Following is the English version of a letter to Nelson Mandela, commissioned by the books editor of Rapport in celebration of his 90th birthday. The Afrikaans version appeared in Rapport, 13 July 2008, with minor cuts and variations of meaning:
Firstly, even as I have never been a member of the ANC (or any political party), allow me to address you as “Comrade”. After all, growing up into a politicized young adult during the 1980s in this heart-breaking country, I shared (and still do) many of the broad visions of the future that the ANC then held.
You are now 90, and I wonder, when you look at everything around you, what goes through your head? We are a long way from the heady days of my own politicisation, and, of course, a long way from your own birth, from your eventual entanglement with and incarceration by the Pretoria regime of old. Your life has been remarkable, but you don’t need a snotkop writer to point this out. So I won’t go into detail about your achievements and credentials. Neither will I engage in my normal anti-hagiographic critique of which my friends have heard enough.
Instead, I just wonder, are you as sad and depressed as I am when you survey our society? Have you, like me, lost all energy for anger, and instead, like me, often just wish to shut your eyes, ears and mouth and hear nothing, say nothing, do nothing? Do you sometimes wonder what it must be like to be an ordinary citizen: to walk the pavements, to squeeze into a taxi, to apply for a telephone account?
By this I do not mean to suggest that you have lost your common touch; anecdotes (perhaps apocryphal) about how easily you talk to ordinary people abound on the internet. Rather, I just wonder, don’t you sometimes just wish to become invisible, to disappear among a throng of taxi commuters, to smell the mixture of paraffin and winter damp on their clothes?
What would you see, I wonder? What would you see on ordinary South Africans’ faces if you stepped into a shop or restaurant? And would it depress you, like it does me? Would the words of Sol Plaatje reverberate in your ears: “Awaking on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth” (Native Life in South Africa, 1916)?
It is no surprise that, in a country where the (black/white) body was the main principle of political organisation, one can feel politics right down into the blood and bone. One can experience politics with all the tragic depression of heart-break.
And comrade, my heart is broken. Broken, broken, broken. And the breaking doesn’t end.
It breaks when it sees the brokenness on the faces of the poor. From our cities, to small towns bypassed by our post-1994 history, our country is fundamentally no different from Plaatje’s South Africa: a majority of broken, eternally subservient poor people, with no or little access to quality education by which they might gain access to full agency as citizens, and therefore still pariahs in their own land. The poor remain the targets and objects of scorn and arrogance, and pawns of politicians and the rich. Black and increasingly white poor, white and increasingly black rich.
No matter the complicated analyses of policy-makers and cultural theorists, the real and only measurable divide between people is money: wages, salaries, capital. There is no difference between an old-monied colonial and a black diamond’s refusal to look the beggar in the eye, to look the poor in the eye and at least acknowledge their existence as fellow humanbeings.
It breaks my heart that we have travelled so far, Comrade.