy, be it servitude or violence. It conjures either pity or fear in the imagination of those white women. Its only purpose in their eyes is to serve them or as the antithesis to their bodies. It is inconceivable to those women for the black body to simply mind its own business. Was it how I was dressed? Was it the fact that my back was bent forward fiddling with my stuff? Did I walk into this stereotype by wearing a cream jersey and black skirt leather and having short natural hair? Or do those women only think in ways that reinforce white supremacy? I didn’t want to say anything about this because I don’t want to add to the already heavy mental and emotional trauma that courses through the South African psyche everyday, especially now. But benevolent white supremacy has reached a level where it has to be roll called everyday, just as a matter of recording it, or what my friend Danielle Bowler says, you’re forced to issue a receipt that yes this happened so that when white people or men try to make me feel like I am being too sensitive about race or patriarchy, I can show this kind of receipt as proof.
While I’m privileged enough for these to be my only anxieties, I can’t escape my anxieties, which bell hooks sums up as the White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy (WSCP), a prism of oppression that each of us are stuck in in different degrees, on different levels. At the core of this xenophobic violence beats the heart of the WSCP, a connection that many of us are afraid or unable to make in the face of what seems like black on black violence. A historic economic disenfranchisement, capitalism, racism, colourism, Afrophobia, a violent brand of masculinity and a pecking order that sees white men on top and very black men at the bottom of it has resulted in this manifesting the way it has, where people are literally killing people based on their physical features or language because that is the only way they can exert their power, upon the weak, who in this case, are the ”them” of a vicious cycle of us and them, which is the DNA of our society. I feel helpless and stupid for crying, even more stupid for tuning into things on social media when Jeppestown is a mere 5km from my apartment. I feel like a white liberal during Apartheid, hating it from the distance and comfort of safety and not having the stomach to act.
I’ve sat down with my friends, with the Feminist Stokvel and with myself thinking about how to cope with all of this, how to cope with the weight of the knowledge of all the things we live with, how to cope with always having something to react to in the news, how to continue with your life while caring that just down the road, people are being torched. Do I go on a march to make myself feel better? Do I deliver food and supplies to gift of the givers and call it a day? Will that make the problems go away? No, unfortunately these acts of good intention have a place but they don’t change the root of the problem. My role in this is to chip away at the bigger system that causes structural inequality and racially charged prejudice in the first place, so that people don’t need to march or so that those in need aren’t in need in the first place. That’s the good ol’ WSCP which in our case, also includes the iniquity of black capitalism, which is not the same as black self-determination, the thing that would make the scramble for resources go away.
In order for me to have the mind to imagine that I could make any real difference, I need to take care of my mind. And for this, an Audrey Lorde quote comes to mind:
Radical Self Care. In order to engage I have to disengage. I don’t know what it means yet but I realize it’s the strongest armour against everything, it’s the biggest act of love, the love and preservation of one’s sanity so that I can still approach the world with a loving mind when I enter it, despite the things that are happening in it. If my heart has been knotted by anger and pain and injustice, radical self care is a declaration to untie it. I know the things that cloud my judgment, the things that make life look like it’s meaningless and that make me want to escape. I’ve written them down as a form of identification, the wise Tim Urban from Wait But Why said that you have to be able to identify your ”animals”, the things that represent your downfall, know their habits and movements and NEVER LET THEM RUN THE SHOW!
Here are some of mine:
The Social Media Slug – a slow, aimless animal who lives for likes and whose only consistent activity is to waste time online.
The Angry Albatross – Always bullying the other emotions because of her intimidating size and wingspan. She thrives on the quality of righteousness and while she has the gift of enlightening the other emotions to act, she doesn’t really have a plan beyond her dramatic gesticulating. She thinks she’s the final destination in the queue of emotions but deep down, knows that love will have the last laugh, because love is the master emotion we should all be trying to get to.
The Excuse Elephant – This one is the elephant in the room that thinks nobody can see him. He’s a classic cock blocker, making a whole bunch of noise about how much there is to do and then always standing in the doorway when the other guys want to act.
The Booze Bat – This motherfucker is everywhere, every time you sit down with your friends, it loves to make appearances at the end of the day and masquerades as a friend during tough times. Olivia Pope doesn’t help in this case because she makes the dysfunction associated with needing the Booze Bat normal, even attractive. Its ubiquity in every corner in our country makes this one a particularly hard one to avoid. Drinking is not bad but drinking to get drunk and to forget is a symptom of our many pathologies. I am guilty of seeking the BB out. I’m not going to stop my affair with the BB, I’m just going to be conscious of its influence and not let it control social situations and my brain the way it has in the past.
The Dove of Distraction – I know that doves represent peace, which is why this animal is particularly insidious – it softly creeps up on you, never startling, so that you think it’s on your side. It’s kind of like Tim’s Procrastination Monkey except it has a strong resemblance to square shaped brick like creations with noises, lights and telephonic capacities called your cellphone, tablet and computer. This is its kryptonite:
Part of the #RadicalSelfCare project is being intentional about how I’m spending my time, what am I actually doing and which of my purposes or plans is it serving if any? Are my actions part of the problems or part of the solutions? How is my spirit and aura? Are they strong enough for me to withstand the bull shit or do they wane in the face of adversity? How do I treat my body? Am I physically fit to be a revolutionary? Because once I am a fully present and conscious of my being, then I can start to make radical use of the space and freedoms that my economic privilege allows me. Will this stop stupid people from saying stupid shit to strangers at the movies? Probably not, but it might make me strong enough to remember that my job is to recover from people’s stupidity but not to end their stupidity, only they can do that if they want to.