Chibundu Onuzo | Longreads | July 2018 | 17 minutes (4,340 words)
The invitation was for a literary festival in Durban. I had never heard of Durban. Only Johannesburg and Cape Town, but I knew South Africa like I knew my grandfather who died before I was born. If he walked into a room, I would recognize his voice and the cut of his suit from the stories my mother had told me.
I knew Mandela for the icon that he was. His image dangling from a leather chain. Mandela on a flag, fluttering. Mandela on a T-shirt, stretched across two pectorals. The man smiled and his eyes disappeared behind the smile. His teeth looked strong. Twenty-seven years without a dentist. A miracle.
I knew something of the struggle against apartheid. Growing up, our video collection was small. We watched Sarafina and Sister Act 2 until the images were blurred by gray static. Whoopi Goldberg played the lead in both movies, cast twice as an inspirational teacher. Sarafina was grimmer than the second Sister Act but only by a few shades. An African township versus an American inner city. Either way, almost everyone was musical and black.
I knew a few South Africans. After I’d moved to England, I met them in London. They were young, white, healthy, educated, and in exile from black South Africa. They couldn’t get jobs in their country. They couldn’t get the jobs they felt they deserved. For some, scions of wealthy land-owning or mine-owning families, their stay in England was to gain “international exposure” in a multinational company, to mark time before they took over the family business. For others, their exile was permanent. There was no place for them in a South Africa, where they would no longer automatically be at the front of the queue. Any bad news from home was met with a sort of schadenfreude. It was proof that they had been right to leave. The country was going to the dogs under black rule.
I was hostile when I met these white South Africans. It wasn’t my land, but it was my struggle, as it was the struggle of the thousands of black Africans who had donated financially to the anti-apartheid cause. The grievance was ours.
My flight to Johannesburg lasted 11 hours. I chose a window seat. My neighbor wanted to talk. It was his first visit home after a long absence.
“How about you?”
“Same,” I lied.
They don’t like Nigerians in South Africa, my mother had warned me before I left. She’d made us learn the South African anthem in 1994 when the country became democratic and official apartheid ended. She felt the tremors in Lagos when the last colonial outpost in Africa came tumbling down. She felt it deeply. And yet, 20 years later, she warned me: They don’t like Nigerians there.
I discovered this at immigration.
“Your return ticket.”
“I’m sorry I haven’t printed it. But I will be leaving in two weeks’ time.”
“You don’t have a return ticket, we deport you.”
They don’t like Nigerians in South Africa, my mother had warned me before I left. She’d made us learn the South African anthem in 1994 when the country became democratic and official apartheid ended.
“I’m sorry I didn’t realize I had to print it out.”
“We will deport you back to Nigeria.”
“I live in England. If you’re deporting me anywhere, you take me back to London,” I said, losing grip of the deference that Nigerians feign when we pass through border control.
Eventually they let me through. I circled the arrival area, looking for my name on a placard. Various men approached me.
“You want a cab?”
I shook my head but did not speak. When I found the driver holding my name on a sign, he congratulated me. He’d noticed me circling.
“I like the way you were focused. Some people, they’ll stop and be chatting to strangers and telling them their business.”
I was pleased. In a crowd of travellers, he’d spotted that I was different. I’d known how to walk in an international airport since I was 5. Mind your business. Don’t talk to strangers. Avoid eye contact. Airports are hostile environments when you move through the world with a Nigerian passport.
For my week in Johannesburg, I stayed in the home of a Nigerian couple. They were young, wealthy, and generous. They had sons who were excited to meet me but intuitively understood that houseguests guard their privacy from house children. When I was in communal areas, we asked each other questions about our lives but when I retreated to my room, they let me be. There was a swimming pool outside my window. I never swam in it but I looked out on the water when I wrote. Surely, this was the South African dream. Except even in this home, my hosts said to me, “They don’t like Nigerians here. They see us and think we’re coming here to take something. But we’re just hard-working. We’re black like them. We don’t have any skin advantage. I work hard, I get something, then you say I’ve stolen it.”
