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An Inappropriate Text for an Appropriate Evening – Read Antjie Krog’s Keynote Address from the 2015 Sunday Times Literary Awards

Antjie Krog

 
Poet, author and activist Antjie Krog delivered the keynote address at the 2015 Sunday Times Literary Awards on Saturday. She made a call for white South Africans to perform an act of radical outreach, similar to that of Nelson Mandela 20 years ago when he donned Francois Pienaar’s jersey at the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

Krog made various statements which drew spirited reactions from the crowd – some not as positive as others (scroll to the end to see the reaction on Twitter).

Read her speech in full, and see the images Krog used to illustrate her point:
 

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Inappropriate Text for an Appropriate Evening

Allow me tonight to open with an incident from Country of my Skull.

During a public meeting with the then Minister of Finance he was asked whether there was a post-Truth and Reconciliation plan to get from whites what was needed to repair the past. He answered: even if we take everything whites have, it will never make up for what they did. What we need, to address inequality is a 6% growth rate.

This was of course the truth. Nothing could ever repair the damage of three centuries. But in another way it was also a mark of a general unwillingness by all of us to do some complex thinking.

With the wisdom of hindsight one wishes there had been a Rhodes Must Fall group to ignite a proper conversation on the consequences of not changing our world. What was it that black people desired after apartheid? What were the outlines of their dreams? Also, what was the biggest challenge: establishing racial equality and then attending poverty? Or a drive to reduce poverty through various mechanisms of which a crucial one was race.

It would have been important for whites then to have heard the conditions under which they were to be accommodated or rejected: we don’t want whites here; or: we want whites, but only poor ones – or only rich ones; or: we want whites willingly to take responsibility for everything that fails; or: for three centuries the country has invested its best and most powerful resources in you, so for three generations you will use your accumulated skills, knowledge and resources to eradicate for ever the Verwoerd education system, or mend the distorted transport system, or build an appropriate health system; or perhaps even: every white should report to a township school and assist with rendering services from cleaning toilets and safeguarding buildings and people, to teaching and marking as and when necessary.

However problematic or unpractical these suggestions might sound, they would have focused all of our minds on what kind of society we wanted to live in. And what we were willing to pay for it.

I mean, whatever was negotiated and understood, misunderstood or taken for granted – was there anybody in South Africa who thought that the country materially had to stay as it was with all the resources remaining in specific areas and classes? Remember Yeats:

Hurrah for revolution and more cannon-shot.
A beggar upon horseback lashes a beggar on foot.
Hurrah for revolution and cannon come again:
The beggars have changed places, but the lash goes on.

How many Afrikaners assumed that they could raise their children and grandchildren in a ghetto of ethnic privilege and language, avoiding everything that had to do with the continent they so blithely named themselves after? Did whites really think that setting matters right stopped at charity, NGOs, philanthropy, paying domestic workers more than a living wage and allowing a black middle class to grow?

At this post-Marikana stage it is perhaps time to speak frankly – to engage in brutal public conversations. It is especially time for anger. I respect anger. Anger is often where important change begins. Not the anger of destruction, but the anger which brings clarity of direction and resolute lucidity. When someone in anger says: “We must kill the whites … ” it is important to hear real responses: and then what? Or: how? OR more importantly: on what principle? This is not to play around irresponsibly with fears, rage and desires, but to bring into the open what is being murmured under angry breaths, what festers in horrific killings, emotional repression and violent neglect of human dignity. It is time to discuss and argue these things. How do we get to radical change? How will the means influence the outcome? If there are race-killings, expropriations, squattings as a consequence of unrelieved poverty and dashed expectations of change – what will happen? And who will care enough to start dealing with the root causes and wounds?

Recently a comprehensive research project was done on racism on campuses. An interesting element was that apparently all the students, irrespective of colour, expressed a desire to move: ‘beyond race’. Yet, the moment they themselves begin to talk about their circumstances and dreams, they fell back into old apartheid categories. Thus one of the conclusions is that we are not enabling students to move beyond the racial lexicon of apartheid. The irony, as Neville Alexander noted: is that those born free from racial classification are now forced by government practice to classify themselves when filling in forms as white, coloured, black or Indian.

