/ 13 April 2016

The powerful lines between structural barriers and personal agency

Friday editor Milisuthando Bongela.
Friday editor Milisuthando Bongela.

When my mother was a little girl in the 1960s, during the Christmas holidays her well-off cousins would visit her rural village and she would entice them to play a game in which they would end up swapping dresses and underwear. For a few minutes, my mother would feel what it was like to wear a new dress and soft cotton panties, a change from the starchy underwear that her grandmother would make for her out of Sasko flour bags.

Before her well-off cousins were well off, they all wore what they called SK panties, named after the brand’s letters that would appear on the back of the panties and which they would gleefully expose when they jumped around during their games, much to the envy of the poorer kids who didn’t have any underwear.

When she was in high school at a boarding school in the Transkei, still poor by the standards of most of the other pupils, she had perfected the skill of hiding her poverty. Her beauty was one of the few qualities that brought her the attention of the shopkeepers’ and businesspeople’s kids, though it was as their sometimes porter, sometimes bed-maker.

Every new term, the pupils would arrive with trunks full of biscuits, canned goods, fruit and other delicacies that she only dreamed of having. To make up for not having a trunk of her own, she would offer to carry those of the others to their lockers as they arrived, praying that they would offer her a treat as a thank-you gesture.

Her luck surprised her one afternoon when she saw that a can of condensed milk had spilled all over the trunk of one of the older pupils. Without any containers to siphon it into, she covertly knelt down into the trunk, gathered the hem of her dress and wiped up the condensed milk with it, making sure that her dress had absorbed all that it could.

She walked away without the trunk’s owner seeing her and ran to a place where she could be alone to sit down and eat her treat. She makes a sucking sound with her mouth as she describes how eagerly she sucked on the bottom of her dress that day, enjoying a treat that she would one day ration for her children.

My mother has many stories like this and without romanticising poverty, my family and I enjoy hearing them almost every holiday when we are together. My aunts and uncles have equally captivating tales.

My mother is a tough woman – the don’t-start-anything-unless-you-plan-to-finish-it type, whether it’s an argument or building a house. She is also a very compassionate person. Recently, she turned 60 and is very proud of how she has lived her life, a life that was no doubt much harder than the one she and my father provided for my siblings and me.

I think of how different our lives are and wonder how I can share some of the things that keep me up at night with the older generations without them dismissing the things that pain me.

My mother doesn’t see the difference between structural barriers and personal agency. For her, when she goes back to her village and is accosted by drunks who used to be better off than her, she blames them for not choosing school, for not passing matric using candlelight, for not pulling themselves up by the bootstraps and “working hard’’ to get themselves out of poverty like she did.

I understand why she thinks like that, but we always disagree. From where she’s standing, she had more barriers placed in front of her success and yet she made it.

This makes me think of our country. I wonder if that’s how the older generations see young people or if that’s how white people see black people, or how men see women or how heterosexual people see queer people – from a perspective of: “We sent you to white schools, we gave you political power, we gave you jobs, we gave you constitutional rights – what are you complaining about?’’

We have an intergenerational, interracial, interclass, intergender gap in our society, at the source of which are the strange lines between structural barriers (economic apartheid, patriarchy and so on) and personal agency (your own ability to overcome challenges). Those lines are always controlled by the powerful, who have the incredible talent of making the oppressed think in a mea culpa mentality while they, the powerful, maintain the tua culpa economy that our country functions on.

Iimbali, a regular column by Friday editor Milisuthando Bongela, is a space for stories and other narrative-based social analysis.