I needed a sim card, so I took a cab to the mall and went to the MTN mobile-phone store. The attendant was tall and slim, dressed in a tailored shirt and trousers that showed off his figure. A dandy, even in the drab office colors of his uniform.
“Where’s your old sim? It may still be working.”
“I’ve been away.” I said.
He replied me in Xhosa. I stared blankly.
“Where you from?” he asked.
“We’re all from Africa. Mama Africa. You’re beautiful. I like your style.” I had to come back the next day with my passport. I couldn’t get a sim without a passport ID.
“But you look South African,” he said, accusatorily, the next afternoon. My rounded cheeks and tan complexion had deceived him.
“You know, Nigerian men, they’re always coming here and marrying South African girls. So it’s time for a balance. Nigerian girls must marry South African men too.”
He lowered his voice and looked me straight in the eye. You could tell he did this with other women. It was quite effective.
“Who told you we want South African men?” I asked, dropping my volume to match his.
“Everyone wants us. We’re good.”
I felt cornered into a flirtation I had no real interest in. I wanted to shop.
“Please help me put the sim in my phone,” I said, loudly enough for his colleague to hear.
When I left the store, I walked around the mall and bore witness to Mandela’s rainbow nation. It was there in the cafés and in the designer stores and in the food court, black families mixed with Indian couples and white teenagers, all milling, drifting, and looking prosperous. But the attendants, the cleaners, the security guards, the silent, uniformed masses that picked up after and cleaned up after and made this glittering mall run, they were all black. The roots of the rainbow, where it sank into the earth, those roots were still black.
I made my pilgrimage to Soweto, starting with Nelson Mandela’s home on Vilakazi Street. It was so small. For such a tall man, such small rooms. A few years later, I saw his prison cell on Robben Island. I thought, not that much smaller than the bedroom of his home. That was the point of the apartheid system: to contract all space for black people, to squash us into native reserves and shrink us into three rooms for two families.
I visited the Apartheid Museum. There was a narrative of progress in the museum’s curation. As you walked through each exhibit, you moved a step forward until you reached the pinnacle, Mandela at the helm, free at last, thank God almighty we’re free at last. I also went to the Hector Pieterson Museum, where the forward narrative was replaced by the sheer brutality of the apartheid state. Children were killed because they refused to learn their lessons in Afrikaans. There was no meaning to it. Children were killed, including Hector Pieterson.
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I left that museum angry. The debt for those dead children had not yet been paid. The advent of democracy in 1994 was only a promissory note, a contract for future payments that were yet to materialize. I left understanding Julius Malema, the radical, rotund politician, who appeared to want to drive every white South African into the sea. His rage was markedly different from Mandela’s twinkled, Zen disposition. Malema, Mandela: two sides of a political coin. Malema had a following of young men and women who wore red berets, the uniform of all aspiring revolutionaries since Ché.
Under the African National Congress, life had gotten better for black South Africans, if you measure using the metrics of number of indoor toilets built and number of black millionaires created. But change was too slow and it was not widespread enough. There was not enough of the dream for millions of black South Africans. They had not tasted the dreams that come from deep sleep. Only the vague, dim sensations that flit across your mind when you doze off, restless on a couch.
After I left the Hector Pieterson Museum, I was particularly struck by the statues of Mandela: in front of malls, in front of office blocks, in front of government buildings. I posed beside a few, then grew tired of the exercise. Mandela was the symbol of the entire apartheid struggle. It is the way official history works. Anne Frank is a symbol representing every Jewish child that died in the Holocaust. Better one than none. But who chooses the one? Who decides Mandela and not Luthuli, or Sobukwe, or Biko? If any one of these other men had lived to emerge the leader of post-apartheid South Africa, who can tell what might have been? And not to talk of the women. What of Winnie; what of Victoria Mxenge? The victors write the official history. The vanquished rail outside the history books. We were there too.
