Lessons from an uncle during the political Silly Season

PHAKAMISA MAYABA / With the political cognoscenti fixated on 29 May, my thoughts have turned to Homeboy. Not Seth Morgan’s literary masterpiece, but my own, towering, stoic and long-dead uncle, Charles ‘T.O.’ Mayaba. The one whose politics were patently afro-nationalist, but not so dogmatic as to be over-imposed on those of divergent persuasion. Not unless the other guy failed to adequately establish his ideological cudgel, in which case, with brandy simmering in his belly, Charles would jokingly call him a buffoon, before merrily clinking glasses.

Once a born-again happy-clappy in the former Transkei village of St Marks, Charles arrived in Colesberg in the eighties, guitar and Bible in hand, and was soon referred to as umxhaga, a parched-shin country bumpkin straight out of a Fred Khumalo novel.

* * * * *

Pre-eighties Kuyasa politics could be characterised as mostly resigned and compliant with the status quo, but the sands were noticeably shifting. Gradually, the docility had begun to wane as residents –youths in particular – started taking umbrage at the notion that injustice was simply how things were. Banned political literature began slipping under the mattresses of youngsters, stoking the flames of rebellion.

Charles’s mother, my gran, a soft-spoken, mission-schooled matriarch, was something of a pandering product of post-colonial proselytizing. In her abiding affinity with brightly coloured homburgs and pleated midi skirts tailored in the Elizabethan style, she even dressed the part. In what was – and in many ways still is – an Afrikaner dorpie, she spoke English with the bank manager, took communion in the black Anglican church, and tried – much to palpable tensions at home – to convince Charles that ‘these Boers will kill you, so please, drop these politics’.

But Charles was impressionable, longed to fit in, and – as I would discover many years later when my own rebellious stupidities had finally caught up with me at boarding school – a morally inclined, gifted man who would sooner die than heed such warnings. And so the turbulent political streak took off. I still have vague memories of the nights grandma sat waiting for him to turn up. Long absences in those days meant one never really knew. The guy could’ve stumbled into the maw of detention without cause, or torture, or any of the many ways that the apartheid regime demonstrated its terror.

Charles subsequently spent many nights in jail. He spent even more on the toi-toi. But mostly, Charles spent weekend afternoons poring over Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family, strumming a guitar he couldn’t really play, and talking politics with men whose slack jaws suggested that this youngster knew a thing or two about the doctrines of the anti-apartheid cause.

In my estimation, Charles played his small part, not just in the Struggle. He also did a great deal to get the frugal name of an inscrutable, non-Hantam family a smidgen of recognition. He was the son who established us when we were likely to go about as just another black family in yet another flea-bitten black township. He lost out on some formal education because of his commitment to the Movement. But he also learnt to drive and harness his oratorical abilities because of it. In my reportage, I have deliberately avoided writing about him. Not even when a story had a delicious quote from somebody who knew him.

Charles Mayaba on the stoep of the Karoo Law Clinic, a groundbreaking initiative during the transition. Image: Leadership Magazine.

After all, how is one to keep an objective mind when the subject is the uncle whose presence lulled any gnawing yearning for paternal affection? He was every bit the cliched ‘father I never had’. This is the man who, when I was ambling towards a misspent youth, experimenting with all sorts of contraband, produced a ‘half jack’ of brandy from his duster jacket and simply said ‘ok, you want to drink, then let’s drink!’ In between stiff ones, he got talking, and what he had to say I’ll remember as long as I remember anything, because it eventually set me on the straight and narrow.

* * * * *

In later years, toiling as a political hack, he’d reflect sweepingly on the heydays of the hard-time years. As a varsity student I often found his stories a little too tall – that that couldn’t possibly have been my uncle; the once-upon-a-time goatherder from the ‘bundus’ who did all those things that people still respectfully say he did to this day.

Consider this yarn, for instance: a fellow comrade is on death row, and time is fast running out. His lawyers are working overtime trying to secure a stay of execution from a regime harbouring a cavalier disposition towards hanging ‘agitators’. The United Nations Security Council has not yet issued resolution 623, and five condemned men on death row together with our comrade will eventually be marched down to the gallows. In this story, Charles is so insignificant that he hardly deserves mention. Still, I see him, afro all groomed, walking up the steps of the Union Buildings to hand over a petition advocating for the comrade’s retrial. It’s a gesture almost as negligible as the ‘greenies’ one sometimes sees out on the streets – paltry in numbers, and unlikely to make the evening news. Still, there they are, placards aloft, chanting something you’ll have forgotten at the next corner.

