Growing up in the Transkei was bittersweet
I couldn’t believe my luck when I came across freshly uploaded episodes of the popular late 1980s Xhosa drama Linempoxo Ke Isiko on YouTube recently. Since this fateful finding, I have travelled to a forgotten part of my memory, recalled a sealed section of our nation’s history and lived in a disappeared world masterfully presented by the matrix of manipulation that was the National Party’s SABC.
I love the show but I have been questioning my enjoyment of something that was funded by and endorsed by the apartheid government, the way I question enjoying my childhood, which doesn’t quite match the narrative of deprivation and entropy synonymous with black life during apartheid.
Set in an unnamed village in the Transkei, the story is about Fikile and Xola, two young lovers determined to marry against the wishes of Xola’s parents, who have revived an old tradition and promised her to Vuyo, a man she does not love in exchange for financial gain from the arranged marriage. At its core though, the story revolves around the social dilemmas of the time — the battle between tradition and modernity and how a thriving Xhosa society in the Transkei was responding to a changing world.
Before I can proceed to the bottom line, I just want to acknowledge three facts about the series. One, it was written by a woman, (Maureen Gxoyiya) as were a number of similar shows at the time such as Ityala Lamawele, Ululu Ubuyile and Undenzani Melwane. Two, the leads were natural haired and ebony coloured.
And three, it featured an all-Xhosa cast dealing with seemingly provincial and surmountable issues that allowed viewers to escape into a beguiling world that was probable and relatable. No, the daily social dilemmas of the people of 1980s Transkei did not revolve around apartheid. This is what is unsettling me.
My fascination with this show as an adult appeals to the reality that “uninterrupted’’ black life was once upon a time for some people.
The Bantustan experience is a narrative I have found to be lacking in the national discourse about apartheid in modern South Africa. While criminally unjust segregation can never be justified, the black experience of apartheid was not homogenous.
I was born in 1985. The year I became conscious of racism was 1993 when my family moved to East London in “South Africa’’ from Butterworth in the Transkei. The white neighbours didn’t waste time in showing us who they were when my family moved into “their’’ suburb and we had our entire house egged on our second day there.
This kind of cruelty was new to me. It provoked the development of an inferiority complex that would plague me for exactly 20 years.
In the Transkei, I grew up around black people. My parents were educated. They had jobs. My father was a lecturer at the University of Transkei and my mother was a teacher. The sight of a graduation gown was normal. We had dessert on Sundays and played the piano as children. They went to Spain on their honeymoon. We lived in a peach-coloured house with white pillars in the front and two garages with two cars. We had a television and land with fruit trees, vegetables and livestock on it on both sides of my family.
My mother had a vanity case. My father had a study. We did our hair and dressed up for holidays. I had a happy childhood in a culpable society, one that was fundamentally wrong but superficially right.
The series, and the likes of other shows like Bophelo Ke Semphekgo for the people of Bophuthatswana, was loosely based on the idea of a self-referential blackness, the opposite of the stowaway blackness of urban post-apartheid blackness.
Unlike The Cosby Show, where the Huxtables were created as a reaction to the negative imagining of blackness in America, these and similar shows were about black life only and its auxiliary characteristics and challenges far away from whiteness.
This is not to absolve whiteness in South Africa of its pedigree racism, nor to award it for the successes of its ideology of separate development, but to elicit nuance into the lived experiences of apartheid, in the same way that not all white, Indian or coloured experiences were the same.
To have seen black love thriving on screen, where a man lovingly referred to his woman as inzwakazi (ethereal godly woman) or intyatyambo (flower) made the idea of healthy, loving relationships between black people normal — a far cry from the popular narratives on television today, where black love and black domestic life is doused in the soap opera narratives of infidelity, deceit and betrayal. This is just one example of how a single narrative of black life has come to represent all narratives and experiences of black life, which is dishonest. Iimbali, a regular column by Friday editor Milisuthando Bongela, is a space for stories and other narrative-based social analysis