The Jozi Nationalist

 
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Zukiswa Wanner

Art by Ayanda Mabulu

 
 

Her friends called her a Jozi nationalist.

She loved and defended the city in the same way a mother blindly defends a beloved son who has fallen on the wayside. Because for as long as she could remember, she believed that her Johannesburg was this place where Black folk had white friends and lived together harmoniously, only focused on the hustle rather than race. She believed that her Johannesburg, which had white friends who could sing crossover hits like Mandoza’s Nkalakatha and who could say to Bongi their domestic worker “sah-wuh-bho-nuuh” which irked her a little, was as close to a perfect city as far as living and letting live was concerned.

No. Ntombiyedwa was not naïve. She knew the city’s faults and horrors. How men could admire a woman’s shapely legs in a minidress and then less than fifty meters later, another group of men could taunt the same woman, or worse, rip the dress from her, “if you want to walk naked, why don’t you just do so?” For this reason, she had mastered the art of crossing over to another side of the street if she saw a group of men, whatever she was wearing, so she wouldn’t have to deal with any catcalling and unnecessary conversations. In this same Joburg too, Ntombiyedwa knew it didn’t take much to get someone on a radio station or on Twitter finding a way of blaming any and all perceived inequalities on “foreigners,” code word for anyone who looked like her without South African citizenship. Sometimes an Asian. Never a European whose life was considered more precious. And sometimes that blame would result in untold horrors like necklacing or burning down of properties so yes, Ntombi was a writer who knew Jozi’s faults and horrors too.

But knowing all this, she still believed it was as close to perfect as it would get. She carried the city’s dreams and believed it could be better. Sometimes she deluded herself that it was better. If it wasn’t better, why were so many comfortable with it and why did they want to come and live here? Surely that meant something? Jozi was the place where fellow Africans, Asians, and Eastern Europeans moved to. Not so much Western Europeans. They preferred going to the Fair Cape where they could go to restaurants and if unlucky, have one Black table in the entire restaurant and if lucky, only deal with Africans as waitrons.

And her white compatriots in Johannesburg were different in other important ways than those in other cities in the country too, she had been convinced. They could be relied on to let her know when the establishment, both Black and white, offered to pay them more than her, thus helping her negotiate for more. One of her white writer friends once wrote:

Dear Ms. Westhuzein,

It has come to our attention that our colleague, Ntombi (okay so they pronounced her name En-Tom-bee, but they tried and they had spelt it properly in the email) Sechaba is being paid a third what we are getting paid. Ms. Sechaba has held our hands and corrected our cultural oversights on the team as we wrote the award-winning soapie The Deep. What sets Ms. Sechaba apart is that she has a great command of the English language and is able to communicate her ideas in a very concise manner despite English being her third language (later she would wonder whether she was a sellout. Whether this was code for “you are different because you speak good English unlike…”). If the management team cannot find it in them to pay her as much as the rest of us, then we regret to inform you that as of next week, we will all down our tools and you can write the soapie yourselves.

Signed:

Then all her colleagues had signed the letter/petition. She was touched and almost cried.

Would have.

If her mother had not taught her that “we don’t cry in front of white people. Even if they are your friends.” But she was amazed, she couldn’t lie. Her white friends had been willing to toyi-toyi and lose their jobs for her.

Until they weren’t.

She had got the raise as a result of her friend’s letter but three months later, she was being let go. Some pesky excuse from Human Resources. She was a freelancer so there was no union to complain to.

And her friends had said then, “We can’t really deal with more of this. Sorry Ntombs, but we’ll let you know if something comes up.”

She was angry and had wanted to cry then. But like before, she remembered her mother’s words. Was this when she started noticing certain things? Would this have been when she shed her rainbow nation glasses? When she had realized that Jozi was Black and White?

That it was swart en wit?

It wasn’t. Even then, she didn’t think this way. She rationalized that in their place, she too would have found it difficult to give up a job, let go of an income, when the economy was difficult.

She ignored it.

 

She still kept her friends. Loved them even as they invited her to their homes for dinner in the Northern suburbs but would make excuse after excuse not to come to her home in the working-class South.

