F R A G M E N T S O F T H E D A W N
Walking on the moon
Writer Sindiwe Magona traces the steps that still have to be taken to reach a new South Africa.
I looked at her. It should have been obvious to any fool that the woman was nearer 70 than 60. But Mamtolwana had not been able to draw her old-age pension. What should have been a simple process was beyond her ability and luck. When she applied for her pass, years and years ago, she’d nodded her head when the clerk told her she was 20 years old. According to that estimate she was now a 50-year-old spring chicken.
The same woman swallowed her teeth. She told me the story herself. She had been eating mealie. She bit off some of the cob and swallowed. Then she bit again, but nothing came off the cob. She tried once more... Realizing something was amiss she quickly ran to a neighbour’s house where, she knew, there was a cracked piece of mirror. Her gaping mouth stared right back at her.
That was a long time ago. So many years she has lost count. The hardened gums testify to the time she has endured the hardship. She has no sense of shame, laughing out loud, those bare, pink gums showing. She never thought of getting false teeth. No sane person spends her life thinking that one day she may actually possess the moon.
‘Ndiphila ngecebo likaThixo. I live by the mercy of God.’ That is what Mamtolwana said when I asked her what she did for food and other daily needs. That day, 27 April 1994, she had voted for the first time in her life.
I close my eyes and try to see her fighting for the right to false teeth – and for the right to electricity in her home, the right to water in her house. And the picture refuses to be born in my mind. Why would she fight for things when she does not know she has a right to them? Why would she fight when rights are not in her recollection of things she knows, things she does, things people like her do? How can she do something that is so completely foreign to her? And do it with ease?
And that is what I fear. The steps you have to take to avail yourself of the opportunity the new South Africa promises all its people, simple as they appear to be, may be too much for people who have no memory of ever walking them.
For democracy to flourish the prerequisite is vigilance. In the new South Africa those who have the political skills and knowledge are mesmerized by the new order, too busy forgiving wrongdoers who have no names, forgiving them sins that have been acknowledged but not atoned for.
Good will alone is never enough. Once upon a time each of the free countries of Africa also stood on the threshold of a great future – full of hope, the vision bright as the morning star. Why then are people fleeing countries that have been drinking from the fountain of freedom for decades and coming to an infant democracy in South Africa?
We are people who name a child after a significant event around her birth. One born during a drought might be named Nombalela; she who came at a time of war, Nomfazwe. And the belief is that the predominant characteristic at the time of birth will be a major influence in her life. The new South Africa, let us remember, came into being as mass killings eclipsed the African sun from the skies of Rwanda.
In April last year when I thought of the meaning of the new order I wondered how, with apartheid gone, we would account for our failures. Whom or what would we blame? The effects of the deliberate dwarfing of a people will not be overcome overnight. All the new order brings, all it can bring, is but the franchise. Real change in the way we live our lives will take a generation. It could take longer.
No people can be propelled forward without their active engagement. The deeper the hole in which one is sunk the greater the effort that has to be expended to extricate oneself. The people of South Africa need to hear that call often and loudly. Show the people the road they must travel. Remove the hobbles from their bound feet. Watch them run!
Sindiwe Magona is a South African writer now living in New York. Her collected short stories and her autobiography Forced To Grow are published by The Women’s Press in Britain.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995