The Woes of a Black Life in Modern South Africa

Perhaps the most painful experiences in your journey of life was hearing on the other side of the mobile phone the voice of your own mother, Mme Sebusang Bodike, ululating in excitement, and announcing to the family-your two younger siblings, Tsholofelo and Neo-that you have found a job. ‘O ngwanake! O bone tiro. Re tla kgona go bona botshelo.’ She sounded relieved. Now she too would begin to command respect in her community. Her firstborn had found work. Embarrassed and afraid to ruin what sounded like a happy moment at home, you purposefully omitted to mention that is was yet another internship-a fourth one.

Ever since you left university you have been hopping from one internship programme to another. You watched your mates lead what in South African terms translated into a very cushy, comfortable and luxury life. They were buying cars made from the very best in Europe and houses in leafy suburbs of South Africa, with Sandton and Fourways leading ahead.  Meanwhile at the end of each twelve months you would hear the same lousy, clichéd excuses. ‘I am very much sorry Botlale (they meant Botlhale, not that they cared) but we cannot accommodate you on a permanent basis.’ At times after hearing this same old, tired excuse you would consider taking your own life. What is the purpose of my existence, you questioned yourself. ‘Surely I would cease to suffer and find eternal peace.’ But you thought of your mother whom you have immense respect. Your siblings, the cute twins Neo and Tsholofelo whose young age notwithstanding seemed to understand the pain you were going through and therefore drew inspiration from your strength. You were a role model; not only to Neo and Tsholofelo, but to your mother as well. In their eyes you represented a beacon of hope. You understood perfectly that like most of the black families around the country and the continent, you were their ticket out of poverty, misery and humiliation. In you they saw their saviour. Fortunately sanity always prevailed. You realised that you had to live even if it meant suffering, just so your loved ones could have a glimpse of the better life; besides you could not reconcile with the fact that you would be known as a coward in your death. As the saying goes, something had to give in.

Despite this being your fourth internship, you too are partially relieved. You welcome it as a big break because the last time you worked was 18 months ago. The pocket money (employers refer to it as salary) will be lesser than the one you were receiving over a year ago. But it is better than nothing, you convince yourself. It is something that you have become quite adept at: convincing yourself that all will be alright. Like a language you have become very fluent at it Botlhale, daughter of Mme Mma Bodike. It beats sitting at home with no income. At home you tried applying for a teacher’s post to offer Mathematics and Science, and the answer would be either: you were overqualified or there was no job for you. You had heard that word in the notorious corners of the streets was that members of the teaching staff were threatened by your fancy education and glowing credentials. ‘Bare o tla ba tseela tiro’, a little bird whispered to you. It sounded ridiculous because your goal was to put bread on the table to feed your family and most importantly plough back into your community.  To comfort yourself you told yourself that perhaps something will come along during the next twelve months. This is the tune you have been playing in your head since graduation. It is so familiar to your train of thoughts it has become an anthem, a soundtrack.

For months you were the butt of jokes and a victim of mockery in your home village of Itireleng.  Situated about 100km or less west of the rural town of Vryburg, in the North West province, the village was uninspiring as watching a paint dry. Translated directly into the Queen’s language Itireleng means: ‘Do it for yourself.’ Perhaps ‘Help yourselves’ makes more sense. This would sometimes amuse you Botlhale because in your home village almost no one cared about improving their livelihoods, let alone those of their fellow community members. Your posh tertiary education from Witwatersrand University haunted you in your home village. It became a weapon of choice for your tormenters; a preamble to their mockery of your privilege. ‘Ya cleva! Akere one ore wena o rutegile o ka se nne le rona mo magaeng. Ke fa jaanong o tlabame mo gae o tshwana le rona.’ During these dramatic and sad episodes they would give each other ‘High-fives’, laughing raucously, clearly finding joy in your suffering. The whole village knew that Mme Mma Bodike’s smart and well-mannered daughter had gone to university, studied and graduated with a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Geology; but now she was back home. ‘Look at her now. She is jobless and useless’, they murmured. Rumours began to circulate that you never actually graduated. Oh, the foolish hatchings of idle minds. ‘Bare le go aloga, ga aloga’, one said. ‘Nnyaa, re bone ditshwantsho tsa gagwe a apere kobo ya thuto.’ The second one argued but the third one quickly interjected. ‘Hee tsala, a o itse technology sentle?! Ke utlwile ka selo gatwe Photoshop…’ Some rumours were even more malicious. She was pregnant and she had to quit school to raise the baby, which she has now abandoned, they said.

This is South Africa. ‘Breathtakingly exquisite and mesmerising; it is as if God escapes here whenever he needs a break from the unending politics and boardrooms of heaven and earth’, you once overheard a tourist, an American if her accent is anything to go by, ranting about your homeland. She was right. South Africa is absolutely beautiful. But to experience its beauty depended almost entirely on where you are on the socio-economic ladder, as dictated by the atrocious sins of history. To this very day those sins continue to haunt you Botlhale. You still have to hear from foreigners about how wonderful and gorgeous your country is. You always hear of the irrepressible beauty of Cape Town, the glorious Table Mountain overlooking the Atlantic Ocean as if to say: ‘I know more than you can imagine.’ If it could speak it would tell of the arrival of that Dutch barbarian Jan Van Riebeck and his band of thugs on your homeland. Yes Botlhale, the history of South Africa is written with the blood of your people. Some might not want to hear that but we would be doing posterity no favour by hiding the truth. They deserve to know these uncomfortable occurrences of yesteryears. To this day those sins of the past refuse to be buried where they belong, in the past.

