by Bongani Kona
In her brilliant review of Didier Fassin’s book, When Bodies Remember: Experiences and Politics of Aids in South Africa, Hilary Mantel quotes how the history of this country, steeped as it is in centuries of racial brutality, is not to be found at the Vootrekker Monument or at the Apartheid Museum but is warehoused in the body, in “words and gestures, silences and attitudes that expose the grim realities experienced by those who have been on the wrong side of history”.
This idea of history as something the body remembers, and not a story that progresses in a linear fashion along the lines of the official “post-apartheid” narrative, provides a useful departure point from which to begin a reading From a Place of Blackness, a correspondence between Andile Mngxitama and Aryan Kaganof on the subject of race and racism in South Africa, dating back to 2009 and spanning a period of three years.
In 1978, when Doris Lessing first read Dambudzo Marechera’s early-career masterpiece, House of Hunger, a novella and nine short stories, she said it was “like overhearing a scream”, and something approximating that experience happens here. From a Place of Blackness is not a book per se but a collage of sorts, a collection of off-the-cuff email and sms exchanges, newspaper extracts, provocative artworks, essays, poetry and quotes culled from canonical literature on blackness by luminaries such as Franz Fanon, Steve Biko and Frank Wilderson and spliced together here. The end result is 189 pages bristling with black rage.
In “Mau Mau’s poetry for a shit country”, Kaganof writes:
“Democracy is a miracle
Free but a slave
Freedom we love you
Our heroes are full of shit!”
The problem in South Africa when it comes to race is that the country can be said to have a common history and nothing in the way of a shared history. When President Jacob Zuma, for example, says at a political rally in KwaZulu-Natal that black people who own pets are mimicking the culture of white people, he is roundly castigated in the press (largely whiteowned) for “reverse racism” – an abominable turn of phrase – for holding such views. Yet the question goes unanswered: where do such utterances come from? Successive generations of black women, including the president’s mother, have laboured as maids (and some still do) in households where dogs and cats were treated better than human beings.
From a Place of Blackness is animated by this archive of black life and its encounter with white violence, and for this singular reason it is the angriest book I have come across in South Africa for some time – so total is its renunciation of the myth of the “Rainbow Nation”, known otherwise as the “new South Africa”, as nothing more than a masquerade to legitimise the continued exploitation of blacks. “ALL WHITES ARE ENEMIES OF BLACK PEOPLE!” Mngxitama says to Kaganof.
The central question the book wrestles with is this: is it possible for white and black people in South Africa to share the future? The answer is a resounding no. Kaganof writes: “More evidence of why there is no friendship possible between black and white: Johnny Clegg. Sipho Mchunu teaches Clegg everything he knows about everything that is Zulu. Who’s ever heard of Sipho Mchunu? Sipho Mchunu goes down in history as a one-time associate of the legendary Johnny Clegg. That is the way it always is in these relationships between black and white that start off as partnerships. There is no partnership possible between black and white because ultimately it is the white partner that is going to emerge owning the partnership, while the black partner goes to jail for stealing cattle (in Sipho’s case). The white always gets the better of the black. This is historical.
How to change it?
Don’t have white friends.”
There is, in Mngxitama and Kaganof’s final analysis, no way out of the mire except through violence. “We want massive black violence to end the white world and its rules,” Mngxitama says, as a means to a more just society. Kaganof answers with “Poem for Andile Mngxitama”:
“On the morning of that splendid day of looting the blacks poured in to gardens wearing pangas and machetes, cut their way into melissa’s, and ordered 43,000 flat whites to go.”
I’m not sure about this proposition. For one, it neglects to take into account how global capital flows debase governments and nation-states. Our fates, increasingly, are shaped in boardrooms in far-flung corners of the globe – Beijing, San Francisco, Berlin. Second, it would be wise to remember the words of Audre Lorde: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
Despite the hardline politics, there is a tenderness which passes between Mngxitama (black) and Kaganof (white). “I miss you Black man. I wish we had a chance to really sit down and talk,” Kaganof says and Mngxitama replies, “miss you too. Also want tym out wt u.”
Perhaps, just maybe, in that tenderness is the possibility for a redemptive kind of politics after so many years of all that is contrary.
Bongani Kona is a writer and freelance journalist. He is a contributing editor of Chimurenga. This review was original published in the July 2014 edition of the Chronic (available here).