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Native Nostalgia Paperback – April 1, 2010
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Challenging the stereotype that black people who lived under South African apartheid have no happy memories of the past, this examination into nostalgia carves out a path away from the archetypical musings. Even though apartheid itself had no virtue, the author, himself a young black man who spent his childhood under apartheid, insists that it was not a vast moral desert in the lives of those living in townships. In this deep meditation on the experiences of those who lived through apartheid, it points out that despite the poverty and crime, there was still art, literature, music, and morals that, when combined, determined the shape of black life during that era of repression.
About the Author
Jacob Dlamini is a writer whose work has appeared in a number of publications, including the Sunday Times and Weekender.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Native NostalgiaBy Jacob Dlamini
Jacana Media (Pty) LtdCopyright © 2009 Jacob Dlamini
All rights reserved.
1 - Sounds on the Air,
2 - Township in Sight,
3 - Strangers from Underground,
4 - Class Warfare,
5 - The Texture of Money,
6 - The Sense of Township Life,
7 - The Language of Nostalgia,
8 - Conclusion,
Sounds on the Air
Save yo drama for yo Mama
– Message on a bumper sticker
To the Chinese, it was the year of the Ox; to the Soviets, the year they said nyet to the broadcast of the imperialist Sesame Street on Soviet television; to the Germans, the year both East and West were admitted to the United Nations; to the Israelis, the year they won the Yom Kippur War; to the Brits, the year car owners scrambled to fill up as government introduced fuel rationing; to the Americans, the year the Supreme Court legalised abortion with its decision in Roe v. Wade; and to Evelinah Papayi Dlamini, a 45-year-old working-class woman from Katlehong, a black township about 30 kilometres east of Johannesburg, the year her only surviving child was born. I was born on a Monday in Natalspruit Hospital, a 900-bed edifice since condemned to demolition for lying on dolomitic ground, on 29 January 1973. To be fair to my mother, she would not share any of the melodrama of this passage. In fact, save for the oil crisis of that year, whose inflationary effects were felt the world over, it is doubtful she would have paid any attention to things such as the Chinese calendar.
She probably followed the news about the Soviets, Germany and the Yom Kippur War on the wireless. The radio is also where, if she cared for such things, she would have heard in the year I was born that in the US, Angie by the Rolling Stones, Brother Louie by Stories, Crocodile Rock by Elton John, Love Train by the O'Jays and Let's Get It On by Marvin Gaye were the hits of the year. She would have known that in South African townships, blacks were grooving to the mbaqanga of Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, the isicathamiya of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the township soul of Mpharanyana and the Cannibals, and, of course, the soul of the O'Jays and Marvin Gaye. The eldest in a family of ten, my mother was the daughter of a Sotho -speaking farm-hand and a Zulu-speaking domestic. She was a woman of modest schooling and little interest in Western popular music – except gospel, mbaqanga, isicathamiya (which two of her brothers sang) and the crooning of Jim Reeves, the Texan folk singer who toured South Africa in the early 1960s, recorded songs in Afrikaans and starred in a movie set in South Africa.
In American cinemas, the Academy Award winner The Sting, The Exorcist, American Graffiti, Papillon, Live and Let Die, and Mean Streets were some of the best movies of the year. On American TV, Kojak, M*A*S*H and The Waltons were the television favourites. Not that South Africans would have known any of this. South Africa did not have television until 1976. It is said that the Protestants who ran apartheid South Africa did not trust television. These men feared that television would corrupt white South Africans and give blacks ideas about freedom and suchlike. They found the TV medium too egalitarian, too democratic in its orientation for their liking. They were probably right, if one considers that when The Cosby Show came to South Africa in the 1980s, the Huxtables became white South Africa's most favourite television family for the better part of the decade. That the fathers of the nation finally relented and allowed television, albeit segregated TV, was due largely to the increasing assertiveness of a growing and confident Afrikaner middle class that wanted it all: good jobs, universities, overseas travel, international sports and big houses complete with swimming pools, armies of servants and, of course, television sets in their living rooms. It was not so much a question of keeping up with the Joneses as it was a matter of being in the global world. For the rulers of South Africa, which had experienced a growth rate in the 1960s second only to Japan's, their Luddite ways must have seemed more ridiculous by the day, especially in the light of their claims to be the last defenders of 'western civilisation' in Africa. They could not exactly claim to be defenders of such civilisation and yet be opposed to television. Something had to give. So they caved in in 1976 and allowed television to come to South Africa. I was of course too young to know any of this at the time. But the absence of television did have its benefits. It meant I was brought up in a world of radio or, as we called it at home, the wireless.
