Mbulelo Mzamane

Beyond Mythification: Constituting a Southern Identity by Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane

Of Minks and Men

Mbulelo Mzamane

Mbulelo Mzamane

I

Imagine you are a mink[1] – beautiful and precious beyond compare. Then suddenly one autumn day, hunters invade your homeland.

Unsuspecting, you receive them with open arms, in accordance with minkdom’s time honoured customs. You order a sumptuous feast in their honour: calabashes of frothing sorghum beer, goat meat and beef with ting[2] and morogo[3]. In the evening you entertain them with song and dance in which the whole community participates, including children. At the end of the day’s festivities, you offer them a place to sleep. They return the next morning and ask if they might stay longer. You apportion them a place to stay, grow their own gardens and keep stock. You give them a few start up chickens, goats and cattle.

At first, nothing in their conduct alerts you to the fact that their intentions are less than noble. Nothing in their demeanour suggests betrayal. They seem kind and pet your younglings, who are impressionable, innocent, and trusting. To your women they give shiny trinkets for presents.

One or two minks with a reputation for bickering and objecting to everything warn against the new arrivals.

A soothsayer with a waning reputation also warns, as she is being dragged to be hurled down the donga of death for crimes of sorcery: “Niyangibulala?[4] You’ll not rule over this land. I see vultures readying themselves to pounce on you.”

Indaba ithungelwa ebandla,“[5] the chief mink pronounces, stroking his greying beard that he wishes was as long as the head hunter‘s. And having assembled the mink tribe and allowed them to deliberate at great length, he pronounces: “We shall treat the strangers in accordance with our time honoured customs. Our forebears coined a saying by which we‘ve always lived: Ukwanda kwaliwa ngumthakathi.[6]No mink’s life has meaning except in relation to others. It is not our tradition to deny hospitality even to complete strangers.”

Then, with the suddenness and ferocity of an African thunderstorm, the hunters attack and beat you. You are dazed and struggling for composure.

Hawu![7] Is there anything perhaps we should have given you that we didn’t?” you ask. “Don’t you have enough land, enough chickens, goats and cattle? Or is it you want us to give you our daughters in marriage as well? Tell us, we will provide any of these things.”

“Give us your fur,” they say.

Somehow, it does not make sense. The very thing that makes you who and what you are becomes the source of your excruciating pain, as they assail you time after time because of your beautiful and precious fur.

Confused and mistrustful, you go into hiding, camouflaging your fur.

They hunt you down and flush you out from your cave hide-out situated along the slopes of the Amatola Mountains[8] and from your forest fortress at Hoho[9]. They strip you of nature’s protection and your disguise, leaving you feeling exposed and vulnerable—while the griot[10] composes mournful songs that express the community’s incomprehension, deprivation, sadness, loss:

Senzeni na? What have we done?

Isono sam bubumnyama My blackness is my awful sin.

The hunters return, season after season, until you begin to understand that you will never get away from being who and what you are. As long as you have fur you will be hunted. They steal your skin, your heritage, the very essence of your being.

You are still dazed and struggling for composure. They leave you to die but you survive. Become stronger. Your fur grows. More lush than spring grass. More beautiful than before.

The minks’ growing strength and beauty coincide with the return of the hunters amidst a gathering storm in the land that becomes more fierce with each passing day.

The hunters experience a collective shudder and take fright at nature’s reminder of the grimness of their ways. They ask one another—and their children, too, begin to ply them with questions they do not know how to answer: “What if some day, in the thick of the night, with the storm wreaking havoc upon the land, the hunter should become the hunted?”

The children pull at the legs of their fathers: “Daddy, daddy, daddy, I’m afraid of the mink.”

“Quiet! Can’t you see your father is thinking?” The mothers hush their babies, with sidelong looks at the fathers, who stare straight ahead with unseeing eyes.

The children start a wail that haunts the hunters every time they leave home for the hunt and every time they return home from the hunt.

“Quiet! Can’t you see your father is tired? I’ll call the mink and he’ll eat you.” The mothers, wearing long faces, threaten their restless offspring but to no avail.

