JUDITH FEBRUARY: To live in South Africa, we have to ‘see and unsee’
To live in South Africa, we have to ‘see and unsee’. For how do we live a sane life in our oases of privilege amidst a sea of heartbreak and inequality?
Our daily headlines scream division and often confusion. South Africa is, of course, not unique in this respect as the world seems to regularly provide us with reasons for despair.
In South Africa though we know that our ‘ways of seeing’ are different; our disagreements about our future path are often vehement and laced with bigotry, and our understanding or misunderstanding of our past is mixed and imperfect. Yet, somehow, we stumble along. To live in South Africa is either to see or to look the other way.
The poem I am the face was written by Vernon February in exile in 1986 and was first read at an anti-apartheid gathering at the Mozes en Aäronkerk in Amsterdam and then later all around Europe. It could, of course, be true of South Africa today and reflects much of the inequality and systemic racism that are still experienced by many.
I am the face
I am the Solomon Mahlangu you won’t recognise
When you emerge from the KLM plane
And walk down the stairs
Onto the tarmac at Jan Smuts
Dreaming- perhaps of your safari holiday
So gorgeously described in the brochures
Which you found in Amsterdam
You won’t see me as you put on
Your safari suit, ready for
The ‘trip of your lifetime’
In sunny South Africa
Yet I am the boy in the blue overalls
Walking next to you in the hall
I shall be picking up the cigarette stubs
Strewn on the floor by the likes of you.
And, when you use the toilet,
Know it was my hands who washed it clean.
I am the black man
You won’t recognize
As you are whisked off
To your Holiday Inn
Somewhere in e-Gawutini
I am the Solomon Mahlangu
you don’t know.
I am the Benjamin Moloise
Who dangled at the end of their rope
At the crack of dawn.
Now safely with the Izinyanya,
You won’t notice me when you step off
Your KLM plane ready for your ‘Bushveld’ holiday.
I am the man who filled your newspapers
Only a few months ago,
When you made your first enquiries
About this holiday in the sun.
I am the Benjamin Moloise
You won’t recognize.
I am the man called Ahmed Timol
Who they said jumped from John Vorster Square
You won’t see me as you shop around
In this city of gold
Built by the sweat
Of my black brothers
I am the man whose blood was shed on this very spot
Where your wife now poses for her picture
In this land of death.
I am the Ahmed Timol
Whose shadow you’ll never feel.
I am the Hector Pieterson
Whose life was cut short by a bullet
When he was only twelve years of age.
You won’t hear my child’s voice
As you watch the Zulu
And the gum-boot dances
Arranged especially for tourists like you,
‘primitive Africa’ as part of sunny South Africa,
better than the brochures in your land.
I am the boy whose limp body
Was seen in every picture in the world.
We are the ghosts
Who will accompany you
On your trip
Through the majestic Drakensberg
The scenic Garden route
The Kruger National Park.
I am the man
Who was at the Cape
When you came in your three ships
‘De Reiger’, ‘De Drommedaris’ and ‘De Goede Hoop’
I am the corpse
The mutilated body
The angry mob
The freedom fighter
Whose face you’ll never find
In the brochures luring you
To sunny South Africa.
I am the face
You can never ignore.
It was James Baldwin who made the observation that poets, meaning all artists, “are finally the only people who know the truth about us”.’ Elsewhere Mandla Langa has said, “It is to (this) silence that the poet gives language and voice. It is a voice that the powerful of the land do not want to hear and strive to suppress at every turn.”
And so it was during apartheid. I am the face was only ever read in exile and banned in South Africa. If it was read in South Africa, it was done so clandestinely. February wrote this poem at a time when South Africans were undergoing a strange alchemy of shifts in the political landscape with the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983.
While the poem’s message is overtly political, its symbolism remains devastatingly simple and evocative. ‘The face’ is that of millions of oppressed; even the ‘imbongi’ or the ‘praise singer’ is ironically named alongside the voiceless and nameless. ‘The face’ is everywhere as the privileged go about their lives oblivious both to the blood being shed and the sweat of the faceless labour.
While the politics of resistance continued unabated, so did apartheid oppression. The poem is as much a reflection and indictment of the political situation then as it was of the conditioning that black people experienced during apartheid. They were the nameless, faceless ones whose labours were used to prop up an illegitimate system and support the lifestyle the minority white population enjoyed. The times were steeped in blood and February recognises the activists whose names one would have been forbidden at the time to mention.
It seems a bitterly sad indictment that the poem resonates even more poignantly today. Bar one or two of the references, such as Jan Smuts Airport, I am the face speaks powerfully for the dispossessed in South Africa in 2019.
Despite our homegrown Constitution with its language of rights and participation, in a country with deep and ever-deepening levels of inequality, citizen voices are often diminished. The country’s poor (mostly black) are marginalised by their own poverty as those who have the resources often control the public debate, whether in the media or elsewhere – and even within the very ANC many have voted for.
Recent debates about ‘white privilege’, race and ‘blackness’ seek to shine a light on these post-apartheid depravities. That they are also often misguided lends even greater complexity. As inequality deepens in South Africa it is becoming increasingly hard to ‘unsee’ the faceless ones.
The violence perpetrated by the state against the faceless has perhaps been the most difficult to fathom. The violence of Marikana in 2012 was a turning point in the degree of brutality the state was prepared to use against workers demanding a living wage. Needless to say, corporate South Africa has been equally complicit in the Marikana tragedy given the exploitative wages miners are earning and the appalling conditions many still live in around the mine six or so years later.
South Africa in 2019 is a markedly different place to pre-apartheid South Africa. We have the right to speak, write what we like and more importantly, the context within which we do so has changed. We are yet seeking to shape this very messy environment in which we find ourselves, however.
The years of the Jacob Zuma presidency exacted a further toll on South Africa’s post-apartheid project – on its social fabric, economy and the body politic. We are still busy calculating the damage inflicted on democratic institutions during those long years. The choice we made to be a constitutional democracy was not an accident, nor was it one that went without any debate and argument within the ANC and other parts of society. The commitment to fundamental rights and against the arbitrary exercise of power was deliberate.
That our transition to democracy was flawed cannot be disputed. That much still needs to be done to fundamentally change the lives of those who suffer all kinds of exclusion is without doubt. We are in a difficult political and social moment, one that requires measured interventions from leaders across society if we are to change the status quo, yet preserve that which the Constitution commits us to; dignity and equality for all.
Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy' which is available. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february