Saturday, 12 March 2016

If We Value Education, Rhodes Must Fall

One morning in 1986, Themba Plaatjie made a quick dash home from school for a peanut butter sandwich. His mother remembers him spreading the peanut butter on the bread and then - like distracted children the world over - he dashed out again, leaving the dirty knife lying on the counter. The next thing his mother heard was ‘uThemba, uThemba, nank’uThemba bamdubule!’ - ‘This is Themba! This is Themba! They have shot Themba!’

Themba Plaatjie was eleven-years-old when he was murdered by a white policeman in apartheid South Africa. There is a terrible poignancy in the fact that it was on his way back to school that the little boy was slain, because Themba is just one of tens of millions of black African children whose education was denied them by a system that even used the Bible to justify their subjugation: 'You shall never cease being slaves, both hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God' (Joshua 9:23). 

Like Themba, many hundreds of black children had their education denied in the most callous manner possible - their own murder. Another of those children was Hector Pieterson, the first of 176 killed during the Soweto uprising in 1976, when black high school children protested against Afrikaans becoming the main language of instruction in their schools. Sam Nzima's photograph of Hector being carried - his school uniform covered in blood, his screaming sister running alongside - was seen all over the world and galvanised the antiapartheid movement like few other images. 

Hector Pieterson in the arms of his friend Mbuyisa Makhubu, with Hector's sister Antoinette on the left.
Most black children had their education denied in quieter, but no less insidious, ways: underfunded schools, a lack of textbooks, badly trained teachers, the necessity to work to support their families rather than indulge in the luxury of sitting in a classroom. This is what the history of education looks like for black South Africans: it is a history fraught with brutality, shot through with cruelty, and drenched with blood.

But there is another side to the story of education in South Africa, and that part of the story lines the walls of the study in my parents’ house: their degree certificates from Rhodes University, a small but prestigious institution in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. In the same year that Hector Pieterson was butchered, my white parents graduated from a university named after Cecil Rhodes, a man who thought that people like Themba and Hector were less than fully human: 'I contend that [the British] are the finest race in the world,' he wrote, 'And that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.' As Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, Rhodes limited the amount of land that black Africans could legally own and simultaneously increased the property qualifications to be allowed to vote, setting up a disenfranchisement of black South Africans that would last until 1994.

I am an indirect but enormous beneficiary of Rhodes’ policies. I have grown up with all the advantages that come from having educated parents: the economic rewards of skilled work, and all the more subtle benefits of being able to negotiate a path through the complexities of the world. My parents’ education is not unrelated to the stories of Hector Pieterson and Themba Plaatjie: it is an education that was paid for by the punishing labour of black miners in Rhodes’ diamond mines; it is an education that rests heavily on the graves of those two boys and countless others like them.

In her book ‘A Human Being Died that Night’, the South African psychologist and Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Pumla Gobodo-Madikezela tells the story of Themba Plaatjie, and discusses the psychological phenomenon of ‘lived trauma’. Those of us who have not experienced the kind of intense trauma suffered by Themba Plaatjie’s family often think of trauma as an historical event, as if the murder of a loved one is something that is looked back on and remembered. But for those who experience trauma, Gobodo-Madikezela explains that the trauma does not end with the event that creates it: it stays in the present, following those left behind like a shadow until they reach their own end. 

When Themba’s mother, Mrs Plaatjie, relates the story of her son’s murder to Gobodo-Madikezela, she drifts back and forth between past and present tenses: “He ran out… He is still chewing his bread… Now I am dazed…” When she describes the first moment she saw her son with no life left in his body, the sentence she uses is, “Here is my son” - as if the boy’s body is in front of her at that moment, a mark on her retinas that will never wash away. In the mind of his mother, Themba Plaatjie wasn’t only murdered in 1986: he is being murdered still.

Those who defend Rhodes’ statues argue that he is a part of history, that we should not erase the past, however morally bankrupt it may look with the benefit of hindsight. The flaw in this idea lies in that word ‘history’ - because what many black South Africans involved in the #RhodesMustFall campaign tell us is that Cecil Rhodes’ ideas are not history, they are lived trauma for millions of African people. It is a kind of damage that is present every time a black African watches a white person get a better job and a better home because they are better educated; it is there every time a black African walks past the statue of a man who ruthlessly denied the humanity of her ancestors. Rhodes' defenders claim that we will forget how terrible he was if we don't have statues to remind us, but black Africans are no more likely to forget what Rhodes stood for than Mrs Plaatjie is likely to forget that her child was shot dead on his way to school.

Protests against the statue of Rhodes at the University of Cape Town.

As a beneficiary of Cecil Rhodes’ white supremacist ideas, I cannot be grateful to him for the benefits he gave to my family because they were never his to give. Rhodes was nothing but a thief: he stole land, he stole diamonds, and he stole human potential. I also know that however great his contribution to universities in Britain and South Africa, it is greatly outweighed by the crimes he committed against education, for even if his scholarships last for a thousand years they will never educate more than the millions of black Africans whose acquisition of knowledge was made completely impossible by the kind of ideas that he invented, supported, and inspired. 

An enemy of education like Cecil Rhodes has no business being immortalised in the grounds of the world’s best universities, and it is in the pursuit of real education - the kind of education, like that delivered by Pumla Gobodo-Madikezela, which expands our empathy and deepens our understanding of the lives of others - that I hope we will come to see that preserving the legacy of a dead white racist is not worth the tiniest hair on the head of the smallest black schoolchild in Africa. If we are to erect statues in our institutions of learning, they should be of the likes of Themba Plaatjie and Hector Pieterson - for it is from them, not Cecil Rhodes, that we still have the most to learn.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

To the Woman Who Wanted to Photograph Our First Kiss

Halfway through our evening at the Hemingway pub in Hackney, you leaned over from the next table and asked if we were on a date. You were very drunk, and briefly alone; the stranger you had found on the street and brought into the pub with you had temporarily hidden himself in the loo (perhaps he had had a premonition?).

