Retracing My Mother’s Footsteps

A Narrative Essay

By Mpho Ndaba

The Beginning

The move to Johannesburg had been an anticipated one, so much that my classmates began getting tired of my telling them about a city I had never been to. I was excited and even knew what my plans were. Bra Hugh Masekela’s Stimela resonates so well with what I was to embark on. You see, my Mother raised us well, all by herself and it is not shocking that the intersection between black cheap labour, intimacy and love can be used to explain my birth and that of my brother, Kagiso. My Mother had heard that there was a young White couple looking for a maid to take with on their way back to their home in Kimberley, the Northern Cape. She agreed to take the job simply because Rammolutsi at the time did not have enough jobs for people like her and this is even though her Mother, my gran had tried talking her out of leaving for a city she knew nothing about, she left!

Her arrival to the city was a strange one but not different from that of many black women who often were stationed at the backroom of their White bosses’ houses, only being able to go home once every Christmas. Based on the stories she had narrated to Kagiso and myself, I felt as though my moving to Johannesburg was a repetition of what had occurred in her life. Few blocks before my granny’s house was a house that belonged to Nkateko and her family, she was working for Metrorail at the time and was on maternity leave for her second girl child. Both our parents were in the same Stokvel and because we had known each other for a long time as families, she had suggested that I go stay with her boyfriend whilst I dealt with administrative issues around my enrolment at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits).

Karsene West

Kuhle was waiting for me at Park station, the place was really busy and if you are not paying attention, you could find yourself losing your belongings to chancers who always pretend to be good Samaritans. I did everything I had been told to do when I arrived, “never ask dodgy looking characters for help,” “always approach elderly women or security guards when seeking directions or wanting to make any kind of inquiry,” “walk like you are from there, don’t look confused, otherwise you are gone.” I called and he answered, “Come to KFC inside the station, you will find me there waiting for you.” With my heavy bags, skhaftin filled with food my Mother had prepared for me, I found my way to the place I was meant to meet up with him.

“Hola, you must be Kuhle” I recognised him based on the picture Nkateko sent me prior to my departure. He offered to help with my bags and we immediately made our way to the Metrorail tickets terminal. “We are going to Karsene West, where you will be sleeping tonight.” It is a place in city deep, the South of Johannesburg, he said. We bought the train tickets and left. On our way, there were places whose names I could recognise and this was due to some of the books I had read in my grade 11 English literature class. When the train stopped at our station, we had to get off and walk a distance close to a kilometre, still in the train tracks. This would become a journey I would get used to, joining much older black men, some of whom were making their way to work, while others were going to sell food inside the trains.

You know how often our imagination allows us to formulate ideas about places, people and things we are yet to come in contact with? I already had imagined what Nkateko and Kuhle’s place would look like. I had also thought about Johannesburg as a place, growing up being fond of images portrayed in some of the soapies we watched, Gazlam, and A place called home which mostly aired on SABC1, I knew so much about Jozi and this is despite the fact that this was my first trip to Africa’s centre for business and human migration.  The reality betrayed my imagination because everything turned out to be different, instead, we arrived at a hostel, barely well looked after, with many units occupied by Metrorail workers. Among the occupants of the hostel were people like myself, who according to the company’s regulations were not allowed to stay over but because of the spirit of Ubuntu, the tenants found it illogical to allow one of their own to become homeless in a city like Johannesburg.  

When we arrived, we had to go through a security checkpoint; Kuhle had told the guard on duty that I was his mchana from the Free State, and that I had come to start school at Wits. Before we made our way into the unit, one of them began speaking to me in isiZulu. It was an exciting thing for them that I had made it into a university like Wits, I would later understand that he was encouraging me to stay in school because it’s challenging for the Black youth to survive in a country like South Africa. Inside the two-roomed unit was a kitchen as you enter and a bedroom, a curtain was used to cut the one room into two.

Kuhle did not explicitly say anything about how we were to bath in the morning, but because he and Nkateko allowed me to stay at their place, I figured that in the morning I would deliberately oversleep so that he can shower and get done. There was no much room for privacy and if either of us had to shower in the morning, they would have to wake up first. We ate and went to sleep. In the morning I did as planned the night before, my turn to bath finally came, and after that, we were ready to go catch a train to Park station once again. Our 5 am walk was challenging still because my isiZulu was non-existent, so engaging in a conversation was a bit hard, added to that was my age. Finally, we arrived and that was the first time I saw him, Lindani.

He was wearing brown shoes, carrying a Kwezi comic’s book on his hand, with his headphones on. The thing with being a queer man in a society like ours is that you can’t just walk up to every man you see and begin to register your interest to them, safety is one thing that is always occupying the mind. How you speak, what you say and who you identify with. Therefore, the objective often would be to try and be as minimal as possible, you should not be detectable.

