I am writing this piece sitting in the University of Sol Plaatje’s Library and Resources Centre. My laptop is plugged in and I am hoping there will be no loadshedding today, because my laptop is on life-support (I have considered writing an email to our counsellor telling her that my mental health, panic attacks and depression can only be improved by a MacBook but before I could click send, we had loadshedding and I thought better of it when the power came back on). And I have a deadline. And I tend to convince myself that I work well under pressure as a means to justify my procrastination. I should start a procrastination club, but I’ll do it tomorrow.
Doing my B.A. Honours in Afrikaans, I am required to write a thesis and I’ve decided to write about the lexicalisation process and the ways in which power, politics and exclusion are made manifest in the reproduction of knowledge, with regards to the Afrikaans word “korrelkop” (coarse head) which is still written up in the Handwoordeboek vir die Afrikaanse Taal (2015!) as “bakleier, rusiemaker” (aggressor, fighter, brawler). There’s also an idiom “So dom soos ’n korrelkop” (as dumb as a coarse-head). So much for socio-political linguistic change.
Not everyone knows about our university, but it is located in Kimberley, and is the only university in the Northern Cape. Also, one of the few, if any, postcolonial, postapartheid universities in South Africa. Anyway, our library has a section that looks as though you’re outside, in a garden with trees and benches and glass walls through which you can see the adjacent street. We as students, of course take advantage of this and use it as a smoker’s section. Don’t tell anyone, please.
I come to varsity early every morning and watch the traffic from our smoker’s section. Watching the people walking by with their handbags clutched under their armpits tightly, or their hands fisted deep inside of their pockets enclosing their wallets and phones and other valuables. All looking in front of them. Like an army of ants who know where the sugar is and is running to get the biggest clod.
I am one of the few students who lived in this city before the existence of the university. I can still remember how this very spot was only an open field, that we, as young people, took advantage of. Here, we congregated on Saturdays to partake in underage drinking. We did not even know the difference between vodka and gin, whiskey and brandy, and so we would chase anything with coke, and deem ourselves extremely cool, long cigarettes dangling from our fingers. We never clutched our handbags or fisted our hands in our pockets.
Back then, I had a wide circle of friends. We would never be afraid to walk to Overland Liquor or to the park in New Park where we would go to switch it up from time to time. We could speak about anything, from Kendrick Lamar mixtapes to the best forms of birth control to what we love and hate about Afrikaans. We would conclude that Afrikaans is like being completely consumed by a lover that does not want you back. That chews you up and spits you back out if you’re not the right flavour.
Now, my circle is small. On Saturdays I play dominoes with my siblings, we don’t walk to Overland Liquor to purchase our brown-bottle beers or gin which we chase with tonic water. We can’t: students are targeted because the muggers know we have laptops (although they’re on life-support), and they also want to teach us that we may be booksmart but we’re not streetsmart.
Now, the people in our street don’t greet us, and it is our fault. We tend to speak about syntax, semantic values and structural violence. When we play dominoes with them, we cheat by using codes such as “1652” which would indicate that one has more blank dominoes, or “structural violence” which would indicate “four corners” (prisons) so I, for example, have more fours, and that my partner should play accordingly. We know they won’t decipher our codes and so we always win (they call my brother and I The Terrible Twins). We know we’re making ourselves social pariahs. Perhaps we can’t help it. Perhaps we don’t want to help it.
In the beginning of the year, I was financially excluded from my university despite having a stellar academic record. At first, I laughed about it, then I cried about it, and then I became enraged. I wanted to approach the campus with a tank of gasoline and matches, set it all alight and then light my cigarette in the very same flames and walk off to the police station to turn myself in. Okay, setting the varsity on fire is a bit drastic, but my reasoning was that if I go to prison, it would mean free education. Isn’t education what I was taught to seek after? I wanted them to take me back because I work hard. I wanted them to understand that it is the only place I had left: Afrikaans does not love me back, not while perpetuating hurtful stereotypes about people with my hair texture. Society doesn’t want me, not when a man followed me into a public toilet, tried to kiss me and when I fought him off, he punched me right in the face. When I told my friends about it, they laughed and asked what I was wearing. And I can no longer sit next to my mother in church and look up at blonde, blue-eyed Jesus carrying his own cross. So university is the reason that home is now neither here nor there. How could it be so cruel as to leave me outside?
I was finally registered after all, and no, I didn’t burn down my varsity. I was going to do it, but I convinced myself that I burn things much better under pressure…
Now, I am back in the humdrum routine of reading articles and writing essays, questioning things and getting no answers, sitting in the university’s Library and Resources Centre and watching everyone around me have panic attacks, bouts of violence, suicidal thoughts and attempts, as they gradually burn out the further they are into their tertiary education, like moths circling to the inevitable incineration. What is life anyway but a long terminal illness?
University has taught me to critically assess what development means. Developmental anthropology taught me that if development is not for and by the people, it is no development at all. That is what I answer in essays and assignments and examinations when they ask me. My argument, however, is that tertiary education has taught me that life is like a cabbage: you can chew a Chappy all day, but a taxi can’t fly.