Archives For apartheid

Two Sides of 50

January 19, 2014 — 2 Comments
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Source: whitehouse.gov

An ongoing item in the news this month has been Michelle Obama’s birthday — noteworthy because she turns 50. She celebrated with an extra week of me-time in Hawaii after Christmas when Barack and the kids left. And she had a posh cocktail-and-dessert party in the White House. Happy, sad, or scary — it’s a milestone; might as well celebrate in style if you can.

I saw an article about celebrities turning 50 this year. It’s weird to think of people who in your mind are frozen in a certain younger time hitting the half-century mark. If they’re that old, how old am I? Rob Lowe is turning 50. I hated his smarmy character and Peter Pan pretty-boy face in St. Elmo’s Fire — and I still hate him. Sandra Bullock is gonna be 50. Wasn’t she just a young ingenue driving an out-of-control bus a couple months ago with Keanu Reeves (also 50 this year)? Add to the list Courteney Cox, Matt Dillon, Melissa Gilbert (isn’t she still in pigtails running across the prairie?!). Even Brad Pitt is hitting the Big 5-0 this year. Lately I’ve noticed his face looks as lined and tired as mine — and I’m four years older. Sweet!!

And in all this birthday talk of celebrities — and us regular people, too — is the idea that 50 is the new 30. It’s just the beginning of a wonderful new chapter in our amazing, privileged American lives, and we have decades ahead of us to fulfill dreams and create new ones. Hell, some guy in California just went skydiving for the first time on his 100 birthday! Maybe 50 is the new 15!

Mtuseni's FamilySomeone else turned 50 this month — Mtuseni’s mom, Nester. She’s a pretty, petite, gracious woman. I can’t wait to spend more time with her on my next visit to Johannesburg. She has probably asked god to bless me 10,000 times for all I’ve done for Mtuseni; she could not offer him the same on her meager salary. She has a hard life, raising three kids alone in a brick shack with no electricity or plumbing. Her oldest son Moses was killed by a car a few years ago. She’s had a few health scares lately — I think from stress and exhaustion — but there’s little money for doctors and certainly none for regular checkups. And of course the first 30 years of her life were spent under apartheid.

If 50 is the new 30 in the US, the calculus is a little different in South Africa. The average life span for a black woman in South Africa is 49. Does this mean Nester is living on borrowed time now, at age 50? When I pass the US male life expectancy of 77, I’m sure it’ll feel like the rest are lucky bonus years. How many bonus years does Nester have left? The number of people in Mtuseni’s community and circles who have died in the four years I’ve known him is shocking — and I haven’t heard about everyone, I’m sure.

So in addition to worrying about Mtuseni getting an internship, getting a job, and staying healthy — there’s always a small knot in the back of my mind worrying about Nester’s health. Because that precious family depends on her — and 50 has a different meaning in their corner of the world.


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Shock and Awe

August 16, 2013 — Leave a comment

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Mtuseni’s been home from his US trip for over a month now, and I’m still trying to put the pieces together. It’s a little bit like the aftermath of a tornado — not only from the nonstop energy of activities during his visit, but also the mental chaos it caused. The kid I saw here was in some ways the inquisitive, funny, sweet young man I know from years of long-form texting. Yet I was also surprised and a bit dismayed to see a moody, sour, sullen, insolent teenager — an alien being I’ve never experienced in four years of digital and phone communication. To say it caught me off guard is an understatement.

Part of Mtuseni’s darker persona is a product of an emotional immaturity: developmentally on many levels he is more like a 15-year-old than someone turning 21 next month. I was not prepared to handle the psychological roulette wheel of an adolescent boy. Props (and sympathy) to any parents who deal with that stuff on a daily basis.

But I discovered in a long talk with Mtuseni towards the mid-point of the visit — after things had come to a head and my capacity for patience was exhausted — that part of his mood and ‘tude were the by-product of profound culture shock.

Before Mtuseni arrived, friends noted that visiting the US from a poor South African settlement would be a culture shock to him. And I completely agreed. Yet what does that mean? What is culture? How do people living in a particular culture understand it — or do they even recognize it? For residents of a culture, it’s just life; you’re not aware of it as being a distinct through-line of daily experience. When I think of “American culture” today, it’s a mix of consumerism and marketing and obesity and violent movies and mindless reality TV. The higher values and principles of previous generations have been drowned out by crassness and banality — the Kardashian circus being the tipping point.

I don’t think that description fits all of America, but if someone asked me today to describe our culture in a nutshell that’s what I’d say, because the momentum seems to be heading in that direction. And given that Mtuseni experiences the eye-popping wealth and consumerism of Sandton at school every day (which shocked me on my trip to SA), and because he’s a student and consumer of mass media and marketing, I thought that any culture shock from visiting America would be limited.

Boy was I wrong.

When I finally sat Mtuseni down and asked him why he was being such a dick, his response was a profound eye opener for me. He said that, from the moment he stepped off the plane, everything seemed like a dream. Like he was here, but not here. Like he was watching himself in a movie, and thinking “This is my life? Am I really here in this place?” Everyone has had a similar out-of-body experience at some time. I remember feeling that in Venice — but having traveled before, it was wondrous and pleasant. For Mtuseni, that surreal feeling overwhelmed him — and he threw up defensive walls that at times made him miserable to be around.

