The Walking Dead

At least he was hated and killed – it’s better with us we’re still hated and with words.
Jacob Zuma on Steve Biko

It takes an astonishing lack of self-awareness to liken the (justified) political criticism one receives to the abduction, torture and murder of an anti-Apartheid activist and leader at the hands of a brutal regime. It takes a certain level of disregard for the memory of said activist to suggest that the criticism you receive – you, living, breathing, here, still – is somehow worse than what your fallen compatriot went through. But there you have it. Jacob Zuma compared the current political climate in South Africa – one which he conveniently reduces to a personal attack on his person – to the horrific death of Bantu Stephen Biko.

In parsing Zuma’s words, in parsing many of his unconscionable sins, I am reminded of Iranian filmmaker, Jihan El-Tahiri’s powerful meditation on post-Apartheid South Africa and its discontents, as played out in the 2007 African National Congress elective conference. In it, one of the giants of the ANC outlines the reality in which the ‘rainbow nation’ was forged. When the ANC and its operatives were collectively unbanned and released from prisons in 1990, there was wholesale shock. These are people who had lived with death in its most brutal incarnations, and who expected to die fighting for a freedom that was now being announced at them, unceremoniously. How do you live a life you had no idea you would have? Not only that, but how do you lead a movement that now requires you to put away the politics of struggle and engage in the momentous and banal tasks of governing?

I often think of this whenever I am confronted by some new evidence of the ANC’s corruption, or Jacob Zuma’s obliviousness to the nation’s problems and his role within them. When we talk about the ANC government, indeed, when we talk about any postcolonial state, we are talking of a body filled with people who live as people who expected to die decades ago do. We are talking of the walking dead.

A few months ago, the inquest into the death of (yet another) anti-Apartheid activist, Ahmed Timol, was underway. His horrific death is still a mystery, is still the subject of an inquest, decades later. He was killed, and it was brutal. But the details of his awful final moments remain hidden in the official lies of the Apartheid regime. And these lies are so thick that even now, it is impossible to peer through them to some hint of truth. The image of Timol’s colleague and comrade, Salim Essop, walking slowly and determinedly through the haunted halls of what used to be the John Vorster square, recounting his memories of that time will stay with me forever. Still searching, still asking questions to which we intuitively know the painful answers. Still, after all this time, after freedom, living with the spectre of death.

Of course, Timol’s story is one of so many. And his is one of the stories that ended with a body which could be buried, some hollow closure. Too many of these stories are of people who were disappeared and whose families have never been afforded the dignity of a burial ritual.  One of those stories is the story of Monwabisi Mbeki. Yes, of those Mbekis. The son of former president Thabo Mbeki disappeared in 1976, presumably while in exile. In 2006 – a full 30 years later – an inquiry was launched, but nothing substantive came of it. Imagine that. Let that sink in. A sitting president in modern day South Africa, with all of the weight of that office and the legitimacy lent by the international standing of post-Apartheid South Africa, may never know what happened to his child. Except to know for sure that it was violent, and that he is dead.

Sometimes, in my charitable moments, I hold these thoughts in my head and try to use them as a lens with which to view all the ANC does. These are people who lived with death, who expected to die and did not. They are now expected to lead, to live ordinary lives. In all our calls for them to ‘go’ or ‘fall’, in all our attempts to declare our lack of confidence in their leadership, we should look at who they really are. Who we really are.

And perhaps that’s the rub of the matter: to look at them would be to look at the ugliest, most wounded parts of this beautiful country and (for some of us), the role we play in that woundedness. That is why in 2017, in South Africa, a radio DJ (accurately, gently) commenting on the effects of Apartheid and the limits of reconciliation and forgiveness can face a backlash so intense that her employers feel compelled to respond, as if she has stated something we don’t all know. We cannot look at our present masquerading as past, because we would be forced to see that all of the worst problems of our society are not the fault of the ANC alone. We are a nation of walking dead, led by walking dead.

The walking dead. Living, breathing and, for what it’s worth, leading. Even as the blood of their most beloved ones pulses in the ground beneath them, watching, waiting, whispering, asking for rest and peace that will never come. Death at its most brutal and bloody, always there.

How does retain a semblance of a soul? How do you open yourself to the pain of others when you live like this? How can you be expected to lead with compassion when you are offered none? When the ghosts of Apartheid have set up a home within your life. How can you be expected to believe that the struggle is indeed over, and you have actually won? Is this what winning looks like?

Maybe, to Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki and Salim Essop and countless others, death would be better, kinder than this life they now lead.