Nelson Mandela Foundation

Over the past few weeks, I’ve listened and relistened to Professor Tshepo Madlingozi’s episode in the FreedomAfter podcast series. I think it’s one of the project's most fascinating and generative episodes. In it, Tshepo speaks about growing up in the Free State, his experiences with environmental racism and his first time discovering a dead body while playing soccer with friends. However, the episode’s main line of enquiry is Professor Madlingozi’s presentation on Steve Biko and Afropessimism. I want to reflect on some of these themes, unpack them and connect metanarratives about South Africa and contemporary discourses on freedom.

One of the things that fascinated me was the differences between Tshepho’s and my childhood and our very different experiences with Whiteness. While Tshepo grew with seldom contact with White people, as part of the ‘born-free’ generation in Johannesburg, my childhood is marked by regular contact with White people under the experiment of nation-building and integration. Growing up, there was a sense that I had to get ready to face White people and I needed to be groomed. So, overtly to help me integrate into White society, my family started speaking English at home when I was in grade R. Through all of this and more, I assumed the unmaking fear of White people. 

I always imagined that it would be better if I had grown up without this pressure, and this fear, by growing up with people that affirmed and reflected who I was. Instead, growing up in a mining community in the Free State, Prof describes a different kind of fear. Although he did not face White people in his daily life, he still experienced racism - environmental racism: a form of institutional racism leading to landfills, incinerators, and hazardous waste disposal being disproportionally placed in Black communities. His home and the surrounding area were regarded as an underworld, the place where you put things you did not want. In fact, amongst a childhood of making a life and playing with friends, Tshepo describes seeing many discarded dead bodies in his environment.

Tshepo describes many scenes that Mpume Mthombeni also describes in her performance of Isidlamlilo on the podcast. Many of them are about the woundedness we are left with, especially wounds that were cut during the ‘deadly decade’ over the 80s and early 90s in South Africa. During this time, internal resistance to Apartheid became increasingly militant, prompting brutal crackdowns by the National Party ruling government and protracted sectarian violence that left thousands dead, missing or in detention. Both of them describe witnessing people being necklaced - the practice of burning a tire around a person’s neck as punishment for being an informant for the State Security forces. 

Tshepo describes witnessing “many necklacings” as a child and reminds us that, even in the pictures of lynchings in the United States, children were always at the forefront, pointing and enjoying themselves. But a lynching in the United States and a necklacing in South Africa are different things. A lynching is a hate crime. A necklacing is seen as mob justice for betraying the people to their oppressors. But in other ways, they are not all that different. Both of them demonstrate the awful and human agency for malice, violence, and oppression. More than that, I think that there is something to be said about the consistency of the sight of a Black body being spectacularly destroyed in both instances that ties them together in the same circle. 

Another deeply fascinating thing Professor Madlingozi explored was the death of Steve Biko’s Black body and how it was spectacularly destroyed.

The provocation I gave was that inasmuch as Biko lived as a beacon of Black Consciousness - Black life, self-reliance and self-determination - his death could be read as an Afropessimist allegory in that it was a spectacularly violent death. Steve Biko was killed by the Apartheid State Security forces through a brutal assault that involved repeated beatings and severe torture. He suffered severe head injuries, including a brain haemorrhage, during the interrogation and detention, ultimately leading to his death. After his death, his image was published showing his brutalised body, reifying and insisting on the ‘proper’ place of Black life - death. 

His response was to reject any such notion that Biko could ever represent Afropessimism. I don’t want to simply retype his argument but what landed as the pith of his argument for me was that, to the Apartheid government, Biko was not an ordinary Black figure but a very powerful and dangerous person. The reason he was so dangerous is that “he prefigures liberation” - he imagines and realises the terms of and practices of freedom “even under conditions of oppression”. Biko is radically subversive. His explosive writings on Black Consciousness were inspiring people to fight and not in a military sense. 

Tshepo says that, if Biko was fighting for a Black state, the Apartheid government would have been very happy with him and given him a homeland but instead Biko asserts that “in future South Africa, there shall be no White, there shall be no Black, there shall be one nation”, Azania. Biko wanted to destroy Blackness. And more than that, he wanted to destroy Whiteness. 

“That’s why Biko had to die” says Prof, “he was dangerous to the system”. 

Later in the episode, Tshepo describes how his father resisted, but eventually surrendered and was employed to work in the mines. When Tshepo’s father died in the mines, Tshepo relays the story of learning the news as a child and then remarking “those White people killed my father.”

No, Tshepo did not grow up with regular contact with White people the way that I did. But, inasmuch as I lived in the townships, in Zondi, in Meadowlands and in Katlehong, I’ve never come across a discarded dead body in my life. In Katlehong, there was a dumping ground close to where we lived, but it was also next to the old bioscope that was sometimes used as a church. Both Tshepo and I were made to understand, from a very young age, to understand that our lives could be destroyed and that White people have access to enormous power. We lived very different lives, but the unmaking fear of White people was present nonetheless.

It is the unmaking fear of White people that Biko destroys when he describes Black people as beautiful. It is the afropessimist notion that Black life is actually a kind of dying that Biko rejects and frees us from with the transitionary vision of Black Consciousness. As Prof put it, Biko’s task was to fight against “this idea that I am unfree.”

In the end, Tshepo tells the story of swimming in a body of water that had collected in the dumping ground near his childhood home. His mother slapped him for it out of fear and shock, and it traumatised him from swimming ever again. Today, much older, he’s taking himself and his child to swimming lessons. He says “learning to swim, for me, has been a metaphor for reclaiming what was lost because of Apartheid.”

For me, swimming was the absolute pinnacle of Whiteness, luxury and privilege. Swimming during PE class in Primary School was ritual humiliation where all the Black children sat on the side-lines in Speedos and swimming caps only because it was uniform, but we seldom went into the water of our own accord. It wasn’t something I ever dreamt I would be able to do. When we moved to Cyrildene with my family, there was a swimming pool in the backyard. I made it my goal to teach myself how to swim and I did this by nearly drowning, jumping upright in the water to catch a breath, sinking to the floor and jumping again. Somewhere between big gasps of air,  sinking far below the waters, and the ritual humiliation of swimming during PE, I learnt how to do it on my own. It was that important to me. 

I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to speak with Professor Madlingozi, we are privileged to be able to archive and make his story publicly available. The FreedomAfter podcast is out and it is available on Spotify, on Apple and Google Podcasts, and everywhere else too. 

 You can also get it on PodBean, here.

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