/ 8 September 2017

How do we live hopefully in a difficult world?

Friday editor Milisuthando Bongela.
Milisuthando (Photo: Delwyn Verasamy/ M&G)

Lately, the word “process’’ has been perched on almost every one of my thoughts about questions large and small. At the base of my mind, like a musical programme that dictates the rhythm to my being, the questions “Who are we? Where do we come from? and Why are we here?’’ are permanently playing.

On another level, I pose and take heed of another question in my daily life: “Why did my soul choose to come into this body, which they call black and female in this particular country and in this period in history, and how do these physical and geographical attributes relate to what my soul wants?” And, on yet another level, I ask: “What does my soul want?”

I believe this is how I have been able to process the existence of and establish a way to respond to South Africa’s pathologies of racism and putrid misogyny. In an attempt to remember that I am not just a physical body with five senses and a brain and a skin that looks out into the world like a sore to be dealt with, I have been thinking about a question a friend posed when we were sitting on her floor eating a soup that either she or I had made. I can’t remember.

“What is the difference between blackness and Africanness?” my friend asked. “What if I would like to explore being an African and live from that mindset?”

I have been thinking about this for weeks. This is because, if I only learnt that I am “black” at the age of eight when I first went to a model C school after growing up in the Xhosa Transkei, how do the formative years when I was umntu, just a person, shape my current ideas about how to understand my current existence? What does it mean to rescue your authentic self from your physical self. Where is the grain and where is the chaff?

Being human is not an event. It is a process of traversing a timeline where suffering is as much of a fact as laughter. How the two relate to each other in South Africa is a gift for us on our journey as people who have been forced by history to share proximity as black people and white people, as men and women, as beings.

In hindsight, it feels like the greatest mistake of our democracy was to give a date to the “end of our suffering” and mark it in history as “over” in 1994, when our racial engineering has been in our minds, hearts and hands as citizens for three centuries. By doing so, and by inventing a narrative of a new country, we set ourselves up for the fall we are currently undergoing, where the screws seem to be coming loose on more fronts than our expectations can handle.

Had the wise people who understood that the unfolding of South Africa’s racial and gendered history is a process and not an event been allowed to raise their red flags higher, we might have a more mature outlook than the fear-mongering and dichotomous narrative we have built for ourselves, where things on a daily basis in the news are either absolutely amazing, funny, excellent or an absolute disaster, typical “I want to leave” bad.

For us who are here today, who have inherited a school of problems, how do we live well in the middle, in the grey, in the mess that our ancestors collectively bequeathed us? Things are difficult. But how do we bring up healthy, loving, caring children in safe households? How do we cultivate our humanity, this ubuntu we are so famous for inside this difficult country? Where is the room for hope and how do we deploy it in our work?

I must have sounded crazy in the newsroom on Monday when, in the midst of discussing the Cyril Ramaphosa story, I asked my colleagues: “How is our journalism helping people, how is it healing their pain?” Is it journalism’s role to heal people’s pain? I don’t know.

As long as we imagine power, for example, to be big houses, cars, attending private and former model  C schools — the things that white South Africans gave to themselves for the past three centuries — we risk disappointing ourselves.

It is already evidenced by the result of late neoliberalism on our new democracy. Capitalism sees and cares for no colour or ideology — it co-opts anything that will feed it. Just the other day I saw a T-shirt in Woolworths on which was written “Conscious and Cool”.

Today, some black people have houses and cars and we are able to go overseas for holidays, pursue any career we want to and get married on expensive, white-owned Cape wine farms and appear on Top Billing. And yet mental illness, despair, loneliness, suicide and poverty of character and spirit and mind abound.

Being able to have that kind of power — possessions, money, having “made it” — has not healed our pain.

What do we do to imagine another kind of power? How can this power intersect with the idea of healing that we all need on an individual level?

The reason I love and will dedicate my life to the arts is because art is the thing that keeps us human. It’s next to spirituality and the pursuit of God, in my mind.

But, in the 21st century, where art has been successfully commodified into the gallery system, how do we find solace in its ability to help us, to heal us? Galleries are not evil. But it is clear that contemporary art is done more for its financial value than it is to be accessed and used by people.

In the process of trying to understand my role in all of this, I also ask myself: What has capitalism not co-opted yet? What can capitalism not reach so easily at the moment?

For now, it seems as if capitalism has not commodified fully the ways in which we can heal ourselves, the ways in which we can survive this world next to each other.

Bar medicinal forms of healing, capitalism has not commodified human traits such as hugging and talking to each other. It has not commodified looking into each other’s eyes or setting up circles to talk, purge and excavate the crevices of our hearts where love resides. We can still pursue those ways of being as a way to survive, if we are to live in the grey space of unfolding our pathologies as a political process.