The cry of Black worldlessness
Poet Mongane Wally Serote’s 40-year lament, still haunts Black South Africans: “it is only in our memory that this is our land.” The land haunts our memory, and, in turn, we haunt the land’s memory.
“Ilizwe lifile!” The world is dead!
“Ilizwe lifile!” Our ancestors cried as the 1779-1879 Wars of Dispossession expanded the reach of 1652’s settler colonial conquest deep into the South African interior. Our ancestors cried that it was not only Black people who suffered a social death, but the land, indeed, the world, suffered death too. Our ancestors’ cries of the end of the world sounded a cosmological rupture that reverberates across generations, and could be heard throughout the land as their dispossessed descendants wielded the unrest and protest that decisively called the end of the “post”-apartheid rainbow—the end of a world in which they have no stake in, the end of a world built by their continued dispossession.
The cry was heard two months ago, as South Africa convulsed under the worst public violence since apartheid’s official end. “Ayikhale!” came the rallying cry from former president Jacob Zuma’s supporters, as they protested his July 7 prison sentencing for contempt of the constitutional court in the midst of an ongoing state corruption commission. Across Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal and the economic hub of Gauteng, many answered the call to render the nation “ungovernable”—targeting supermarkets, furnishers, and clothing and electronic stores. In the carnivalesque chaos, the smash and grab, they were soon joined and outnumbered by ordinary citizens answering to a different rallying cry. Citizens grabbing bread and maize meal and diapers jostled alongside those grabbing cake and couches and flat screens, plunging the nation into a cacophony, which the chattering middle classes and their pundits struggled to decipher. As the “Rainbow Nation” went up in flames, the old cry of the “swartgevaar” mobilized property-defending racial laagers which, to the shock of their Black middle class neighbors, turned away and targeted Black citizens regardless of class. With the Phoenix Massacre, the vigilante violence reached its apotheosis with 36 Black people murdered in Durban’s historically Indian township.
If “Ayikhale” was the mobilizing cry that a small but effective group of politically motivated actors answered to, there was another cry—deeper, more resonant—-that mobilized the marginalized majority as they staged what can be understood as post-apartheid South Africa’s most decisive insurrection.
“Ayikhale!” rang out in a nation already crying out in crisis. The economy was in recession before the country recorded its first COVID infection in March 2020. In one of the world’s most spectacularly unequal societies, the state imposed several years of austerity. Once the pandemic hit, a $30 billion COVID stimulus package—equivalent to 10% of the country’s GDP—had been stolen by government officials. By the first quarter of 2021, unemployment—concentrated among Black people—rose to a record high of 43,2%, the highest in the world. Likewise, the 74.7% unemployment rate, among the generation of Mandela’s “bornfrees” raised in the post-apartheid era, is also the world’s highest.
Overwhelmingly, the face of post-apartheid poverty and hopelessness is Black and female. Under what former president Thabo Mbeki infamously christened as South Africa’s “two economies” in his trickle-down empowerment evangelism, poor Black life is rendered surplus and superfluous. Week in, week out, scenes of burning tyres and stone- barricaded township roads, are, at best, euphemized as “service delivery protests” and, at worst, criminalized. Without consequence, the post-apartheid state murders poor Black people during protests or eviction.
It is unsurprising then that the demand—the cry—to be recognized as human is central to the language of Black popular protest. In their statement to the South African Human Rights Commission’s 2015 Hearings, Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Durban shack dwellers’ movement whose members have faced arrest, assault and assassination in their struggle for post-apartheid liberation, cried out that poor Black people “are not counted as human beings.” To the question posed by bureaucrats and chattering classes perplexed by their nation’s status as “the world’s protest capital,” their answer is simple: “The demand for land and dignity is the underlying reason for protest. If people were respected and recognized as human beings there would be no need for protest.”
Indeed, amidst the confusion and chaos, the baton and bullet wielded on Black skin in search of bread and being in the world’s most unequal society, theirs is a cry of historic and cosmological proportions.