When we told you that yes, we were on our second date, you squealed with the delight of a ten-year-old with their nose pressed against the pet-shop window and told us how cute that was. That word 'cute' - the first thing that made me uneasy.

I don’t know if you’re in the habit of inviting yourself to join straight couples on their second date, and gushing about how adorable they are, but your manner and the things you said lead me to presume that it is an intrusion you save for gay people. I recognised the tone of what you were saying very quickly – you seemed to think that two men having a romantic drink together is like a pretty little water-colour, a tableau of two-dimensional, compliant, sexless beings who represent nothing but subservient sidekicks or bitching partners. Our polite requests to be left alone were met with sarcasm or naked rudeness, which then reverted in the next instant to patronising drivel. It was an unpleasant and deeply unwelcome reminder that even in twenty-first century London there are still occasions that I am not treated in the same way as other people.

There was an aggressive edge to a lot of what you said. As you babbled drunkenly about how good we looked together, and brutally critiqued our skin, our hair, and our clothes, you had the kind of teeth-bearing smile that seethes with danger, like the over-friendly cat that can suddenly switch and scratch. It was clear that your focus was on how we looked, as individuals and as a couple, and not on what we thought or how we felt. You told us that you worked in publishing; you and I disagreed briefly but passionately about the difference between the protagonist and the narrator of a story (you insisted there was no difference; I defined each term, and then you stuck by your line that the words were synonymous, so I let it go). You asked for a summary of the book I am writing, and I gave you a quick overview of a chapter I long ago decided not to write. Instinct told me that my true story would not be safe in your hands.

You told us that you were a fan of stories, that you felt lucky to have a job that allowed you to read and to travel; and then suddenly, upon discovering that our dates had gone well, that we liked each other and that we had not yet kissed, you asked us to do just that.

For you.

So that you could take a photograph.

Dear Woman Who Wanted To Photograph Our First Kiss: your request was extremely disrespectful and I experienced it as an act of oppression.

I know that you like stories, but I never found out whether that includes films. If it does, you may know that the director Spike Lee has identified the trope in American cinema of the Magical Negro, a black character with mystical powers who helps the white (usually male) hero to achieve his goals. You will be familiar with many magical negroes, though you may never have been aware of the subtle damage that they do: Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg) in ‘Ghost’, Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding (Morgan Freeman) in 'The Shawshank Redemption', and John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) in 'The Green Mile'. These characters limit the role of black people: they are convenient archetypes, props, assistants – in effect, they are what black people have so long fought to liberate themselves from being: they are the obedient servants of white masters. While characters like Othello and Celie from 'The Color Purple' are angry, passionate and complex (just like real people), the Magical Negro is a humble, obsequious cardboard cut-out whose mission is not to fulfil their own desires, but to help the white hero to fulfil his.

The trope of the Magical Negro is a form of oppression that is only made more insidious by its pretended benevolence. These black characters are reduced in a way that is more subtle but more dangerous than economic or political disempowerment: they are reduced in their emotional status. Through slow, invisible attrition what is breached is the personhood of every black person who lives in the same society as this trope. The Magical Negro is designed to appeal to the delicate sensitivities of a white audience that can only accept black characters who are wholesome and altruistic; not for them the quiet resistance of Rosa Parks, the uncomfortable indignation of Desmond Tutu or the unconquerable dignity of Nelson Mandela. We are told that a good black person is mild-mannered, lacking in complexity and unpleasant or challenging emotions. She or he is self-sacrificing and malleable to the will of a white master.

Just as we have the Magical Negro, our cultural lives are also burdened by the Magical Homo: the sparkling, glittering, bitchy gay man who props up our (usually) heterosexual female heroine until such a time as her knight rolls into town on his shining white steed. The Magical Homo trope is more commonly known as the Gay Best Friend, like the Daily Mail columnist Amanda Platell’s Gay Best Friend Andrew Pierce, who she describes resigning from a job on her behalf (‘with a little flounce’) and delighting her with his ‘wonderful, bitchy, gossipy streak’. It is the Gay Best Friend doll briefly offered for sale by Tesco’s, which was apparently ‘ready to give you fashion advice, tell you if your bum looks big and bitch about everyone who doesn't wear Jimmy Choos’. The Magical Homo is at work every time the idea is promoted that a gay man is good at nothing but fashion advice and hurting people’s feelings. Like the Magical Negro, this form of oppression is only made more dangerous by its cloak of well-meaning; it reduces gay men and refigures us as the emotional servants of heterosexual women.

The homophobe is not only the violent monster who bludgeons a gay man to death as he walks down the street, it is also every single person who uses a gay person’s sexuality to reduce our status and place limits on our lives. These attacks are not always overt; at times they arrive heavily disguised as compliments or kindness. They include the woman who told me that she was surprised how ‘butch’ my voice sounded. It is the man at a house party who tried to shake my hand for ‘not acting that way’. It is the obsessive ex-colleague who repeatedly sent me messages begging to be my ‘fag hag’. It is the church that will marry my brother but, apparently as an act of pure love, will not accord me the same ceremony. It is the woman in the pub who views my second dates and my first kisses as spectacles of entertainment.

