A wave of deep anger and resentment began to brew within me and spun around like a fierce tornado. I could not reconcile my reality and that of others like me with what my inner persuasion knew to be deserved by my people for no other reason but that they, like I, were simply human beings. I felt betrayed. I could not understand how apartheid was being allowed to prosper in the shadows of the dancing masses, beaming with glee while the promise of freedom was being stolen from under their noses like the land had been taken from right under their feet.
But I was only a skinny little boy with knocked knees and an obsession with death, anxious without reason and alone even in when in company. Over time my English improved and I learned to swim enough to not drown or be traumatised by being in the deep end in my little prison that was otherwise known as a school. I was by no means an Olympic hopeful but at least some good came out of that tiny suburban hell.
The inauthentic nature of the people there annoyed me almost as much as the way my fellow black students spoke the English language and wanted to live their lives. They were laughable, cheap copies of the world time had taught was something to aspire to. So I made a conscious choice never to speak my English in a twang or an accent even then and the result was a nondescript accent that no one could quite place. It wasn’t rural, township or model C. some have argued that it isn’t of this continent at all.
A friend of mine termed it as a “Texas-Boer” accent. In hindsight, it may have been prudent to slap him across the face for discretely calling me a melaninated Hill Billy. I haven’t managed to shake the accent to date because it sounds, at least in my head, exactly the same as my native Setswana, one of the most beautiful languages ever to come gliding off the human tongue. It has calm, elegant notes as if its speaker can taste sweet caramel with every word and the listener is hit with what love would smell like if it had a fragrance. The pride in it is like the walk of a cow, confident, commanding but gentle.
But my little accent was my only victory there. Slowly, my militancy gave way to the pricing of my soul to this cult of people who couldn’t even be bothered to pronounce my name as I wrote it nor as my mother had intended it. The isolation and pariah-ship had grown burdensome for my little shoulders. So slowly I began to turn back from the march to just be a child in this place that insisted that my identity was repugnant. There was no then young lady to send me home. No walking of streets. No permanent mumble. No incoherent things. Only the weight of a system that frowned upon what my kind represented and insisted that though I could never be what they are, I should strive to be the possible counterfeit beneath them I could possibly be.
So for a short while, my struggle for proximity to whiteness began. I danced to their senseless rave music and wanted hammer pants. I tried to smooth out R’s and began playing cricket, distancing myself from the common volk who shared my blood and the sunkissed melanin that brought so much hate out of the people I now expended so much of my energy to please.
It was like a vortex was tugging at the roots of my soul with the malice of an injured animal, looking to rip out even those dark parts of me that still had me looking to take my own life every day that breath entered my wheezing lungs. By the time I left that school, I had attempted suicide a further two times and had thoroughly lost touch with who I was a black child, though one incident had given me a sobering reminder.
The crushing force of a world that demanded obedience had put a noose around the child who’s spirit had once known that the rainbow nation was a gimmick to distract us while our chains were being swapped out for new, shiny shackles called democracy.
I didn’t have the vocabulary to name what I had felt then as depression or anxiety. We didn’t speak in those terms. I didn’t even think of it as a problem and had it been, I would have been seen as insane, attention-seeking or bewitched. Those options still don’t play well in my head even today.
Similarly, I hadn’t the vocabulary to name this almost voluntary oppression and new apartheid that was being built around us as we were coerced into a false dreaminess, deafness and constitutionally sanctioned indentured servitude where we were tolerated provided we met the needs of the masters with the utmost happiness and most importantly, reverend gratitude.
I wore old cricket gloves that the white kids no longer wanted and a set of pads from the lost and found that probably had been left during the Codesa negotiations to cricket practice and was awed by massive houses during sleepovers. The white parents monitored the potentially thieving blacks during parties. I could feel their eyes crawling on my back and digging into my skull. I felt drained and vowed never to go again each time before I would. I was like the proverbial moth to a flame, the architect of my own demise. Such was the pittance for which I was willing to part with my soul for a moment away from the harsh reality that being born into a black skin in a land that was otherwise mine meant.
Each day I walked into the heaven that my people lived below the whip to acquire and would never get and each night I returned to the hell that the self-appointed demigods in the heaven I walked into each morning had condemned my people to. It was like the bolt of lighting Hitler had described in his book.
The incident that had come to sober me from my eurocentric inebriation took place a few metres from my home. I had been to one of the parties where suspicious white eyes would crawl all over my black body and had slept over at a house a few blocks away. I didn’t have money to return home the next day because when others bought ice cream the day before, my poverty had again embarrassed me and I had used it.
As luck would have it, Jonathan’s uncle was headed north towards Pretoria and offered to give me a lift. I was both grateful and relieved. I ran into the bedroom and rushed back to hop into the car after the goodbyes had been said. As we drove in silence, I prayed that they would find nothing missing or misplaced from their home after I left. I had imagined a thorough inspection would take place and worried even though I had done nothing wrong. A common feeling for any black person.
We came down old Pretoria road and turned right down Vasco Da Gama road. I told him I lived nearby and that he could drop me off at the engine garage on 4th Avenue. He found it convenient and would fill his navy blue BMW dolphin there.
I stuck around to see that he got his petrol and left safely but also because we had been taught not disrespect a funeral procession by standing or moving around as it passed. So, I remained near him and waited. Before I knew what had happened I was pushed to the side as Jonathan’s uncle was being dragged from his car with a gun to his head.
He was not hurt and we both ran for the store doors when a third gunman came after us and snatched his chain from his neck. The man took a few steps before stopping and making an angry about-turn. His eyes were like blades and I was about to be responsible for the murder of a white man who had given me a lift to a black township. How would I ever return to school or forgive even myself?
The thought of suicide filled my mind like a winter fog immediately. But somehow the man didn’t lift or point his gun. He threw the chain at Jonathan’s uncle, swearing bitterly before he turned again and got into a 325 BMW to rejoin the funeral procession. The chain had been medical and useless to him.
I knew immediately that this meant that a gangster, thug or criminal had died and this is why we had been hijacked. It was customary to hijack a car during such funerals. The car would be spun into doughnuts and eventually set on fire. The racial slurs and profanity that came out of the victim’s mouth for what seemed like an eternity, sobered me up to us and them. That was my country once my African dream stopped playing and we took off the worn dove T-shirts.
They did not burn the BMW. It was discovered abandoned with the keys in the ignition not too far from the filling station. He had been lucky and as he recovered his car, I began to the journey to recover the soul I had betrayed and sold as cheaply as my people had been sold at the negotiations.