/ 13 May 2016

Chewing the land fat (and fillet)

Athol Trollip and Veliswa Mvenya.
Athol Trollip and Veliswa Mvenya.

A Johannesburg restaurant, 30 people and a hot topic. At dinner on an icy Monday night, Ntokozo Qwabe took a back seat as people who support him united for one goal: to talk frankly about the land issue.

The waiter arrives, an apron slung around his waist. Plates of food balance expertly on his arm, most of them richly portioned with fillets of succulent steak, shoestring chips and crisp Greek salads.

The food is delivered to the patrons, who sit awkwardly, eyes darting about, searching for that first brave soul who will put fork to mouth. Minutes later, the clatter of cutlery on plates commences.

The guests, many of whom work in academia, politics or in the corporate world, are waiting for someone to speak, to take that first dive into the burning question: land.

Most of them are black, with the exception of one white guest who sympathises with their cause. Blackness, they say, is the understanding of black rage and of colonialism, apartheid and their legacies.

An older guest rises, saying his blackness is in the early hour a black person awakes, hurries to catch a train that will leave late and then arrives at work, only to be asked why he or she is not on time. It is also in the act of asking for land reparation – after a history of dispossession – only to be told they are racist for doing so, he continues.

Their table is in the middle of the Europa restaurant in Rosebank and white people, most of them elderly, sit around, separate from the gathering.

As one guest after another slowly stands up to speak, the other people in the restaurant stop and stare, side-eyeing them with curiosity, exasperation and visible annoyance.

“There are people who think it’s enough if I can go to a mall and just afford a few things there. They think asking about the land is to ask for too much and we must just be grateful,” says a young man who hails from a village in KwaZulu-Natal.

“Izwe [land],” Qwabe quietly responds, sitting between guests at the long table. He occasionally bites his nails as speakers stand up, but it’s more out of habit than nerves.

The message at the table is clear: black man, you are not on your own. The discussion that takes place is almost a replica of the conversation Qwabe and his friend Wandile Dlamini would have had at Obz Café prior to the infamous note being scribbled on the bill.

This is the first time Qwabe has publicly spoken out since the furore around what is now known as “Tipgate” unfolded. He animatedly relates what happened at the restaurant in Observatory, Cape Town, from his perspective: it’s not about the waitress; it’s not a personal attack – it’s an issue of land.

“No one has had a discussion about land as a result of this,” one of the younger guests at the table says.

It’s a topic many of them find hard to believe has been ignored, because land – and not race – is what Qwabe says led to the incident where Dlamini, a transgender Rhodes Must Fall activist at the University of Cape Town, wrote on the bill that they would not tip the waitress until the land was returned to black people.

Each person at the table knows that they are a part of a discussion that many have not had the opportunity to openly enjoy. They come from various backgrounds: homelands, cities and suburbs. Some rely on public transport, while others have their own cars. Although their ages range from mid-20s to late 40s, they are united for the same goal: to discuss the question of land in South Africa.

A basket containing R6?000 is at the end of the table under the responsibility of Gugu Selela, an international relations graduate from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, who organised the dinner. It is the amount of money the dinner will cost, and each guest has paid R200 to be there.

And yes, the waiter did get a tip.

There’s a “so what?” approach to the money in the basket. That black people can buy dinner at a restaurant is irrelevant to this group, some of whom don tailored suits while others dress in beanies and frayed jerseys. Land, they say, is tied to their identity and to the violent legacy of apartheid and colonialism that ensures most black South Africans remain dispossessed.

“The issue of land is going to be a very difficult road for you to travel. Without land nothing will come, nothing will change. Thank you for allowing us to breathe again, because some of us for 20-odd years could never mention land,” says an erect older woman who works in the corporate sector.

When a break is announced, some order coffee while others step outside for a cigarette. So far, the discussion has centred on the meaning of blackness, land and the celebration of Qwabe and Dlamini’s act. There’s a nervous energy about what it will take to get land back – what actions will have to be taken?

One young man, in his 20s, rises at the table after everyone returns to their seats, and the ambient chatter dims.

“If white people cannot relinquish their power, their privileges, they must be forcefully removed from the position from where they come. That’s something that we need to understand,” he says. “We cannot just sit around a table discussing this issue; we are going to take the land the way Mugabe and his people did.”

There’s a beat of awkward silence, and some people appear uncomfortable before Selela rises and asks the group whether these meetings should be held every month. Each discussion will take place in a similar setting: an open public space seen to be exclusive to a privileged group of South Africans. The discussions, the group agrees, will be a disruption of that very status quo.

At 10pm, the group starts to leave. There’s a final united chorus of “Izwe lethu! iAfrika [Our land! Africa],” and a few more selfies with Qwabe, before everyone is gone.

The waiter remains, clearing the table. “I like it,” he said. “This is what needs to happen.”