Athambile Masola
Athambile Masola

Native life in South Africa

While watching the stories of people’s shacks being flooded in Cape Town’s informal settlements recently, I thought of Sol Plaatje and his manuscript that was published in 1916, Native life in South Africa. In response to the Native Land Act of 1913 he wrote a book highlighting the consequences of the act as well as the complexities of what happens to a country recovering from a conflict such as the Anglo-Boer War (which ended in 1902) and trying to rebuild itself in the form of the Union in 1910. Anyone who saw the images of Khayelitsha and Philippi in the news knows that poverty continues unashamedly in this country and people’s homelessness and displacement due to rain highlights the gross inequality we ardently write and pontificate over. Plaatje’s book describes the harrowing experience of black people becoming landless and being forcefully removed from the farms they knew as home. Natives still exist in the “new” South Africa and they are no longer at the mercy of a harsh and racist government, but rather a more complicated situation where the laws have changed but much of the experience of being poor remains the same.

I use the word “native” deliberately as it was the racial classification for black people when Plaatje wrote his book, but I have also heard the word being invoked when lamenting the condition of the poorest people in South Africa (mostly black people) who still live the existence as though they were natives during apartheid or colonialism: abject poverty and utter neglect as subjects and foreigners in the land of their birth, what Plaatje describes as “a melancholy situation”. This is beyond the everyday experience but also the value systems (often perpetuated by the media) that still persist and render poor people as mere subjects in a democratic country.

I realise that black people are not a homogenous group who have experienced one narrative of displacement and poverty. Modernity and missionary education ensured that a small group of educated black people would always provide the illusion that black people aren’t so bad off. The life of the native in today’s South Africa is not a result of a heinous law such as the Native Land Act of 1913 (though this history played a role in it), but it is rather a result of many failures in the “new” South Africa. The failure of government and the efforts that seek to silence civil society are behind the melancholic situation for many poor people in South Africa today. It’s easy to theorise poverty and obsess over what it really means to be poor. While those who are privileged quibble over theory, policy and definitions, the humiliation of most people in this country continues unabated across many townships, informal settlements and villages across South Africa, “scheduled, native areas”. Western Cape Premier Helen Zille’s comments last year highlight the plight of the natives when she made reference to education refugees leaving the Eastern Cape and seeking greener pastures in the Western Cape as though the Western Cape were another country.

Plaatje’s response was fobbed off by Jan Smuts who was more interested in building the bridges among white people in the Union at the time. I would like to believe that if he wrote a similar manuscript in current day South Africa he would be fobbed off by a government that is pro-corruption and slow in addressing the “native question”. A government that is hostile towards the reality of the majority of the people in the country is a dangerous government. Despite what history has taught us about people like Plaatje who attempted to speak truth to power, we need more Plaatjes who will use their own resources to address the “native question” in this country.

If Plaatje were alive in current day South Africa, what would he do? Would his writing about the native experience be different? Plaatje’s project wouldn’t be as easy, the native question is more complicated: we have two forms of existence when it comes to native life. There are those who are poor, undereducated, surviving on social welfare and we also have the burgeoning black middle class and the political elite whose wealth and privilege is often viewed with scorn. What would Plaatje make of the crass materialism seen as a symbol of success among many young, black and up-and-coming professionals? Perhaps he wouldn’t focus on this group but rather on the unemployed youth who bear the brunt of a failed education system.

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