Thirteen years since his untimely death, and it’s these small acts that have stayed with me and also the politics he’d articulate into the slack hours, first in our matchbox home in Kuyasa, and then in Bloemfontein, where he continued to flourish as something of a behind-the-scenes aide-de-camp. Amid the jostling and uncertainty leading up to the elections, that’s why he, more than the buzz and spectacle, has been foremost on my mind.

* * * * *

To be sure, Charles was an ANC man, a loyal comrade through and through. At age 26 he served as the ANC chairperson in Kuyasa. Informed by the writings of party leadership, the SA Communist Party, and even the Bible, his leanings were eclectic, centred on an upright fealty towards common brotherhood, moral piety and industrious self-reliance. They carried a devoted air of humility and duty about them.

All things considered, one would’ve expected him to be a bitter, hard-wired racist, but seemingly he didn’t have the heart for any of that. But if that leads you to presume that he was some deferential Uncle Tom, you wouldn’t be further from the truth. On the contrary, like many thinkers of the age, including Haley, he was a staunch advocate of black empowerment, vociferously read up on the Civil Rights Movement, loved The Jeffersons, and owned a bootleg VHS tape of Amapantsula. Basically, a man proudly enthralled by the nuances of his ethnicity, whose conduct mirrored those of figures like Steve Biko and Malcolm X, whose doctrines principally sought to incline the black man to assume his worthy standing in the world.

Staunchly, he held on to affirmative action, the RDP, even BEE, believing that these were the surefire means towards that great Bob Marley emancipation. But in and of itself, race never seemed to be at the apex of his world view. His girlfriend was coloured, as a paralegal (or barefoot lawyer) he reported to a white man, and one of his best activist buddies was an Indian lawyer. Heeding the dictates of Black Consciousness, he tended to believe that indeed every man was master of his own fate. A living, breathing exemplar to Malcolm X’s famous words; to ‘instil within our people the incentive to stand on our own feet and instead of trying to force ourselves on whites … and blame the white man for our predicament … the only way we can solve our problem is to unite together among ourselves … to clean ourselves up.’

In his stint on the Students’ Representative Council at Thubalethu, a backwater Hogwarts in Fort Beaufort, his attitude was crafted along these lines. Rather than find scapegoats to blame for their hardscrabble, he encouraged fellow students to look within and emulate the examples of institutions like The Nation of Islam – to be disciplined, presentable, exercise, and study without being pushed. In fact only twice do I recall him ever outrightly opining on race.

On the first occasion we’d been arguing endlessly over the issue of quotas in sport. In his reckoning, no doubt taking its cue from the pervasive political conversations of post-1994 South Africa, demographic representation was sacrosanct – ‘athletes like Makhaya Ntini or Chester Williams should not stick out like sore thumbs on the national sporting sides’. So when I put it to him that ‘church and sport should be free from political meddling,’ he turned and retorted, ‘you see, that’s precisely the argument those teachers at that boarding school of yours used to keep us out.’ Second occasion: I’d cranked up some alternative rock on his home stereo. ‘That music,’ he scowled, ‘belongs in England.’ I didn’t buy it: he was, after all, the same man who’d often have Queen’s Radio Ga Ga humming softly on any given afternoon.

* * * * *

And so, as the ANC in whose cause he dedicated more than half a lifetime hurtles towards a seventh term in office, I’m wondering what his assessment of the party he was prepared to lay it all down for would be. The one whose gospel he knew off by heart. As a ‘disciplined cadre in good standing’ of old-time, he accorded great weight to party tradition and the leadership’s wisdom. What they said, went. When an exiled OR Tambo issued the directive to make the apartheid country ‘ungovernable’, Charles marched along with the local toi-tois and rent boycotts. One of the unwritten incentives of the Struggle was that when freedom was attained, erstwhile oppressors would get what was coming to them. But when Madiba did an about-turn to preach the tolerance of reconciliation and nation-building, Charles adjusted his rhetoric.

But it’s been a long time since the days when words like ‘conscience’ were synonymous with the cadres. When a scandal like the R2 million Sarafina debacle had stalwarts incensed, and caused massive public outrage. Seemingly, Hani’s worst fear, ‘that the liberators emerge as elitists who drive around in Mercedes Benz’s and use the resources of this country to live in palaces and to gather riches’ has long come to fruition. Venality seeps through virtually every pillar of governance, with avarice leering in every tender. Not too long ago, a widely circulated video of an ANC campaign showing party t-shirts being thrown from a moving vehicle at residents in some derelict township caused a furore on my social media. ‘They’re too far gone,’ said one, and almost to a man the comments agreed.