“Ilizwe lifile!” Our ancestors cried as the 19th century’s minerals revolution burnished Southern Africa Black with dispossession. In that Gilded Age, where gold had just become the foundation of the global economic system, Southern Africa’s Minerals Revolution began when diamonds were discovered in Kimberley in 1866 and accelerated when 40% of the world’s gold stores were discovered on the Witwatersrand in 1886. From the intense pressure of this Black furnace, one of the world’s most dramatic social and industrial transformations produced the dynastic wealth that made “Randlords” of white men like Cecil John Rhodes and the dispossession that made chibaro—slave labor—of the peoples of the last independent African polities. Rhodes’ feverish imperial dream was Africa’s furious inferno.
Stimela! Hugh Masekela cried of the coal trains, the iron bulls of settler colonial modernity, charging through the hinterlands of Southern and Central Africa, conscripting African men, young and old, as chibaro in the compound mining system pioneered by one Welsh engineer named Thomas Kitto “borrowing” from Brazilian slave-mining compounds. Under the gun’s ring and the sjambok’s crack, enslaved Southern Africans mined the world’s richest mineral stores, producing Black death at a rate as high as one in ten miners.
Today, Black Death continues to produce the Rainbow’s riches. Eighteen years into the arc of the Rainbow Nation, post-apartheid South Africa’s third Black president consigned 34 Black mine workers to death for the crime of striking for a living wage of R12,500 (USD1500). Marikana 2012. The worst state massacre since Bulhoek 1921, Sharpeville 1960 and Soweto 1976. Once again, we hear Winston Mankuku Ngozi’s horn: Yakhal’inkomo. The cry of the bull on the way to slaughter. This time when we hear their cry, it is not Verwoerd or Vorster, it is our third Black President, Cyril Ramaphosa, who calls for Black slaughter. Sitting on the board of Lonmin, the transatlantic monstrosity founded as the London Rhodesia Company in 1909, at the very heart of that bloody minerals revolution, our Black president instructed the police to take “concomitant action” against people who dared contest a rainbow world where it would take a Black miner 93 years to earn what the average mining baas receives as annual bonus.
Are we going forwards or are we going backwards?
“Ilizwe lifile!” Our ancestors cried on the eve of the 1913 Native Land Act‘s cataclysm.
“Awakening on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African native found himself, not actually, a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.” So begins the famous opening line to Sol T. Plaatje’s classic Native Life in South Africa—a singular witness to Black life, death and dispossession as landlessness became the cornerstone of what South Africa’s Marxists later named “racial capitalism.” By forcing the Black majority onto seven percent of the country’s arable land, the settler state reserved the lion share for white settlers, who conscripted Black people into the cheap labor needed to fuel its voracious mining and agricultural furnaces.
Inspired in part by W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folks, Plaatje’s Native Life bore witness to Black people’s spiritual strivings under dispossession of dazzling contradiction and paradox that still circumscribes our lives today and testified: It is one thing to live the double consciousness of a minority, it is quite another to live the double consciousness of a minoritized majority. To be a pariah in the land of your birth is to live the spiritually and psychically disorienting paradox of exile at home. With no home, we are condemned to a wandering spectral existence, haunting the world. Then, as now, Black people are pariahs of the world. Half a century after Plaatje, Barbadian poet Kamau Braithwaite asked questions of this exilic nature of Blackness,
Where then is the nigger’s
Or in Heaven? …
More devastating than the landlessness and homelessness that spools out from Native Life‘s famous opening line, Plaatje confronted more cosmologically devastating questions after encountering the wandering Kgobadi couple, stricken by the loss of their infant who had just succumbed to the privations of their landless life: “The deceased child had to be buried, but where, when, and how?”
Amidst the grief of eviction, the young wandering Black family, condemned to a spectral and fugitive existence on the public roads—“the only places in the country open to the outcasts if they are possessed of a travelling permit”—could not even right the cosmic aberration of a child’s death. With no land, they could not bury and return the child to the ancestors. They had no place on earth. Where, when and how to live? Where, when and how to die? These are questions of spatial-temporal alienation that haunt Black beings in the world. More than questions of landlessness, more than questions of homelessness, these are questions of worldlessness: To have no place to live nor to be buried. To have no place to be alive nor to be dead. To have no place to be in the world—what the pre-eminent Black psychologist Manganyi Chabani called “Being-Black-in-the-World,” is the state of worldlessness.
