Letter from Hobeni, 18th October 2014

Indian Ocean again

It is said that a nation that does not understand its history is doomed to repeat it.   In South Africa, or at least around Hobeni, part of this nation does not know its history, let alone understand it.

One person expressed astonishment that people are not allowed to buy tracts of land in Bomvanaland, which is the part of the Transkei where Hobeni is.   This person went on to add that it has always been the case, and is nothing to do with apartheid or colonialism. Well, yes and no.   Before the white settlers arrived in this area after 1820, the Bomvana, like all the Xhosa speaking peoples, did not have a concept of individual ownership, because the concept of Ubuntu concentrated everything into the hands of the community.   There is a Xhosa phrase which translates roughly as “I am who I am because I am part of a community”.   The British, finding the Bomvana harder to conquer than anyone else, conceded community land ownership as part of the settlement and that is still in place today.   Perhaps we should learn something from the Bomvana about the importance of community, instead of worshipping individualism.

Someone else, who is too young to remember apartheid, said “There is no work here.   Why don’t people up sticks and go to the city and find a job?”   So I had, patiently, to explain the effects of the pass laws and the Group Areas Act.   People did exactly what he was suggesting and they were arrested, imprisoned and returned to their Bantustan.   Whole communities were forcibly removed from areas designated “for whites only” and taken to places like Dimbaza, where no preparations had been made, where there was no clean water and where the children died of typhus and cholera in their hundreds.   You pass by Dimbaza on the way from East London to Hobeni.   Moreover, in the cities, there was no housing provision for people seeking work, which explains the growth of the informal settlements.

The most disturbing conversations, however, are with people who think that reimposing the death penalty is the solution to crime.   There is no understanding of the revulsion at this idea that some people feel because of the judicial murders under apartheid of people like Solomon Mahlangu, Benjamin Moloise, Clarence Payi and countless others.   There is no point in arguing that some of the most violent societies in the world have the death penalty and some of the least violent do not.   So when dealing with one particularly rabid white advocate of the death penalty, I said “So, you agree with Winnie Mandela”.   This presented him with a dilemma.   He either had to revise his opinion of the death penalty or he would find himself in agreement with Winnie.

I did not win the argument, but it was wonderful watching the shock on his face as the implications sank in.   I managed not to laugh out loud!

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