For many South Africans who grew up in the post-1994 era, the myth of the ‘rainbow nation’ was a cornerstone of their childhood. Naledi Yaziyo reflects on her childhood fascination with people born into exile, and the way her perceptions of shaped her worldview.
Young me was thoroughly seduced by that mysterious country called exile. It seemed so very exotic, especially because I knew nobody who had been. I was told my mother had tried to go but that my grandfather had foiled her plans. I do not know how much truth there is to this. What I do know is that my childhood self could not forgive him, or her for that matter, for not trying hard enough. Who would not want to have the fortune of being born in exile?
The children of exile were all over my 90s and 2000s television screen. They were the beautiful ones who eased us into the rainbow nation and their ease of navigation made me burn with envy. I tried not to think about it, but part of me felt my mother had failed me. If only she had the foresight to choose Umkhonto instead of Poqo. Poor Poqo had left her with nothing but struggle songs and slogan t-shirts.
There he was, Dali Tambo with his lovely lilting English accent, seated on a plush velvety couch from whence he engaged in tender conversations with people who mattered. In the mind of little Naledi, his gently embroidered cushions set him apart from all the men I knew. Men like my uncles with their oil-stained taxi driver hands. Dali’s cushions spoke of an elegant kind of masculinity, evident in the way he carefully crossed his legs mid conversation.
At home, the cushions were called “scatter-cushions” and we did not have any. The only couch we owned had been given to us by a neighbor, mother to one of my best friends. Mother of Ntando worked as a domestic help and the couch was among the many hand-me-downs given to her by her madam and dutifully distributed among the families and children of B10 section, Site C in Khayelitsha.
Sometimes her madam handed down food, exotic dishes like fish that had been baked instead of fried and vegetables that retained their crunch. We did not always enjoy the taste but something about consuming white people’s food fascinated us children, so much that we would move from Mother of Ntando’s house to another neighbor who worked at a restaurant in Cape Town. She usually brought back scraps from the restaurant and it was from one of those scraps that I had my first taste of pizza. I was nine years old and I hated it. After we had each had a taste, we left the disgusting thing outside to be devoured by ants.
Where Dali Tambo oozed English gentility, Lebo Mashile would later bring us oodles of edge and absolute cool. She with the perfect spoken word accent that did not sound fake. She sounded nothing like “amanigga,” the fake wannabe Americans who had never been anywhere but acted like they did not belong here. We laughed at their delusion. Lebo was the real thing and she was so unafraid! She could be in a village one day and an all-white town the next because she was “born to be a traveller, with curiosity” – she was not making this up.
I began carrying a notebook everywhere and took to speaking to older people more, making sure to call them “mama” even if they were not my mother while deliberately smiling with my eyes so they could see just how deeply I appreciated their wisdom – just like Lebo.
All the stuff my grandmother had been teaching me to do anyway signified differently when it was done by a poet in a pair of All Stars and a shweshwe skirt. Something about her Joburg swag and that American spoken word accent made them markers of “consciousness”, not old-fashioned respect. I thought it had something to do with exile. Whatever they had learnt over there seemed to make the ones who were born in exile more beautiful. Everything they did seemed layered, it seemed to mean more in a way that I could not quite access.
I did not know then that scholars like the late Dr Elaine Salo were writing about young people like me who were growing up in the Cape Flats. She wrote about how we consumed the rainbow nation on television and used whatever we could find in our immediate environment to signal that we were also cosmopolitan and with it. She said we redefined our relationships with parents and with boys and girlfriends in our quest for the elusive cosmopolitanism of the rainbow nation, bending our worlds to the will of our make believe cosmopolitan lifestyles.
I don’t know if those other girls and boys thought anything of exile, a concept that was mentioned so frequently on our television screens by way of “When I was in exile” interviews. I certainly did and I thought of it often and with deep envy because as far as I could tell, everyone who mattered had been to exile and all the interesting people were born in exile.
As far as I was concerned, my family would have had scatter-cushions, if only my grandfather had not tampered with my mother’s plans for exile and if only my mother had tried harder to get out.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Mail and Guardian‘s editorial policy.
Naledi Yaziyo has spent a substantive portion of her life chasing scholarships, loans and bursaries so she could at least pass for a coconut or one-who-was-born-in-exile. She is currently battling a case of impostor syndrome at Duke University where she is on a Fulbright Scholarship. Her interests vary but girlhood is her latest fascination and she would like to do more critical thinking about black childhood.