A Poet & A Visionary Re-Imagine Our Wold

An Africa Day Celebration

Rounding off our Africa Month focus this week we turn to two talented writers. A poem from the Dean of St George’s Cathedral, the Very Reverend Michael Weeder and a beautifully written essay from academic and visionary writer Professor Njabulo Ndebele. The latter piece was written sometime ago but it’s message is as relevant today as it was then.

Michael Weeder

My Cape Town by Michael Weeder

(Africa Day, May 25)

My Cape Town
is not an African city.
Like Joburg. Dakar. Like Abidjan or Cairo.
It is African. Like Mannenburg;
Like a bullet-borne message
from the Motherland of dread
to the mansions on caviar hill, saying,
“We are here. You can’t forget us.”
My Africa, like Kigali, Abuja or Mogadishu;
laments freedom’s still-birth in the ICU ward
of the first uhuru ballot.
My Africa, raises it heart to no flag
but to the banner of the just, blowing,
like truth, over the graves
of Cuito Canavale, of Darfur,
of Mitchells Plain’s young-blood,
uncovered till when Jesus comes.
My Africa knows the terror of Marikana,
of drive-by devils, slow-cruising in the dark
of a weeping Hanover Park. Nyanga East.
Khayelitsha, like the Delft, is my Africa
where faeces kiss the bare feet
of my children
running to school, or from life
that denies them
the grace of old age.
My Africa sings its rage.
My Africa, where amnesia is
the first step in the dance of healing,
remembers the empty pot of no-work
the hard bed of broken promises
My Africa remembers
the power of the clenched fist
raised, all over the world.
© Michael Weeder

Njabulo Ndebele

Professor Njabulo Ndebele

Writing on his Facebook page Professor Njabulo Ndebele says “In the context of Africa Day and our recent public traumas around the violent nature of South Africa’s xenophobic experience, the related issues of human settlements, and the challenge of Thando Mgqolozana at the recent Franschhoek Literary Festival, I thought to share this piece that was published in 2007 and then again in 2014 in a slightly amended version. It is illustrative of my thinking about urban-rural spatial legacies that have taken more than one hundred years to put together. I seek to underscore the view that a radically different future for South Africa is not possible without a fundamental re-emagining of its townships as self-sustaining livelihoods. What continuities and discontinuities do South Africans have to contend with?”

One of the intriguing features of South African urban settlement since 1994 is how African immigrants have taken to our towns and cities. Not so much to our townships. Senegalese, Nigerians, Somalis, Congolese, Ethiopians, Kenyans and others have generally displayed a preference for inner city life. Why?

I do not believe that their choice of settlement is driven by some self-consciously defined purpose. They simply gravitate towards an urban environment they are used to. They follow their social instincts towards settlements of opportunity and ‘normal’ urban life that does not impose on them the burden of political choice or crises of identity. Being in another country, the primary issue is most probably their sense of foreignness. How will they make a living in another country? Naturally! Otherwise, the inner cities of Africa is where they live, and always have. In their countries of origin there are no towns and townships in the South African sense: just human settlements.

This marks a different attitude or psychology about inner city living for the black South African. Inner city living for them is still the exception rather than the norm. The closest they get to the inner city, if they can afford it, are the suburbs ‘in town’. ‘Town’ has defined any urban space outside of the townships, which includes the inner city and the suburbs around it. The irony is that ‘townships’ could never be ‘towns’. They are also known as: ‘locations’ or ‘ekasi’ from ‘lokasie’. Townships and locations are where blacks are generally to be found. Towns and cities are where whites are generally to be found.

The planned deaths of Sophiatown (a ‘town’ for blacks) in Johannesburg and District six in Cape Town became the ultimate symbols for the deep and official inscription of the fatal divide between ‘township’ and ‘town’ in the social psyches of South Africans. This physical and psychological landscape is still very much a dominant feature of South African life, 20 years after our new democracy was inaugurated. Naturally!

This resulted in a situation where opportunity was defined politically rather than economically. Towns, which represented economic opportunity, were experienced as prohibited spaces, a daily reminder of the political powerlessness of those who live outside of them. They engendered the enduring psychology in which living in the inner city or its suburbs, for most black people, was an experience that had to be justified. “In a free country! I can go and live wherever I like!” someone will self-conscioulsly declare. So their movement to the city is not simply about living there; it represents in the first instance, a statement of occupation. It is a conscious act of claiming a right rather than of making a livelihood opportunity choice. Thus, for them, entering and participating in the economic life of the inner city is still fundamentally and continuing act of occupation; an imposition of the self on to an environment perceived to be hostile. It has been a burden.

By the same token, it is reasonable to assume that for many white compatriots, the slow yet increasing arrival of black people in the suburbs and the inner city has represented an intrusive process they have to learn to live with. Whites have never really experienced any life-threatening doubts about where they have had to live. It was natural to live ‘in town’ or to farm in the rural areas, either inherited or handed over from forcefully removed blacks in the 1960s. The choice between Benoni and Paarl was, in the first instance, about racial privilege and opportunity. Naturally!

There is thus common cause between white South Africans and the African immigrants from the north about the naturalness of urban life. The city is where you go to increase your life opportunities. Naturally!

In post-1994 South Africa, this situation presents us with at least three strategic options for the future development of our urban spaces: developing townships into new urban centres of growth; investing in the development of current inner city centres such as the reinvigoration of Johannesburg and Cape Town. The third option is to do both. All three fields of choice are based on the assumption that the largest number of South African citizens, enfranchised since 1994, are the primary object of urban development policy in order to increase the conditions that will eliminate their politically inherited ambiguities about where they live. Many will stay in the townships, while many will migrate to the inner city, in both cases increasingly through natural choices. Policy must encourage inner city migration while enhancing the quality of life in the township.

The full story can be found at The Cape Town Partnership.