Dear Woman Who Wanted To Photograph Our First Kiss: gay people do not exist to serve the needs of straight people. Real gay men were not created merely to sacrifice ourselves for women like Amanda Platell; real gay women were not made as a challenge for straight men to conquer and convert. Gay people are varied, complex and complete human beings, just like you. When we fall in love it is with the same excitement and trepidation as you; when our hearts break it is every bit as terrible and total as your heartbreaks; when our lovers are dying we also want nothing more than to hold them tenderly in our arms, and when we grieve it is with exactly the same bleak and wrenching agony as any grief that you have ever felt. Dear Woman Who Wanted to Photograph Our First Kiss, your denial of our dignity is closer than you realise to the attitudes of our greatest oppressors: I refer not to those who have destroyed and desecrated our bodies or excluded us from our societies, nor those who have restricted us with their laws and hounded us with their superstitions, but those people who have pronounced – with casual but catastrophic disdain – that our feelings are simply worth less than theirs; that the love we feel is not real love.

But our love is the same as yours, and our feelings are just as real: indeed, they are exactly the same feelings that you experience. It therefore follows that within the broad rainbow of gay people’s emotional lives, alongside the love and grief and joy and sadness that we feel, you should know that we also have the capacity for anger – you seemed to be surprised by this fact when I suggested that you move back to your own table and leave us to enjoy our date uninterrupted. The anger that we feel is, like our love, a deep, profound and righteous emotion. It is an anger that can - and has - wrought extraordinary change in our society. It is the undaunted anger of Harvey Milk annihilating the bigotry of John Briggs; it is the bladed indignation of Peter Tatchell decapitating Section 28, the meticulously articulated fury of Panty Bliss exposing the cowardly homophobia of RTÉ, and the uncompromising rage of Clare Balding when told AA Gill that although he may attack any aspect of her professional life, her sexuality will always be off limits as a target of ridicule. You see, gay people have come to learn, through centuries of oppression, that our anger is one of the most useful tools that we have. It is our anger that has catalysed every single painful step of the progress that we have earned for ourselves.

Dear Woman Who Wanted To Photograph Our First Kiss: I AM ANGRY. I need you to change the way that you think about people like me. I need you to recognise and respect the entirety of my personhood. I am sure that you believe yourself to be liberal and enlightened. I do not for a moment believe that you would have sworn at us for holding hands in the street, like the drunken man we encountered on our way home that night. I am sure you would agree that a gay man’s body no more belongs to a homophobe who wishes to stab or shoot him than a black man’s body belonged to the slave-owner who wished to whip him and make him work, or any more than a woman’s body belongs to the rapist who follows her home. But I need you to remember that my emotional life does not belong to you either. I am not an ornament, an accessory or an object provided for your amusement. Our first kiss was not a ‘#cutepic’ to be emblazoned across Instagram in colours that were never ours to begin with, and we were not made to be tagged on your Facebook page any more than gay people in Nazi Germany were made to be tagged with pink triangles. A first kiss is important precisely because it is a moment of intimate intensity between two people, a rush that will never be properly transcribed into words or photographs, and can only be known by being experienced. A first kiss is not a performance. It is not a piece of art or one of the stories you love to read. It is not a slice of titillation to be invaded and enjoyed and then flushed down the toilet with the bile-thickened bottle of wine you drank last night. A first kiss is real life; it is, perhaps, as real as our lives will ever be.

In the cold light of sobriety, and while I have your undivided attention, I feel I should also take a moment to settle that question of the difference between ‘narrator’ and ‘protagonist’, which seems a useful distinction to be understood by somebody who is attempting to build a career in the publishing industry. The narrator is the one who tells the story; the protagonist is the character who experiences it. In a sense, the narrator is the lens through which the story passes; but the protagonist is the engine that powers the narrative forward, and regardless of the narrator’s bias, he or she only ever owns the telling: it is the protagonist to whom the true events of the story belong.

Dear Woman Who Wanted To Photograph Our First Kiss, you may narrate a fictional version of my life, and that tale is yours to bend and twist and belittle however your heart desires; but the true story will always belong to me and the wonderful man with whom I spent that evening. I will never write down how we felt, merely so that you can feast your eyes upon our affection; and anyway, I know that no words of mine could ever do our feelings justice. But I do know that however ‘cute’ or ‘adorable’ you believe it to be, you will never come close to understanding the profundity of what passed between us. In future, if you want to know what love is, I suggest that you go home to where it waits or set out to find it in the world for yourself; never again must you attempt to steal your emotional sustenance from the richness of strangers’ hearts.

Dear Woman Who Wanted To Photograph Our First Kiss: the purpose of this letter is to give you notice that the lives of gay people – our second dates, our first kisses, our shared secrets, our public declarations and our private assurances, and all of our most treasured and intimate moments – belong to us, and only to us. In the story of our lives we must never be treated as your supporting characters. We are and must always be regarded as our own protagonists.

Emlyn Pearce
(the human-being on a second date).

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

The Importance of Small Things (for Aylan Kurdi)

For a few thrilling weeks in 1987 I was best friends with a potato. His name was Peter. I was five when we met; he can’t have been older than a week. Peter came from a big paper bag in the kitchen and was selected for friendship because he was beautifully rounded, evenly-formed and smooth of skin. I gave him a carefully carved face and four toothpick limbs; he gave me a constant smile and a loyalty that was as quiet as it was dependable. My memory has faded, but I think it’s fair to say that I loved that little potato man as much as any man ever loved a child of his creation. From the day I made him, I knew I would never forget him. Indeed, I never have.

As adults it is incredibly easy to forget the special relationship that small children have with small things.  Often we are too busy to see the look of wonder on our small ones’ faces when a feather drifts in through an open window, as if carefully posted by an invisible hand; or we fail to notice the heart-shaped stone that is squeezed for such a long time in sweaty palms that tiny muscles begin to ache and cramp (but still don’t let go). Children have always found abundant magic in objects that are so small that their very existence is almost a kind of secret. But just give a three-year-old a key, a coin, a ladybird or a leaf and you will see that for small people, an object’s allure only increases the smaller it gets.

Peter didn’t last, of course. With no immune system to protect him from the ravages of bacteria, within weeks of his birth his flesh began to turn starchy and wet. His features became indistinguishable as his body lost its integrity, melted into itself, and fell away. I gave him all the treatment I could: when his toothpick arms began to crack and splinter, he quickly received transplants; I handled him as rarely and as gently as possible, sometimes with a nice clean tissue, in an attempt to preserve the fragile bond between his disintegrating skin and his pale innards. In the end, when his body began to turn green, I took him into the garden, all by myself, and laid him to rest in his family’s plot – the corner of the compost heap nearest the wattle trees. I held my tears inside. Peter wouldn’t have wanted me to cry. 

In time, there would be other small things in my life: a blue marble with a white swirl inside that I found in the cleft of a tree at primary school; the two tiny china gnomes my parents had bought on their honeymoon in South Africa’s Eastern Cape; the snails’ shells I buried under a tree in a failed attempt to start a fossil factory and make my millions. When I was ten I traveled alone to the UK from South Africa to tour the country with my grandparents, and while walking on a beach in Wales I found a pebble that was as black and smooth as polished jet. I decided that I would carry that pebble with me for the rest of the trip, and eventually back to Johannesburg, as a reminder of the country where my mother’s father was born. Riding in my jacket pocket, the little pebble went with us all the way across the Irish Sea to Dublin – I made sure to squeeze him now and then to check that he was still snug as a bug – and then all the way to Galway on the west coast, before we slowly wound our way back east again towards England. But my pebble’s odyssey to the far end of Africa was suddenly curtailed as we re-crossed the Irish Sea: in a moment of reckless curiosity I threw him from the deck into the boat’s violently churning wake, and, just like that, he was gone forever. I still vividly remember the immediate and awful panic that I felt, the urge to pull him back before he had even hit the water, and the lingering guilt that instead of holding my little travelling companion tight and keeping him safe, I had condemned him to life at the bottom of a cold, dark sea. In fact, my memory of the guilt I felt is more vivid than my recollection of much of what we saw on that trip, because when we are children small objects do not merely stir our curiosity, they often become the portals through which we begin to understand our own inner lives, and our budding emotions.

The fascination that children hold for small things only makes it more strange that adults often choose objects for children that prize colour and scale over meaning, and that buckle and break before the Queen has even finished her speech – but that’s only because most of us have confused the magical interior of a child’s mind with the materialistic interior of an adult’s. If you want to give a child a present that they will love (and not merely destroy), you should give them something that will fit comfortably in the palm of their hand; something hard and durable; preferably very old and with plenty of tiny details, and then tell them exactly why it matters and that they must never lose it or let it go. You can grab a child’s attention with a piece of plastic for an hour or two, but give her a relic with a tale attached, and you will enthrall her forever.

I used to think that I had lost the ability to fall in love with small things. Adulthood is tightly packed with so many bland, gigantic, IMPORTANT things, things that barge in, all sharp elbows and shouting like drunken students at a Chinese buffet. Our cities rush and rage, our politicians demand that LESSONS WILL BE LEARNED, our banks shudder and fail, our bosses berate, our computers and smart-phones and widescreen TVs explode and crash and dazzle – and before you know it, it seems impossible to remember how exciting it was to find the hidden face in the rust on an old bicycle frame, or how relaxing it was to spend a few hours sitting cross-legged on the garden path whittling a popsicle stick. But occasionally, if we just allow a little space for contemplation, even our jaded adult attention spans can bristle and spark as if they were still brand new.

From time to time, I still go looking for small things. These days they can be harder to find – my adult eyes have been conditioned to look instead for the roar of advertising and the flicker of potential danger. It takes a concentrated effort to search instead for the spaces between, to study the edges of things. But sometimes, when my mind is at ease and the city’s drone has receded a little from the foreground, my eye for small things returns, and I am transported back to a time when a marble was a tiny world, and a potato seemed to possess a kindness all of his own making.

Three or four years ago, on a rainy Friday when I should have been at work, my friend Esther and I went looking for small things together. Our search lead us to a very specific place, where we knew that wonderful small things would be waiting: the Foundling Museum in central London, which commemorates the Foundling Hospital, a home for orphaned and abandoned children opened by Thomas Coram in 1741. The hospital doesn’t exist anymore – it moved from central London to Surrey in 1937, then to Hertfordshire, and closed in the 1950s; but a sense of what it must have been like is preserved in the museum by thousands of photographs, paintings and even video interviews with some of the last children to sleep in its dormitories.

The Foundling Museum
The suffering that the children of England had to endure during the first few centuries of the Foundling Hospital’s existence was horrific. With the Industrial Revolution beginning just twenty years after the institution opened, children weren’t the precious small things they are today: they became little more than conveniently-sized workers, with fingers small enough to unpick the tangled cotton in the dark Satanic mills of Manchester and bodies slender enough to fit deep inside the soot-clogged chimneys of London. Under-nourished and with virtually no medical care, in much of the country a child reaching adulthood was the exception rather than the rule. The Foundling Hospital’s own statistics speak volumes about the experience of children in Britain at that time: of the nearly 15,000 children presented to the hospital in the four years from 1756, only 4,400 survived to be apprenticed out.

Most of the children who ended up in the Foundling Hospital were left there by parents who loved them desperately, who wanted to keep them, but were simply unable to because of the dire circumstances of their lives. It was poverty – simple, merciless poverty – that pulled those families apart. Because the children were entrusted rather than abandoned, their parents developed an informal system of marking a child as theirs, so that they could be identified and reclaimed when – and if – the parents were able to look after them again. They did this by leaving tiny trinkets and tokens with their children as symbols of their love; the more special and unique the item, the more likely they would be able to identify their child in the future. It was these small things that caught my eye the first time I visited the Foundling Museum.

The tokens are extraordinarily varied: they include thimbles, rings, hairpins, knotted threads, even a hazelnut; and every single item represents the love that a parent felt for their child at the moment that hardship tore them from each other. One poor little chap, a baby called John who was later renamed Robin Carr, was even delivered to the hospital with his own caul (the amniotic membrane that covers a foetus), which was believed to be a lucky thing to hold onto (if probably a maggoty horror show in the summer months).

Another foundling was Elizabeth Harris, born on 6th June 1756 and brought to the Foundling Hospital by her father. Like most other parents of foundlings, Mr Harris was not giving his daughter up willingly: he was about to be transported to Australia for seven years for stealing coal. Very little is known about the Harris family or their situation – whether Elizabeth’s mother was still alive, whether she had any siblings or other family, or what desperate circumstances drove Elizabeth’s father to steal the coal that would wrench him from his child – but one thing is beyond doubt. Elizabeth Harris’ father loved his daughter, and the token he left at Thomas Coram’s hospital has outlasted the enormous tragedy of their lives and still stands as a testament to that love 270 years later. 

The token is a James II coin, rubbed smooth on one side, and carefully engraved with Elizabeth’s name and her date of birth. The inscription curves around the edge of the coin, leaving room in the centre for the depiction of a winged cherub, looking to its left and smiling slightly, its features minute but exquisitely rendered. I always wonder about the significance of the cherub – I like to think that it was intended by her father as a kind of guardian angel to guide Elizabeth in his absence. He must have thought that the token may be the only symbol of his love that his daughter would ever know. Sadly, even that small mercy was denied her. The hospital’s governors believed that unclaimed children should not be weighed down by the knowledge of their origins, and therefore not one of the tokens left there was ever handed over to the foundling for whom it was intended. Even if Elizabeth had received her token, the reunion with her father was never to be: she died of consumption long before his seven years in the penal colony were served. It seems particularly cruel that although the love that Elizabeth’s father felt for her is plain to thousands of visitors to the Foundling Hospital today, Elizabeth herself probably never laid eyes on the small engraved angel her father sent to watch over her.

In twenty-first century Britain, we live in very different times from Elizabeth Harris and her father. In the modern version of the Harrises' country, we endeavour to make sure that our children are properly cared for, that they have access to free healthcare and education, and that their emotional traumas are listened to and not beaten into silence. We even have the luxury of waxing lyrical about the many different ‘Golden Ages’ of childhood, when kids were apparently so much healthier and luckier and happier and better behaved than they are today – sometimes we mean the 1950s, when thousands were crippled by polio; or the 1940s, when children saw their towns flattened by bombs; or the 1970s, when sexual abuse was never spoken about; or those truly blessed children of the early nineteenth century whose government declared, in the 1819 Cotton Mills and Factory Act, that children aged 9–16 years were to be limited to 12 hours’ work per day.

Our country, for all its flaws and shortcomings, is now one in which we have the ability to educate every child, to make sure that every child has a roof over his or her head, is fully vaccinated, and has enough to eat. And yet, a dark shadow still falls across our British soul: for it seems that our present comforts have made us oblivious to the true anguish of our own history. They have made us forget what it really means to live in absolute poverty, to experience the kind of deprivation that isn’t about smaller televisions or not going on holiday, but instead speaks in toxic drinking water and never learning how to write your name.

If we could speak to Elizabeth Harris’ father as he sat huddled on that antipodes-bound boat, thinking of the daughter he had left behind with nothing but a tiny engraved coin to remember him by – and perhaps praying that one day he would make it back and find her, all grown up, still squeezing it in her aching hand – what advice would he give to the parents of twenty-first century Britain? Parents who never have to steal coal to buy food, or send their children to work for seventy-two hours a week, or have them taken by strangers to be raised, or watch them die one by one of tuberculosis, typhoid, dysentery and cholera? Perhaps he would tell them to spend more time with their children, because some small things do not stay small for long and can never be made small again. He would probably say that they should not worry if they cannot buy the biggest or most expensive presents, because an object that fits in a child’s hand – but is given from a parent’s heart – will last the test of time better than any mechanical gadget or molded piece of plastic. I’m sure he would tell us not to lament the loss of the Golden Age of childhood, because we still have time on our side and our children can live the best of all possible childhoods now, if only we adults have the desire, the energy and the imagination to make it so.

I think that Elizabeth’s father would ask us to remember that the suffering that poverty caused in his life didn’t end with his death, but simply migrated across the earth: from the factories of the East End it has found new homes in the slums of Lagos and the drought-ravaged uplands of Kenya; it is in the Afghan valleys too remote for antenatal care, and the Brazilian favelas where gunshots echo through classrooms on a daily basis. He would probably say that we should remember that economic migrants don’t come to Britain to attain wealth, but to escape poverty that can be as terrifying and deadly as any war: to make sure that their children are safe from disease, are able to be educated, can have clothes to wear and the security of three meals a day. He would surely remind us that the many British parents transported to Australia for stealing bread did not do so for the glory of possessing the bread, but for the necessity of giving it to their children to eat.

Most importantly of all, I think that Elizabeth’s father would probably say that we should learn from our children, who already know that things are most precious when they are small. As that poor man looked out across the cold, dark sea unfurling relentlessly, and eternally, between him and his daughter, hoping that the people to whom he had entrusted his daughter and her precious coin would look after them both and keep them safe, he would probably tell us exactly the same thing that a two-year-old would: when we are lucky enough to have a small thing – whether it is one of our own creation or one that someone else has lent for safe keeping – we should hold it tight, keep it safe, carry it with us, and never, ever lose it or let it go.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Why It’s Crazy To Have A ‘Black History Month’

The following words were written in 1960 by Gilbert Nompozolo, a black South African who lived his last years in the crushing grip of the apartheid regime:

“The rulers must know that we are all God’s children; but we are thrown into prison with our wives and children. I do not know where the Municipal authorities here come from, but one thing I know is, that to them a black man is no better than a wild beast to be chased about and flung into a police van. The Municipal authorities arrest men on their death beds. I saw the way these raids are carried out only this Tuesday – the police barging into people’s houses, looking into every corner, even under the beds – looking for supposed ‘illegal entrants’ into the area. How would you [white people] feel if you were forced to leave your children behind? And yet you force us to leave our children, orphans, while we still live.”

On 6th May that year Gilbert had been arrested under the Emergency Regulations put in place after the Sharpeville massacre for not having a permit to live in the ‘proclaimed’ (for whites) area of Wellington, a town 45 miles from Cape Town. He was then sent to Roeland Street jail in Cape Town, where he was beaten with a stick before being transported 600 miles to the port city of East London, a journey that took three days, during which he had to sit on a hard wooden seat, shackled to another prisoner, and was given only bread and water. He was then sent to Butterworth, the town where he was born, but because he owned no land and had no family in the area, he was told he couldn’t stay there either. When the warder of the prison in Butterworth checked Gilbert’s reference book he discovered that Gilbert had once paid his poll tax in Clanwilliam, a town 150 miles north of Cape Town, which was still ‘unproclaimed’. Gilbert knew it would do no good for him to explain that he had never even been to Clanwilliam, but had simply arranged for a friend to pay his tax there while he was working 45 miles away in a small fishing village. Gilbert accepted the train ticket to Clanwilliam, but when the train passed back through Wellington he disembarked and sought help from the Black Sash, a charity run by a group of white women that offered assistance to black people who were struggling against the draconian Pass Laws (the laws decreed that black people had to carry a Pass Book at all times to prove that they had a legal right to be in a particular area). Several members of the Black Sash took Gilbert to see the local Registering Officer, Mr van Lill. Upon inspecting Gilbert’s papers, Mr van Lill said that it would probably do him no good to travel to Clanwilliam, because it was a largely ‘coloured’ (mixed race) area and it was unlikely that he would be allowed to live there. Instead, van Lill recommended that Gilbert travel to Wolseley, a town just a few miles from Wellington; the registering officer even agreed to give Gilbert’s wife Maude temporary permission to stay in Wellington until her husband was properly settled at Wolseley. But two days later, Gilbert was back in Wellington. He had been told that he couldn’t stay in Wolseley for more than 72 hours, the statutory length of stay for a black person visiting an area where they had no permit to remain.

And so Gilbert Nompozolo was not legally allowed to live anywhere in the country in which he was born.

Gilbert Nompozolo in 1960 Anna Pearce

You won’t find Gilbert Nompozolo’s story in any history textbook, nor is it tucked away in dusty newspaper archives or burned into a crackly old piece of newsreel. History is a narrative usually told by the powerful about themselves, and for men and women like Gilbert Nompozolo – poor, uneducated, disenfranchised – to be erased from the annals of history is a final and permanent affront to their dignity. Fifty years after he was criminalised simply for existing, and even though it contains many important lessons – about the application of law, the purpose of appeals processes and the cost to human lives of merciless bureaucracy –Gilbert’s story is almost completely forgotten.

I only know the name Gilbert Nompozolo because one of the Black Sash members who decided to help him was my grandmother, Anna Pearce. Anna kept a careful record of Gilbert’s case and others like it, which was finally typed up by my aunt Michele in 2004, and self-published under the title ‘A Permit to Live’. Although the book was never taken up by a commercial publisher, copies were given to the South African Library and the Institute for Race Relations, and after Anna died in 2013, my uncle Matthew gave a copy of the book to each of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

‘A Permit to Live’ was difficult for me to read, for two reasons. Firstly, there is the sheer inhumanity with which my fellow South Africans were treated. In exhaustive detail, Anna relates the Kafka-esque insanity that swept through the lives of ordinary people, splitting families, destroying livelihoods and sweeping the entire histories of decent women and men away in a great roiling torrent of pass books, police raids, bewildering laws, intimidation, prison cells and beatings. In the introduction, Anna includes extracts from a pamphlet called ‘This is Apartheid’, written in 1959 by Leslie Rubin, which gives a clear sense of apartheid’s madness:

“An African who was born in a town and lived there continuously for fifty years, but then left to reside elsewhere for any period, even two weeks, is not entitled, as of right, to return to the town where he was born and to remain there for more than 72 hours. If he does, he is guilty of a criminal office punishable by a fine not exceeding £10 or, in default, imprisonment not exceeding two months, unless he has obtained a permit to do so. (Native (Urban Areas Consolidation) Act no. 25 of 1945 as amended Section 10 (1) (a).)”

The cruelty of apartheid is often conveyed solely through its most photogenic crimes: townships burning as police vans hurtle through; the brutal murders of Steve Biko, Hector Pieterson, Dulcie September and the Cradock Four. But we should not forget that some of apartheid’s greatest crimes were quietly perpetrated by its bureaucrats, who implemented a psychopathic system of rules and regulations that paid no respect to the humanity of the majority of South Africa’s citizens. The notorious Pass Laws decreed that a black person could be stopped at any time by the police to have their Pass checked; the police could even enter a person’s home, at any time of the day or night, without a warrant, to check their documents. Desmond Tutu has recounted how his father, as an educated black man, was exempt from carrying a Pass, and so was spared the humiliation of being stopped by the police to have his Pass checked. Instead, he carried a Pass Exemption, and would frequently be stopped by the police to check that he was carrying his Pass Exemption explaining why he didn’t have to carry a Pass. It seemed to be a law designed not to maintain order but to destroy the human spirit.

The second reason I found ‘A Permit to Live’ difficult to read is more personal. In terms of its representation of reality, the act of writing is a lot like the act of dreaming: it may seem to reveal a facsimile of the real world, a multidimensional universe of depth, complexity and things existent but un-shown, but in truth it is only ever a facsimile of the writer’s mind. As in a dream, every ‘person’ in a piece of writing is really a version of the writer, and they are only there to serve the writer’s purpose. This second story – the story of the storyteller – might not be particularly obvious when we read a piece of writing by someone we don’t know, but when the reader knows the writer intimately, and is familiar with their history, their motivations, their beliefs, values and ideals, it is almost impossible to read what they write as anything but a palimpsest, with the truth of the narrative refracted through the truth of the writer’s life. That is why, as I read the story of Gilbert Nompozolo, I found myself not only moved by what happened to him, but also haunted by a second, quieter story, but one that also brims with frustration, alienation and poignancy: the story of my grandmother.

Members of the Black Sash (l to r): Doria Struben, Meg Hogan, Anna Pearce, Stella Lavis Anna Pearce

Anna Pearce knew how it felt to be rootless. As a child, her parents lived in South Africa while Anna attended a boarding school in England. She once told me that she had made the 6000 mile journey by ship sixteen times while she was growing up. Maybe she got used to life as a small girl on a big ship, I don’t know; even if she had, there must have been the first time she’d gone down to the dock with her parents, and then left without them, and that wrenching memory must have stayed with her. It’s tempting to think that it was those early experiences that made Anna identify with the plight of homeless Africans like Gilbert; but for the new-immigrant white population of South Africa, a sense of being far from home would have been commonplace, and Anna was by no means the only white South African child who was sent away to boarding school. If suffering was all that was needed for empathy to grow, apartheid would never have happened. There must have been something else, some inborn trait, that made my grandmother fight against a system that was designed to benefit people like her.

The first place to search for the cause of Anna’s activism is in my own memory. Of course I have no idea what she was like in the 1960s, but I do know that for as long as I knew her, she was often a difficult person to relate to. She was certainly a very creative woman (she studied art in Cape Town and during World War II joined the British intelligence services, building the models of the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams that were used to plan the bombings featured in ‘The Dam Busters’), but as she grew older her creativity seemed to lose its anchor, and her ideas began to proliferate and metastasize out of control. Her earlier inventions, like her solar cooker ‘The Wonderbox’, worked well and had practical applications; but later obsessions (a drink, best described as kind of watery marmalade, that was supposed to rival Coca Cola; an unproven AIDS ‘cure’ called mariandina) did little more than suck up her time and energy without producing anything useful. She accumulated unconventional friends who tried to take advantage of her, and wrote several books about her various projects, printing hundreds of copies of each of them, which then lay moldering in an upstairs bedroom.

The word ‘eccentric’ was often used to describe Anna and her projects. It’s a double-edged adjective, with the smooth surface of a compliment – how endearing to be ‘away from the centre’, to be quirky, original, to be an independent thinker! – but a little deeper inside the three cheerful syllables there lurks an uglier, euphemistic underside: the hidden rebuke from the mainstream for the audacity of being an outsider. I know that when people called her ‘eccentric’ they weren’t always being kind; but the more difficult truth is that I know that my grandmother was not simply eccentric. She was mentally ill.

Even as I write those words, I want to take them back. My brain says that my grandmother’s illness is an important truth about her life, but the part of me that lies beyond the reach of education and rationality feels that having the kind of illness that my grandmother had is a kind of disgrace – for her, for our family, and for me. Beyond ‘eccentric’ we have many much harsher words for people like Anna – nutcase, lunatic, mental, madwoman, basket case (there are, of course, no equivalent derogatory words for heart patients or stroke victims). In fact, our family never had any gentler or more accurate words to describe her state because she was never formally diagnosed with any particular condition. Many of her characteristics suggested mania: pressured speech, racing thoughts, hyper-creativity. There were also sometimes incidences of magical thinking, superstition, obsessive behaviour and paranoia, perhaps suggesting schizoid personality disorder. Whatever label may have been attached by a medical professional, I can only say that Anna fitted one of the common legal definitions of insanity: a person who is unable to distinguish reality from fantasy. In Anna’s world, the mundane often had supernatural significance and the next extraordinary leap in human advancement was always just around the corner – and often in her hands. The definition of ‘insanity’ is a slippery thing, because if we are to define it in terms of sharing the common reality, then it relies on some form of consensus on what ‘reality’ actually is. We do not achieve ‘sanity’ just by being part of reality, but by inhabiting what most people agree to be reality. (Remember the last scene of ‘Miracle on 34th Street’, where the judge is presented with a banknote with ‘In God We Trust’ circled? He subsequently rules that because the American Federal Reserve believes in God with no empirical evidence, ordinary people may also believe in Santa Claus without evidence. Because the Establishment believes in the unbelievable, the unbelievable is legitimised. If only one little girl believes in Santa? Little girl is loco!). Our definition of ‘sanity’ is intensely democratic, and as with any democratic idea, at its most extreme the definition of sanity becomes oppressive: a tyranny of the majority, where a different view of what is real is disregarded and written off as illness.

A few years before she died, Anna was prescribed various antipsychotics, including lithium. The result was bittersweet: at the age of 89, a veil was lifted from her mind, and she arrived back in the world like a dazed time traveller, more physically fragile but also more mentally grounded than she had been for many, many years. My younger brother, Benji, recounted a conversation in which Anna had told him that she remembered how kind he had been to our other grandmother, Phyllis, when she lived with us in Johannesburg while she was ill with Parkinson’s. Anna remembered the little bell that Phyllis used to ring, and how Benji would immediately run off to help her.

Benji was astounded:

‘I had no idea Grandmother had paid any attention to my childhood!’

