I’ve just read two books hard on the heels of each other which are wonderful insights into African modernity and the complexity that is South Africa now. The first is Jonny Steinberg’s A Man of Good Hope, the story of Somalian Asad Abdullahi, who came to South African seeking his fortune after a life as a refugee drifting through Kenya and Ethiopia. The second is GG Alcock’s account of growing up Zulu in Msinga as a boy during the 1970s and 1980s under the apartheid regime, Third World Child.
These tightly focused tellings which tell the story of just one life of one man (and this of course is significant because they are very much about masculine experiences and choices), shed a great deal of light on social movements across our continent, South Africa’s relationship with other African countries, cities and rural areas, and old networks and relationships and how they endure — and enable survival — in the cities which still lure men with their promises of riches.
Steinberg’s story is an interesting development in his oeuvre, he has moved from stories which are distinctly South African to a wider interest in the continent (his previous book was Little Liberia, about Liberians living in exile in New York), but this one enables him to connect both in the journey of Abdullahi from Addis Ababa to Johannesburg. I had never thought this before (and have read all Steinberg’s work) but suddenly with this book I thought: “He’s writing about a man, again,” and of course this is deliberate as he tells John Maytham in this very interesting interview for Cape Talk 567. Focusing on men is to illuminate particular types of social situations and commitments, but I couldn’t help thinking all the way through just how different the story would have been had it been the life of Foosiya, Abdullahi’s first wife who never wanted to leave Ethiopia.
In this man Steinberg has found an articulate, thoughtful teller of his own life story and we follow it as he escapes Mogadishu as a child, is packaged around Kenya from relative to relative, and then lives in Ethiopia for a while, learning how to hustle in very successful ways. It’s only right towards the end of the book, once we have been through several chapters of Abdullahi’s South African life in which he has been from the Eastern Cape to Gauteng and then to the Western Cape (each time fleeing after the murder of a fellow Somalian which he himself only just escaped) that Steinberg gives us an entire chapter of documentation about attacks on and murders of Somalians in South Africa. It’s devastating and convincing. Our democracy was never crafted as a haven for fellow Africans, and they live here by their wits, at the end of their tether and on borrowed time. Eventually Abdullahi and a second wife are displaced by the xenophobia and after a while in a refugee camp (no! transit camp — South Africa does not admit to creating refugees!) this family has to move back into a shack settlement (South Africa does not admit that other Africans cannot live among us!) and then finally are allowed entrance into the US (because SA can’t repatriate them to their home country considered to be still at war). Steinberg has delivered a very powerful statement on xenophobia and how it works and its sleeping under the surface nature through a close focus on this man’s experience in South Africa.
He also goes into quite some detail about Somalian identity, its clan-based nature and how in times of stress and dislocation, knowing one’s generational history allows someone like Abdullahi to keep on connecting, no matter where he is, with relatives who will feel responsible for helping him establish himself in a new place. This network and knowledge system is what enables Abdullahi’s survival and it’s a capillary system which permeates the 21st century city no matter whether it’s in Kenya, South Africa or the United States. Ironically Abdullahi encounters another Somalian, a woman without clan and without claim (a kind of under caste, a status which persists regardless of where she finds herself in the world), and marries her, to the shame of his clan and in a very modern flouting of these allegiances.
GG alcock’s autobiography is also a story of hustle and migrancy but this time about an odd kind of white African, someone assimilated and rooted in ways that happen only very occasionally. GG (Marc) and brother Khonya (Rauri) are the sons of Neil and Creina Alcock who were famous in Natal for their commitment to the people of Msinga where they worked on agricultural projects to make a difference to the dire poverty of an area where apartheid had dumped people. They also got deeply involved in the ongoing “faction” fighting and the detentions and brutality meted out by SA and KwaZulu police and by white farmers. This involvement got Neil killed in an ambush that seems to have suited a particular clan and both sets of police at the time. Choosing to live like impoverished Zulus meant that these two boys grew up Zulu in a way that other young white boys on farms with black playmates didn’t. They also grew up with a distinctive brand of Zulu-ness, not the kind from Durban, but the kind from an area that historically resisted inclusion into Shaka’s Zulu nation. GG describes this as “inkani, stubbornness and arrogance, a willingness to stand and fight against the odds” (2014, 11). And this becomes a theme for him to explain the kind of person he is today, a marketeer who runs a company (Minanawe) that helps the big brands figure out how to turn aspiring and eager township people into markets.
While Khonya works in Msinga and continues Neil’s work (and has had successes with land reclamations, see this story by Rian Malan for the Guardian ‘The fabulous Alcock boys’), GG is a self-confessed Zulu migrant to the city of Gold, and he — like Abdullahi — has called on his clan contacts to enable him to negotiate this big, violent machine that is making money and surviving in Jozi. The Msinga “homeboys” (recruited from hostels in Jeppestown) have enabled him to work in Soweto and deal with hijackers, thieves and thugs with a unique brand of Msinga inkani (a hell of an attitude plus homeboys with a reputation plus guns).
It’s tempting to dismiss Alcock as a weird kind of anomaly — a person who moves between worlds — white and black — who hasn’t acquired the political suss and finesse deemed acceptable for this place now, and who seems like the 21st century version of a gold digger. But his story says some very fascinating things about migrancy and the persistence of the networks that enable (in this case, men from Msinga) to survive the city and to keep returning to the life and family back home — see this interview in which he talks about this at some length. It also says something about people willing to take a risk on Soweto (and other townships) and to embark on bankrolling activities (biking races, beach parties (! yes), nightclubs) which are normal facilities, of course, in the white city and which we don’t accuse anybody else of misusing their energies on.
And the fact that he grew up speaking Zulu (he still speaks to Khonya in Zulu) means that GG sounds like a Zulu when he talks and of course he doesn’t just make do in urban Zulu, he can slide right back into the proper Zulu of the old country. This dislocation (and resulting mayhem) of this language coming out of a white man’s mouth and how remarkable it still is now, says quite devastating things about how little white South Africans think of the necessity to learn African languages and speak them. But (as I learnt at 17 when I went to Wits and took isiZulu as a fill-in first-year subject for my BA degree and then majored in it), to speak someone’s language is to learn their mind and culture, and to be at risk of unsettling one’s own identity as a result.
I didn’t set out to read these two books together but they had an interesting illuminating effect on each other. We fool ourselves, I thought, as a result of reading them, that the city is a place uniquely aloof from old identities and ways of being and doing, and we fool ourselves again, if we think that South Africa’s democracy is not being forged in very violent, aggressive, arrogant ways, in short with inkani.