While I was in Johannesburg, I tried to see things that could not be put in a museum, things that could not be pinned down in a tourist guidebook with a glossy photograph and a three-line caption. And so when a South African friend offered to show me the Central Business District, I said yes. We travelled “authentically,” in what she called a taxi and I called a danfo.
The Central Business District (CBD) was as the name implied: shops, high-rise buildings, downtown Manhattan but grimier. The buildings were tall but many were run-down. Almost everyone was black. Mandela’s rainbow was gone. For the first time, I felt like I was in Africa. An old lady roasted corn on the pavement. Bootlegged DVDs were thrust in my face. I might as well have been back home in Lagos. I clutched my bag and put on my resting face. We went to an authentic South African shop where I wanted to buy an authentic South African skirt and some authentic South African jewelry. The attendants and tailors in the store were South African, but the owner was Nigerian.
That was the point of the apartheid system: to contract all space for black people, to squash us into native reserves and shrink us into three rooms for two families.
Although apartheid is officially over, some black South Africans feel that they are still fighting for the crumbs that spill off white South Africa’s table. And to join them for these scraps have come all the Africans from the nearby countries of Zimbabwe and Zambia, and from places further afield, like Nigeria. These Africans were formerly kept out by apartheid’s walls and now they are here, jostling and shoving. In South Africa today, surely the tourist market for South African clothing would be an industry in which a black South African could go unchallenged? Except even here, the Nigerians had come. In the townships, black foreigners have been “necklaced,” burned to death with tires smouldering around their necks. We sheltered your runaways during the struggle; we sent our money to the cause, and now we must have our share of the slim spoils. We are not welcome and yet we are here, selling your clothes. I spoke some Igbo to my compatriots and got the skirt at a discount.
My guide took me to Maboneng, a gentrified enclave of the CBD. There was art on the walls, a particularly arresting painting of a naked black woman done in Technicolor. There were cafes with seats spilling out onto the pavement, with white, black, and brown patrons. A blue-eyed brunette walked past us in a fur coat, her heels tapping on the concrete. She looked at our black bodies and pulled her coat tight. It was a reflex that did not gel with our integrated surroundings. We watched her until she was gone.
“She looks like she swallowed a diamond,” my guide said.
I had some book readings and media appearances in Johannesburg that were arranged for me by Zukiswa, a South African writer, and Solomon, a Nigerian who worked in P.R. I gave a private reading in the town house of a Zimbabwean who worked at a multinational company. There were about 30 people crowded into her large living room. They were young and black and healthy and prosperous, the ones who had risen to take the jobs of the white exiles now in London. They were not self-conscious in this space. Everybody in the room could afford to rent or buy their own plush accommodation. Everyone in the room could tell you which cheese went with which wine. But outside was a South Africa in which they had to explain themselves and their choices.
They did not want to assimilate. The apartheid struggle was too recent. It was still too dangerous to disappear into a white culture, eager to point out how articulate they were, how different from the norm. And yet, they could not remain in the townships, could not remain in the lives their parents had struggled to build under apartheid. Human beings must move in the direction they perceive to be forward. The suburbs signified progress, and so they must migrate, black pioneers under siege, small islands in a sea of white suspicion.
After my reading, the organizer drove me back to the Nigerian couple’s home. They were away that night but their maid, a Nigerian, had been asked to wait up for me. I pressed the bell. No response. I dialed her number. No response. I decided to climb over their iron gate. I had some experience in climbing over locked gates at the Imperial College Library. The gate was not that high but it was spiked at the top. I hesitated at the crucial moment, the point where you swing your leg over and there’s no turning back. I was wearing jeans, the only pair I had brought. They might rip from the stress. They weren’t made for burglars. And then I paused. Burglary.
What would the neighbors in this white suburb make of this? At that moment, hovering before the pivotal leg swing, I embodied the fear of many affluent white South Africans: the fear of the black intruder. Who knew what local Oscar Pistorius was watching me at that very moment, training my figure in his crosshairs. I looked down, half afraid to see a red-laser dot dancing on my torso.