It also meant that I grew up in a family where the imagination was allowed to wander and to dream as we gave body, colour, demeanour and setting to the hundreds of voices that came into our house through the air each day. Deprived sight of the images that were the staple of television, we could see things with our minds unencumbered by the limited medium of television. We befriended the voices of our radio presenters, developing such intimate knowledge of their 'timbre, range, turn of phrase and key words used' that we could identify these voices and their owners even in our sleep. We could, thanks to the wireless, let our imaginations wander. We could see far and wide. We could also be present in places thousands of miles away from Katlehong.
One such place was Akron, the American home town of one Michael Dokes in the Midwestern state of Ohio. The date was 23 September 1983 and Dokes, boxing world heavyweight champion at the time, was defending a title he had won in December 1982. Dokes's challenger was Gerhardus Christiaan Coetzee, a South African fighter with little in the way of stamina but a powerful right hand. Dokes was a black American; Coetzee a white African. Coetzee had already lost to Mike Weaver and John Tate, two big-hitting American boxers, and was not expected to trouble Dokes. But he was South African and a homeboy, coming as he did from the East Rand city of Boksburg, about 10 kilometres from Katlehong. In fact, his nickname was the Boksburg Bomber. Coetzee was an Afrikaner and spoke with a thick Afrikaans accent but he had endeared himself to black South Africans by declaring publicly that he was opposed to apartheid and was no bigot.
My family supported Coetzee and my mother would let me stay up to follow his fights on the radio each time the man went into the ring. He was one of ours and we cheered him on without reservation. We followed every twist and turn of his fight against Dokes, every blow on the radio. As I recall, the fight began promisingly for Dokes. He was quicker than Coetzee and had a bigger arsenal than Coetzee. But he did not look like a man who had trained seriously for this fight. So it did not come as a surprise when, in the fifth round, Coetzee caught Dokes in the jaw with a right hand. The punch sent the champion to the canvas on one knee. But it was not over yet. Coetzee, who had done well not to show his legendary lack of stamina, caught Dokes again in the tenth round. This time Dokes did not get up. The fight was over and the world had a new boxing heavyweight champion. My family was ecstatic. So were the other families in our street. We had all been cheering Coetzee and had all followed the fight on the radio.
Coetzee's victory made him the first African ever to be crowned world heavyweight champion. But the significance of the fight, dubbed the Upset of the Year for 1983 by KO Magazine, extended beyond Coetzee's African origins. He also happened to be the first white boxer in twenty-three years to be crowned world heavyweight champion. The world had not had a white world heavyweight champ since 1960 when Ingemar Johansson defeated Floyd Patterson. Given that the sport of boxing is always nursing 'white hopes', I have no doubt there were white supremacists out there who found cynical vindication in Coetzee's triumph. The apartheid South African government must also have tried to milk Coetzee's victory for all it was worth. This was in the early 1980s and the anti -apartheid movement was starting to gain traction and the cultural and sports boycott of South Africa was increasingly becoming noticeable.
We did not care. A better fighter had won on the night. What's more, the winner was one of us, a South African and a homeboy. That is what mattered. It also helped that Coetzee had used his position as a public figure to speak out against apartheid. Was his opposition to apartheid genuine? After all, his promoter was one Don King, the father of cynicism. It did not matter. What mattered was that Coetzee came from our neck of the woods and was only too happy to advertise the fact. My neighbourhood friends and I followed his fight over the radio and because we could only see with our minds, we embellished every possible detail in our re-enactments the following day. Some took the role of Dokes; others assumed the triumphant poses of the Boksburg Bomber, ducking and weaving as they imagined themselves in that ring thousands of miles away in Akron, Ohio.