It’s an open secret that the party has long taken its finger off the nation’s pulse. The new cadre is well aware that there may soon be less of the largesse to go around, so best fill his own pockets before the well runs dry. Stomach politics they’re called, spawning memes that depict the party as an obese glutton, stuffing himself whilst emaciated countrymen look on half-starved. Oh, and don’t forget the boeppens, that paunchy tummy that signifies the greed and sloth that dogs the party which Madiba said he’d rejoin if he ever made it to heaven.

* * * * *

Charles and the many comrades with whom he held court would often show up at our home for the evening news bulletin. Owning a TV set then was a luxury, not just financially, but also because Kuyasa was not yet fully on the grid. Afterwards, they’d pore over one contentious issue or another, the jargon of socialism and Pan-Africanism thick in the air. The debates could get pretty intense, especially when Bra K, a jovial but no-nonsense *OG, was in the fray. Say what you will of the old-hat cadres, but you can’t detract from the fact that despite all the upheavals of their times, they fared far better than most men would have. They came from a strong culture of reading and discourse. Some of the greatest leaders this land has ever known were spawned in those dark years.

Lesser mortals might have been broken and depraved coming from chiselling rocks for twenty seven years ‘down under’, but Madiba and his acolytes emerged as a competent handful even for the privileged, well-educated establishment. They might not have been the most clued-up as far as the technicalities of governance went, but weighed against the current crop who enjoy the benefit of democracy to advance themselves, the elders, I’d wager, would give them more than a run for their money.

I’m often filled with indignation when I read critical op-eds (mostly from the pens of gutless liberals) who take a dim view of the Mandelas of this world. I always try to remind them that many of these guys were self-taught; everything many of them knew was either learnt on the fly, in a substandard school, on a prison floor, or in some dank camp in the African bush. Many of the critics had it far easier. One would sometimes cringe watching a Mandela interview now, but ask yourself how much contact, even through a television set, a Mandela would’ve had with someone who sounds remotely like a Ted Koppel.

* * * * *

So what would Charles say, I wonder? I suspect he might well say something amusing like, ‘yho! mam’Dlamini-Zuma is still there [in parliament]! The oulady is a true mbokotho.’ The proverbial rock that one is said to strike when they strike a woman. Apart from the rampant corruption, cadre deployment and unemployment, I suspect that he would express bitter disappointment at the general lack of basic scruples.

Backbones have become an outmoded shibboleth as we see the bigwigs lie, retract, and throw each other under the bus, and where traits like honour and loyalty are a distant concern to positions. So pervasive is the backstabbing that social media once coined a new word, ‘Mantash’, which according to the twitterati means making an about-turn. To lose a spinal cord. At a restaurant, you can ask to mantash your order. This came after ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe slammed former president Jacob Zuma’s infamous midnight cabinet reshuffle, only to have a sudden change of heart not long after. Nowadays, mantashing is par for the course, a reliable footnote in the ANC bibliography, right there alongside ‘renewal’.

Over the years, my humble scribblings on various platforms have garnered a few phone calls and pats on the back. Although these have meant the world to me, I’d trade them all to hear what Charles would make of my writing, both the prose and the views. In his day, he drafted many political speeches and reports for his superiors, and even dabbled in some freelancing at the Toverberg Indaba. I wonder what he would make of umtshana – his nephew – gaining a byline in the City Press, a paper he used to devour while suffering from horrendous bouts of babalaas every Sunday morning.

I’m not sure what he would say, but I do know that I’d tell him the country is a lot less in the absence of people like himself. I’d tell him that, sadly, I’m not ANC or any other party, just a guy who often longs for his uncle’s deep, thoughtful insights. I’d tell him that the photo of him, with broad shoulders and Broadway smile, next to former president Thabo Mbeki still commands pride of place in our house. I’d remind him that although his mother, my gran, was never hard to please, I can’t remember her countenance as evidently proud as the day that photo arrived from the developers. But mostly I’d tell him something like, ‘I wish they still made them like they made your generation, malume.’

OG: Original Gangster. ‘OG was originally used in gang culture, but is now used as a general term to praise someone who is an expert at something.’ – dictionary.com.

FEATURED IMAGE: Charles Mayaba alongside former president Thabo Mbeki in Kuyasa, 1990s.

This is an edited version of an article that first appear on Phakamisa’s website, eParkeni. Used with permision.

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