An extract from Sisonke Msimang’s memoir “Always Another Country”
On 16 August 2012, in a small town called Marikana in South Africa’s dry, rusty platinum belt, the South African Police Service opened fire on a crowd of striking mineworkers. We were in America when this happened. I watched the video footage online in horror. Thirty-four mineworkers were killed and seventy-eight were wounded.
In the aftermath, once the bodies had been counted and the relatives had been informed, the police claimed their officers had been under attack. The fact that the miners were armed only with hand-held traditional weapons while the police had assault rifles didn’t seem to matter much.
In the months after the massacre, the government offered no apology. The massacre represented the most serious incident of police brutality since the fall of apartheid. Still, our leaders said the police had done what was necessary. Our president had looked hapless.
No one was fired.
Nobody said sorry.
Instead, the ANC leaders blamed the miners. The party even boycotted the funerals. It turned its back on the mourning widows of dead men from distant rural villages and, in so doing, turned its back on its own history and that of the most important and vulnerable of its constituents.
The nation’s clergy prayed in earnest. They prayed for the dead but they prayed for the living as well. They asked God to forgive those who had perpetrated the crimes. It seems these intercessions were insufficient.
The government continued to deny responsibility for its murders. A commission of inquiry, the Farlam Commission, was set up, but it was a sham. It was established to quash the questions of outraged citizens, and was never about accountability. At times, it appeared to be a satire, just like the TRC: everyone knows the truth but the only people prepared to tell it are the victims.
The South Africa to which we return in early 2013 is different from the one we left. Marikana hangs like a spectre over our politics. It feels eerily similar to the Mbeki years. Once again, the bitterness and the meanness and the arrogance of the ANC are on full display.
This time, the ANC doesn’t only have the blood of the sick and the dying on its hands, but also of the healthy and strong. There were the bullets and bodies, beamed across the world. There was the devastating vulnerability of the black bodies for all to see. They lay strewn – arms and legs akimbo in heartbreaking stillness – and if you didn’t see them it was because you chose to look away.
The bond of trust between citizen and leader – what was left of it, anyway, after the brutalising Mbeki years – is broken.
In the wake of Marikana, living in South Africa is like living in a haunted house. There are ghosts everywhere and they seem to be gathering force. They are no longer mournful either. No, this time the dead are angry and their spirits are shrieking. It is as though they are preparing to send a war party to those who authored their destruction. Those of us left standing can only wait to see what forces will be unleashed.
It is tempting to see Julius Malema as the product of their fury. For years, the young man from Seshego has been in the public eye. A badly behaved misogynist, a tiny tyrant, his rise seems to represent everything that is rotten in the ANC: the flaunting of wealth from questionable sources, the culture of moral impunity and a growing intolerance for debate and dialogue.
If I were more spiritually inclined, I might put forward the idea that Malema’s turning, his decision to leave the ANC and become a man of the people again, was the work of the spirits.
In the months after Marikana, no one is as blistering and as articulate about the damage that has been done to us collectively, to the psyche of the nation and to the soul of South Africa, as Julius Malema. I watch and I listen as he channels the rage many of us feel. He says many of the things that have needed to be said about the leadership of the ANC.
I admire Malema in spite of myself. While I am vocal at home about my disgust for the ANC, I have not yet nailed my colours to the mast. The ANC is not just a party, it is home. I have not attended an ANC meeting for years, and I stopped paying my monthly dues a long time ago, but still, I consider the ANC to be in my blood. My great-granduncles Richard and Selby were founding members. My father was in MK. I was born in exile. I am ANC through and through. This is the story I have told myself about my obligation and commitment to the party. But as its politics worsens, I begin to understand that I must stop this language. The ANC is not in my blood, it is in my memory. There is a paternalism built into the way I talk about the ANC that is designed to silence me. There is no genetic code that makes me more or less ANC than others. There is nothing inheritable about ANC membership: I am not a princess.
I realise the claim of being a child of the ANC is one that is bursting with prestige; it is a profound form of entitlement. Buying into it at any level makes the views of others less important. I am guilty of the very cronyism I abhor in the leadership of the ANC.
This insight does not come to me at once. Yet in the aftermath of Marikana, as my revulsion towards the ANC grows, I begin to see that stepping away from the ‘child of’ language is allowing me to accept the truth. I am a grown woman and I am not beholden to the ANC.
I am a citizen of a country I love – and that perhaps is a function of having been raised by people who believe in the principles of equity and justice. The fact of my citizenship, the security that comes with my legal status, which guarantees me a place in this country, obliges me to take my responsibility to democracy seriously. If Julius – who said he would kill and die for Zuma – can break ranks and leave home, then, I realise, so can I. In fact, I must.
Leaving – breaking ranks, saying goodbye to the ANC, moving away from my need to be in South Africa as a geographic space – is a process. It begins with writing. Leaving begins when I pick up my pen.
A few weeks after our return from Yale, I meet up for a coffee with Branko Brkic. Branko is the editor of a start-up, upstart publication called the Daily Maverick. It’s an online newspaper that does real analysis. Too much analysis, sometimes. Still, it is on the pulse of the politics of the new South Africa. It has a small but influential readership, and is growing every day.
Branko is a gruff-looking Serbian who has seen the ugly side of politics in the Eastern bloc. We are introduced by Richard, who insists that I write now that I no longer have the excuse of my job holding me back from sharing my opinions. Branko agrees. He has no idea whether I’ll be any good, but he is running an operation that needs content, particularly from black writers.
Can I have your first column by Wednesday? he asks. Welcome to the family.
And just like that, I have a gig. It doesn’t pay, but that’s okay. I’m just looking for a platform.
Picture: The koppie in Marikana which served as a focal point for the 2012 protests which resulted in the massacre of 34 miners on the 16th of August, 2012. Image by: Daylin Paul