“I don’t think I can do it,” I called out to the organizer, waiting patiently in her car. “Let me try calling again.”
I met a very attractive South African man. He was in the audience at one my readings. He asked a question that I thought was insightful. It was my fantasy: Meet a hot guy at a reading, exchange numbers and then… my imagination didn’t extend much further than that. We spoke afterward. He was even better looking up close. I did not feel the same could be said for me. I was wearing the one pair of jeans I had brought, and I had done two radio interviews that day. He asked me neutral questions about my book and my trip. When he said goodbye, he reached for a hug. We held each other briefly, then he was gone, without asking for my number. There went my fantasy.
Except, as these things happen, we had a mutual friend, and I mentioned to her that I thought he was hot. She gave him my number and the rest has been reenacted in every American teen movie. I went on a few dates, with this stranger I had just met. I was 22 at the time and a little giddy from my daring. He was in his late 20s. He had worked in corporate South Africa. There were scars. He had seen the word kaffir in a text between two colleagues. The word kaffir is as bad in South Africa as nigger, perhaps worse. The colleagues were his friends, or he’d thought they were.
“I’m sorry man. Not you. I’d never mean you.”
He wasn’t a kaffir then. He played rugby and football and had a university degree. But maybe his mother was one.
We went to church together. We went shopping together. He bought me a T-shirt with Mandela’s face on it. I went with him on a house viewing. The real estate agent must have thought we were a couple. She addressed herself to both of us. She invited me to admire the large bedroom windows and the high ceilings. I nodded but did not speak, afraid I would burst out laughing and spoil the game. It was a game. I could not move to South Africa and he could not move to London.
He took me to the airport when I was leaving. We stood in the parking lot, drawing out our final moments. We both knew. Long-distance relationships built on a week in Johannesburg generally don’t work. Unless one party has a private jet or a million airline miles.
A white man in his late 30s or early 40s approached us with two children trailing behind him.
“Sorry man, sorry to bother you. I just got off the plane with the kids and I lost my wallet and I need some money for the taxi home. Can you spare some rand?”
I didn’t have any cash but I knew the man whose arm was slung around my waist must have some. I nudged him. His body was tense, angry.
“No cash,” he said.
When the man was gone, I asked, “Why didn’t you give him something?”
“He just got off a flight? Where’s his luggage. Come up to me with some shit story. He couldn’t ‘lower’ himself to beg from a black man.”
Of course. The children were barefoot. There were no suitcases and their clothes were dirty and stained. Had the beggar been black, perhaps my holiday boyfriend would not have needed him to surrender his dignity in exchange for some change. He would have let the man save face in front of his children. It was the kaffir text. Not just that one text. Other things like it, over years, over decades.
My hotel in Durban overlooked the beach. I could see the ocean from my window. The guest list for the festival was international. There were writers from Europe, America, other African countries, and of course South Africa. It was a full schedule. In the evenings, we spoke on panels. In the daytimes, we visited schools and university campuses.
I like school visits. They can be a wonderful boost to your ego. The teachers are like hype men. For at least a week, they have been prepping the class: An author is coming all the way from London to talk to you, to sit here in this very classroom and tell you what it’s like to be an international writer. When I arrive, I feel like Beyoncé. When I am leaving, students trail after me, giving me diaries and notebooks and pieces of paper to autograph.
Once, I am sitting in a classroom, waiting for students to arrive when three girls walk in. They are at the age when they must move in a pack, walking three abreast, arms linked, holding on to each other for support. I ask them if they’re here for my class. No, they are not, but they do not leave. They want to talk to me. They like my clothes and my earrings and my scarf and my hair.
“You’re so pretty,” one says.
They are not just admiring me, but also the way I have put myself together, this public version of myself. I should have told them pretty helps but it’s a tool made of soft metal. It bends if you put too much force on it. Use pretty if you must, but find stronger tools.