A tiny child bawls in terror and is hushed by an older sibling.

The older children go out to play catch-me-if-you-can and compose a rhyme to go with the game:

My children!                                Bantwana bam!

Yes, mother.                            Me, Me.

Come over here.                          Izani apha.

We’re scared.                           Siyoyika.

Of what?                                     Noyika ntoni?

Of minks.                                  Ingwe.

Where are they?                          Iphi?

Over there.                               Nansiya.

Run away…                                 Balekani ke?[11]

The children’s chase re-enacts the hunt from stories they’ve heard their fathers tell.

The older children’s games bring little joy, however, to the hunters haunted by wailing babies every time they leave home for the hunt or return home from the hunt. The thrill of the hunt starts to diminish. Spine chilling fear takes hold of their nerves of steel. They call an emergency town meeting.

There is an unprecedented turn out at the meeting. There is standing room only at the town hall, with the children hanging precariously from the windowsills.

“People of the hunt,” the head hunter begins, “we have summoned you to this town meeting to discuss a matter of grave concern that affects the future of every inhabitant of Huntsville. Some of you have been asking if it is at all likely that some day the hunter may become the hunted. In years past, the answer to that question would have been a simple one: You can’t hunt with your bare hands. To be a successful hunter, revered throughout the land, you need weapons that are more than toy weapons. Today, however, we can no longer answer with the same degree of certitude. Even weapons of mass destruction are freely available in the open market and training provided for whomsoever wishes to master their use. While until now we’ve had little cause for concern over the minks’ prolific breeding habits that assured us of limitless game, today their growing number that far outstrips ours poses a grave threat and the game reserves can no longer contain their population explosion.”

The questions from the women and children gush out like flood waters, and the head hunter keeps shaking his head at each question.

“Where do they get the money?”

“Exactly who provides them training?”

“Can we not hunt down and destroy all those who provide them support?”

“Can we not increase the size of the game reserves?”

“Wouldn’t it be simple to cull them?”

“Is it possible to drive them all up north, whence it is said they came?”

“What does the future hold in store for us?”

The frail and the elderly, women and workers, the usually silent majority, all speak up. The debate rages deep into the night.

“We have debated the matter long enough,” the head hunter finally declares. “We all know the nature of the problem. What’s important is to determine what to do about it. We have heard your concerns. The meeting is adjourned. Your volksraad[12]will remain to deliberate over the matter and prescribe a lasting solution to the problem. You will know by this evening what we decide upon.”

The volksraad decides to place the matter to a referendum. The Huntsville community resolves, by a sizable majority, that the time has come to devise new ways to protect their amassed furs.

Next day, they send a delegation to Minksville to make a pact with the minks that will promote constructive engagement and peaceful coexistence. Together they draw up new protocols to determine how to govern the land in order to ensure lasting peace and sustainable development that all may multiply and prosper.

The minks cooperate but most show themselves to be less interested in material accumulation and more enamoured of the prospects the New Deal offers for the protection of the sanctity of life and the restoration of their dignity and minkinity. A few greedy ones among them, however, have started to salivate like Pavlov’s dogs.[13]

The two sides engage in protracted negotiations to draw up further protocols that assert and protect the rights of all to live in peace and harmony. They also agree to hold elections on a common voters’ roll to determine who will govern the new nation-in-the-making in the State of Gondwana.[14]

On the appointed day, the minks shine their fur, now grown to a lush softness, and swarm to vote—alongside the grinning hunters, their muskets now in storage. They elect a new leader of all the inhabitants of Gondwana—a tall, frail looking, silver furred elder with impeccable struggle credentials; a mink of infinite fairness, lasting commitment to reconciliation, immense integrity, a forgiving heart and abiding faith in minkinity.

To cement their triumph, the inhabitants of Gondwana throw up the mother of all parties. In accordance with time honoured custom, they throw a sumptuous feast: calabashes of frothing sorghum beer, goat meat and beef with ting and morogo, and koeksisters[15] for dessert. The festivities continue into the night with song and dance in which the whole community participates gleefully.  All join in singing the new song the imbongi ye sizwe jikele[16]composes—a song that expresses the nation’s new understanding, salvation, gladness, recovery:

Gondwana our motherland
None among other lands is fairer
From the coast to the hinterland
Prosperity comes ever nearer

The silver furred one, his heir apparent beside him, a short mink with eyebrows starting to turn silver, stands stiffly at attention, staring in the distant horizon, as the citizens of  the new state of Gondwana sing lustily to heaven.

Gunshots are heard—and some minks take fright—but the programme director explains that it is only a twenty-one gun salute.

II

The silver furred one, his team of trusted minks, and former hunters serving hunter interests in the legislature—all meet in council to map a common course for Gondwana.

A  myriad problems confront them but none so intractable as the land question.

Land, soil, the earth, this is what had been taken from the minks. “They came and stole our land,” they mourn incessantly.

The hunters have forgotten—it happened such a long time ago—that when their forebears first arrived, they asked if they might stay longer, whereupon the minks apportioned them a place to stay, grow their own gardens and keep stock, in addition to giving them a few start up chickens, goats and cattle.

A story that must be told never forgives silence, and these stories were never passed down faithfully from generation to generation among them.

“But we gave you all the game reserves.”

“They weren’t yours to give. Give us our land.”

Throughout the period of agitation and altercation, the Organisation, led by the silver furred one, who in the struggle years cut a stolid figure of a heavy weight boxer, was making a promise circulated in papyrus that, when the hunters were defeated, every mink would have land. The Organisation had elaborate plans to make minks in every district part of communal schemes and settlements. But every mink wants the land back that the hunters took and now call their own.

“Give us our land to have and to hold and to pass on to our heirs.”

All the minks join in singing the new song the imbongi ye sizwe jikele composes:

Sikhalela:

Sikhalela izwe lethu

Elathathwa:

Elathathwa ngabazingeli

Mabawulethe:

Mabawuleth’ umhlabawethu[17]

Throughout the period of agitation and altercation, the Organisation had been promising: One mink; one farm.

“Does that mean every mink child, woman and worker, the old and the infirm?“ asks an elderly mink with a reputation for asking questions about nearly everything that is obvious to all but the visually impaired, intellectually challenged and politically bankrupt.

His voice is drowned by other minks stamping their feet and shouting: One mink; one farm.

“Perhaps and particularly in the heat of passion, arising from agitation and altercation, it would be wiser for the Organisation not to make such rash promises,” the elderly mink with a reputation for asking questions about nearly everything says, shaking his head, during a meeting with representatives of the Organisation at which a vocally wounded mink with no particular talent for composition tries to introduce a new song, Kill the hunter; kill the farmer. The new chant, however, fails to catch on.

“Mkhulu,”[18] the mink with little talent for composition says, “if minks of your generation had stood up against the hunters, like my generation, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“Listen, son, to the voice of the poet,” the old one says, reciting from memory, in his faint and fading voice so that all present have to strain to hear him:

i have listened too
to the condemnation of the young
who burned with scorn
loaded with revolutionary maxims
hot for quick results.

they did not know
that their anger was born in the meekness
with which i whipped myself.
it is a blind progeny
that acts without indebtedness to the past.[19]

“Idle words of impotence, Mkhulu!”

“It should be obvious even to a minkitot, son, that it is not possible for everyone to own land or even live on the land. There will never be enough land, particularly with the population doubling, doubling, doubling at such short intervals.”

Once the period of agitation and altercation came to an end, every mink who had supported the silver furred one, and many who had not, waited for land, and for Paradise to begin.

In an article titled ‘Long Walk to Paradise’ and published in the Gondwana Review, one journalist, that had beenpreviously persecuted by the ancien regime but that was not anymore popular in the new order, wrote the following commentary:

This Paradise was in fact like some anarchist’s utopia. No one would need a licence to drive a car. Cars would not need licences. No one would have to pass exams, yet everyone would have qualifications and certificates, and any job at all would be at once available. No need for tickets on buses and trains. Electricity and water would flow as free as air through pipes.[20]

When these matters came up for discussion, however, some minks complained that food security was more important to them than these other perks. What did the Organisation have to say about that?

Beacon and eggs (confiscated from commercial farms, previously owned by hunters, and prepared in state-run soup kitchens) would become standard fare for every mink, came the reply. The speaker got carried away: Roast beef with 350ml of red wine would be served with their dinner.

In this way, the Organisation fuelled the imaginations of the more impressionable, innocent and trusting minks.

“Monks not minks live like that—off the profits of the church,” Mkhulu remarked, only to be over-ruled and told he was out-of-order, as always.

Someone else muttered something about the gravy train, but so softly that his words wafted in the air pregnant with the pungent, fruity smell of southern promise.

Of course, not every official of the Organisation peddled these views and not every mink believed in every article of this creed, but every mink believed something on these lines.

Meanwhile, the hunters, who reared most chickens in Gondwana, threatened to break every egg their chickens laid rather than bring them to market at the low prices fixed by the state. Others switched from beef production to crocodile farming that turned every mink’s stomach but which fetched handsome prices in France.

The silver furred one learned from all this and tried to adopt a careful, cautious, thoughtful policy of buying up farms from willing sellers as they became available, settling selected minks on them, but only when elementary services had been provided. Paying little heed to the silver furred mink’s warning to hurry but very slowly, the rhetoric that accompanied this policy, mainly from his less able lieutenants, loaded with revolutionary maxims and hot for quick results, was as incendiary as in the days of agitation and altercation.

Inflamed and justified by the rhetoric, some minks rushed on to the new farms,  not waiting to be properly settled, but were removed again, if unsuitable. Who was suitable and who not? Well, that was it, the promises of the years of agitation and altercation did not mention suitability.

A mink who had once lived in the village, but had since become one of the silver furred mink’s right-hand minks, came back to the village to explain the new land policy. The villagers could not recognise him at first. Once a skinny youth, he now looked as if he was on a carbohydrate high and carried an excess of avoirdupois.[21]

Yessus! Where do they get all that fat from?” asks a mink in the crowd. “If you pricked him great sports of pure white pig’s fat would come out.”

The big one is wearing a silk shirt and tie, a three-piece designer suit, and Italian shoes.

“There are three stages in a mink’s flight from the bush,” observes another mink, turning to the large crowd to enunciate his philosophy. “The first, a tie. The second Italian shoes. The third, a three-piece suit. Then you’ve made it. You’re free forever from the bush.”

The big one has come in his expensive chauffeur-driven German car. A uniformed guard opens the back door to let him out and stands at attention as the big one struggles out of the vehicle, followed by his wife, hair straightened and cheeks glowing orange from skin lightening creams and a mink coat wrapped around her shoulders, despite the smouldering heat.

He carries a walking stick, more for style than as a walking aid, and struts towards the admiring crowd that is singing songs of praise and dancing, as if some secret choreographer is at work, standing in turn on either foot while the other stays in the air.

“The hunters stole our land, and now we want it back?” a spokes-mink explains once the meeting gets underway.

“Yes but slowly does it,” the mink with excess avoirdupois says. “Do you want Gondwana to be a mess, like some neighbouring states that pursued such senseless policies.”

“We don’t care about all these big thoughts, long-term perspectives. Just give us the land you promised us?”

“Bobejaan,“[22] a mink raised in the village with the big one says, calling him by his childhood nickname.

“You will address me as Minister!

“Of which church?”

The crowd roars with laughter, some showering the speaker with compliments such as Ja, umtshelile![23]

“Shall I ask my question now?”

“Yes, you may proceed,” the big one says, and then switches to English. “But we must learn to observe proper protocol or the hunter community will continue to entertain low opinions of our species.”

“Minister Bobejaan, is it true you live in a house with more rooms than you need, running cold and hot water, a swimming pool, an indoor shitting house and two servants?”

“Not my house. It belongs to government?”

“And the grape farm supplied with a winery, the sprawling minkinut orchard—do those, too, belong to government?”

“My investment on a retirement home.”

“What about us?”

