To be more than circumstance
Mpho Moshe Matheolane thinks back to how he learnt his worth in South Africa - through the pain of his father's apartheid memories.
Every so often one is inclined to take a moment of reflection and look back on the path that has led to a particular point in life and consider in the same vein, how much further the path will go. It is in the wake of the Youth Day and Father’s Day celebrations that I found myself at this very point.
Being a young black person in this country, I cannot help but consider that my life has been shaped by a great history of a collective of people and of individual persons who underwent much strife for us to enjoy the freedom we now have.
We have our heroes, both political and personal, but for me it is the latter who have always laid the foundation for the private individual to one day become the public, to learn that above all else, it is not impossible to be more than your circumstance.
My father was born on an Afrikaner-owned farm somewhere in the Bermuda-like Triangle of Ventersdorp, Koster and Swartruggens. From his early years it was clear that living as a farmworker and one day raising a family dependent on a piece of land that he did not own could not be all the future held for him.
I do not remember the farm’s name and I don’t think I ever bothered to ask for it. What I do remember, though, are the stories he used to tell me about his life on that farm. His tone never betrayed a hint of bitterness yet I could detect the humiliation and deep-seated pain behind the stories. There’s one of those stories in particular that I will never forget.
One day he decided to pay a visit to his family who still lived on the farm. He had since left for the steadily developing Rustenburg to look for opportunities which would enable him to better his own life and, I suppose, prepare the path for his own children to have a future livelihood far better than his. After walking quite a long distance from the nearest bus stop he arrived on the farm, happy to see his family.
The farmer – “Oubaas” if you may – made the snide remark that he was looking clean and that town living was clearly treating him well. My father merely listened. Oubaas, spurred by his own hubris, then asked in a demeaning way, “Why don’t you paint the house while you are here? Unless, of course, you can now afford to find your family somewhere else to live?” My father refused.
He never told me about the consequences of his refusal but he did say that he knew then that he could never let another man make him feel less than what he was. You would think that with all my father had experienced, he would pass down some sense of unbridled resentment towards those under whom he had suffered.
But he did not. He knew somehow that better days lay ahead and wanted his children to have the kind of options that would open the world to them, where they would live a better life than he did and we do.
And so my turn came to leave home in order to shape my own future. Unlike my father but equally thanks to him, the home I left behind was neither a farm nor the land of another, for it was my own. I came to be aware of the privilege that was involved in such an opportunity despite the difficulties that getting through it entailed. I found myself settling in at a residence named Marula and, as it would later turn out, one of the worst places to be if you were a Tukkies student at the time.
Within days I moved out. If I had to give a reason I think it would be due to the half-hearted remark that I made over the phone to my mother during my brief stay. I informed her that the old nationalist vierkleur flag still had a home in this residence and the treatment of first years was less than palatable given the expectation that we had to learn and sing Afrikaans treffers to the house captains.
Naturally she informed my father, and I do believe his exact words were along the lines of: “Get him out of that place – my son will not be mistreated at the hands of maburu [Afrikaners] as I was.” His past experiences, it seems, had rushed upon him in that moment.
I realised for the first time how he carried within him the burden of that painful past and was unwilling to entertain even the thought of it reincarnating itself in the lives of his children.
Despite our experiences being worlds apart, I understood then as I do now, that I cannot accept any less of myself even in those moments of doubt. Four universities later, I am finally finding my feet, finally finding my voice.
I remember my father’s soft spoken words when he said that what matters most is how much work you put into what you do, especially if it is where your interest and passion reside. Ultimately everything will be okay.
I have carried these words with me ever since.