But it wasn’t so much the cacophony of Times Square or the Boston subways or having electricity and a fully stocked kitchen that overwhelmed him. It was our American culture — experiences of life here that are so ingrained that I don’t even notice them. And having finally broken through his walls, they all came tumbling out of him in a list that stunned me. For example…

  • It felt “scary” to be hanging out with “older white people” here who treated him like a regular person and wanted to hear what he had to say. In South Africa, he says that whites look down on and talk down to blacks. There is mutual distrust, and he said that “apartheid will never be over in South Africa.” (My heart broke when he said that.)
  • People here are “very color blind,” with all types of diverse people all hanging out and comfortable together. (By contrast, seeing an episode of Family Feud at the gym — which happened to have a black family and a white family as contestants — Mtuseni said to me “Oh, so this show is black versus white?” That’s not the perception of a color-blind filter at work.)
  • Black teenagers here seem much more “confident” and comfortable and better dressed than his black peers in SA. (The realities of his deep poverty and limited farm-school education must have become more apparent to him here.)
  • It was “shocking” that Americans are so “open” and “talk about anything” and express opinions on everything. South Africans are much more cautious and oblique in their conversations. (I’d always heard that Americans are more forthright and direct than most cultures, but didn’t fully grasp it until hearing the perspective of an outsider like Mtuseni.)

Newbury+Street+cafe+Boston+TapeoBecause I live inside the American culture, these perceptions that Mtuseni shared were completely under my radar. Two “older” white folks and a college kid discussing a variety of topics at a Newbury Street cafe just seemed normal for me, but was on some level mind-blowing for him.

I now have a better understanding of “culture” and how it can affect someone who lives in a distinctly different one. I only wish I had somehow been more attuned to it with Mtuseni, and had checked in earlier with him. For after we spent over two hours talking about this stuff, he lost that sense of “being in a dream” and was more present here, more comfortable, more integrated into the experience. Don’t get me wrong, he still had his moments of sour faces and stony silence. But that wasn’t culture shock; it was merely a kid who has one foot in adulthood and one foot in ninth grade. And that’s going to take longer to resolve.

 


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Source: Reuters/Yahoo!

I’ve been reading about Mamphela Ramphele, the medical doctor, anthropologist and former World Bank director who recently formed a new political party in South Africa. Called Agang in Sesotho (meaning Build), the party has been created in response to the long-ruling ANC party’s lackluster progress in addressing the deep poverty and social inequities in Africa’s largest economy. I have often griped at the social problems that affect Mtuseni and his family and community — and expressed amazement that a country with the eye-popping wealth in Sandton can have public schools with no libraries, computers, or heat.

Granted, my perspective on South Africa is through a fairly narrow lens, but the extent of core problems that I witnessed in Johannesburg and Cape Town can surely be extrapolated to areas of the country that are not centers of money or power. Although many black South Africans scrape out an existence living in abject poverty, a considerable majority support the ANC because it is the party that ended apartheid under Nelson Mandela. But that was 20 years ago. In the apartheid era, South Africa was like a house on fire. The ANC put out the blaze and slapped on a few coats of paint, but never made the necessary structural repairs. The house is still falling down.

Reading about Dr. Ramphele and her background — including a fellowship at Harvard — I thought of Hillary Clinton: another political figure with a commanding presence. A symbol of profound change. And an accomplished professional who brings to government not only intelligence but also the humanist perspective demonstrated by so many women in US politics. I felt an excitement learning about the doctor’s story and her vision for South Africa.

Dr. Ramphele said in a recent news article, “My generation has to confess to the young people of our country: we have failed you.” As Mtuseni studies by candlelight to obtain a college degree that I often fear may prove useless in the face of 60 percent youth unemployment, I can certainly agree with her statement.

After two decades of male-dominated ANC governance, perhaps it’s time for a woman to crack the country’s political glass ceiling. Perhaps black South Africans will realize that continuing to vote for a party based on gratitude for long-past achievements does not guarantee a bright future. Perhaps Mamphela Ramphele and Agang can indeed build South Africa — so that Mtuseni and his family and friends can enjoy the life of health, education and opportunity that was promised when apartheid was dismantled. As another upstart candidate once reminded a nation adrift, there is always hope.

Any parent worries about their child. But the circumstances of Mtuseni’s life in a South African settlement present added dimensions of concern relative to bringing up children in America. I worry about health issues for him and the family, such as his mom’s “mystery” stroke in July. Money issues for a family of four living on less than $250 a month. Safety issues with illegal water hookups and house fires and rusty nails and crowded jitney taxis on dangerous roads.

But Mtuseni’s recent blog post about a “rogue” police unit has raised my concern to a new level. Known by locals as the amaBerete, the group seems to be waging its own brand of violent justice. The South African TV news magazine 3rd Degree recently aired a piece on the group, which can be seen on YouTube.

I’ve provided a portion of Mtuseni’s blog post on the amaBerete below. It offers a chilling perspective from someone living with this new threat. Please click through to his full post and show him your support.

Mtuseni and I haven’t discussed the post or amaBerete yet, but I’m sure he knows to watch his back. He doesn’t drink or cause trouble, but vigilantes operate under their own twisted rules. It’s yet another worry for me — and one more challenge for poor South Africans trying to live under dire circumstances.

Cops That Cause Fear in Our Lives   from Bhekani’s Views

They were only introduced in 2009, yet they have made headlines over every single township in South Africa. At first we thought they were here to protect us, but now we fear them more than robbers or criminals.

They call themselves T.R.T. (Technical Response Team), but in our communities they are called amaberet because of their headgear. People thought that they were police officers that enforce the law, but today they are seen as vicious military people trained to abuse everyone they come across.

Amaberet only made their appearance in Diepsloot late in 2011 , but every single night since then they have stopped movement in the streets of the township. They also have limited residents from going to parties at night or to taverns. No people except the brave ones walk freely during the night because they know that the amaberet will stop you and either beat you up or emotionally abuse you.

Read more…


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