While the words of that tourist played in your head, you were suddenly filled with rage, recalling two specific passages from that famous speech by that great son of the soil Thabo Mbeki aptly titled ‘I am an African’. Mbeki said: ‘I owe my being to the Khoi and the San whose desolate souls haunt the great expanses of the beautiful Cape-they who fell victim to the most merciless genocide our native land has ever seen, they who were the first to lose their lives in the struggle to defend our freedom and dependence and they who, as a people, perished in the result.

But it was the passage that followed that made you boil with anger. As if to give a very necessary voice to your thoughts Mbeki berated those hypocrites who wished for the African masses to suddenly be slapped by the heavy hand of amnesia, to forget about the despicable deeds of the past while selfishly holding on to the country’s wealth. ‘Today, as a country, we keep an audible silence about these ancestors of the generations that live, fearful to admit the horror of a former deed, seeking to obliterate from our memories a cruel occurrence which, in its remembering, should teach us not and never to be inhuman again.’

He was right, you thought to yourself. In your beloved homeland, South Africa, facing the elephant in the room was not how you sorted out problems. The best way was instead sweeping those problems under the rug; that way those whose progenitors had travelled to your shores for the sole purpose of pillaging did not have to feel uncomfortable about their ill-gotten loot. You thought hard about this pretentious image that we constantly broadcast to the world that ‘All is well in South Africa’, even recalling a profound statement made by one of your friends from university, Sizwe, whom for a Computer Science major who had a surprisingly penetrating interest in history, literature, politics and philosophy. He had remarked rather appropriately that ‘We do not want to upset our masters in the West, lest they decide to rain down bombs on us like they so often do in the Middle East. So we smile politely to those who hold tightly to their ill-gotten loot.’

So when that call came in from Johannesburg inviting you for a job interview, you were extremely excited your ears had let you down, you did not hear that it was not a permanent job but yet another gruesome twelve months long internship programme; one of government’s Band-Aid solutions to battle the ever worsening problem of youth unemployment. You had enough of rural Itireleng and its destructive gossip. Mme Mma Sebusang Bodike-a truly kind soul-took out almost all her remaining monthly allowance so you could catch a taxi from Itireleng to Vryburg where you will get on another taxi that will take you to the city of lights Johannesburg-a place known to your mother only in the limitless bounds of her imagination. ‘Your mother is a very brilliant woman. You are just like her. Pity the brutality and hatred of the previous regime limited her to the village of Itireleng. Promise me that you will never let anything stand in your way my child. Leave this village and see the world.’ Your father once said to you. Unfortunately eight years ago when you began your first year at Wits he joined the non-living. The little money that sustains your family is part of the pension fund that came out after your father’s passing, Rre Tuelo Petrus Bodike, thanks to his job as a miner in Rustenburg. He had been the one who secured you a bursary from his employers, enabling you to study at Witwatersrand University. They had promised to employ you but you are yet to hear anything from them.

Now Mma Bodike was sharing some of her late husband’s money with you so you could travel to that job interview in Johannesburg. Oh, Mme Mma Bodike. She was not of this world; a heart so pure it was capable of nothing but love and compassion. She had made you ‘seven colours’ so you could eat on your way to the big city on that particular, warm Sunday. What a lady! When the driver started the taxi to signal that it was now time to depart, your mother, the widow of Oom Petrus-as your father was affectionately known-flashed a heartfelt smile, a tear of hope and joy running down what was once a beautiful face, waved to say goodbye. ‘Tsamaya le Modimo ngwanaka.’ Indeed, she was not of this world.

You were once a student in Johannesburg Botlhale, so you encountered no problems of accommodation for a night or two. Some friends you knew from your days in university were kind enough to give you a place to sleep. You left on Sunday so you could have adequate time to prepare for your interview which was scheduled for an afternoon on Tuesday.

It was now time to depart, and the silver-grey Toyota Quantum like a ship set for sail began to move. It embraced the white gravel road which would later join a tarred road or ‘sekontere’ as it known back at home in Itireleng, where your unemployment had inspired a hullabaloo of gossip. As you journeyed through your platinum rich province of North West, cutting it in half with fond memories of your mother and siblings lingering in your restless thoughts, you wished not to return home. Home for you had come to represent anguish, suffering, shame and poverty.

Now there you were on the other side of the phone, a few metres outside the premises of a company that you had just gone to for an interview, listening patiently albeit embarrassingly to your mother Mme Mma Bodike rejoicing in your achievement, however temporary. Listening to the joy and relief in your mother’s voice, you could not bear the thought of cutting her happiness short. A woman of limited education she had nonetheless come to learn what an internship programme is, and subsequently loathed the term and what it stood for in South Africa-sweeping problems under the rug. It had turned her firstborn child into a modern slave. A cake of hope would be baked with the promise that her daughter will too get a slice; and when it was ready all she received was crumbs. Now can you blame her? And can anyone blame you Botlhale for not being straightforward with your mother? You were not lying to her, but simply, as they would say in films, protecting her from the truth.

 

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