20 November 2011
It’s a Sunday morning here in Durban, and our fourth straight day of rain in what is shaping up to be an unbroken week of hardcore precipitation. Mercifully I managed to get most of my needed laundry done before the deluge began on Wednesday afternoon, but there’s just something a bit psychically draining about so many days of unbroken rain (I guess my fantasy of moving to the Pacific Northwest should be shelved now). This morning consisted so far of a grumbling acknowledgement of the weather, a bloodcurdling scream when I noticed the giant millipede on my foot (followed by its subsequent brutal murder—what?) and a quiet bit of Jesus time before breakfast and blog-writin’.
Work continues to go well overall, although I still struggle with archaic Zulu translations and the daily slog through casual racism in nineteenth century settler archives. One particularly useful result, however is that my ‘mental map’ of the region is so much greater than it was when I first began. When a newspaper mentions a mission station, or a particular Zulu figure, or a local festival, or a rumored uprising—I KNOW WHEN THESE THINGS ARE! For those of you that are not historians (read: sane), you may not understand why this occasions much rejoicing. But for me, it’s the beginning of feeling like I mentally ‘inhabit’ the space I’m studying. I can recognize sign posts. A person who would have gone unrecorded two weeks ago in my notes is now a vital piece of the historical tapestry I’m attempting to weave.
I’m still making friends and feeling out what it means to live here, although I’m grateful for a mixed expat/local South African circle I seem to be making and can now say that I have become deeply acquainted with four local coffeeshops that provide free wireless internet delicious beverages, and enough bourgeois space for me to feel like I can write in peace.
It’s tempting sometimes to pretend that I’ve gone away somewhere far distant where the rest of the world’s events do not matter or are unseen. But Durban is deeply connected to the rest of the world, and the magic of the internet keeps me in the loop with things happening across the globe. I’ve been in animated conversations over the political and economic upheavals in southern Europe, the intensity of the Occupy Movement in the States, and the continued unrest in post-Mubarak Egypt. Next week, Durban also plays host to the international UN conference on Climate Change (with other groups planning vibrant counter-protests), so the city will soon be absolutely full of people from around the planet debating and discussing issues of climate change, industrialization and global inequity.
Inequality is something I think about constantly here. The colonial legacies of disparity here are of course incredibly apparent, with the barricaded luxurious houses across the street from corrugated tin shacks, to the yoga studio that overlooks a busy intersection where street children beg for food. But there are countless other ways in which the idea of ‘inequity’ seems to operate. One constant one would be continued lack of access to housing, medical care, or education experienced by the vast majority of the (black) South African population, and the failure of the state to meet its 1994 promises is becoming increasingly apparent nearly two decades after the end of apartheid. The leader of the ruling African National Congress (ANC)’s Youth League is a man named Julius Malema, who has made incredible political capital by constantly discussing the inadequate responses of the government in meeting the needs of its poorest citizens. Malema, however, seems to be rather cynically mobilizing these very real problems in pursuit of his own desire for power, and his highly publicized shopping sprees and luxurious lifestyle has the potential to alienate his large following. Malema was convincted of hate speech last year for his continued singing of an apartheid-era song titled “Shoot the Boer” and has made increased calls for nationalization of mines and farms that have made wealthy South Africans (and particularly white South Africans whom he calls out in very racially-tinged language)very, very nervous. He appears, however, to have finally bitten the hand that fed him; the ANC this week voted to suspend him from the organization and strip him of his leadership of the Youth League for five years for openly criticizing government policy and for potentially jeopardizing foreign relations with other countries, namely Botswana.
Why the lengthy political affairs update? Because I find Malema fascinating in that he is openly discussing what is very real here—the continued economic inequity of most of the population after nearly two decades of ‘freedom.’ He challenges the status quo with what are obviously self-motivated and cynical aims, but his populist message is undeniable in a country ravaged by poverty and HIV/AIDS. The inequalities that exist here provide him with a platform to speak at the same time that they continue to prove a weak point for the current government and are lived every day by South Africans.
