Jaded Comrades/ Ineffective Citizen : communities beyond our present state

For two days we had no running water. I had lived in my community of Madadeni for 6 months now. I knew some of the guys on the street, and waved at a few neighbours passing by. I certainly knew all the curious kids.

My assumption was that everyone would say if something strange was happening with the water. But no one said anything. Lives moved-on as usual, the teenagers next door continued to blast the volume during the day, the pastor in the startup church nearby continued to yell-preach at his congregation of five people. Those who work walked the streets looking clean and tidy, as though nothing had happened.

I was therefore surprised when I called the municipal water department and they told me they knew nothing of the water disruption in my area. It was a slip-up. The Afrikaans gentleman in charge apologized for the whole thing, and promised me that him and his guys would resolve it immediately.

In 1 hour, our water was back. That simple.

But I was left wondering, after 48 hours without running water, why had no one else reported the issue?

My mind began to make up possible reasons: Maybe some of the residents were in arrears in terms of their municipal rate payments, so they felt they did not have a right to demand access to this basic service. It’s a reasonable rationale, albeit lacking in information, as such a service ought not to be switched-off even if one owes the municipality.

Perhaps no one had airtime to make the call. I find it very hard to believe though that out of the 8 to 10 blocks that comprise the neighbourhood, no one had airtime. But maybe they were by now well acquainted with the round-abouts of a departmental call-centre, where one could easily be put on hold for 30 minutes before you’re able to speak to a real human being. Despite the call-centre number being free from a land-line, few people have land-lines in their homes these days so they would have to make the call from their cellphone. A cellphone call of that length can cost upto R50 (US$4.50) on one of our mobile network companies. This sum is out of the reach of most township dwellers.

But surely, notwithstanding these challenges, there ought to have been some sense of devastation. I saw none. Surely, citizens should have been up-in-arms if water was cut without any explanation. Could it be, maybe, that blunders like these are so common in townships, that they don’t need explaining anymore?

Well it wasn’t always like that. I remember Madadeni when I was growing up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, particularly through the eyes of my grandmother and her women’s movement, who fought tirelessly to ensure that our area was noticed by apartheid government officials. Those women left no stone unturned. Through working together with churches, schools and other organizations, they championed development out of the purposeful commitment to community. They understood themselves as mutually obligated to resist inferiority as a way of life. They were comrades, who had each others’ backs, and were willing to wrestle for service delivery.

It is often said that people who were formerly oppressed can endure, baya bekezela. This is a good thing. But how long do we bekezela until we decide to do something?

When we awoke to a new life after the 1994 elections, we knew that things could not be the same; we were promised a lot by our leaders. Some of the promises should not have been made. It engineered a population with high expectations—but not of itself as a communal force. Its expectations were deferred to this external force called government. This government was meant to initiate, re-build and correct. Our leaders gave us a sense that they would do everything. We then took ourselves out of the picture, our own ability to initiate and re-create the kind of communities we want.

The next generation of people who were meant to fight, as my grandmother and her friends once did, shrank at the sight of this responsibility. The fact is that we all ignored Madadeni when we discovered the suburbs.[1] It is us—not the government—who evacuated our neighbourhoods for greener pastures. The layout of townships was such that the well-off and the poor lived side-by-side. This was an opportunity we underestimated until it was too late. It’s only once we started referring to our townships with the same disdain whites used to use when speaking about townships they’d never been to, that we realized the consequences of our separation. We’d grown up there, our memories and childhood hide-and-seek spots were there. We could not give it up that easily. But we did.

Today we come in to the township daily for work, at the hospitals, schools, magistrate offices, and other government services. We drive away with relief at the end of each day, because we know that where we are going things are better. We don’t have to drive our cars on gravel roads. Some are relieved for they know that at least their own children are not in the township schools where they themselves teach. Each night these parents sleep assured, knowing that tomorrow (at least for their children) will be like any other day; while they race back to the township to deal with SADTU (a teachers’ union which protects its members even when they are not doing their job).

What we are dealing with here is a society that is wounded. I believe some aspects of its woundability are lodged inside all of us. We carried this wound with us, pus oozing, out of the township. And those who remained in the townships had no choice but to take it raw. They had to find a way of operating under the confines of a world whose fundamental designation was ugly. That was the designation of the township. They had to learn to love and appreciate its ugliness so energetically, it has taken all the power they could possess.

This explains the muted devastation I saw in the neighbourhood water crisis. It is the sound of our real and imaginative intents now given up, comrades now jaded.

The assertions for self-upliftment made by my grandmother and those women in the 1980s and early 1990s was a reaction to apartheid. The women realized the damaging potentials of an immutable inferiority, whose standards and governance was from outside. The logic of oppression deemed townships as disaster. Our democratic liberation revealed to us our hidden motives, which was really to covet the ready-made neighbourhoods of our former oppressor, than the desire to create something altogether new.

It may have happened that certain things have passed us by only because we didn’t stand up for them, we expected to bekezela and hope that someone would remember us. We may have mastered the art of looking okay, despite external frustration. But that energy of devastation has to come out sometime. We see it during service delivery protests. But by this time it is already too late. People are setting alight community libraries, school buildings and ward councillors.[2]

Our task at-hand is to give legitimacy to the aspirations we had when we were struggling as comrades. Something of meaning in life needs to be ignited, that freedom we held as a vision in 1994. Something that puts into effect our citizenship but also allows us to create beyond our present state.

Dr Thokozani N. Mhlambi
Editor of Afropolitan Explosiv, and music composer.

[1] By ‘we’ I mean that whole network of teachers, nurses, shop-owners and other professionals who formed the middle-class strata of township society.

[2] “Ward Councillor’s House Burns to Ashes,” http://www.dispatchlive.co.za/news/ward-councillors-house-burns-to-ashes/
“VIDEO: Councillor’s House Burnt in Protest,” http://www.iol.co.za/news/crime-courts/video-councillors-house-burnt-in-protest-1.1864747
“Library Burns down as March Becomes Ugly,” http://www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/library-burns-down-as-march-becomes-ugly-1.473019