When I began schooling in 1990, I experienced the most unpleasant rapture that emerged from witnessing, for the first time, the crudeness of black life I did not know existed.
I was a naïve young girl from the Karoo farms who lived her childhood through ‘iintsomi’ and carefree childhood imagination. The splendour of the natural environment in the farms supplemented my imagination and made life seem full of unbounded possibilities. I marvelled in the family bonds that created warmth in my family. The farm life was a protected and safe space I did not worry about. All I was expected to do was to be a child and play childhood games, come home and eat when I was hungry, go collect water and firewood when asked to. It was a simple yet fulfilling life even as my family lived on farm-labouring earnings.
With all the beautiful experiences my family created for us, little did I know how big the world is. And what hit me when I began schooling was beyond my childhood imagination.
My farm-labouring grandfather had passed away and my grandmother had to move to town in order for us to begin schooling. Equally with my older siblings, I was already late for school as I was 8 years old when I began. As I now reflect, towards the end of the 1980s, Steynsburg was a theatre of political violence. My old siblings who were already in school at the time had been taken in and out because of the student riots and boycotts that led to police raids of schools and communities. It was then fruitless for us to begin school during this period. Instead we were kept in the farm until 1990.
To start with, my primary school now known as Daluvuyo Primary, always had faeces flooded toilet floors that made us tiptoe around to get to the equally unhygienic toilet seats. Parts of the school were made out of prefabricated buildings including the toilets. We had no alternative ablution facilities in the school yard except for the back to back female and males’ toilets. The building was separated with a thin prefab wall that you could hear conversations from either side of the toilet.
To avoid confrontation with the unhygienic toilets, one option was to minimise food and water intake for the day until the school program ended. Not that the communities had lavish toilets either. The Old Location and New Brighten had public bucket-system toilets. Community members lined-up to use the toilets, if not; we either went up the surrounding mountains or walked down to the river. When collected, the communities’ toilet buckets were emptied into sewage dams that were located close to an informal settlement of farm labour migrants. The smell that covered Steynsburg from the sewage dams when it was hot and windy made it difficult for people to enjoy meal times. And this was our daily nightmare until the bucket system ended with the building of RDP houses.
Back in Daluvuyo Primary, the stench that came out of the toilets when we played during lunch breaks and when approaching for ablution was unforgiving either.
The problem was exacerbated by the fact that, at the time, the school facilities were used for two schools, including Mpumelelo Primary, through a system called platooning. We had no cleaners to clean and maintain our hygiene at school. We, the learners, were the cleaners and gardeners of the school. Our class teachers drafted rotating afterschool cleaning and lunchtime gardening schedules for us. The messy affair in the toilets would remain a daily confrontation until a scheduled team of learners took their brooms to sweep and wash the floors with hosepipe water. But it would only take few days before we found ourselves in the same conditions. The flooding travelled to the stoep and the area around the toilet building so that it created a pigsty living condition.
This was the times of Nelson Mandela and Chris Hani. From reflections, on 11 February 1990, Nelson Mandela was released two weeks after I began schooling. I was 10 years old when Chris Hani was assassinated; I watched his funeral at one of our neighbour’s house. This period generated an energy that led to pronounced police violence in Steynsburg.
Community members who disobeyed boycott orders were forced to eat washing powders and other detergents they bought from the white owned shops in Steynsburg. Police confrontations with political activists were frequent as schools and communities were raided in yellow vans and hippos. By this time, my uncles and other young males were harassed out of school into farms to be farm boys to farmers.
One brother who lived through the 1980s told me that some black men left Steynsburg for exile but they never heard from them again. He does not know if they were captured and killed by police squads during the years Poqo members hid on mountains and known as abanqolobi. I was an imaginary child in the farms during this time. But I remember when the farmer warned my grandfathers about armed and dangerous black men who escaped from prisons. They were reported seen roaming around surrounding mountains and farms. It is only later that I learned these were Poqo members who were fighting the regime.
As I progressed in school, I learned that life is not as rosy as I imagined it. When it finally confronted me, I did not know what hit me and for years I would live with an unquenched desire to understand why black people are subjected to the conditions we live in.
It took my admission to university to find the missing pieces to the puzzle. One of the many pieces I found is Dr. Frances Cress-Welsing’s psycho-analysis of racism in the “Isis Papers”. It is her analysis of racism that gave me a thorough understanding of the condition of black mass confusion and suffering. In it, she explains that black people need to understand that racism is a system. As a system, it is designed and structured to function in all areas of human life (and she stated 9 of them) in the interest of maintaining white supremacy over non-white people. In her words, “the system is designed for the purpose of maintaining the survival of people who classify themselves as white, as a global minority, over non-white people who are the majority of the world”. She continues that the system is a necessity because without it the future genetic existence of people classified as white is threatened. To prevent this, people who are classified as black and as the most feared genetic group, have to be subjected to the most unfavourable conditions in order to prevent their genetic threat against people who are classified as white. And this happens through all areas of human activities from colonialism to modern day imperialism. With her analysis, Dr. Welsing debunked western sciences and argued that they are meant to primarily confuse black people from understanding the system and its purpose.
Although she was not against marching and protesting, Dr. Welsing explained that black people’s condition will only change and improve from concrete actions towards self-determination. As black people, she explained, we need to sit down as individuals and as groups to reprogram our minds in order to change the beliefs and behaviours that reproduce the confusion and helplessness of black people. Only by focusing on group mental reprogramming, from a thorough understanding of racism and white supremacy, will black people experience a different reality.
And, this is how my mind was reprogrammed since I began schooling in 1990.
Lindiswa Jan is a researcher & masters candidate at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cape Town