/ 4 November 2016

Living your best life while your country burns

Friday editor Milisuthando Bongela.
Friday editor Milisuthando Bongela.

On the day I found out that Shaeera Kalla was shot, Busisiwe Seabe was stun-grenaded and Benjamin Lesedi Phehla was fatally run over, I received a phone call from a decent-sounding middle-aged white woman. “Hello, is this Miss Milli B? I’m calling to invite you to a networking session hosted by ___ Coffee. Is this a good time to talk?” I am not proud of how impatient I was with her but my response has since left me questioning. “This isn’t a good time to talk but this is also not the time to be having coffee-fuelled socials. Our country is in crisis,’’ I said.

But I don’t blame her for calling me. I have long enjoyed the fruits of being the go-to black girl for brands.

I am 31. I have been thinking about the fact that we, the blacks of my generation, thrive on the islands of middle-class accomplishment and have mastered the art of living for ourselves too. Just like the white people we like to castigate. Fine. As we say: “Siyasebenza, only rest in Dezemba.’’

But it’s quite obvious from how we live our lives that there isn’t something that we are collectively fighting for and are collectively giving up for other generations beyond ourselves.

There have been many times when I’ve had to stop myself at the door of reality when talking about the current students and their generational demands and struggles. It’s not my struggle.

For a long time, I thought of my three years at the University Currently Known as Rhodes (Uckar) as the best three years of my life. I had that dreamy university experience and I don’t regret it. But I also realise that my black friends and I did nothing to complicate the problematic Uckar experience from a political perspective.

And 10 years later, nothing urgently compels me to live for anyone beyond myself except my blooming political consciousness. So far, it’s been about My Career. My Car. My House. My Holiday. My Medical Aid. My Family. My Flat-Screen Life.

We’ve become the individualised, nuclear models of neoliberalism and are trapped between those who were striking in 1976 and those who are striking in 2016. Bar the birth of the EFF, what is the generational exchange between us and our parents, and us and our younger siblings? What are we doing for citizens beyond ourselves? We were impressed by the girls of Pretoria Girls High, but what have we done as a generation to protect them against a beast we have also encountered?

We are not bad people. Neoliberal capitalism was the Snapchat of the political world in the early 1990s, the app that all countries were downloading. There was no way Nelson Mandela’s new government was going to avoid that successfully. And so we are the data of that project.

What will history say about us? That we were masters at being cute with our natural hair and ombre weaves? That we had the right to experience peace because our parents fought for it? That our lifestyles kept Top Billing on air? We have, no doubt, left crumbs of wisdom for the 13-year-olds to pick up and platforms for the 21-year-olds to look up to.

But I’m tired of our useless gatherings, of sparkling wine-filled boozy lunches and cured meats. It’s nice to know the taste of eisbein and Graham Beck’s Brut. But to what end? We know so much. About everything. Iconic revolutionaries. The fees movement. The potato boycott. Which YouTube link has all the Stokely Carmichael speeches. Helen Sebidi. Aquaponics. Leica AGs and in which aisle at Thrupps one will find the Boursin cheese. But what is our collective agenda?

Our parents have different reasons to spend their money. Some went to jail or knew the humiliation of being exiled inside and outside their home countries. They have a different relationship with umlungu. But we have played with her, slept in his bed, drunk whisky at his company’s retreat and done our nails with her.

We were luckier. We want the land, but do we have a plan for what we are going to do on it when we get it?

And some, like me, are not landless. What am I building, knowing that on both my parents’ sides, there is free, available land on which I can build?