They were her friends. They loved her, of that she was certain. They invited her for dinner which they would pay for—even though she would have to make a plan for transport because another thing her mother had always told her was to do poverty with dignity.

“Don’t let them see you sweat, ngwanaka. Don’t give them the power. It’s not our way.” Then when in a mall, her mother would point to people who looked like them. “You see them? Some of them are probably coming from a shack in Joe Slovo settlement but even when they wash in a bucket, they make sure they are clean, have roll-on, and their clothes are clean. When you have dignity, Ntombiyedwa, no one can take that away from you and you attract good energy. You need to be strong.’

She sometimes wondered whether the Black women in her life were as problematic as all the white women in her life. One side asked her to be strong because “this is what we do.” The other side expected her to be strong and resented her vulnerability because “Black women are so strong. I was raised by one.” References to domestic workers who were like family but whose families were not welcome in their family compounds unless there was an extreme emergency and then, never to sleep over. Paid the same amount of money monthly that her white friends’ fathers paid for their weekend bottle of scotch whisky. Family?

But you see even when she finally started identifying some of these things, she still held the firm belief that Jozi was the city of dreams.

It was to South Africa what Alicia Mkhize’s New York was to the US.

“If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere,” and so she stayed.

A life richer in capital of the social kind than of the economic kind.

And she still believed in the wonders and beauty of Joburg.

Her Jozi, she said, was the perfectly fastened bow to the Arch’s “Rainbow Nation.”

“Cosmopolitan. Not like Cape Town, you know?” Johustleburg was going to save the country, she often asserted as she jammed Tuks’s “Midnight Train to Jozi” on repeat.

This was years before her siblings in The Plantation pushed back and demanded the fall of a statue.

The action which led to her and others like her recognizing that perhaps they had been to Jozi capital monopolies what Chicken George had been to Massa in Roots; what Khama the father, Mugabe, Kenyatta 1, Tshombe and and and had been to the British and French before their respective countries’ “independence.” That they had just been content to be invited to the table instead of dismantling it and telling the former apartheid masters:

Ma… *clap* me… *clap* la …*clap*ni !*clap*

We are sitting on this here, goat skin and you are going to sit on the floor as required because, goddamit, this is our land and you need to fit in to us and not we fit into what you consider is civilized. Whose civilization?’

Way before the fall of a statue at The Plantation, two events had happened that showed her. That shook her awake and made her realize that her Joburg was as Black and white as the rest of this settler colony.

And they had happened within a day of each other. Two events, that led them to form the militia.

The first happened the night after a video that was aired on the main news bulletin shocked the nation.

No.

Really shocked.

Before the word “shocked” was used loosely by their current head of state, President Kellogg’s.

When most of the country was singing kumbaya.

When they all believed in nonracialism—or was that multiracialism?

When the Blacks believed that South Africa belonged to all who live in it.

Before the non-Blacks, even in Joburg, started asking “Why are you all so angry?”

Before her white friends started applying for visas to Australia because apartheid was not genocide but they were victims of a white genocide at farms even though they stayed in the city and even though they refused to consider murder of Black farmworkers by white farm owners as comprising farm deaths.

Before the whites started crying about employment discrimination against them because eight percent of people who looked like them—while 40 percent of the Blacks—were unemployed “but…but…we are more educated, intelligent, we brought civilization…”

Way back then.

 
 

Newsclip.

White male students at a university in Dom State.

“Still not free,” according to her and her friends in Civilized Jozi, is what they would say as they tried to wrap their heads around the video.

To explain their shock.

“That would never happen in Joburg,” they said to themselves.

But a day after the incident was broadcast, one of her neighbors in her Southern working-class neighborhood—she was still higher on social capital than on financial capital—screamed.

Turffontein.

A suburb where the apartheid establishment placed their poor white relatives.

A suburb where, many years ago, and yet not too far back to be forgotten, a Black man had walked past apartheid curfew for people who looked like him and had been grabbed by “spirited young white men” who proceeded to paint him white with paint that corroded his skin.

“Kaffir!!! You want to be white?” they asked as they kicked him and held him down.

“Today, you shall be white.”

Turffontein.

