By: Gcobani Qambela*
…to holding on, to knowing again that moment of rapture, of recognition, we can face one another as we really are, stripped of artifice and pretence, naked and not ashamed (from bell hooks, All about love: new visions)
I recently came across something that got me, it read: “I know what it’s like to be broken and bold.” I have no idea who said it, where, or why except that it hit me to the extent that even in the absence of context, I brought the statement into my experience(s). This, in many ways feels like an accurate summation of my year (and perhaps even life).
Originally I was planning for my ‘end-year-reflection’ to blog mainly about love and life in Johannesburg, but an event a few days ago shocked me to the core. Coming into Johannesburg from a meeting in Pretoria, I pop by an internet café as my phone is off to catch up on emails for the day. Before I know it, it’s almost five O’clock and it has been an extraordinary long day. I am emotionally exhausted and in deep need of wine (and chocolate). I’m up north in town, and log off and begin to make my way to a close-by store that closes at 17:30 (I think).
In this rush, I pass a gathering of people and there is an ambulance and small crowds gathered, and it doesn’t take long to figure out what has happened here. “Did someone jump off the building”, I ask a guy next to me even though I already know the answer. ‘It’s this stress’, I hear someone murmur. My heart weeps. I stay for no more than five minutes and continue to rush to the store.
Yet I do not stop thinking about this person. I predict the timing was strategic, rush hour, in one of the busiest sections of town in Johannesburg – would allow him a chance, just for once, even at the end of his life – to be seen, and heard in this ‘city of dreams’.
I have fallen in-love with Johannesburg. I came to this city as depressed as people come, leaving the Eastern Cape uncertain of what lied ahead, yet somehow hopeful something positive is on the way. This year, along with the past few years I would say have been some of the hardest years thus far. I thought surviving years of high school bullying would prepare me for anything, but no, I got to university and white supremacist capitalist patriarchy said “sit down, you kaffir! Let me show you who runs this shit”. I thought I’d managed to also escape this, then found myself in an extremely abusive setting where black patriarchy was like “nah, don’t you dare think I’m done with you. I also want my share.”
I always kept a positive outlook because the original plan was to finish my MA, get some hot shot job, property, and car and so on, you know – that moment when the hard work comes together into material success. None of that happened, I ended up taking much longer than I ever anticipated finishing my MA, and spent much of the past few years feeling like a big failure and in a hole I did not even know how I would get out of. I was stressed, depressed and honestly, quite embarrassed. Many of the people I will be graduating with for my MA were former students I taught and some I tutored. My peers have gone on to establish careers, buy cars and alladat. This is of course not a model of ‘success’ I necessarily aspire to, but it did / does make me feel ‘behind’ on life, sometimes.
And to add to this, so many friends that I thought were going to be lifelong friends have somewhat ‘disappeared’. I remember feeling so lonely early in the year and messaging a ‘friend’ on WhatsApp who ignored my messages while continuing to change profile pictures every day of their new evidently fabulous life. Later in this year, another ‘friend’ just went silent too, ignored emails and social media chats. I have no idea what my complicity in whatever reason(s) these friends hold, but it made me wonder what I had done to them that could be so bad to justify silence (which I find to be so unloving), or maybe as a another friend said to me that the silent treatment has nothing to do with me. But it certainly felt to me that this year, people I was most reliant on and that I’ve show-up for so many times pushed me under the bus at the time when I felt I needed them the most.
So by the time I got to Johannesburg, I felt broken and absolutely defeated with life nje. Yet, surprisingly (I must say), Johannesburg is where (for lack of a better word) I felt revived again. Yes, the issues everyone complains about I can see and have experienced: wealth inequalities, ‘hook-up culture’, and loneliness in the distance and anonymity of the city. Yet, I’ve also been able to meet new people, reaffirm old friendships and do some meaningful work.
My highlights include a wonderFULL reading group at Wits University (organised by Humanities Graduate centre and Dr. Danai Mupotsa), chatting to new and old friends at the Wits Politics department especially Simamkele Dlakavu and fellow BLF contributor, Molemo Ramphalile, meeting up with friends visiting Jo’burg (and FINALLY meeting Bose Maposa – after five damn years [sorry Nadia :p]), visiting my friend Thandeka Kathi at her workplace in Constitutional Hill for afternoon chats and doing meaningful work with a number of youth organisations including Ntinga Loocha, ‘The Blackhouse collective’ and Sakha Ingomnso.
Life became a little brighter again. I got a relatively good job, lost friends, made new ones and affirmed old ones. A month ago a friend of mine sent me a very powerful link to a YouTube video by Oprah Winfrey called “Oprah Winfrey’s Note to Self advice – Relax.” This video was taken as part of CBS THIS MORNINGS’ note-to-self series where they invite successful people to write a note to their young selves. In this letter Oprah writes to her ‘beautiful brown skinned’ younger self, and emphasises the word beautiful because she knows her younger self did not perceive herself to be beautiful. She shares the story of a younger self preoccupied with, and desperately seeking affirmation from a man who is not emotionally available to her. She takes the guy with her to work, but he seems unimpressed by what she has accomplished. She learns that she has to see herself through her own eyes, and to love herself through her own eyes.
There’s a John Legend song that goes: “and I hope one day you’ll see, nobody has it easy”, and this is true. One quickly learns this in Jozi. This is not an easy city to navigate emotionally, financially and socially. But there is love, and potential for a different humanity not based on materialism. I still in many ways feel ‘broken’, but I want to continue being bold next year – and to indeed love myself from my own eyes in 2015.