Madikizela-Mandela’s death exposes a divided SA

This week should have been mainly about commemorating the birthday of the late legendary trumpeter Hugh Masekela, or the 90th birthday of revered American poet and author, Dr Maya Angelou, who passed away almost four years ago, or the 50th anniversary of the assassination of American civil rights leader, Reverend Dr Martin Luther King.

Instead, the week has been dominated by the death at 81 of Struggle stalwart Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela-Mandela, considered by most South Africans as the mother of the nation.

The news of Madikizela-Mandela’s passing completely overshadowed the death of another amazing pioneering South African woman, Pam Golding, who took on the white male business establishment, against great odds, in the 1970s.

She went on to establish arguably the biggest real estate agency in the country, and one of the most successful internationally. Yes, it did help that she was white and that gave her access to certain opportunities under apartheid, but it still took guts to do what she did.

Madikizela-Mandela’s death also made us overlook the remarkable life of another great Cape Town woman, Faieza Desai, who passed away at the age of 51 last Friday. In her death, she defied traditional and sexist Muslim tradition when women were allowed at her graveside.

Women are not normally allowed at the graveside at Muslim funerals, even if the deceased was a woman. They normally have to wait at home and prepare food for the men when they return from the cemetery.

But in a week when the history and legacy of Madikizela-Mandela dominated the public discourse, it is important to think about the many other great women who have also contributed to our freedom, whether it was from apartheid or sexism.

It is not only women from Madikizela-Mandela’s generation. There are women who led the way before, and there are others who are still leading the way.

If the struggle against racism is far from over, then the struggle for gender equality has even further to go.

Often the contribution of women in society is tied to their relationship with men. In most cases, women only get recognised as the wife or partner of a man. I have frequently remarked on the sexism of the saying “behind ever successful man is a woman”, because it implies women must stand behind their men, not beside them and definitely not in front of them.

Like most South Africans, I was shocked when I heard the news about Madikizela-Mandela’s passing on Monday afternoon. But I have not been surprised by the vitriol spewed by mainly white South Africans, who always appear to be desperately looking for ways to denigrate the achievements of black South Africans.

I have given up on trying to understand the views of people who continually try to create a rift between Nelson Mandela and the people, and the organisation he always represented and served.

Many of the people who invoke Mandela’s name nowadays never voted for him when they had an opportunity, something they will conveniently not admit, just like the racists who voted for the apartheid regime will never admit that they did.

Some black people on social media have responded by vilifying the legacy of Golding and making racist comments on stories about her passing.

That is not helpful. In some ways, we are talking past each other.

If anything, Madikizela-Mandela’s death has once again shown up the deep divide that continues to exist in South Africa, almost 24 years into our democracy. We cannot move forward as a country unless we deal with the deep discomfort some of us feel towards others which surfaces at times like this.

I have always tried to explain the divisions in South Africa as based on the huge inequalities that exist in our society, but this week’s comments - from both blacks and whites - indicate that the divide is based on much more.

Even if we eradicate all the economic inequality in our society, we will still not have dealt with the psychological inequality, something that exists not only in South Africa but throughout the world.

There appears to be an impatience among many whites who feel that we should “move on” from our apartheid past. Instead of asking us to do that, they should try to understand the roots of our anger.

I believe I had a relatively easy life, even though I grew up very poor.

But I had my share of being denied opportunities because of my race; of experiencing police brutality; of being arrested and detained without warning and without reason; of having to pass by white beaches until we got to the worst one (which was reserved for blacks); of having to sit upstairs or at the back of buses because only white people could sit downstairs or in front, of watching my dad being called “boy” by white people young enough to be his children.

I’m sorry but if the white people who attacked Madikizela-Mandela so blatantly and viciously on social media this week want to be part of South Africa, they must try to understand our pain in order to understand our anger. If they refuse to do so, they might as well go live in Australia.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weeken Argus on Saturday 7 April 2018)