In the absence of a plan to get what is needed from whites and the absence of new content to the pronoun ‘us’, a question: what would most South Africans older than thirty two, respond, when asked to name a visual image which brought home like a thunderbolt the profound moment of radical change?

Probably:

Mandela in a Springbok jersey / Mandela taking the national salute:

Mandela Wearing a Springbok Jersey

 

Or

Mandela with Mbeki and de Klerk:

Reconciliation in Action

 
But as they ask in IQ tests: what should the next frame look like?

Who Will Fill the Empty Frame?

 
In the first two images, outreach is from the black side.

Personally I want an image showing whites in an equally radical act of outreach. After the TRC there was intense hope for a White Prince of Reconciliation: a powerful not-guilty white man to say: on behalf of all whites, I am sorry, we want to build with you a new society of sharing, tell us what to do. That never happened. The Home For All campaign, eliciting tons of scorn and ridicule, barely raised eight hundred signatures, so after twenty years the third frame is still empty.

And yet, many whites are doing things. Enormous things. Small things. Wonderful things. (So do black people, but the frame needs the input from whites!) Many people, old and young, are being assisted by whites, many lives are being saved, talents nurtured and sponsored, and every person assisted is a person assisted, whatever the motives or the affluence from which it originated. So why don’t whites have an image to put in here? Is it just bad PR or is it that charity and aid often immobilise efforts of radical change while simultaneously allowing government to blissfully ignore the poor.

But whites working shoulder to shoulder with blacks, as equals, as partners, as fellow citizens, could present an image of a sweeping paradigm shift able radically to change the South African landscape for the good. But what should blacks and whites be doing to psychologically complete the visual frame series inspirationally? Let’s have phone-ins with plans and a referendum choosing among them.

Because what was promised in 1994, didn’t happen. A systemic fault line prevented the momentous emblematic political transformation from being complemented by an equally momentous emblematic socioeconomic transformation. Was everybody so caught up in placating the interests of capital that we assumed that it was enough that affirmative action was meant for those already employed and BEE for those mixing with the elite? How on earth could we think this was ethically correct? Or that it will hold?

In one’s frustration one is pushed to imagine whether the empty frame calls for a two year Radical Reconstruction Period in which all energy, all resources and every South African is used in order to achieve massive structural change. The image that comes to mind is of a particular kind of scrambled egg, one made after the yolk and white has been fried hard. Everything is put on hold, salary increases, price increases, even the constitution is used to take us towards systemic changes, until the collective spatula has cut the whole lot to pieces for a proper, fairer mix.

Will that do the job? First a step back. Ten years ago I felt that all land should be nationalised. Then one could say: the land truly belongs to all the South African people, all of us; those on farms merely have leasehold. But with the current set of leaders it seems problematic to execute any plan demanding of clear ethical thinking, selfless motivation and moral example.

Every week there are problematic responses to headline issues. One remarkable example is the open letter of President Zuma to Mozambican writer Mia Couto saying that the government is driving a campaign to tell South Africans not to kill other Africans as they assisted the ANC in their struggle against apartheid. Does the President notice that he implies that those who did NOT actively support the ANC in exile – the Somalians, the Moroccans, the PAC-supporting Zimbabweans – are fair game?

Listening to ANC politicians and spokespersons is often like entering an ethical desert where all life is centred on riches that will dawn like a lottery win on individuals doing the protect Zuma-tapdance. The poor suddenly have to become entrepreneurs. The rhetoric of freedom and justice has evaporated into increasingly shabby talk about a developmental state, while the examples of leaders suggest freedom from apartheid means freedom to shop and especially freedom not to be accountable.

