UHURU Now: Grahamstown: the city of saints and sinners

By Mvuzo Ponono

What you are about to read may disturb you… This article chronicles the day I decided to walk to the township to write about what I saw, an ethnographic piece detailing my walk and encounters on the way. This is the horror of my slacktivism. This is the ethnographic world of active not-doing-anything. Do not ‘like’ it.

The ‘Lord of Light’ might bless us with sun from day to day, but the cold has descended on Grahamstown. More than engulf the City like an invisible cloak, the chill settles on the surface of your bones like a second skin, bewitchingly seeping into the marrow. We drink warm medicines to ward off the malice, but to no avail. Our winter insignia; our blankets, jerseys and robes only protect from spirits outside.

So we walk the streets powerless and colonised, half human and half zombie. A sixth sense opens a portal to an informal economy where ice spirits jostle for space on the side walk – they batter and trade, laugh and haggle and pray and cry. This is where two worlds coincide; the mortal and the spirit, the flesh and the cold, the amiable and the unsympathetic. This is where mammals follow reptiles to warm bed rocks for blessings and soirees. Disco lights swirl and we are drunk; dancing with the devil. Good is consumed by evil. We lose the battle. Plunge a dagger to heart and kill lord righteous… As the white walk walkers storm the gates.

While we dance, we employ the Night’s Watch to keep more unspeakable ills beyond the wall. They literally sit all night and watch us sleep – that is how terrified we are of the dark. Winter is upon us and the night is full of terror. The walls we build to keep the cold outside determines our survival. We use the gold in our pockets to build mansions and manors; hearths where the fires of privilege are ever blazing.

Of course we outsource that labour too. We employ serfs who cross rickety bridges, and with bare hands, forge hard rock to secure our comfort. When the job is done we banish the same folk to desolate reserves to rot. The nights are long, and the mornings bitter. Young men terrorise our dreams, yet pave our reality. In these confusing times, children are killed in their cradles. Because they might one day lead a rebel army. And the poor? They die. They breathe, they work and they die. Death then is ever present, and the King of death is King. Blood is the juice. The sicker we get, as the cold enters the body, the wealthier the Kings.

This is a harsh land – where Rhodes is still to fall, where insurgents lurk in the bushes ready to fight for their dignity. This is a land where people die all the time but nothing moves. This is a still land. God here is Time – bequeathing the miracle of fortune and progress.

Where there is God/s there must be royalty to personify divinity. Kings and Queens sacrifice with sorcery to the God of time for stasis. They slaughter chickens at midnight, bury baboon feet, drink snake blood and snort toasted Albino hair – anything for good favour. This is the land of the abnormal. Business has been good; receipts lie six feet below, where 50 million undead walk the underworld. Rivers of blood of black warriors, white solders, criminals and innocents fertilise the lush green we day-dream on. The irony is we never hear the agony. This is the land where monuments are erected to glorify Saints who double up as sinners. This is a City where space ship lovingly named the 1820 Settlers Monument hovers above us ready to lift off when the clock strikes midnight and the murderous masses finally come for the City. The Monument’s gaze follows you everywhere, everywhere you walk. It is forever watching.

Walk is what I decided to do. I decided to walk from town to the township because a chance encounter with the serf on the road exposed me to suffering of the masses. A few days ago, a routine Grahamstown weather pattern occurred. It suddenly and without warning, changed for the worse. The cold, conjured a father’s fury, opening the heavens and icy sharp pellets of water were hurled at those below. I had the misfortune of having to drive to the township to touch base with my research site. I would have much preferred the stone walls of the library and its engineered courtyards that make the water sing. I would have preferred the library’s inner walls, where the carpets are soft and the windows are wide. From where, I could drink a cup of warm medicine and sneer at the cold.

Misfortune has befallen me, so I was driving instead of typing. As the rain fell, the world scattered into any available burrow, I drove into space.

There’s an area between the town and the township that sits on the end of High Street, just before Dr Jacob Zuma Drive; an industrial zone not industrialised. It’s actually a non-space, a black hole that eats all of space. This is the stretch that I drove and encountered serfs scattered about, without formation, fighting an army of white walkers, as liquid arrows fell from the sky. They battled home. Caught in the continuum; to fight on was the only thing they could do. This was the middle of space and time, far from home – ahead, but further still from town. In the mist of the gore, I saw a mother with a baby, barely covered, walking through that gauntlet. Every step she took, took her closer to nowhere, she plodded on and on and on… I thought to myself, having seen it happen, that soon that baby will grow, have kids of their own, and they too will repeat the same route to the oblivion. I flew over her on my dragon because that is what gold coins buy you – time.

In the end, futile is the idea of excess.

I was touched by this experience and decided to recreate it. I wanted to see the world through those eyes and decided to walk the same route. The morning sun was shining, baby-less I crossed town contradicting the steps of countless serfs who rushed to toil the land of their birth. They hopped over puddles, carrying bindles with their dreams on their shoulders. These were unraveled at lunchtime, when the horn sounded, to reveal dry brown bread with polony. They hopped and skipped and carried on past me, walking into the hole as they disappeared from my life. I realised that they will walk this road many times and pray to a merciless God for a change of fortunes.

As I left the town behind and reached the township, I saw familiar misfortunes so old and settled that it is pointless to recount them. I had foolishly thought I would gain new insights. Now I am left knowing that no amount of reflection will change the one true fact that this is winter, and there are serfs and there are Kings. And that to rule over others on this earth is the right of Kings we create.

The Kings decree that we must work and die.

Illustration by Sarah Rose de Villiers.

Contributors

Mvuzo Ponono

Mvuzo Ponono is a Xhosa man from the Eastern Cape, now based at the University of the Free State. His research interests include audience, and postcolonial studies. His MA examined the influence of a township family context on the interpretation of a health education television programme. His current PhD research is an ethnographic study on […]

Newsletter

Subscribe to our newsletter and get notified of new issues.