They leave and my class arrives. They are the born-frees, children born after 1994. Apartheid was so brutal that almost anything is progress. They can come to school without being shot. Progress. They have desks, chairs, and paper to write on. Progress. But do they have access to the same opportunities as the average white South African child born after 1994? No. Do they have access to half those opportunities? To a quarter of them? We talk about writing and books and music. We make a deal: I’ll sing for them, if they’ll sing for me. At the end, we stand in a line and take a photograph. I link arms with the student on either side. I still have that photo somewhere on my Instagram.
At an evening panel, the topic of discussion is the rather turgid: “Humor in South Africa.” A white audience member asks a question. He is South African but has lived abroad for many years. He is home on holiday. “When is it going to be okay for white South Africans to use the word kaffir? Like in a joke or whatever.”
A murmur of anger sweeps through the room, then people start shouting. The moderator calls for order. A man in a back row rises. I wonder if I’m about to witness my first race riot. I don’t have enough space on my phone to film it. When the moderator finally manages to restore quiet, she gives the floor to a young bespectacled black woman, who articulates our anger clearly and calmly.
“Why does the right to use that word signify progress to you? Why are you so desperate to use a word that for generations was used to demean and dehumanize black people?”
Guilt is a funny emotion. It rarely leads to action, because the very emotion of guilt can be given as proof of action. ‘I feel bad so take my feeling bad as restitution.’
I don’t meet many white South Africans on my trip, but the few I interact with are all uneasy with the past. There are some, like this provocateur, who want to reclaim a word that is not his to reclaim. There are others who live apologetically in their lives of ease. And there are yet still others who pretend that South Africa was born in 1994. They act as if there has always been a black President and every structural inequality you see today is the fault of the ANC and its corruption, not the long-dead, historical artifact that was apartheid. And what they are all wrestling with, in their different ways, is guilt: guilt for past crimes and present inequalities, guilt for land stolen generations ago and wealth appropriated more recently.
But guilt is a funny emotion. It rarely leads to action, because the very emotion of guilt can be given as proof of action. I feel bad so take my feeling bad as restitution. What would make a person vote against their own personal interest? Not guilt. But compassion perhaps, a sense of justice and fairness perhaps, these might move a person to act against their own selfish interest. Guilt, on the other hand, builds nothing. Sorry without works is dead. White South Africans are tired of feeling guilty. But black South Africans are tired of being poor. Guilt is a bummer. Poverty is a bitch.
For my main panel event, I wear my authentic South African skirt and my authentic South African beads that I bought from the Nigerian store in Johannesburg. On my panel, the moderator asks me what it’s like being an African writer in the West.
“West of where? To the west of South Africa is South America, and I don’t live there.”
The audience laughs.
“You know what I mean.”
“The world is round. West is not a fixed point.”
I know what he means but he has not said what he means. What is it like to be an African writer living in London? That is what he means. I am womansplaining.
The beach is a minute’s walk from our hotel. I go almost every morning. I swim in the ocean for the first time. The waves are warm. When my feet leave the ground and I float, I feel transcendent. I go with Carol, a writer from Botswana. She has a daughter who is my age — 22 at the time — and I have a mother who is about hers. We fall into the older woman–younger woman pattern. I tell her about my holiday boyfriend in Johannesburg. She gives me some advice. “Just enjoy it. Doesn’t matter if it doesn’t last.”
Late in the morning one day, we are walking along the beach promenade when we come across a black woman with a pedigree dog on a leash. People have gathered to coo over the pet. A petite white woman walks past and stops briefly in front of the owner. No salutation. No greeting.
“Mind the dog’s feet. The pavement starts getting hot at this time.”
She departs like an actor who has delivered her only line.
“Bloody mzungu,” Carol says at her retreating figure. In her former life, Carol was a white American woman but she married a Motswana. She has lived in Gaborone for so long and is now so tanned that most people don’t realise she is white. And so she isn’t.
“Ei, who does she think she is, giving out orders. Mind the dog’s feet. It’s a bloody animal. Do dogs wear shoes in the wild?”
The crowd disperses on this soured note. We continue to the beach.
* * *
Editor: Sari Botton