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A New Consciousness

Itumeleng oa Mahabane


A man walks down a street. His shoulders are hunched together in a gesture designed to keep out the cold. Except it is not cold. It is overcast and there is a slight breeze. The semblance of cold is harder than the cold itself. The pavement is littered with stubbornly immobile human bodies, inconsiderately peripatetic vessels of flab and shrill voices, a plethora of unwanted and non-saleable wares and it is scattered with a variety of fresh produce whose freshness is dubious. Therefore, he chooses to walk down the street instead. He is tall this man, big and dark of hue.  Taller, darker and bigger than the average man in this land. His bountiful hair is woven into thick, beautiful baby dreadlocks. He stands out.


Walking on the street as he is and his walk with its bounce makes him more conspicuous.


He stands patiently at the traffic lights and even though there are no cars, he waits. When the green neon-man starts flashing, the man crosses the road and continues his carefree bouncing walk. He whistles to himself, so happy a whistle it is nearly contemptuous but what is he to do? This is how he feels, happy, carefree, and thus he whistles.

He nears the next intersection. Happy that the neon-man is still green, he is about to cross. In his nonchalance, he pays no attention to the three policemen. He does not cross. He is stopped. A hand reaches out and curls itself around his stomach. He turns around and looks down, paying attention to the policemen for the first time.  It is not a violent gesture, the hand curled around the stomach. Nor is it a friendly one. They greet him, a throwaway kind of greeting. It is cynical, expectant, not of a reply but of a failure to reply. They greet him in isiZulu. Then wait sarcastically. An invisible wink passes between them and him. He smiles. They smile. He shakes his head. Amused sadness comes out by way of a whispered yet loaded sigh. They snicker. They ask him for his identification document. He laughs. A laugh full of toil and disappointment, and of sour acknowledgement. They stop smiling, wisps of belligerence float into their tone. They ask once more for the identity document. They will not ask again. He adopts a similar tone. In perfect isiZulu, delivered with an even crisper accent he tells them that there is no law that requires that he carry his identity document on him to take a walk down the street. One of them takes a step towards him, the step meant to be a menace. Another one stops his colleague. He might be cheeky the colleague suggests, but he s legitimate . The man looks at them, shakes his head mutters something and crosses the car-less street ignoring the red neon man. My country my African country he thinks. He smiles to himself and it is a joyless smile that makes his heart heavy.


On another day, another week. Or perhaps even the same day an hour earlier. At a different corner, perhaps even a different suburb, not one to the north however. Never to the north, but certainly to the south. Perhaps to the suburb closest to the one we have just encountered, the sprawling gutter of Hillbrow, with its piss and shit filled streets and its shrivelled prostitutes, with its stinking destitute strewn on pavements in alleys. Perhaps in Berea with its knife and gun-wielding, capital-seeking opportunists, here perhaps is where it happens. There is a man walking. Again a conspicuous man, if not for his size still for his hue and for his supposedly un-South African features. He walks down the street and comes to a corner. At this corner, there are three policemen. They smile at him. He smiles back. They greet him in isiZulu. He smiles at them. Thinking to be polite he greets them back in isiZulu, although he does not speak the language. His is from the north of South Africa, a province populated largely by baPedi. He has no cause to know isisZulu and in particular speak it with a good Zulu accent. Indeed, he gets the accent wrong. They smile, vicious smiles with no friendliness in them. They ask him for his identity document. He normally carries it on him. However, today he is not in possession of it. Perhaps it has been stolen, perhaps he simply left it at home. It is no crime to walk in the streets without identification.


It may not be a crime, but it can be hazardous as the man is about to find out. He is bundled between the three cops, quickly handcuffed and led away. One of them picks up a short wave radio and calls for a car. A rural migrant, he lives alone. He has few, if any friends in the city. The few he might count are as poor as he is and have no telephones. There is no one he can call. He is asked to fill out a form with questions pertaining to his place of birth, school, christening and the like. He is asked to remember numbers. Telephone numbers of a primary school he attended perhaps twenty-five, perhaps thirty-five years ago. He cannot remember. He stays incarcerated while the information is verified. This is a country where an investigating officer might take two weeks to respond to a charge of attempted murder. Who knows then how long the man will stay incarcerated while a system already failing to cope processes his case?


Were it not so sad it might be comical. Four years earlier, the same man stood in a queue, from six in the morning until two in the afternoon. At no point did he ever leave this queue that went on for miles and progressed with the pace of a crippled snail. When at last he came to the front of the queue, he produced an identity document and cast the first ballot people of his colour were allowed. It might be amusing were it not so pitiful that the vote cast with his identity document put into power the first black government in history, in a country where one in eight people are black. A truly bitter irony then, that he now languishes in jail for no reason other than that he is a black man who happened to be walking down the street without an identity document. It might have been a bitter irony if the story merely stopped there. It does not.


Go back in time back forty-eight years. A group of men and women, all black, decide that they will no longer tolerate the pass, an identity document that black people are obliged to carry. This document determines where they will work, where they will shit, piss and eat. No more, they say, no more. They march to the nearest police station and upon arrival find a reception party – all guns no smiles. They stop before the fence of the police station. One of them pulls out his pass, the identity document, and sets it alight. The others follow suit until there is a merry bonfire of passes. They have overstepped themselves. One of the policemen opens fire. A woman falls, she screams. The crowd turns their back on the policemen and flee in terror down the streets. The other policemen raise their rifles take aim and open fire on the fleeing vessels of blubber, bone and shrill hysteria.

The black political organisations are banned that day, by order of the Prime Minister. No matter, they have decided that in the face of the response to their protests they have no option but to bear arms as a means of voicing their objections.

It will work this strategy of his. Suddenly the war has been brought home. The bombs which shatter the piece of the cities, serves as a reminder that the troops stationed in the country’s numerous black townships aren’t in a foreign land fighting a foreign war. The war is just across the street.


When his political movement wins the elections the Commissar will become a minister, first of some irrelevant and arbitrary post, then of police. The Minister, who became a Commissar in an army that grew out of resistance to the dreaded pass laws, the identity documents, will sanction the victimisation of black people throughout the land who do not carry similar documents. He will tell the nation that it is an effort to keep levels of crime down, that by weeding out the illegal immigrants in the country, it will help to weed out crime. It is ironic that it will be easier to identify and repatriate black illegal immigrants. It is perhaps a little more ironic that it is easier to harass and victimise black nationals in an effort to weed out the illegal immigrants.


The man, who is incarcerated because he does not have his identity document, thinks on this. He sits on the floor of his crowded cell and weeps inwardly. He weeps because he knows his incarceration will cost him his job. It was coming already. He is after all the last black waiter at the restaurant. The rest all replaced by young people of East European decent. The manager of the restaurant said that the Europeans worked harder and confused the customers less with their accents.  Perhaps another man might smile at the irony, this man cannot. All he can do is weep, for he has lost more than his job. He has lost all hope. After all, what possible hope is left for a black man when he finds himself a victim, by virtue of colour, in what I supposed to be the most progressive of black-run states? So he sheds the tears of utter despair, of a life forlorn.


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