20 August 2015
All oppression is connected. Our suffering is not equal, but the fundamental reasons behind it have common roots. What is not as apparent is where the experiences of activists/ organizers from a particular city—in this case, Cape Town—intersect. Within their constellation of personal stories, is there a common thread? Where do their stories bring us? What do their stories bring to Cape Town?
In “Urban Space and the Urban Activist”, Prem Chandavarkar—an architect from Bangalore—writes that the description of a city changes depending on the role that a person plays within it. He continues, “The world of activism views the city as that set of spaces within which civic culture and society operate. The critique here centers on marginalization, equity, and failures in public social services.” My research sprung from a desire to unpack the dialogue of local activists/organizers in order to construct an image of the city from their vantage point. I also sought to gain a deeper understanding of social justice struggles happening in Cape Town.
Qualitative data gathered from in-depth interviews with four activists was used to create a ‘cognitive map’ of their lives in activism. My questions were minimal and I allowed their thoughts to flow freely in order for the map to be as organic as possible. The objective was to see where their mind took us—within Cape Town and beyond it. I started all the interviews by asking: Was there a moment when you feel you became politically conscious? If you were conscious from an early age, when did that transform into activism? What struggles do you feel most connected to in Cape Town?
The process of producing this map led me to the places I wanted to be, people I wanted to meet and stories I wanted to hear. So I will let them speak for themselves. Below are excerpts from two of the more extensive interviews:
KURT OTABENGA ORDERSON
On the geopolitics of ‘The Left’
“Each location has its history and it’s a political, social history. I mean if you think of South Africa and its narrative 21 years ago—young people were robbed from their youth. Eugene (Paramoer) was one of them. They weren’t young; they were throwing stones and mobilizing and in the underground. A lot of them still walk around here and interact with you, so that’s South Africa’s history. I find here, in Cape Town especially, it’s almost compulsory—if you are working class, you have to be conscious. It’s like your defense mechanism because white privilege and white capital is in your face all the time. You’re not part of the city; you’re not part of the economy; you’re not employed, so what can you do: Know.”
“On the continent of Africa or in the so called third world, so parts of Latin America, Africa and Asia, there’s a different train of thought around left politics and what it means. Socialism is a reality. Socialism is what’s being practiced. It’s not a theory. I give you a tomato; you give me an onion in return. The first socialist I saw was my mom.”
On his father
“You would always see my father with a newspaper—reading. Without ever telling me, “You must read”, his example was: Read. Know what’s up.”
On becoming a filmmaker
“I’m an activist first. Then I’m a filmmaker. I’m from a community—Mitchells Plain—so naturally whatever I was going to end up doing was going to be community oriented. So first and foremost, I have to take the community story into consideration and let them be the narrator.”
“There have been some key moments in my life that have triggered my decision to do what I do. As a kid, seeing smoke in the air and wondering what that was, and realizing that other kids are burning tires. They’re boycotting; there’s a boycott happening in South Africa. My sisters’ work in the community with the ANC Youth League also inspired me. My parents were in the ANC too—when it was still radical. It was the peoples’ movement, but they lost the plot. That’s another story.”
On some of his first political memories
“My uncle and aunt were in jail and I remember very vaguely once visiting my uncle there. I just remember that I went—not the actual visit. I remember being at home alone during the day as a youngster and watching VCR tapes I found around the house: People were being tortured and killed—horrible things. These were videos smuggled out of South Africa to expose the torture and abuse, videos of police shootings and killings. It was very confusing and concerning to watch them. On the bookshelf there would be random books like Oliver Twist and if you would open them up, there would be a list of birthdates and death-dates. So trying to understand that as a child—I don’t know whether you would call it political, but I was quite aware.“
“Chris Hani—who was quite well known—asked me if I knew who he was once. We had a lot of people visiting us in Zimbabwe and I had forgotten who he was; I was about 4 years old. We had family friends coming often and I couldn’t even look them in the face because I still thought we had ‘arms’ buried in the garden.”
On his regrets and coming of age
“I was angry with the opposition (Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe). When the election results came out (2002), I went from the ground floor up (of the campaign headquarters). On the top floors, I saw people packing up their cupboards saying, ‘Oh well, another two years of campaigning.’ People at the bottom were homeless, saying, ‘We can’t go home. We’ll be killed. We’re ready to fight.’ Then you went to Tsvangirai and his attitude was, ‘The people are going to do what they want. I’m not going to be held responsible.’ That was hardly the rebellion and the revolution that we wanted. I saw that attitude and I said forget it. So I closed that chapter and came to South Africa to get on with my life.”
On the personal effects of being born into struggle
“I named my son after my brother, who’s also named after one of my father’s closest friends. He was shot in the chest seven times in Zimbabwe. My father couldn’t attend the funeral because if he had, he would’ve blown his cover. Can you imagine being so close to someone that you name your child after them, but you can’t go to their funeral?”
“My grandfather died the day my uncle and aunt were sentenced to prison. Literally, the judgment happened, he drove home from the courthouse and had a heart attack. My grandparents didn’t fully understand the ANC. Their children were on the front page of the news as terrorists and they were demonized in their social circles. I don’t even know where my grandfather was buried, because my grandmother was so angry with my father that she never told him.”
“There’s no disputing the history of where we are today. The question is, where is the world going?”
By Dasha Maher | Illustration by Blain van Rooyen