News that there were black families that supported Coetzee enthusiastically, and that we would stay up all night or get up early in the morning to follow the broadcasts of his fights on radio, may come as a surprise to those who would like to think that the world of apartheid was one of moral clarity. It might even come as a shock for these people to discover that apartheid South Africa, even at its worst, was never a world of black and white. There were shades of grey, zones of ambiguity that individuals traversed daily as they went about their lives. Naturally, these shades of grey and zones of ambiguity were not experienced the same way. In the case of Coetzee, it may have helped that he was openly opposed to apartheid. But Coetzee was no freedom fighter, no knight in shining armour. He was simply a boxer of moderate talent who got far. None of that mattered, however. What mattered was that he was one of us and we claimed him as such.
It is also possible that Coetzee's acceptance in our street was helped by the way he was presented by Radio Zulu. For all of this, our deep love for him and the recording of his exploits, was done in Zulu. In fact, Radio Zulu was famous for its sports broadcasts. People who did not speak Zulu as their first language would tune in to the station to follow its broadcasts. This is worth recalling because it went against apartheid communications policy, which sought to connect so-called Bantu radio stations to the doctrine of separate development. In terms of apartheid thinking, these stations sought to promote ethnic consciousness and pride in one's languages. But things did not go according to plan for apartheid's planners.
According to Liz Gunner, the cross-ethnic appeal of supposedly ethnic radio stations was not the only way in which apartheid was undermined. Radio produced a 'socioscape that provided a thick sense of the varieties of place'. Radio also helped create an imagined community in which, as Gunner says, listeners were bound together 'beyond the reach of any ethnic programmer'. However, it was radio's effect on the apartheid conception of space that had the most positive benefit for black South Africans. In a political time and space that was coded in racial terms, with severe limits imposed on black mobility, black people could move through radio in ways that the apartheid state could not curtail. Black people could enjoy a freedom of movement and being that the apartheid regime could not take away. Sure, apartheid censors could limit what one listened to, they could try to dictate what made the news. But they could not determine how the listening public received the propaganda. They could not tell blacks how to listen.
Speaking of Radio Zulu's famous sports presenters and their reports, Gunner says: 'One did not need a pass, or money for travel through apartheid-mapped cities, to move in the mind to that pitch, spurred on by the fevered eloquence and soaring voice of Thetha Masombuka as he created verbal pictures of skill, daring energy, spectacular tries, near misses, penalties, fouls, offsides ...' The SABC, out of which came the broadcasts of soccer matches and events such as Coetzee's triumph, was, as Gunner says, 'a heavily racially stratified and racially hierarchical organisation with African-language radio securely (or so it seemed) in the hands of the architects of apartheid and their acolytes'.
In truth, radio in South Africa predated apartheid by at least two decades. The first broadcast was in 1924 and was a private venture. The state did not assume control until 1936 and in fact some of the earliest Zulu broadcasts were in the mid-1920s, with the broadcasting of the performances of the Zulu Versatile Company. The first broadcast in Zulu came in April 1941 and was a war news broadcast by King Edward Masinga. But radio had a limited reach and appeal at the time, given that the radio sets of old were expensive and difficult to buy. Again, it was not until the 1960s with the introduction of the FM frequency and the advent of cheap transistor radio sets that many households, including poor ones, could suddenly afford to own a radio set.
Apartheid planners were not blind to the propaganda possibilities opened up by radio. Radio Bantu was launched in 1960 and in 1969 a government official described the policy of the SABC in the following terms: the state broadcaster would serve national policy, would recognise the diversity of language groups and different nations in South Africa. This was essentially Bantustan-speak adapted to the SABC. The way apartheid planners saw it, Radio Zulu would promote both pride in Zuluness and authentic Zuluness and also encourage support for the bantustan of Zululand. It would be the same with Radio Sotho, Radio Tswana and so on. But that is not necessarily how things turned out. Apartheid planners and censors saw the SABC as an instrument to 'shape and control the mindset of its listeners'. It did not work. Listeners made of the SABC broadcasts they followed what they willed. Though the SABC could dictate the content, it could not determine the content's reception.
For me, the best part about Radio Zulu was its radio dramas. These were, like the sports broadcasts, journeys of the imagination that did not require one to travel. Here is how Gunner describes how many felt about these dramas: 'Just as listeners would cluster in the intimacy of small living-rooms to listen to football – so, too, would the family, sometimes with an uncle or father who had rushed home from work, sit and listen to "amastori" [stories] or "imidlalo yomoya" [plays of the air].' In the case of my family, we did not have an uncle or father rushing home to be with us on time to listen to radio dramas. There were no men in the house. It was my mother, whichever sister was staying with her at the time, and us children. Come the time of the drama, the children would already have had their evening baths, supper would have been served and we would all be clustered next to the radio in our kitchen, listening to the drama. Our trusted yellow-coloured Defy coal stove would be on, keeping the room warm.
The kitchen would be quiet as we followed the twists and turns of the drama. After the 30-minute-long drama the family would play a game of cards. Occasionally, Aunt Z, who had grown up playing the harmonica in rural Zululand, would whip out her instrument and play it for us. Though we each had our own harmonica, none of us got to play it as well as Aunt Z did, especially the Zulu tunes that made the instrument 'speak' Zulu. The least favourite part of the evening for the children was that we had to take turns washing dishes. That was the family ritual. If my mother had to miss an episode of the radio drama for some reason (say a community meeting or a death in the neighbourhood), the children would be expected to give her a blow-by-blow account of the evening's story. I don't know if this turned us into storytellers but it sure helped improve our powers of concentration.
According to Gunner, some critics have put down the radio dramas as 'an attempt to validate a state of timeless, pastoral Africa, and to underwrite the assumption of the dominant ideology that Africans ... had no place in the city except as brief sojourners'. There is certainly an element of truth in the claim that many of the dramas we followed so keenly traded in the well-worn idea of an idyllic rural Africa in battle with a corrupt urban Africa. In fact, I can't think of a single drama from my youth where the city or a township had any virtue. At times, you would find village idiots, 'backward-minded' rural people who dealt in witchcraft and suchlike, but they tended to be outcasts who stood out because they sought to undermine the rural idyll being presented by the drama.
However, it would be a mistake to conclude from this that these dramas were reactionary and that they only served to brainwash the millions who followed them. To do so would be to patronise the listeners. It also would be 'far too simplistic a reading', says Gunner. But it would be equally shortsighted to pretend that apartheid planners did not achieve some of their intentions. According to Gunner, 'It would be foolish, however, to argue that all the dramas of the 1970s, that decade of contestatory discourses around South African identities, sidestepped the oppressive and segregationist blueprint of the apartheid mandarins of the SABC.' There were, for example, dramas that sought to highlight the 'dangers' posed by 'communist-influenced terrorists', and these dramas were no less popular for their propaganda. People still enjoyed and followed them.
Gunner also points out that the use of the SABC by the apartheid planners to influence minds did not end with dramas and news bulletins. These planners sought to change Zulu itself, appropriating the language and giving it new words in a desperate bid to make it speak of realities vastly different from what people knew. A good example of this provided by Gunner is the provenance of the following word: iphekulazikhuni. I grew up knowing and thinking that this was an 'original' and 'authentic' Zulu word meaning terrorist. It turns out, according to Gunner, that the word was actually coined by the SABC to describe freedom fighters. The word literally means 'what blows over a burning faggot' but was developed to refer to militants, Bolshevists and communists.
(Continues...)Excerpted from Native Nostalgia by Jacob Dlamini. Copyright © 2009 Jacob Dlamini. Excerpted by permission of Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd.
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- Publisher : Jacana Media; 1st Edition (April 1, 2010)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 200 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1770097554
- ISBN-13 : 978-1770097551
- Item Weight : 1.1 pounds
- Dimensions : 5 x 0.5 x 8 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #2,005,758 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Well done Jacob for setting the proper balance of who we really are as a free and vibrant people of today, thanks to what the township awoke in us then and today.