Monday, May 03, 2010

Guest Post On South Africa: A Humanity And Pride That Couldn't Be Destroyed

EASTERN CAPE, South Africa -- I can't say exactly when it happened, that I said we instead of they; myself and the others living in this country, South Africa. That although I am only now applying for permanent residency, I have felt part of this rural community for over 12 years, and an inexplicable passionate affection for this country for over 20 years.

To the villagers living near my little farm I am Miz Suzen and am gently accepted as a benign curiosity. We sorted out the perception that I would be a local ATM
machine long ago, that I have chosen one family to benefit from my perceived wealth (by their standards) with the intention that the head of that family, David Ngethu, would be better able to spread his honorable wisdom to others with a safety net beneath him, that he earns by being my liaison, general fixer, cobra killer and protector in exchange.

So far it works, in defiance of the high incidence of attacks on white-owned farms.

I got a brief glimpse of South Africa under apartheid during my first trip here in 1988 as a visitor who was unable to get a journalist's visa. I came under the auspices of the Quaker community in Cape Town that was promoting peaceful resolution as an alternative to the violent revolution idea, a view deemed by most as unrealistic and even collaborative with the forces of evil.

Apartheid was horrible. It was sick. The rejection of humanity seeped through every breath of air, the tragedies of the lost potential with every soul that disappeared or simply succumbed to the violence of oppression was devastating. Yet now I understand how it happened. The differences of cultures could not ever be more pronounced than here. Apartheid was driven by fear as well as disgust, but misunderstanding played a big role as well. (And don't let anyone convince you apartheid was entirely the fault of the Afrikaners, it was the custom of the colonizing British for centuries wherever they went.)

It's in the understanding of the cultural factor that the hiccups we have encountered over the past 20 years begin to make sense, at least to me.

During my first trip here, I just couldn't figure out why so many folks I encountered amidst the devastating deprivation were smiling so much of the time. Certainly in response to my American being, a rarity at that time, and the camera, but not entirely. It frightened me. It was months before I understood those smiles; an extraordinary humanity that simply refused to be destroyed. That, and the music that rose out of thin air, first one voice then another always in perfect harmony, a chorus. They were not helpless victims, they were resilient creative courageous individuals and each one deserved to be acknowledged as such. To those who prescribed bloody revolution for this faraway land I advised to go to participate in that recommended bloodbath, and take their children as well.

I had more exposure to the African townships and villages than most white South Africans who were bound by the apartheid laws that made it just as difficult for them to cross those lines as it was for the black South Africans. Even now, my willingness to voluntarily be so exposed to the African community is considered unusual. Previously discouraged by the law, it's the threat of violence that maintains that separation. One cannot afford to be afraid in South Africa, I say, but one also cannot afford to be stupid. Sometimes that line is difficult to discern.

South Africa has a long history of violence, it just changes colors every few decades. From tribal wars to slavery to pioneers hacking their way into tribal territory, to the power struggle between English and Afrikaans, the violence of oppression by the apartheid system, and now the violence of poverty and disappointment, a violence of institutionalized victimization and entitlement, similar to that which I gladly left behind in Philadelphia and hoped I would never see again.

But it's here, with a vengeance. Along with junk food, WWE Smackdown and Jerry Springer, credit card fraud, and AIDS. Explosives once used to make political statements are now used on ATM machines. Violence against children, particularly rape of young girls, sickens the community.

Some of the African customs do indeed seem barbaric, but now that I have been immersed in those of the Xhosa tribe, where I live in the Eastern Cape, for 20 years their shock value has worn off and some of them are even seeping into my own belief system, such as the relationship with ancestors. Those pesky relations do not actively punish us when we are naughty, but they simply turn their backs to us and stop protecting us. So when misfortune strikes, there are two assumptions to be made; either the ancestors are p----d off, or one has come under a spell, which brings us to the dark side of the culture, witchcraft, a belief system that still thrives and is not going to go away anytime in the near future.

A problem with the ancestors is easily enough resolved by slaughtering a goat and performing the appropriate rituals, usually involving copious amounts of homemade beer and cheap brandy, which is standard practice as a form of thanksgiving on an annual basis, as well as when one relocates, to let the ancestors know where to find you. Goats and sheep lose their lives at funerals and weddings as well.

Goats are big business around here. So are cows, they still define a man's wealth.

On the issue of witchcraft and spells, at best, a traditional healer will throw the bones and pinpoint the source of the problem and make the proper potion of ground roots and herbs. In the worst case scenario, body parts of animals, including monkeys and baboons, and reportedly human children, are included in the recipe.

The concepts of the initiation of young men into manhood by trekking into the bush to be circumcised and lectured by the elders, and the payment of lobolla -- an agreed upon number of cows -- for a bride are the antithesis to what Westerners have concluded are acceptable customs. Yet most Xhosa men who have undergone this rite claim it makes them stronger, and since Mandela, Biko, Thambo, Sisulu and Mbeki are all Xhosa, maybe there is something to that.

This is a culture that lives in the now. There is little consideration of tomorrow or possible consequences to reckon with, and if the ultimate outcome of something is bad, either God or the ancestors will provide. If the provision is not satisfactory, then it's back to the healers and witch doctors.

It's in the understanding of this colorful, musical, spirited culture and the collision with the Eurocentric thinking that is linear and structured that the real challenge of liberation is defined. The new movers and shakers meet in the elegant halls of Parliament wearing tailored suits, arriving in Mercedes and monster SUVs and legislate this new democratic republic in the modified inherited Western methods. Then, every year they go home to their ancestral villages and participate in a culture that moves and communicates in a circular pattern, that defines truth and justice in very different terms, and still tends to confuse rumor with fact. The foremost leader who champions the rights of women in the new constitution paid over 250 cows for his bride. Not Jacob Zuma, who turns African tradition into a replay of a bad Tarzan movie, but Nelson Mandela, for his wife, Graca Machal.

Multiply that 11 times, because there are 11 official languages, each representing its own culture, in South Africa. Add to that the crossing of cultures, the "colored" community, those of mixed race who also have their own unique culture, the relationships the white children developed with the black maids who raised them, the children of farmers and farm workers who grew up as siblings, or the whites who saw through the apartheid system and risked their own lives to participate in the struggle for liberation. Call us bi-polar, schizophrenic or just downright complicated.

Susan Winters Cook is a photojournalist and humanitarian who has lived in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa since 1997. She previously was a staff photographer for the Philadelphia Daily News, where I was her editor when she made several trips to South Africa to chronicle the enormous changes in that country after Nelson Mandela's release from prison.

Cook's profile of a regional African National Congress leader's struggle to survive transitional political violence won the prestigious 1994 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.
From 1997 to 2003, Cook produced an AIDS education periodical for the province, has produced documentaries for the provincial premier, and most recently produced a documentary about a Cape Town squatter community building its own housing.

Cook lives with her husband, anthropologist Cecil Cook, on a farm where she raises emus.

All photographs copyright Susan Winters Cook


Anonymous said...

I have a short essay collection by Mario Vargas Llosa, 'The Language of Passion', one of which deals with the plight of Nelson Mandela and the inhumanity he suffered while incarcerated on Robben Island. Thanks for this post.


Archangel said...

what a clean lens. Thank you Shaun for bringing this.