A neighborhood that now in a country that claimed to be post-apartheid peopled Better-Than-Hillbrow-But-Will-Never-Make-Houghton Blacks. Mostly from across the continent or if, South African, were in relationships with our brothers, sometimes sisters, mostly brothers, from the North. Eish maar Xhosa girls though.

If white, they were the lot who had failed to take advantage of apartheid and were doomed to die there. Drinking Klip and Coke during the weekend while wondering where they would get money to fix the bakkie with the horns and blue balls underneath to show their support for a rugby team from Pretoria, Blue Bulls. If white, they wondered why all these darkies were so sensitive. The orange, blue, and white was their identity. The apartheid flag was their history. Why would anyone tell them to erase history and not fly the flag in front of their yards? Why were they so sensitive? And “we allowed them to butcher our anthem and add that Nkosi Sikelel’a right at the beginning, didn’t we?” And “we voted in the referendum to end apartheid and they can now vote for their politicians and look how corrupt those politicians are?” Turffontein. A neighborhood where the working-class whites who failed to take advantage of apartheid were angry and wondered why the Blacks were angry and why they were unreasonable because they had everything now.

It was this Turffontein that was the scene of the first accident that shocked Ntombi and her neighbors.

A day after the Reitz video had been screened on the news bulletin.

Young white men born post-1994.

Young white men who should have known better and been “rainbowy” urinated in plates of food and forced Black employees to eat the food. While taking videos of this blatant humiliation. It was in the horror of having just watched this the night before, something that she and her neighbors had discussed that whole day, that Ntombi’s neighbor let out a bloodcurdling scream.

Everyone rushed out.

The spaza owner woman from Cameroon who spoke better isiZulu and Sesotho than the white South Africans in the neighborhood. Survival will do that to you.

The Mozambican man whose favorite color was pink and would wear a pink Dolce & Gabbana belt with each of his outfits.

The Ivorian guy with a degree in engineering who couldn’t find a job in Johannesburg and was running a cybercafe even as the government brought in engineers from Switzerland to fix hospital equipment.

The Zimbabwean woman who was an auditor by profession but was working as a hairdresser because her papers hadn’t come through yet and she needed to eat and send money home.

The Nigerian man whose restaurant was always full and who walked with the sort of gravitas that made everyone step aside.

The Congolese man who, on seeing an open manhole complained, “this is unfortunate. Children could fall in here. This would never happen in Paris,” perhaps briefly forgetting that he was more Kinois than Parisian.

The isiZulu teacher at the local high school and his Malawian wife who worked at a call center.

They all came down.

“What happened?” they asked the distraught Zambian woman.

“My bag. Someone came and grabbed my bag as I was about to open the gate and he ran into the park.”

 
 

Near Ntombi’s place, there was a park as with most neighborhoods in Johannesburg that had been previously considered white neighborhoods, no matter the income bracket.

The bag-grabber had run in there.

Muleya, for that was the Zambian woman’s name, described him.

Her description seemed to energize the crowd.

They all ran into the park to hunt for him. Down De Villiers’ Street, all the time yelling “Come out. Come out.”

But the park was a great hiding place.

The municipality hadn’t cut the grass there for months. And Jozi’s storms had ensured the grass was now pretty high.

How would they find him?

It was Ntombi’s actions that led to his discovery.

The moment she heard the story, she had called the police.

Booysens Police.

Sirens.

The criminal was flushed out.

He must have been petrified of the police.

The crowd saw him.

They gave chase.

They caught him.

They beat him.

Street justice of the worst kind.

Cameroonian. Ivorian. Zimbabwean. Mozambican. Nigerian. South African. Congolese.

They had come together as one.

But Lucky Dube may not have appreciated the violence.

The criminal had likely never expected it.

The police arrived.

For a good five minutes, they watched as the Turffontein residents beat up this criminal.

Five minutes later the police announced to the bloodthirsty crowd, “Alright guys. I think he has had enough.”

They picked up the criminal and the bag.

They asked Muleya whether her bag was intact.

“Eh he,” she answered.

Mob justice is an offense but in this case, no one was arrested.

A day later, Commissioner Street.

Ntombi was stuck in traffic.

Now Joburg traffic is NOT traffic.