“Ilizwe lifile!” Settler colonial conquest dispossessed us of our fathers, who were conscripted as the “mineboys” and “farmboys,” who picked and ploughed the spectacular wealth that would never reach their own tables. It dispossessed us of our mothers, who were conscripted as the “housegirls,” who raised white children who grew to despise us and them. It is this violent migrant labor system, Southern Africa’s systematic spatial dispossession and destruction of the Black family that creates the “wounded kinship” that saturates Black life and death. It is this racial violence that compelled South Africa’s Marxists to be the first in the world to confess and name the existence of the term that has come to define this global Black Lives Matter moment—“racial capitalism.” While the Marxists could quantify our material crisis, they could not begin to account for our deep psychic, spiritual, and existential crisis. What African-American poet Nathaniel Mackey calls “wounded kinship” is the bedrock of racial capitalism. If the worker’s crisis begins with their alienation from work, the Black’s crisis begins with our alienation from the world.
Today, if we listen carefully, we can still hear the cry of Black worldlessness and wounded kinship. Today, Black people continue to cry out that we have no land to live, nor land to bury, no land to be at a time when white South Africans, nine percent of the population, hold 72% of the land, while we, Black people, 79% of the population, hold one percent. In 2014 Oxfam warned us, two white men— Johann Rupert and, Nicky Oppenheimer, the inheritor of Rhodes’ murderous empire—own as much wealth as the bottom half of the land.
Poet Mongane Wally Serote’s 40-year lament, still haunts us: “it is only in our memory that this is our land.” The land haunts our memory, and, in turn, we haunt the land’s memory.
Today, fifteen seasons in, “Khumbul’ekhaya”(“Remember home”), a reality show attempting to gauze and stitch our wounded kinship, to re-member Black homes dismembered by dispossession, is a compulsory Wednesday night fixture in Black homes across South Africa. That this televisual is just as, if not more popular than the most entertaining of our soapies, is our national confession of wounded kinship, our deep longing to khumbul’ekhaya, to re-member home, haunts our emotional universe.
“Indeed, memory or ‘rememory,’” South African novelist Yvette Christiansë, invoking Toni Morrison, reminds us, “is the gift that the living give, constantly, daily to the dead. Memory is the gift of a survivor and, as a gift, it is the medium of obligation … [to] those who have gone before and those who come after.”
Then, in the wake of the 1913 Land Act, South Africa’s most revered Black composer Reuben Tholakele Caluza sounded our Black cry of wounded kinship and worldlessness in “Si lu Sapo or iLand Act,” which for a time was the African National Congress’ anthem before “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (“God Bless Africa”) replaced it:
S’kalel’ ingane zaobaba
Ezimihamb’ im’ ezweni zingena ndawo yokuhlala
Elizweni lokoko betu
(We cry for the children of our fathers
Who roam around the world without a home
Even in the land of our ancestors)
Already, Caluza’s anguished cry of worldlessness had sounded the South African Blues that jazz legend Jonas Gwangwa described in 1990, “If you listen carefully to all South African music, that cry is there. I don’t care whether you raise the tempo … You could raise the tempo but when it starts playing, that lament is there. Lament … I hear it. I hear it.”
Can we hear it?
It is there in the rushed breath of Black Commuters stranded by in-fighting taxis, now making the rushed trek from Khayelitsha township to Cape Town’s Central Business District by foot, lest they lose their jobs.
It is there in the idle laughter of majita, magenge, majimbozi convening ekoneni—the young Black men often criminalized and consigned to the 75% of youth marked by our economy as unemployed or unemployable.
It is there in the shivers of abomama’s shoulders as they queue in the cold for the USD23 COVID relief grant that stands between their families and hunger.
It is there in the carnivalesque grab of cakes, cool drinks and couches, which we have no need for as we run for chase.
It is the cry of want in the midst of waste.
It is the cry of wounded kinship.
It is the cry of worldlessness.
Are we listening?