#flashback: Invisible People

I wrote this January 2012. It was meant to be a chapter in my first book, Becoming, but ended on the cutting room floor. I found it an interesting look into my mindset at the time. So much has changed. So much remains the same.

In the midst of writing my this book, I rediscovered some of the numerous means of procrastination that I was quite adept at in the days of assignments and examinations. Perhaps the most effective is contracting hunger. It’s strange, as soon as you sit at your working table (and if you don’t have one, then clearing a space and turning it into a writing desk becomes the means of procrastination) your stomach starts growling, even if you’ve just had a filling meal an hour before. Hence, it always amazes me at how many authors are unnaturally boney.

In one such moment where I obeyed the writers-hunger, I drove up the road to one of these fancy Petrol Stations slash retail shops that have sprouted up all over Johannesburg. I spent the obligatory 12 minutes milling about the aisles looking for some suitable substitute for my insanely impractical diet. I tell people I am a struggling vegan; I struggle to find the food that gives me any impetus whatsoever to remain vegan.

After I’ve found something, usually a fruit salad and some packets of peanuts, and make my way to the till I make a conscious effort to not notice what is on the racks surrounding the tills. I am well aware of the retail theories behind shoving the sweets and goodies in your line of sight as you think you’ve ended your quest to find what you need. Your defences are down, your curiosity is piqued, your vulnerable to suggestion.

I learned this when I was a regular in strip parlours in my younger and admittedly wilder days; just as you think you’ve got what you came for, a little voice convinces you to spend a little extra time (and money) there. You think to yourself “well… since I am here…”.

On this one occasion I found myself staring at the racks laden with chocolate bars, biltong and an array of lifestyle magazines whose cover models stood side by side glancing at me like I was a judge in a beauty pageant. Though this petrol station is a place I frequent, that day I made a non-too startling observation. None of the faces staring up from the magazines at me were black. If you live in South Africa you become extremely race-conscious, the more-so the older you get.

Actually, there was one black face, that of the smiling former Governor of the Reserve Bank peeked out at me and beckoned me to pick the magazine off the shelf. As if to thumb my nose at all the publications that didn’t seem to deem a black cover model or personality worthy I bought it (The fact that I was a featured columnist in the same issue may also have made up my mind for me).

I don’t know why, but l left the store with an uneasy feeling. I don’t know why because this is the norm isn’t it? White faces on white magazines in a white area. That is the subtext of the world that I inhabit; there is a constant reminder that the Northern Suburb experience was created for white South Africans and the rest of us are just visiting.

But that day I asked myself where on Earth I was. The sad answer was in a country where the majority of the people are invisible; and we don’t even see them reflected in the media of the day.

The invisible classes. We see through them so often, the black lady at the bus station where I catch the Gautrain Bus that she will most likely never travel on who arrives with buckets full of amagwinya and boxes full of fruit, sweets and cigarettes, the people that scramble to purchase their first meal of the day, because there was no time or place to grab a bite as they left their homes at 5am, the waiters and tellers and security guards, and their loitering compatriots who are always very busy doing nothing. The occupants of the rows of shacks that act as boundary lines between different economic areas. They are everywhere.

I realised this during the National Elections of 2008. I was running around  campaigning, my body and car constantly draped in ANC regalia. This was a particularly highly charged campaign because of the emergence of COPE. Overnight most every ANC member was activated, the wounds of in-fighting quickly bandaged. One day whilst filling up my car, the sounds of Winnie Khumalo blaring out from my speakers, the petrol attendant assisting me sized me up. Then leaned in and said something that has stayed with me since then.

He said “We are waiting on you all to work together to help us. Please, find ways for us…. You can’t do it alone. you have to do it together, all of you. All you politicians… We’ll vote for you. They won’t win… But please work with them….”

He then stared in my eyes before nodding and turning off. I mumbled something in the affirmative and sped off.

I have since often thought of that man, speaking for a whole class of people, with little prospects of advancement beyond where they are and what they currently have. And he knew something that many of us with better prospects and larger spheres of influence have forgotten; we can’t do it alone. Fixing things, so that people like him can become visible is a collective effort.

“We’ll vote for you…”

I remember he had said this unreservedly. And the “them” I presumed meant every other political formation. In that moment I realised something that my seniors in the ANC had long figured out, that the organisation has been existing politically to make visible this invisible class of individuals who serve us in the middle class and of course the elites.

One of the plans of the ANC in exile in the 1980s. was to render the country ungovernable by turning as as many of the invisible working classes as possible into guerillas, and thereby rendering the white population under siege. I believe that part of the siege or laager mentality  of white South Africa today is a consequence of this strategy and its reception in then Apartheid-Pretoria. It was predicated on the realisation that the numbers and the invisibility of this class made such an idea plausible.

Whilst I am certain the swaart gevaar has been ingrained in the psyche of white South Africa over many centuries, I am sure that liberation movements, dubbed terrorists gave definitive expression to this hand-down fear.

The contrary is true for much of the oppressed masses of the country. They came to view the liberation movements, in particular the ANC as champions of their freedom even as many of them didn’t directly engage in the activities or even explicitly understand the politics of the liberation movements.

However, the ANC came to be a custodian of their hopes and aspirations. That is why it enjoys overwhelming support even in the face of gaffes that analysts believe should severely have impede such support. In fact, I am more convinced today that the conventional logic in political circles that the only party that can at this time defeat the ANC is the ANC. There is an emotional connection to this organisation that the invisible class has; and it is the dividend of decades of championing the cause of this class, decades of giving the silent a voice and the unseen a visage.

The greatest danger for the ANC now is not that it looses this connection, is not even that it looses power with having to contend with different expectations of a different age of South African, the greatest danger for it is that it looses this cause: championing the needs of the invisible, even if it means talking doing so with its political rivals.

In my prepubescent life as a pioneer, the slogan of the Masupatsela was drilling into us: “Always prepared to defend our people, our country and our organisation”. The order is telling isn’t it. The people must take precedent over any political formation. All people.

Driving away from that filling station with the the thought became crystallised in my head that the time for sacrificing short-term triumphs and egos and concentrating on long-terms, collective wins was upon us. It was time to reaffirm a collective agenda, even though crafting this would be hard, painstaking and could even be dismissed as unnecessary in a time of such great political polarisation.

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