Tales of a divided CityDate Released: Mon, 2 June 2014 13:00 +0200
The 'I' in the following article is fictional. He was created in order to highlight the very real issues discussed in this article.
I am, in the eyes of my community, an isishumane, that is, an unmarried man who has no girlfriend. In my culture, as it stands today - ravaged by centuries of colonial greed - this means that I am an incomplete human being. And, given that I am poor and unemployed, I almost certainly will remain incomplete. I am, one could say, chronically incomplete in the eyes of my people. It is difficult to remain strong in these circumstances, for what options -existentially speaking - are open to me?
In the eyes of the white world I am a 'boy', even if I am not often called that way anymore. Women have little time for me for I cannot offer them the status that they crave with a passion informed by centuries of dispossession.
It's not as if jobs abound, and the few jobs that I could do if they were available would earn me a pittance anyway, never enough to become a cheese boy - an izikhothane - the most pervasive positively portrayed image of masculinity available to young men living in Grahamstown East, and in other sites of exclusion around our divided country.
In my better moments, when the pull to conform to social expectations is weakest, I hate the idea of becoming a cheese boy, a charmer who seduces women with his fancy clothes, perhaps a car, and a confident demeanour fuelled by widespread social acceptance, even admiration. I tried being one when I was younger. The pull to become one was immense, but that was not for me. And I also hate being thought of as an isishumane, a man that is not really one.
What alternative positive images of masculinity are available to me? What if perchance I managed to move beyond the zones of poverty?
Suppose I won the lottery. Should I then move into the settler village and live a life carved out for me from without, by the group that has done so much to destroy my people, a group that will only respect me - and in a qualified way only - if I become just like them?
One of the first things I would have to work on is my accent, but there are countless other mannerisms that I would artificially have to adopt in order to find a partial acceptance that I do not wish to have, a qualified acceptance bought at the price of radical inauthenticity.
It seems that I am condemned either to be an isishumane, an izikhothane or a coconut. What other existential moves are available to me?
There is the pervasive contemporary fantasy that I could become whoever I want to be by an act of a will that largely floats free of circumstances.
The view is that all that is required of me is the power to choose not to be trapped by the triple-horned dilemma.
Whereas it is true that I refuse to be over-determined by my circumstances, the pain brought about by the bind is still there, for I cannot avoid being the inheritor of a grotesque devolution.
I am both agent and a social being, largely formed by my environment. I refuse to accept the options open to me, but find it almost impossible to come up with an alternative that would satisfy me and which would bestow on me the respect of my community, an essential condition for self-respect. I suffer in my refusal to accept what seems inevitable.
What has happened to my people? Before colonial devastation we had land. Everything economic, sexual, familial, religious and judicial revolved around the land. We were a nation working the land together. Our systems of meaning depended on having land, on cultivating and having cattle.
Young men and women were isishumane, but it was expected that they would marry and procreate. The practice of lobola was aimed at bringing two families together through marriage. The families then made land and cattle available for the newly married couple.
The order was patriarchal, to be sure, but there was relative harmony. A system of meaning was in place, where selfconfidence depended on family structures which, in turn, were inseparable from the land that we no longer have. Everything fell apart when we lost our land.
Before marrying it was expected that a male teenager would go to the bush or the forest. There he would learn that life is largely about climbing mountains or crossing rivers. When he came back, he was ready for the challenges of life and for marriage. And it was expected that he would marry.
I do not look back to the past hoping for a return. But by looking back I vividly grasp all that has been lost, and how this loss is stopping us, stopping me, from moving forward. Nothing has come to replace what has irredeemably gone, nothing good at any rate. Something must, but nothing has.
Patriarchy remains, but now we inhabit a nihilistic space, where the order that existed was replaced with radical disarray. It is now that young men returning from the forest are expected to 'park their new Mercedes in a garage'. Before, when there was land and social order, there was respect, including self-respect. At least in those days women were not garages for fancy cars.
There is no possibility of a return, and I would not like this for myself. But the nihilistic limbo in which I live is unbearable. Where do I go from here?
Tales of a divided city: Reflections on our place and its meanings.
This piece is an instalment in a series of monthly reflections on our city. The aim is to generate conversation about our place and its meanings.
By Ayanda Kota and Pedro A Tabensky
Pedro A. Tabensky, series editor and co-author of this piece, is the Director of the Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics, located in the Department of Philosophy, Rhodes University.
Ayanda Kota is Spokesperson for the Unemployed People's Movement (UPM).
Source: Grocott’s Mail
Read other pieces in the Divided City series on Grocott's Online: