Was Bob Marley merely talking about racial justice when he said “You can fool some people sometime, but you can’t fool all the people all the time, and now you see the light, you gonna stand up for your right”?
What goes on in the mind of one dying as a result of doing what they are convinced is their right? I mean what really goes on as the excruciating pain of a bullet filters through the rest of their body? This is in contrast to self-immolation where one decides, I will protest through death. What this question is about is an individual who says I will stand for what is right at whatever cost. Linked to these different means of protest is the hunger strike, where death is imminent and is used as a tool.
The proceedings of the 21st of March 1960 played somewhere between the different ways of protest. The common idea is likely to have been that we will get up in the morning, head to the police station and tell the police to arrest us if they will, because we will not carry these documents of shame. This is what was likely to have went on in the minds of the citizens who were going to approach the police at the Sharpeville and Langa police station, including the 69 and many others that died on the same day. The mission was the same, although some did not live to see the results of their work or what Tshepo Tshola called the Fruits of Your Toil.
Without being caught up in the details of the 21st of March, it may be interesting to listen to what an alien from space would have thought about human beings, as they saw the proceedings of that part of our history. If we give our alien friend, the name Sakumta (if that’s suitable for an alien). Sakumta would sit there and observe these enlightened beings who happen to be at the top of the hierarchy of living organisms, as he/she went on watching and saw huge differences between the lives of these same organisms living in the same part of their planet. As they wondered, at some point they noted that these differences are not arbitrary but are happening along skin tone lines. There would have been other differences observed even within people of the same skin tone although this may have been confusing since other than the relatively enlarged part of their chests, there were no other clearly visible differences. Maybe the fact that the one part of those of the same skin tone would wear garments that did not have stitches between the legs whereas the others wore what they hear was referred to as pants. As they continued watching these organisms they would hear of words like, white, black, woman and man. The aliens probably ended up asking whether it was true that these organisms were as smart as the claim was.
For one with some experience of these, the concern is that; at some point in the history of humanity, people were (and still are) treated differently on the mere basis of their skin colour and when they demanded that they be treated as human they were jailed and even killed. This I am lead to believe is a blemish that we may never be able to rid ourselves of as the Homo sapien species.
The mistake we should never make is to limit this to the racial debate.
Why we had to prove equality
The year is 1994 and the word President becomes a title of pride for the black people of South Africa who see and hear about an imminent better life, a life that will respect them as human beings who have the right to self-determination. The name is President Nelson Mandela, whose magic is bound to inevitably bring a better life for all South Africans.
The details of what exactly it is that led to the fierce fight for human rights in South Africa is public knowledge, not only in the country but all over the world. There was little of a way that the world was not going to know about what was happening in South Africa. As it has been the case with evil in all parts of the world, the information ends up being public knowledge. South Africa was the last to be freed from legalized human rights abuses in Africa after countries like Ghana who rid themselves of racist and colonial governments in 1960 (the same year when South Africans died for the same cause) after which a number of African countries followed in the same path. The legendary Bob Marley was celebrating these kinds of victories against oppression when he sang the song “Zimbabwe” on the event of ushering in a democratic Zimbabwe (from the old Rhodesia). The Jamaican singer was a firm advocate of human rights who used his music to highlight the fact that we all have the right to equality and told those who were comfortable with the racist status quo that; “you can fool some people sometime but you can’t fool all the people all the time, and now you see the light, you gona stand up for your right”.
The contemporary question of course is whether the racial struggle was the only one that South Africans are faced with? The Human Rights Commission noted concerns around the socio economic drivers of HIV/Aids in an article carried by the SABC. This runs contrary to the belief among many that Human Rights Day is limited to the deaths that came as a result of the racial struggle. The gender debate may actually be the most pertinent in the democratic South Africa with a number of challenges that continue to face South African citizens along gender lines. The recent brutal death of Duduzile Zozo (carried in the City Press ) on the basis of her sexual orientation may actually be an indirect result of a patriarchal notion of gender, where citizens are only good enough when they chose to pursue intimate relationships with those of the opposite sex. This is seldom done with regard to whether the person is actually attracted to people of the opposite sex. Maybe the real question is about opinions whose factual basis cannot be proven. The position of those who were proponents of the “colour-bar” was the fact that black people are inherently inferior to their white counterparts, a position that not only can’t be proven but is also absurd.
At the height of the South African racial debate, Steve Biko posited; Black Man You Are on Your Own. This was obviously a position that spoke to black people carrying the fight for their rights on their shoulders since their white counterparts were not going to do it as people who had everything to lose. Biko was of the view that the relative comfort that the status quo afforded them (whites) was enough for them to retreat if the struggle got messy. And it did get messy. The fact that black people had everything to lose if the fight was not won, allowed them to fight on. At whatever cost. This was not really so for a number of whites.
At last year’s commemoration of Rev Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech hosted by the National Library of South Africa, I asked one of the panellists ( Mrs Elinor Sisulu) a questions that has bothered me for a while (and still does); whether the “Man” in Biko’s “Black man you are on your own” included women? Put in other words, was he referring to the human or male version of “man”? This is not an easy question to answer, even though I wish to believe that he was referring to the human being version of the word. Sisulu pointed to the continuing debate in feminist circles about whether women were secondary in the statement. What we should probably take cognisance of though is the patriarchal nature of the society in which even enlightened thinkers like Biko operated in. This leaves us with the leeway to ask whether Biko did not have the duty to include the woman in the phrase if he was also noting the black woman. Biko was conscious of a number of things relevant to titles of oppression, chief among these being the idea that being “non-white” is not the same as being black. Was there a need to include the woman in that statement? I posit that there was.
The 1956 women’s march to the Union Buildings was partly a gender issue in addition to being a fight against pass books. When they went out in numbers, it said something, not only to the racial status quo but also to the patriarchs about the right of women to self-determination as part of the human rights spectrum. This was highlighted in the article Gender and Consciousness written earlier. The march was in 1956 and a relevant questions is what the expectation of these women was 38 years later? Has it changed 58 years later? Were they hoping for equality with their male counterparts? I am of the belief that they were conscious of this and indeed were hoping that a democratic South Africa would also usher in equal rights for women. To my disappointment, it was not long ago when a key part of the South African struggle among women, the ANC Women’s League declared that SA is not ready for a female president. This was a position that the eloquent former Ambassador (Thenjiwe Mtintso) to Italy critiqued.
We all had the right to expect something
With a Constitution that is lauded worldwide, there must have been a place for our homosexual brothers and sisters, our religious believers and non-believers alike. It seemingly has not been so, with recent deaths that people experienced at the hands of those who do not see sexual preference as a fundamental human right which has to be respected whether or not we agree with the preference or like it.
It may have taken some of us a while to note that this article is not necessarily about gender or the right for people to love who they would like to. But it’s mainly about what is accepted as a human right. Our Constitution not only enshrines a number of rights which are due to citizens of this country, additionally having institutions (Chapter 9 Institutions) meant to ensure that the rights of citizens of this country are respected and protected. This not only applies to individuals who infringe on these rights but also government departments and politicians at whichever level of government.
If we agree that these are important rights and institutions of a democracy as embodied in the constitution, If we agree that men, women, politicians, the police and civil servants equal citizens of this country, the answer to the title of this article is yes we did have something to expect. In agreeing the right to be treated as equals without regard to gender, race, belief and other rights enshrined in our constitution.
I will be sure to tell my unborn daughter that South Africa is ready for a female President, even when the women in the governing party do not agree.
–Khomotso Ntuli is the facilitator of Bush Dialogues.