“No chains around my feet,
But I’m not free
I know I am bound here in captivity”
I used to listen to “Concrete Jungle” by Bob Marley and the Wailers, almost every day of 2014. For the most part the song symbolised my captivity in the Eurocentric higher education system in South Africa. It is said that your early twenties, are when you question the world the most. For most of us, these years will be spent in university, making it a hub of all your inner turmoil. When you’re in university, your life becomes subsumed by that space, it becomes the centre of your oppressions, it becomes the place where you grow up, where you find yourself, lose yourself, and perhaps grow to accept that you are and will always be lost. This year, as I spend less time on campus, though I had always been cognizant of this, I am still overwhelmed by how the university in South Africa is a microcosm of our society, and how eternally lost I am.
Like most poignant pieces of art, “Concrete Jungle” often comes to me when I am feeling particularly discomforted by my surroundings, when I feel myself coming unhinged. This time, “Concrete Jungle”, came to me two days ago, on my way back to South Africa from Kenya. Do not get me wrong, Kenya, has similar experiences of settler colonialism, the entitlement of lingering settlers and a highly unequal society. Yet in Kenya, like many other sub-Saharan African countries, my blackness was natural, its sense of belonging never questioned. Fellow South Africans on the same trip, often remarked at the many billboards surrounding us with black people on them, that black people were in positions of economic power, that black pilots flew our planes, that on two occasions, black women flew the planes we were on. See, it wasn’t just that we were surrounded by Black excellence, it’s that for the most part, it seemed so effortless and natural. Furthermore, the dichotomies often displayed in South Africa between white and Black, with Black often being on the negative side of the dichotomy were not so prevalent.
Here in South Africa, the black majority, are minoritized through hyperinvisibilisation in economic ownership, media, spatial planning, access to education, service delivery, and all the concomitants of socio-economic freedom. Friends I made in Kenya, from other parts of the continent, often remarked how odd and ridiculous they found it that whiteness continued to be so venerated in South Africa. They remarked as Robert Mugabe once had that “black South Africans will burn alive another African but can’t even raise a hand to slap a white.” This sentiment, so crudely honest, is at the center of the black condition in South Africa. On my flight, back home, the plane was full of whites, all of them South African, the lady sitting next to me spoke to the attendants as if they were dogs, shouted them down and blamed them for her own mediocrity. Whites talked loudly and laughed raucously and the air was filled so entirely with their presence. In a plane, full of South Africans, blacks, the majority in this country were a minority, as is commonplace in spaces of privilege. We were also more silent, seemingly apologetic of our presence. At OR Tambo International Airport, waiting for my connecting flight back to Cape Town, multiple times, white people jumped queues at cafes, spoke rudely to border security and people in service positions, I was even shoved out of the way by a white man who jumped the queue at passport control ahead of me. It’s not just that white people take up so much space here, it’s that they are so brazen, callous and unfeeling about it. It’s a particular sort of inhumanity, one that feels no shame for the history of genocide, slavery, colonialism and apartheid that afforded them their citizenship.
As I flew back in to Cape Town, my “home”, I was filled with so much contemptuous rage, the kind of rage which consumes you so entirely it defeats you. I found my eyes welling with the tears of that rage. How are we so enslaved? How are we so utterly consumed by whiteness that we hate ourselves so much that we kill one another, kill those who resemble us. Are we so bent by colonialism, slavery, whiteness, that we have conceded defeat? For the umpteenth time when I travelled to another African country, I returned feeling disgusted. Disgusted that South Africa, instead of being a country at the southernmost tip of Africa is instead an outpost of Europe. A place where I do not belong, a place that was stolen in 1652, where thieving was legalised in 1948 and that we gave away in 1994. Solidifying the social death of Blacks, in this concrete jungle that we call home.
“No sun will shine in my day today
The high yellow moon won’t come out to play
I said darkness has covered my light,
And has changed my day into night, yeah.
Where is the love to be found?
Won’t someone tell me?
Cause my (sweet life) life must be somewhere to be found…
…No chains around my feet,
But I’m not free!
I know I am bound here in captivity;
G’yeah, now I’ve never known happiness;
I’ve never known what sweet caress is
Still, I’ll be always laughing like a clown;
Won’t someone help me? ‘Cause I (sweet life)
I’ve got to pick myself from off the ground
(must be somewhere for me), he-yeah!
In this a concrete jungle (la la-la!) …”
So, while the world commends Mandela, the ANC and the older black generation for being able to forgive whites in 1994. Perhaps they should have been questioning, whether slaves, those rendered socially dead, could truly deny their masters their dues.