NATIVE TONGUE Bafana Khumalo
I AM walking down the street, hand in hand with my dearly beloved, gingerly stepping over the brownish water from the burst sewerage pipe. The water is coursing down in-between the matchbox houses to rest in little potholes, whereupon it collects into pungent dams in the middle of the street. It’s another day in a paradise gone to hell. The Nationalists built it for us and called it Soweto. We found ourselves in this paradise and called it home.
Here we fall in and out of love, going through the motions of what we have fashioned into a life. Like my dearly beloved and I, trying to look as cool as ice while listening to the voices of Bra Oupa and Sis Zanele raised in argument as they fight over the number of beers each is supposed to have consumed the previous day. Bra Oupa thinks that giving Sis Zanele a klap once so often is the thing to do for it teaches her to respect him. “You’ve to teach them who wears the pants in the house,” he always says to me during our occasional male bonding sessions.
This guide to teaching the female doesn’t seem to work, for – – in the five years that I have known them — she seems to be quite convinced that he is living proof that God is a malevolent being who is given to playing practical jokes on some people by conveniently forgetting to place brains in the cavity of their skulls. So, whenever she speaks to him she always raises her voice and swears at him in such navy blue language she would make any self respecting sailor turn green with envy. She deftly swings her tongue around the most obscene of images and flings them at him with a passion that is reserved for the vilest of nauseating animals. Ah, old love in action! Is that not a beautiful sight to behold?
My dearly beloved and I disregard this soap opera as we stage our own, holding hands, sighing — in-between cursing the municipality for not fixing the drains — and she listening to my blatant lies. Lies like, “I will always be true to you and will never even glance at another person.”
This scene of tranquil township Mills & Boon, sound-tracked by a domestic opera, is interrupted — rudely if I say so myself — by the presence of a passing bus, packed with gawking, badly dressed tourists. (Why do tourists arrogate themselves the right to dress up in a manner that is likely to get them slapped with a public indecency charge back home?) These deutschmark, pound and dollar laden people, their cameras in overdrive, click away in a collective orgasmic frenzy, preserving the moment.
This moment is to be used as a potent weapon back home, boring families and friends. These people will politely listen to the tales of what happened while trying to steal glances at their watches, wondering what they have done in a previous life to deserve this.
In the safety of their tour bus, these moving monuments to bad taste ooh and ahh trying to understand these wonders of the Third World: they walk and talk!
This is what my nightmares are made of. Usually, I feel like taking a panga and launching a totally racist, xenophobic attack on the people. The only thing that stops me from doing it is that I would not like to lose my carefully cultivated image as the strong and silent type. It’s difficult to maintain that image with a panga in your hand.
Besides, the tourists would understand my anger at white people who have oppressed me all my life; it’s hip these days to understand black anger and there is nothing as infuriating as anger which is reduced to a sociological phenomenon. Or my running berserk would be used as another moment in the adventure, to be related immediately after the story about the charging rhino or the lion who, in two gulps, devoured a zebra.
Soweto is, and has been for a long time, a tourist attraction spot and I have seen all the types, including the Wits activists who, in their attempt truly to comprehend the effects of oppression, would jump into a bus and spend a day empathising and then promptly forget about it.
The most infuriating visitor is the foreign traveller who places a tour to Soweto in his or her itinerary just between the visit to the museum and the game reserve.
The business people will say that the tourists are bringing in much needed foreign currency and I should be glad that they are boosting the economy of the country. The socially conscious South African will say something to the effect that it is important for cultural exchanges between peoples. That is fine but I wonder how much cultural exchange there is through the camera lenses and the windows of an air- conditioned bus. The foreign exchange and the cultural exchanges notwithstanding, my dream is that, like the affluent areas in this country, my home town will cease to be a mandatory stop in the itinerary of any tourist. You see, I want to stage my love affair in peace, but I suppose that is too much to ask.