I think about the inequalities of language that I experience here as well—South Africa has eleven official languages, yet it seems that the majority of ‘official’ and university business takes place in English. I am constantly made aware of the fact that very very few white South Africans speak Zulu, and am uncomfortable with my relationship to language here, in a variety of ways. I do speak Zulu, and I can read it, although I’m certainly not an expert—yet to know the language has placed me in a different space in relationship to different South Africans. White South Africans look at me, occasionally with a sheepish look, and say, “you know more Zulu than we do!” and I don’t know what to do with this. I don’t’ know how I fit in this country where I try to actively learn this language well aware of the fact that it was an incredible privilege and opportunity that allowed me to learn it at the University of Illinois and with a federal grant to study Zulu in 2009 in South Africa. There’s a vast inequity that allows white South Africans to not learn Zulu while expecting everyone else to speak English, there’s a pronounced inequality that allowed me to take advantage of opportunities to learn a language. When Zulu speakers look at me with surprise or remark positively about my speaking Zulu I experience a very weird series of feelings—gratitude, inclusion, humility, anger, awkwardness—as I realize that just by being here I am a part of a lengthy series of interlocking histories, power struggles, and inequalities.
I met this past week with a South African history PhD student I greatly admire to discuss our work. She is in her final stages of her dissertation from the University of Michigan (she’ll be done in April), and she does fantastic work on race, gender, and marriage in colonial Natal (sound familiar!?). She’s also a South African from Durban, and I’ve been very lucky to meet with her regularly to talk about our projects. Excited to discuss things with her, I brought her a copy of my early research paper on race, colonialism, and sexuality in Natal. She gave wonderful, thoughtful feedback, but also some tough criticism—she reminded me of my ‘outsider’ status here, and of the ease in which I can make theoretical assumptions about a people and a place that I’ve spent relatively little time visiting. I left our conversation grateful and also frustrated with myself, thinking about the internal contradictions of this whole project I’m trying to do. As a postcolonial historian, I want to critically challenge how empire works, how people function in it, and to critique the ways in which colonial officials attempted to understand a people and land they were exploiting. How do I do my research respectfully without creating my own violence against this space—how can I do my work respectfully, thoughtfully, and humbly?
I had a tough heart-to-heart with my advisor via email this week about how I was feeling, and she sympathized, although she agreed with me that our work is extractive. I am building a reputation, a career based on local knowledge I obtain and interpret here in South Africa and take back to the States in order to ‘refine’ into a degree. How do I attempt to do this honestly, truthfully, and respectfully? “Ultimately we are all imperialists, extracting the equivalent of rent and revenue from (archival) spaces in landscapes where we are tourists at best, aliens at worst,” my advisor wrote to me. “How you deal with it, is what matters…you have power and you will learn how to use it, temper it, blunt it. And never stop worrying about or struggling with it.” This is not to make a direct one-to-one comparison with my writing and soldiers with rifles taking land from people. But it does call for a deeply reflective way in which I do research and one that is deeply humble. To that all I can say is Ngiyazama (“I am trying.”)
The other major even this week would be my planned trip with Rina, a seventy-eight South African woman who is nothing short of a tour-de-force. I met Rina about three weeks ago in the archives that I frequent. She is a small elderly woman with a crown of curly white hair, large glasses, piercing eyes, and a direct and slightly highly pitched voice that sounds very much to my year what a South African approximation of the British Royal Family would have sounded like in the 1950s. She strode up to me one day and asked me, with a forthrightness that would have been wholly offputting if it hadn’t been so incredibly sincere in its desire for knowledge, “So I hear you’re studying our South African history? Why on earth would you do that?” She sat down next to me for half an hour, and told me of her childhood in East London, her life in late 1950s and 1960s Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) in Lusaka, and her life in North Durban since her widowhood had begun. She then abruptly asked me about my life, inquired if I had “Negro blood,” gesturing to my afro (again with that curious mix of nearly offensive forthrightness and disarming genuine curiosity) and insisted that we have lunch in the near future. I gave her my cell phone number but didn’t expect her to call, honestly. Imagine my surprise when I got a phone call asking if I would be willing to get Italian food at half past eleven yesterday! I said yes, and a well-cared for ten year old red Toyota zipped up to my door in the heavy Saturday rain.