When last did we hear anybody talk about a just society, a better life for everybody, suggesting that enough was a feast? In strikes and wage bargaining one seldom hears the words: justice, fairness, empathy. And why would we – being bombarded by the vulgar excesses of celebrity life and vainglorious luxury on television, billboards and magazines only acknowledging the right to consume?

To return to the Rhodes Must Fall group: it has surely done well to create awareness of the need to face issues; of the kind of activism that understands the importance of thinking as a form of collective activity. But precisely for that reason, and because collectivity can humanise a space, it is important to press for clarity of thought to educate us all. Are they teaching us that to reject Rhodes solely on grounds of his racism is implicitly to endorse the inequality, exploitation and state violence of the present?

Fanon warned decades ago how quickly liberation can degenerate when it lacks humanist content. Movements without it, fall into undemocratic and brutal ways especially when a ruling party, masked by the mixed rhetoric of Africanism, Ubuntu and possessive individualism, begins to focus only on sectional and ethnic interests. He suggested that in order not to create new hierarchies, we should establish ‘relations of comradeship, of solidarity, of love, relations which prefigure the sort of society we struggle for.’

But let us return to the seemingly impossible image of the hard fried egg that needs to be scrambled.

How to Scramble a Fried Egg?

 
The essence of colonialism is space – the expropriation and personal consuming of space. The colonial and apartheid worlds were worlds divided and dividing. Therefore decolonisation must mean the making whole, the recreation, reappropriation and reconfiguration of space. It means more than simply eradicating the lines of force that keep zones apart; it requires fundamental social and economic change.

For example: during this suggested two year Radical Reconstruction Period all suburbs and farms are given two years of free range to scramble themselves. Every house in the suburbs should be confronted by the fact of shackness, every park filled with squatters, every street with vendors. Every home and land owner, every suburb, every farm free to negotiate a living space with whomever moves in.

Liberation remains incomplete when the colonial or apartheid city is not reorganised, but simply taken over. A ban should be put on changing the name of any town/street/space before that community has fundamentally, practically and collectively prioritised the poor. Those who finish their studies, and those who have retired, should work for a year in the town or city of their birth to remove backlogs and shortages in courts, hospitals, schools, administrative offices, infrastructure support, corruption investigations, child care etc. For no salary. The town will provide food and a place to sleep.

We are facing a disaster in the absence of a crucial social unifying vision of a humane society. The times are pitiless. No vision is coming to save us. Let us dirty our hands with the tactics of the kind of communality needed to create openings into which new rhythms, new language and new modes of being human can be poured.

"Us" - An illustration of South Africans

 

We did it once. We surprised ourselves in doing what was not thought possible (a political transformation despite our historical and current political context). The times are demanding from us to do so again: bringing about the impossible: an economic transformation despite a neoliberal context and rotten leadership. And in order to pull it off, we need to have all the conversations, deferred from 1994, with as much courageous imagination, new vocabulary and wild dreams as possible.

and so this us comes
heartstained and upwards
the us comes
with cataclysmic breath
in the mouthclose sound of birds
with care we break the frames

and our bodies
begin to
read: those with less power

eating
our tongues begin to feel: the destitute

our neck hairs rise:
when on flattened cartons a fallen man turns over

our ribs
slip: at the maiming of a trampled body’s light

this us are the beggars
this us are the poor
this us live intact and with honour

unwon we must become
unfastened
with wrists that bravely pile up stars
 

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Related stories:


Read some tweets sent out during Krog’s speech:.

 

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Country of My SkullA Change of TongueAntjie Krog and the Post-Apartheid Public SphereMede-weteSynapseAntjie Krog
Skinned\'n Ander tongvalDie sterre sê tsauMet Woorde Soos Met KerseBody BereftVerweerskrifFynbos Fairies

 

View some photos from the event:

 

Book details

  • Die sterre sê tsau: /Xam-gedigte van Diä!kwain, Kweiten-ta-//ken, /A!kúnta, /Han#kass’o en //Kabbo edited by Antjie Krog
    EAN: 9780795701740
    Find this book with BOOK Finder!
 

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