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Africans and indignities

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Pictures: Jeffrey Abrahams Archbishop Thabo Makgoba (right), Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, leads a delegation from the Western Cape Religious Leaders’ Forum (WCRLF) to a number of informal settlements in Khayelitsha, in solidarity with local people suffering as a result of inadequate sanitation and general service delivery issues.

By Dr Wallace Mgoqi

It occurred to me that history tells us that Africans have suffered numerous and countless indignities in the Western Cape, South African and elsewhere, not only in the past, but sadly, even under the present so-called democratic dispensation.

As far back as 1900, it was blamed on the presence of Africans living under squalid conditions at the time, near the present dock area of the Foreshore.

It is recorded that a Council resolution was taken to move all Africans to a place then called Uitvlugt, near Maitland later named Ndabeni, a name given by ANC activists at the time to a white superintendent, who was rather seen to be “nosey” always wanting to know what people of influence were thinking and planning , so that in the event of any planned rebellion he would organise a counter-offensive.

By 1927 a new site was identified as suitable for settlement of Africans, as the area where they were was determined to be an industrial area.

So they were moved again to what we know today as Langa. ANC activists had named their new area after the militant King of Ama-Hlubi, who was captured by the British for his resistance against the annexation of their land near present Escourt in KZN. He was kept at a concentration camp in Ndabeni, and admiring his militant spirit they named their new place after him. He was later taken to the Castle and later transferred to Robben Island where he died.

The families that were moved to Langa were accommodated in the most deplorable of circumstances – the very first houses in Bhunga Avenue as you enter Langa from the N2 were two-roomed units, for a family of whatever size, to do everything there. It was de-humanising to say the least. Later the Main Barracks were erected , principally to accommodate migrant workers , though they ended up being occupied by married couples.

So were the rest of the single sex men’s hostels in Langa, which were only converted into family units in the late 1970 s through the philanthropic and entrepreneurial spirit of the likes of much- reputed Revel Fox, of Revel Fox and Partners, an architect , and Dr Oscar Wollheim of CAFDA, who experimented with converting the hostels into family units- my family and a few others were the first beneficiaries of this housing scheme- – first time ever to own a house- a four-roomed unit.

The names of the streets of the new still the names of the ANC activists who were leading the people’s struggles then; Bhunga, Mdolomba, Mqhayi, Makana, Moshesh, etc.

Incidentally, in five years time, in 2027, Langa Township will celebrate hundred years, of its existence. As to what it has to show for it, is a different matter, and perhaps what prompted me to write this piece, at one level.

Local government, because of its proximity to the people, has always been used to oppress people, by those wielding political power at the highest echelons.

The treatment of Africans in an undignified way produced freedom fighters like Mrs Eulalie Stott, (herself a councillor in the municipality for many years) and other men and women of conscience who did not keep their peace in the face of these indignities suffered by fellow human beings. She spoke out openly and tirelessly, together with the Black Sash ladies, who were a familiar sight on the streets protesting and campaigning for one thing or another.

There was a time under Apartheid when a municipal ordinance which prevented widows to continue living in a municipality house after their husband died.

This applied through the length and breadth of South Africa. These widows, together with their children were bundled onto a GG truck , with their belongings and made to travel long distances to places designated by those in authority for their settlement as they were regarded as “surplus people”. They were taken to places like Dimbaza, near Kingwilliamstown, Lingelihle and Sada near Queenstown, in all the four provinces at the time.

They were dumped there without the wherewithal to live a decent life.

Picture: Jeffrey Abrahams

My own relatives suffered this indignity and their lives were condemned from that time – I cried when I saw them as a Social Work student at Fort Hare, when together with other students, I visited Dimbaza. We brought with us some dry slices of brown bread, as we gave the children, their eyes lit up as if we were giving them something delicious, like carrot cake.

When we were old enough to apply for an Identity Book, our parents took us to the Pass office and we dreaded the place. Langa also was used to administer the so-called Coloured Labour Preferential Policy, in terms of which Coloured people were given first preference when it came to finding jobs.

An African would go out looking for a job, and the prospective employer would write a letter giving a description of the job and the wages. The job seeker had to bring that letter to the Langa Labour bureau, which would forward it to the Coloured Labour Bureau in Barrack Street and if there was a Coloured person who fancied the job it was taken away, and the poor fellow who found the job had to start all over again, something that strained relations between Coloured people and Africans deliberately driving a wedge between the two oppressed groups.

The other reason that prompted me to write this piece is that in a place like Langa, where Africans have been practising the cultural custom of male circumcision, since their settlement there in 1927. A group of officials claiming to be from the provincial government, have been harassing them.

Ultimately, the chairperson of the Association (Mandla Mlambo, who happens to be the son of the late and former President of the Land Claims Court) which has oversight over everything done in the camp, including compliance with health regulations) was arrested by the police at the instance of these officials.

Their complaint was that the Association had allowed a family to do circumcision outside the permissible period, they stipulate to be November – February, something as ludicrous as that.

You ask yourself why should Africans who been observing their custom, at this place and elsewhere be told when they may engage in such rituals? Why is it that African people are treated as inferior by those in authority? Does our Constitution not guarantee our right to exercise our culture as we deem fit?

Since when are we to be dictated to by municipal or provincial or even national officials for that matter? This amounts to bullying. This piece of land is the last remaining portion where people from all the townships (not only from Langa), come throughout the year, with most doing it in the summer months.

Yet as veterans and elders, we know, for example, that the best time is the winter time as healing takes place much quicker, than in summer.

No wonder the Afro- Caribbean man protested to a Briton in the UK, who wanted to remove a louse on his neck- and said: “Please leave it, it is all I have. You people have taken everything we had as people of African descent, our land, our livestock, our crops, our men and our women, our language and our culture. Now you want to take the very last thing I have, my lousy louse ? Please leave me alone!”

We are demanding that those in authority leave us to exercise our cultural rights – it is out constitutional right to do so in this democracy.

This is a matter close to our identity as a people – it is close to our hearts. Even women in the African community take pride in this custom, it defines who we are . No one has a right to wish it away- why for heaven’ sake ?

Mgoqi is the chairperson of Ayo Technology Solutions Ltd. He writes in his personal capacity.

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.