Dear Sarafina

Dear Sarafina–

I have begun this letter five times and torn it up five times. I keep seeing your face in the flames over Constable Sabela. I have tried to contort my own until it could reflect as genuinely your hatred for apartheid. I’ve tried to turn your chant “Burn! Burn! Burn!” into my incantation, so that there would be no daylight between myself and those who poured gasoline over apartheid’s human instruments. Sarafina, I chided myself for averting my eyes while Sabela burned. For averting my eyes from his immolation at your fictional hands when I did not look away from the documentary photographs of Hector Pieterson, of Sharpeville, of Biko. I have failed but I have tried. And it is good that I have failed. Because, Sarafina, you never burned Constable Sabela. I have learned, late, that the petrol canisters you’ve been collecting in Soweto, in Durban, at taxi stands and afterwork braais — were for me. 

Sarafina, I thought that that was me sitting like Shadrach with you in the back of the police vans singing Safa Saphel’Isizwe Esinyama. But I was not there. I was in the backseat of my father’s Toyota Camry chatting loudly with my sister to drown out Yarona FM’s curse words on our way to private school in Gaborone. My political awakening didn’t happen over prison maize meal or township Chibuku but over Sparletta and picky seswaa eating with fellow expat children. I suppose I should, therefore, understand why instead of reading Ayi Kwei Armah you broke bottles over the head of my Nigerian friend in Lesotho.  As the kwaito of township violence was entangled in the electric fences of my government-paid-for housing you watched black “foreigners” plant their survival into land that was forgetting your name. I should empathize with you but Sarafina I cannot. I know that but for the grace of the bourgeoisie I might not have been called an expat but a migrant. My private school uniform might have instead been a bucket hat and a second-hand Manchester United jersey and my Dad’s Camry a bakkie speeding to you from all directions north. Sarafina I am a clean-cut migrant.

I heard Mugabe didn’t shake your hand at Madiba’s funeral. I heard Burna Boy won’t perform for you. Good for them. Neither will I offer a hand for you to reject. My polished school shoes have fled your side and gone to where I belong — at the side of those whom you have bantustaned. And we are singing Siyelele Mama. We are singing all of your struggle songs because the songs you wrote you no longer deserve. They are ours, Sarafina. The moment you grabbed the leash of the police dogs that were sent after Crocodile, the moment you began inspecting our passbooks and raiding our makeshift homes and lives your songs fell from your lips and into our arms. We sing Sechaba, we sing Nkosi Sikelele’ iAfrika and in case you’ve forgotten Mozambique, Angola, Kenya, Zimbabwe, know that we too can sing Ayasaba amagwala — even with our heavy, flee-tired tongues. 

My partner is a Tanzanian shopkeeper. She is telling me to look at how they kill our brothers and when she says brothers, Sarafina, she is already not speaking about you. I defended you. I tell her that one does not love South Africa on sight, rather one wakes to discover that you are in the odd baptismal waters of starry nights and burning hills. She doesn’t want to hear it. She has been hearing about “foreign” Africans killed in South Africa since she was a child. She grew up in Kilimanjaro region and so unlike me she can’t be bought with your rushing skies. Even me, Sarafina, I hear Malema saying forgive us and that these killings are mainly due to the legacy of apartheid. But you know as well as I do that in all of our countries we were shown the kraal. EFF is my hope but tell Malema we will forgive him as much as he would forgive Verwoerd’s sjambok over his head —or Terre’Blanche’s touch. 

Your South Africa, Sarafina, is not the Sharpeville protestors it is the army that shot them down. It is the Inkatha and Afrikaaner Commando raids. It is the officers that spit at us, beat us and left us dying in the street. Xenophobic South Africa is Botha’s wet dream. It is the carried torch of homelands policy. As such it needs to be defied, boycotted and campaigned against. The struggle does not belong to this South Africa. The struggle is ours. The songs you’ve written against the oppressors are our songs, and we sing them against them. And they include you. My darling Sarafina.

May Umkhonto we Sizwe overthrow this minority government. These dusk-coloured Oranians. 

South Africa is dead. Long live South Africa.