Unless you have experienced Cairo, Kampala, Nairobi, Kinshasa, Lagos, Accra you think Jozi has traffic.

And then you realize you are playing.

But it was in this non-traffic traffic that Ntombi’s second incident happened.

 
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With her, two scriptwriter friends struggling to make a living like her.

Fraternal twins. Sons of a domestic worker and her Scottish former employer. And they were fraternal in every way except that they were both boys. Bongani was dark and tall with hair that he kept locked. Siyabonga was fair, so fair that most people though he was white. He was short and his head was going bald and gray so he kept it closely shaven. Everyone in the film industry called them Blackie and Whitey. Nothing about Blackie showed he had a white father and nothing about Whitey showed he had a Black mother.

The three of them had just been to a scriptwriting workshop at Wits University in Braam.

Who is Braam? They had often asked each other.

None of them knew. Yet they asked the question every time they were together. So much for writers being the intellectuals of society.

But.

The scriptwriting had paid them in cash.

Joy.

They each had two thousand rand, back when it meant something, in their pockets. Not their wallets.

This non-wallet thing would become important later that day.

Anyway.

The three of them had bullshitted their way through a scriptwriting workshop and signed for the cash. And their first stop was a restaurant in Braam, less for food than for drinks. Whitey was driving.

They drank. One or two.

Or three. Then they decided they would go to Ntombi’s home and drink some more.

Blackie had volunteered to cook at Ntombi’s house as always. He was the best cook among them anyway.

They finished their drinks.

“Lalela mgani wam,” Whitey started.

Heads turned as they always did when Whitey spoke isiZulu. People were always surprised. They seemed to even treat him better when they heard him speak it. A white man who tries, must have been their thought process. Except he wasn’t.

“Yini manje?” Ntombi asked. She spoke better Sesotho than isiZulu but this being her Joburg, no one spoke any one language well enough for language purists and everyone spoke a mishmash of all languages enough to understand each other.

Then he advised her about his and his brother’s little trick of putting money in the pockets instead of the wallet. “I only keep business cards in my wallet.” Ntombi had rolled her eyes then but figured it didn’t harm to take his advice.

Drinks done, they all jumped into Whitey’s Audi en route to Turffontein.

It was on Commissioner Street that it happened.

Traffic.

Not like the rest of the major cities on the continent have traffic, understand. But the sort of traffic that those privileged with a great traffic flow resented. Say people in Dom State. Or some other random South African city.

Traffic lights were red.

Whitey was driving and his window was open.

As good as his isiZulu was, sometimes one bloody comprehended (and put their head in their hand) that Whitey could be so so white.

Who. The. Hell. Keeps. Their. Windows. Low. At. Rush. Hour?

Forget Jozi.

Anywhere in the world that’s not Sweden.

Who. Does. That?

 
 

As they waited for the robot to turn green, a young man in a trench coat and hat came to Whitey’s window with his right hand under the trench coat and stated with deathly calm, “Ndipeth’i sbam. Give me your cell phones and wallets.”

Blackie was in the passenger seat, Ntombi was at the back. Both Blackie and Whitey handed their cell phones and wallets.

Both wallets were empty. Whitey’s cell phone was expensive. The Alleged Gun-Wielder held on to it. He threw Blackie’s cell phone back to him. It was expensive. But NOT that expensive.

Ntombi was on the phone with her uncle. She looked at the Alleged Gun-Wielder.

“Uncle Andrew,” Ntombi spoke on the phone trying not to sound panicked, “I think we are being robbed. I need to hang up. I will call you back.”

“Yini manje bhuti?” she asks the Alleged Gun-Wielder after she hung up.

“I said give me your cell phone and wallet,” he responded again calmly.

She had the cheapest phone among all three. It wouldn’t have meant much beside the contacts but she shook her head. Maybe it was the few beers that she had drunk that had got to her head but she asked, “Why? Where is your gun, bhuti?”

Blackie and Whitey were not amused. “Mgani, just give him what he asked for,” this was not the time and space for false bravado. Ntombi gave a mirthless laugh and replied, “No guys. I want to see the gun first.” Then to the young man outside, “show me your gun, bhuti. I promise I will give you my wallet and cell phone.”