Talking with Rina was a bizarre and wonderful experience. I constantly had to figure out what might be the most politic thing to say as an edgy post-colonial multiracial North American graduate student eating at a chic Italian restaurant with an elderly white South African woman telling me very bluntly about life in Durban from the 1970s onward. I thought of my own positionality as a scholar and tried to just let the conversation flow as Rina spoke about her interests, her passions, and her life. The flinty blue eyes, magnified behind her spectacles, grew wider still as she told story after story and then asked about my own life, my parents’ divorce, my feelings about Durban, and the world around me. I was reminded time and again of why I ‘do history’ as we spoke. Here was a woman who, like me, had hopes, dreams, aspirations. She made choices, decisions, and mistakes. She had something valuable to share, and she wanted me to know it. She could not be reduced to an easy dynamic of the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ of the pre-1994 world. She was Rina, and she was currently enjoying the hell out of a plate of lamb chops while taking to an ‘American Coloured’ who was occasionally suppressing a half-smile and learning a hell of a lot on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
After lunch, Rina took me to meet her daughter and son-in-law, and we spent two hours on a comfortable couch in a palatial—and well-guarded—home, talking about history, culture, the television show ‘Dallas,’ why Oprah was so popular with South African women (for the record, both women thought she was amazing), our shared distaste for Martha Stewart, the Occupy Wall Street Movement, Julius Malema, and if Sarah Palin was actually a real human being or an elaborate prank. After our conversation had wound down, Rina prepared to drive me home, but before that, she stopped by three separate houses. The home she had built with her husband in 1971 in Durban North (“I hated to sell that home, but it was time. We sold it to a very nice man. A black African lawyer.”), the home she occupied later with her husband in his declining years (“He had the Parkinsons. It was hell watching him fade like that.”), to the retirement lodge she currently lives in (“It’s still near the sea and the grocery store. And I get to play bridge three times a week”). All told, I spent six hours with Rina yesterday, although our final drive from Durban North back to Glenwood might have been the part that left the biggest impression on me.
The sky had grown darker with the day’s storm, and the little remaining afternoon light caused shadows to flicker across her face as she spoke, her hands tightly clutching the steering wheel. “We are just so disappointed with the ANC. The corruption, the continued poverty, the…we thought that they would take better care of all of this—all of” she gestured vaguely, her voice catching for a moment, “this infrastructure.”
The words sprang from my lips before I was even fully aware of them. “But what if this infrastructure is so inherently wrong—so built on a system of outright inequality and from the marginalization of so many that it’s not possible to ever just inherit it ‘clean’? What if the system was so broken that it can’t be fixed or reformed? What if this is how such a system was to end up—if this is the end result?”
Her eyes fixed on mine, this older woman—so opinionated, so strong, so thoughtful, so decisive. In that moment something shifted, and she looked…tired. Weary. Uncertain. “I truly, truly hope not, T.J.,” she said, finally.
“Me too, Rina. Me too.” I turned and looked back out the rain-slicked window and gazed out at the Moses Mabida soccer stadium, built for last year’s World Cup at a staggering sum. Its elegant lines and gentle curves made it look like a thing unreal, a beautiful cloud sculpture hovering delicately just above the shoreline. An impressive piece of infrastructure, truly. “I hope that’s not the case.”
It’s stopped raining all of a sudden. I’m going outside. Talk to you all soon.