Prior to coming to Johannesburg, I had not been open about my sexual fluidity. Back home, one person who eventually found out about me is Tshediso, a close friend who was also in my accounting class, he had heard me tell another dude that I loved him. This was one of those days when final matric exam preparation was driving us nuts; we would spend late nights at school revising old accounting papers. That night we had finished extremely late and I was accompanying him home. On my part, there was never a desire to divulge one of the things I considered highly personal. He had simply discovered because the speaker on my phone was unusually loud and given where I was at that point in my life, I was startled at his reaction. He laughed it off and I would later come to the realization that regardless of what he had thought, he was forced to stay because of what I was bringing to the table. Being at the top of my class was the only thing that had stopped him from cutting me off. He also did not know who I was involved with so that made be me more tolerable, my queerness was not explicitly detectable,

My case is one of the few where straight men do not become violent towards queer men simply because of the various things we use to protect ourselves. The higher your social capital and class position, the more tolerant they become. It is for this reason that I did not try my luck with Lindani. I did not know his level of tolerance towards people like myself. The train arrived and everyone was pushing and shoving, hoping to make it in time for their various commitments.  Kuhle pulled my hand and said: “you can’t just wait for everyone to make it into the train Bafo,” citing that no one was going to fight for me if I don’t. Eventually, I did find a seat, two seats away from a gentleman whose presence had caught my attention. I would proceed to spend the entire trip looking at the different kinds of people in there, the Magogo selling machuchu, the Ntatemoholo who was using the morning train as a fellowship space with those who believed in Christ and the Sister (the Afrikaans pronunciation) whose baby wouldn’t stop crying. I could not be that obvious because what if he realised that I was checking him out, what if Kuhle realised too, it would not only get me beaten in the train, I would also have no place to stay!


University of Witwatersrand

In my second year at Wits in 2015 I had come to realise that as a poor working class black person, moving to a big city like Johannesburg, my experience and engagement with the space was different. It was different from what a black middle-class South African, who grew up around those tall buildings where everything is fast and happening, experienced. As a queer black man who is cispresenting and therefore is often assumed to be a straight heterosexual male, my engagement with the space both in the deep rural town of Rammolutsi and in Johannesburg was also different. It changes and does not remain the same.

Let me explain to you for a bit, you see when I had arrived in Johannesburg there were kinds of spaces I found accepting of me as a working black class person. I found comfort in staying in Berea and Yeoville as opposed to continuing with my stay in a place like Braamfontein which in fact, was the place I later moved to soon after I left Ntakateko and Kuhle’s place. Later in 2015 for an example, I would find myself and other “comrades” being involved in the inception or rather the resuscitation of the fees protests at Wits, which gave birth to the Fees Must Fall movement. In the Fees Must Fall space, I easily could fit in into the extremely patriarchal and violent spaces where comrades pretended to appreciate intersectionality for the sake of unity, but would later denounce women and openly queer comrades when we were seated together drinking and smoking as “Men.” These spaces came alive during the odd hours of the morning when it was time for everyone to go recharge and prepare for the following days of protests. For us, it would be a time to drink, smoke and engage with music. The experience of the openly queer and effeminate men of the movement was saddening too; those 1 am sessions also enabled the problematic and exclusionary views towards those who are known to be queer.

The irony of it all was that, when the time came for us to separate, my Lindani would fetch me and we would go to his place in the North of Johannesburg to sleep because he and I were romantically involved. To the “comrades” I was a man; my friends who were highly regarded in the political space were straight, giving me a badge of honour, and therefore solidifying the perceptions around my masculine identity.  My relationship with Lindani had also meant that we would often find ourselves in queer-friendly spaces where I would meet the same effeminate queer men who knew of my fluidity and the man I was in love with. Even with my Lindani, a middle class gay man whose financial position made it possible for us to access different kinds of high-end spaces such as Maboneng, Sandton and Rosebank, still I found myself having to meet various expectations, which were revealed depending on where I was, and what I was required to be at the given moment. It almost felt as though I was betraying parts of who I truly was, hiding them when necessary and unmasking when I perform my walks of shame into my apartment in Yeoville.

Therefore, I realised that my experience with Johannesburg has not been pleasant at all. It has not been pleasant because I’m not heterosexual. It has not been pleasant because I am poor, black, working class and queer. The construction of space is often not up to us as the marginalised. We walk into it already prepared by those who came before us and were/are still dominant.  Because this was the case, we had to endure the varying of expectations and accompanied violence. The kind of violence resulting from how these spaces treated and required us is unrecognised when it’s not explosive and directly impactful to those who are the norm and the default, here I mean the rich and cis-heterosexual. The demand for us to engage with the space on the basis that we hide who we are is a form of violence that is invisible and therefore would require no immediate attention from the rich and the middle-class people. The same applies to the heteronormative spaces occupied and determined by cis-heterosexual people. The fact is that the kind of violence we experience is invisible (in their eyes) given that for them it is a norm to exist as they are.

Based on what I’ve attempted to articulate, it is clearly important to become self-reflexive. My Mother’s experience of space when she had left for Kimberley may somewhat be understandable given the racist colonial-apartheid South Africa and its defining features. However, in what should be a democratic South Africa, one expects an alternative way of constructing the space, with more nuanced understandings of violence. It should not happen that the same violence continues to reintroduce itself from one generation to the other wearing different attires but still dangerous as ever.

Within the queer community too, there’s a call to reconfigure the space making it possible for those who proudly embrace their femininity and other forms of being, to not have to carry the burden of violence they are subjected to. We ought to rethink violence and the construction of space, making it accessible for the invisible and unusual forms to be worthy of our attention, and therefore bringing about various social changes.