“Kwisisu, akukho lonto (iCovid-19). Ndilambe ngoku. Ndingavuya noba ungandinika iR20. Ungandinika?” [“In your belly there is no such thing (as Covid-19). I am hungry as we speak. I would be happy if you would gift me R20. Will you give it to me?] a grimacing face asks a startled SABC journalist while pointing to his stomach area. His leathery brown face with high sculpted cheekbones paces up and down as he speaks, even reaching and grabbing the journalist’s microphone and handing it over to a fellow next to him. “Thetha,” [“Speak”] he says, forcefully. “Thetha ingxaki yakho… uhlupheka njani.” [“Tell them your problem… the ways in which you suffer.”]
The man, wearing a bright red hoodie and a bright yellow cap explains how he gets by selling goods at a scrap yard. With the first hard lock down in full force at the time, the man who was describing his biting hunger while living in a rundown hostel in Mamelodi, garnered support, sympathy, laughter and anger at how well he articulated the plight of those who found themselves without any source of a livelihood during the first catastrophic months of the pandemic. The first hard lockdown meant that all scrapyards were closed, leaving thousands of poor recyclers out in the cold. The man’s name is Doyi Whitey and he described how he respected the lockdown regulations and wanted to protect himself from the virus, but how could he, when he was becoming restless because of hunger?
“As starvation occurs, it is impossible for the person to consider themselves with dignity; as entirely human. They must encounter the reality of their mortality and descend into a desperation to survive. At the same time, possessing low energy and the self-cannibalising of their bodies, their minds descend into apathy, detachment and listlessness” writes Tshiamo Malatji, describing the physiological decay that the body and mind experience due to hunger. There is no way out for the African labourer, Malatji explains, “capitalism does not require the well-being of its labourers … Capitalism kills us as we work”. As one of the first contributions in the book, The Lives of Black Folk edited by Kulani Nkuna, Malatji tragically invites us to see not only the systemic deprivation which Black people suffer in the clutches of capitalist exploitation, but the bodily disintegration which accompanies this. How does one starve while they eat? How are we transformed from full human beings to labourers, numbers, cogs? Using Alfred Qabula’s poem, The Small Gateway to Heaven as a point of reference, Malatji’s piece, We Are Still Starving, Alfred Qabula might be interrogating the state of despair for mine workers, but it rings painfully true for all classes who work – from shop packer to academic in a university. Across the work spectrum, we are subjected to dehumanising working conditions for pittance pay to sustain an exploitative capitalist system which serves white men.
It is now almost two years since the first hard lockdown in March 2020. With all that has transpired, the millions of lives and livelihoods lost, the conspiracy theories, the suspect vaccines, it is somewhat refreshing to read the initial thoughts and cautious optimism of Mbe Mbhele who writes about the lockdown and the possibilities for a “disturbance of ritual”. In a much shorter than is desired reflection, Mbhele writes, “anything that threatens the end of the world is not all together a bad thing for a people whose existence is characterised by misery – misery uninvited, undeserved”. Many in the ‘Left’ held similar sentiments at the time – anything that halts the everyday grind that the working class must endure, was welcomed. Seen as an opportunity to crush capitalism, move away from it and find new ways of being. Of doing. But, as Mbhele also admits, this sentiment was naïve optimism as, soon enough, the ruling class reoriented itself and continued to plunder in fresh ways, leaving people like Whitey crying of hunger – still.
The book, The Lives of Black Folk, is an anthology. A collection of essays, poems, art and reflections collated from the Culture Review online magazine. The articles are taken directly from the online platform, and maybe, this is why some of the articles feel short and end abruptly – they were written specifically for the screen (phone/tablet/laptop). But, maybe a direct transfer of material from the net to the page was necessary – the internet is not ours. As democratic as it may be flighted to be, we see everyday the risk of hacks, of certain ‘undesirable’ (to the state) sites being shutdown and the muzzling of radical voices in the main. But is this just paranoia from the woke gang that envisions itself as a threat to state power but is viewed by those in power as just an annoyance? A muffled buzz outside of the centre stage of power? Or, it could be that the desire to have a hard copy was purely an economic exercise. Be that as it may, the glossy looking anthology is divided into four sections which explore different broad categories – disturbance, abantu, culture and Azania. Each section has its highs and its lows. The two articles discussed above are taken from the first section, “A Disturbance”, and they are gripping, engaging and thought-provoking.
Katlego Tapala’s Bitter Fruit is poetically enthralling. One is taken through the journey of ukuthwasa [ancestral calling]. Like a fly on the wall, we journey through, and with, Tapala’s reawakening and rebirth. The spirit world is summoned. History is revisited. The contemporary is questioned. Who are we, how are we connected to those that have passed and why is death a constant feature of our lives? Side Simke Emhlabeni, Sibe Nawe Ezulwini (Dust to Dust) by Tshepiso Mabula ka Ndongeni is an ode to our mothers who left us too soon. Sombre, joyous, celebratory and dark, it tells the story of how mourners gather to bid farewell to a warrior woman and it does this in a way which is warm, sobering, tender and familiar. Palesa Nqambaza’s A Letter To All The White Women Whose Panties & Bras I Have Worn is both funny and relatable. Perfect Hlongwane’s letter to Bra Fikz (Dignity Isn’t Always Pretty) packs a punch. There are great lessons to be learnt in Mpho Matsitle’s Violence: The Thread That Binds Our Big Unhappy Family. Makhafula Vilakazi warns us of UmAfrika oleleyo and the dangers of this zombified state. One can’t help but read the poem with his bold and assertive voice ringing in your head. On the other hand, other additions like Nelvis Qekema’s Settler Impudence read like a stale, uninviting history lesson. Veli Mbele rehashes a script well known to anyone who has bothered to familiarise themselves with liberation theory. Black Power As A Quest To Call Our Souls Our Own drowns in its simplistic approach, both in form and in content. One wishes for more but never gets it.
Book projects like this one are almost always a labour of [Black] love. Much effort, time, funds and energy are pumped into making sure they see the light of day. And oh what a wonderful feeling it is to hold this thing – that one has toiled for, for months on end sometimes – in their hands. Voices that question the current status quo are rare. Even rarer, are voices which grapple with the place which Black people occupy in the world. A void. The underbelly. Death and deathliness. They exist in the margins – drowned out by the dizzying smoke of the rainbow nation dream. Why then would we not celebrate when we write. When we publish? However, reading The Lives of Black Folk requires patience. There are peaks and then there are valleys. It could be a matter of my own personal taste – or my being tired of recycled concepts and pretentious posturing towards sounding deep/intellectual/creative. But, buried in the sterility and pretentiousness though, are gems. I can imagine this being a book people go to, for years to come, for many different reasons.
The Lives of Black Folk is available at Book Circle Capital (27 Boxes), 75 4th Avenue, Melville, Johannesburg.
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