“There isn’t enough land to go around.”

“Then throw the hunters off their farms and give us their land.”

“There still wouldn’t be enough land.”

“That isn’t what you used to say in the years of agitation and altercation.”

“Yes, but the exigencies of that period of time prohibited in-depth analysis, and now we have examined the situation from all angles and taken into consideration the parameters of the parastatal infrastructure and relevant coordinates, it is evident that while we’ve inherited political sovereignty we’ve not as yet acquired practical capacity, which is the reason delivery is still lagging behind thus creating this crisis of expectations we are witnessing…

The big one has now put on his reading glasses to read from a prepared text, in English.

“Give us back our land, our shrines, the graves of our ancestors!”

It is now late afternoon. The sun is preparing to become a sunset. The birds’ conversation is still full of daytime concerns, but will soon change key into the minor mode, and what sounds like regret that the day is over.

Minks, who have come in great anticipation, start to peel off from the crowd, until only a handful of relatives remains to hear the big one to the end.

III

The South is an amalgam of two major cultural configurations (each with numerous tributaries) that often stand in contradistinction to each other: the mink culture and the hunter culture. The challenge of the South is how to reconcile (for you cannot synthesise) such diametrically opposed cultures. Which must give way, in the process of constituting a new overarching identity? The future points to something approximating what we may describe as “the unfolding culture of liberation”—resilient, vibrant, dynamic, accommodating, inclusive, altruistic, life-giving, and steeped in profoundly emancipating traditions.

Predicated on the principles of what in the languages of abantu (Bantu languages) we call ubuntuthe sum total of humanising values as the First Nations people of the South understand them—this unfolding culture is liberating to mink and hunter communities alike. It rejects the regressive and takes due cognizance of progressive strains in all cultures that it harnesses, in dialectical fashion, to develop new and higher forms of social consciousness. In the end, it testifies to the formulation that no one has monopoly to truth and beauty; and there is room for us all at the rendezvous of victory.[24]

Ubuntu thus eschews chauvinism and cultural imperialism—the insistence by a group that their ways of doing things are superior beyond compare—as well as narcissism and ethnocentrism—the incapacity to look beyond Self. Ubuntu humbles and teaches. It teaches that being  a former victim is no guarantee you will not victimise those weaker than yourself (including your women, children and the disabled); that even martyrs need reminding never to make martyrs of others. Ubuntu thus has features that makes it a fitting and uplifting philosophy on which to predicate a movement of re-humanisation.

Such a movement of revitalisation as the South Project seeks to build will also be premised on the understanding that a people’s collective memory and identity lie in their arts and culture as a living legacy of daily encounter and practice. The movement will rely on the artists remaining on a permanent struggle footing, as it were, and marching alongside progressive political movements. But whereas political parties once in power can lose sight of where we have been and, therefore, where we are going, arts and culture are more reliable barometers of popular sentiments and aspirations. Arts and culture, even more than political movements, refine human sensibilities. Arts and culture can provide tools for Southern redemption.

But whose arts, culture and heritage? The answer to such a question takes us, beyond the bipolarity instilled by our colonial legacies, to an appreciation of the rich tapestry that is our collective heritage.

Any given national culture in such heterogeneous societies as characterise the South is like a jigsaw puzzle. It is through the interplay of various cultural configurations that a wholeness is achieved. The South Project seeks to assemble the disparate pieces into a composite whole, in the reconfiguration of the new parameters of our minkinity or people hood that transcends the superficial differences of race in particular (so long the defining but limiting feature of societies of the South).

The South Project sets out to

(i)  challenge the construction of otherness that exponents of the hunter culture habitually indulge for self-justification and self-aggrandisement;

(ii) debunk suppositions about the deficit model other cultures bring about and to stress their contribution and creativity; and

(iii) encourage celebration of difference alongside affirmation of diversity.

The South Project thus seeks to implant a fundamental paradigm shift such that the new man and woman brought about by the historical transformation ushered by the liberation struggles, that became a feature of all nations of the South, feels sufficiently empowered to stand cultural and racial stereotypes on their heads. The project seeks ultimately to contribute to the process of decolonising the minds of the people of the South—minks and hunters alike—and to reintegrate them to their human stories (history), culture, and heritage.