Traffic was still at a standstill. Did this young man have a hookup with the guys who control traffic lights?, Ntombi wondered.

Meanwhile Blackie and Whitey were not amused. Blackie whispered to her, “You’ll get us killed with your nonsensical hardheadedness.”

It was then that she passed on her cell phone and wallet, which he threw back at her because he was offended at how cheap it was. In the same way he threw back her wallet with just a business card.

But Alleged Gun-Wielder was not alone.

Before the robot turned green—it felt like years—his partner, who had been at other cars, came to them.

He looked at the passengers in the car, then looked at his criminal comrade.

He looked at the passengers again and then saw the expensive phone in the Alleged Gun-Wielder’s hand.

“I cellphone kabani lena bhuti?”

He asked the guys because Ntombi was not worth engaging with. A woman. Back seat. Meeh.

“Eyam, Grootman,” Whitey responded.

The new criminal comrade was pleasantly surprised that this seeming white man could taal isiZulu without an accent. He had to ask. So Whitey told him as fast as he could that he was, in fact, half black.

On Commissioner Street, before the traffic lights turned green, Alleged Gun-Wielder’s Criminal Comrade slapped his fellow criminal on the head and said angrily, “What’s wrong with you? We don’t rob Blacks,” before throwing back the cell phone into the car to Whitey.

As the car started moving, Ntombi and her friends couldn’t help laughing nervously then full-on. “This is the first time I have felt the benefits of being Black in this country,” Blackie said then.

Last night, you see, the criminal had been white and thus the beating and today, the criminals had been Black who didn’t rob Blacks. “We need more people who think like those young criminals,” Blackie had said.

Whitey had nodded. Anything that made him fit in more always made him feel better. They were all aware of white militias living with the fear of apartheid guilt and reparations that never were. Militias who killed young Black boys on farms for “stealing” fruits and who trained for the day they were sure that Black people were just waiting for Mandela to die before they turned their knives on them. On that day they decided, perhaps a militia was needed. This negotiated settlement of a country was not it. It was Whitey who made the phone call. An ex-Azanian People’s Liberation Movement cadre for training. And Ntombi had added, “and men. Any femicide and violence against women will be sorted out by this militia.”

Blackie had tried to argue, “How about we set the Blacks free first and we can think about women after?”

“Why?” Ntombi had asked with a raised brow. “Why must women always wait? Why can’t we walk and chew gum at the same time?”

And so it was they decided.

 

“From then on, every death of any woman, every death of any Black farmworker would be avenged. And every humiliation would be met with equal humiliation.”

 

White militia and men would not have a monopoly on violence. From then on, every death of any woman, every death of any Black farmworker would be avenged. And every humiliation would be met with equal humiliation.

That was twelve years ago.

It was happening.

Jozi and its surrounds had been burning ever since but they were close. Soon, they would be free, Ntombi thought as she smiled at her white friends who had invited her to dinner. She wondered what they would say if they knew that she was part of…

She chose not to dwell on it. Soon, her Johannesburg would be free and set the rest of the country free while at it. There were farms that were already part of the revolution. This freedom would come in her lifetime.

 
 

Spring / Summer 2024



Zukiswa Wanner

Zukiswa Wanner is a South African journalist, novelist and editor born in Zambia and now based in Kenya. Since 2006, when she published her first book, her novels have been shortlisted for awards including the South African Literary Awards and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.



Ayanda Mabulu

Ayanda Mabulu (b. 1981, Qonce, South Africa) is a self-taught artist from the Eastern Cape. His paintings, which incorporate oils, gold leaf, and textiles, engage issues of social upheaval, inequality, and the politics of the black body in South Africa. Mabulu’s work has been shown at venues that include Everard Read Gallery (Johannesburg), Kalashnikovv Gallery (Randburg), DuSable Museum (Chicago), Galerie Galea (Strasbourg), 1-54 London, Contemporary Istanbul, FNB Art Joburg, and Investec Cape Town Art Fair. His work is held in numerous collections, including Standard Bank Art Collection and Spier Arts Trust (both in South Africa); Leridon Collection (France); and DuSable Museum (Chicago). He lives and works in Johannesburg.



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