We are starting a struggle of epic proportions, embarking on an epic journey, to take back ownership of what belongs to us—our identity—and to reconstruct it in our image. Ventriloquising any sector should be seen as anathema to such an exercise in self-definition, in which Voice is a tool of creation that is as sacred and potent as the Word.

The South Project introduces a new quest motif: the rediscovery of the ordinary.[25] South 1 is an important step in this collective quest.  South 1 is rededication and spearheads our collective effort to reactivate the creative energies of the South; reconnect individuals and society; restore inner coherence to our sometimes frightfully fragmented societies; redirect our lost, wandering, drifting souls; mend our broken hearts and fractured being; celebrate the spontaneous and anonymous; and recapture our minkinity that lies in the protective encasing of our paradoxically binding and simultaneously emancipating spirit of ubuntu.

Simple propositions but complex implications. These call on the artist, cultural worker and intellectual of the South to be a revolutionary activist as well.

The past is prologue; the best is yet to come.

You are the people of the rainbow
You hold the future in your palms
You hold the land of Gondwana in your hands
Be delicately purposeful in your touch

Look closely at the road map etched in your palms
Your palmistry is chemistry that blends us together
Symphony of southern fruits
Rapturous, rhapsodic, lyrical
Music of promise, delight, security and serenity
Let your voices rise together in harmony
Against the threat of the dark music
Sing me a song of family safety and wholeness

Your warm lucence is a poultice
You are the loadstone and lighthouse to seafarers
I see your face light up like the break of dawn
And know we are beginning this day with hope

Teach me again to spot the morning star
And the southern cross
Teach me again to brew a rainbow

This paper was originally given at the South Project Gathering in Melbourne, June 2004. The sequel Silver Fur was delivered at the 2007 gathering in Johannesburg.

Mbuleo Mzamane is Director of Centre for African Literary Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and former Vice-Chancellor of University of Fort Hare. He is described as an author and activist; former President Nelson Mandela has described him as a visionary leader and one of South Africa’s greatest intellectuals.


Notes

[1] Story based on analogy from Iyanla Vanzant. 1993. Acts of Faith: Daily Meditations for People of Colour. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[2] Stiff sour porridge made from sorghum.

[3] Wild vegetables.

[4] You’re going to send me to my death. Utterance attributed to AmaZulu King Shaka upon his assassination by his brothers, Dingane and Mhlangane.

[5] We deliberate such weighty matters in council (IsiZulu proverb).

[6] Only witches recoil from making new acquaintances (IsiZulu/IsiXhosa proverb).

[7] IsiZulu exclamation of surprise.

[8] In the Eastern Cape, scene of the 100 years’ war between European settlers and Africans from the 1770s to the 1870s.

[9] Forest stronghold, Eastern Cape. See I.C. Citashe’s poem Your cattle are gone, my countrymen!

[10] Composer, imbongi, seroki, poet laureate.

[11] IsiXhosa children’s rhyme that accompanies game of catch-me-if-you-can. In the rhyme it is the appearance of the leopard (ingwe) that frightens the children.

[12] Council (Afrikaans).

[13] Russian behavioral psychologist whose experiment with dogs proved dogs could be conditioned to salivate in anticipation of being given food.

[14] Name given to a hypothetical super-continent of the Southern Hemisphere that included Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica and South America. Eduard Suess, an Austrian geologist, developed the name after the Gondwana region of central India.

[15] Traditional Afrikaner pastry.

[16] Poet laureate.

[17] We want our land/ the hunters took away./ Let them give us back our land.

[18] Old man.

[19] From The Revolution of the Aged by Njabulo Ndebele. Staffrider (December 1980/January 1981).

[20] From African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe by Doris Lessing.

[21] A word meaning weight.

[22] Baboon.

[23] You certainly told him off!

[24] Aime Cesaire, “Return to My Native Land”

[25] Njabulo Ndebele, The Rediscovery of the Ordinary

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