One of the cruellest consequences of an illness like my grandmother’s is the way it damages relationships. Emotional intimacy requires a degree of stillness between two people: space through which ideas can pass, quiet in which to listen, and time for the corridors and stairwells of a person’s inner-life to be charted and navigated. Anna’s mind was many things, but in all the time I knew her it was never, ever still.

One year in the mid-2000s I phoned her on her birthday and listened for nearly two hours as she told me about a friend of hers who was going to teach chess to schoolchildren inside old shipping crates when he returned from a trip in a minibus to the Mountains of the Moon in Kenya on his way to a meeting with a scientist who had a cure for AIDS and was currently battling governments and pharmaceutical companies who were conspiring to prevent his treatment from reaching the market even though I would see that things were about to change in a very serious way that would affect everything, AIDS, politics, religion, the environment, America, the former Soviet Union, food production, the way we live, heralding a new era with much more AWARENESS, more CONNECTIONS between different people and different parts of the world, a deepening UNDERSTANDING, and the COINCIDENCES we were starting to see were just the beginning…

Unable to find a way to interject, eventually I had to just hang up. Her manner was exhausting, and though I knew it wasn’t her fault, it was also infuriating. I must admit that on that occasion, and many others, I wished that my grandmother could have been a different kind of person. I would have liked to have had the sort of granny who always remembers her grandchildren’s birthdays, and asks them about school, and gives them sweeties. I would have liked a granny who hadn’t wasted so much time, money and energy on projects and inventions that never went anywhere. I have sometimes looked at other people’s cuddly grannies and felt that peculiar kind of loss: the loss of something you never actually had, and that traitorous and shameful feeling was only intensified by her death. Suddenly our relationship was set in stone, unchangeable, and it seemed there would be no more chances for things to be different. The fleeting, emotionally-connected Anna that had so surprised Benji was now gone forever.

A few months after her funeral, when the copy of ‘A Permit to Live’ was placed in my hand at a family gathering, I couldn’t wait to read it, for many different reasons. One of my biggest and most secret motives was that I wanted to see if I could find the ‘real’ Anna in its pages, the one who existed before the mania overcame her. When writing is at its best, it completely transports the reader to a different reality, and the reality I wanted to reach was the one where my grandmother was mentally balanced, healthy; where she was – to use that most awful of adjectives with which to describe a human being – normal.


Almost as soon as I started to read her book, a sense of Anna began to reappear in my mind, so strongly that it was almost like a physical presence. The contours of her mind, her phraseology, the texture of her personality were all there, and when I read that, like Winston Churchill, she felt that ‘some guiding hand [was] interfering’, I thought, ‘Yes! That’s typical Grandmother!’ As I read more and more of ‘A Permit to Live’, it slowly occurred to me that the calm, practical woman I had been sure I would find there did not exist at all – and I had that most wonderful kind of surprise: the kind where you find something you didn’t even know you were looking for. The woman I found was the wayward maverick I already knew – but this time, she was in a time and a place where her madness didn’t weigh her down. It liberated her.

Anna’s boundless energy is apparent in every word of her book. As quickly as obstacles were flung into the path of desperate black South Africans like Gilbert Nompozolo, Anna met them with potential solutions, moving on to try the next solution before the results of the last attempt were even returned: she suggested that Gilbert become a travelling salesman, enabling him to earn a living while never staying in an area for more than 72 hours; she took photographs of him outside dozens of pass offices to prove that he had tried to obtain a pass in many different places; she drove up and down the country talking to officials and activists and farmers’ wives in an attempt to find him a job and a home; she attempted to start a night school in an abandoned cinema; she wrote dozens of letters to newspapers, lawyers and cabinet ministers; she provided references for people who had burned their Passes in protest.

The madness of bureaucracy is that it claims to want to facilitate our lives, but really it only wants to paralyze them. It confines, controls and limits us. Apartheid was a bureaucratic dictatorship, and its rules and regulations were set up for the purpose of containing black people with no regard whatsoever for their wellbeing. It sought to stop people from moving around, to stop them from owning land, to freeze their educational aspirations, to lay before them a million examples of what they would never be. Bureaucracy is anathema to imagination and optimism. Its burning desire is to herd human beings, and in order to herd it must reduce the complexity of humanness to the simple uniformity of numbers, neat categories, boxes:
In order to make its subjects compliant, bureaucracy depends heavily on those subjects’ own weariness. Bureaucracy wants you to become so tired and frustrated with the length of the queue at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency that you melt into a despondent puddle of obedience, and end up just going with bureaucracy’s flow to the window of whichever slack-jawed humanoid the forms decree, to pay whatever fee the humanoid demands, which you will willingly do, not because the fee is in any way fair compensation for the humanoid’s labour, but because by that time you have realised that the charge levied is in fact the price of your freedom.

But apartheid’s bureaucracy met its match in Anna Pearce: for it turns out that mania is the opposite of bureaucracy! Mania believes that rules were made to be broken. Mania is infinitely creative and optimistic; and it is utterly, relentlessly, shockingly inexhaustible. Like Chuck Norris, mania doesn’t sleep – it waits. When a ‘normal’ person may have advised Gilbert to simply be arrested and let the legal system swivel on its own absurdity, Anna refused to acquiesce to the wall of regulations with which they were faced. She engaged her creativity, her obsessive nature and her magical thinking in a tireless campaign to find some fragment of justice for people who were supposed to have none. There was no question of her ever giving up fighting for what she believed in. As I read page after page describing my grandmother’s various meetings and journeys and letters and projects and ideas, I couldn’t help thinking of those other grandchildren with Nice Grannies who gave them sweeties and asked them about what they did at school, and I couldn’t help feeling the most enormous pride: my grandmother wasn’t ‘nice’, she was a force of nature. When history came calling, Anna Pearce didn’t make a cup of tea and tut with disapproval, she rushed into the breach without a backwards glance.

She could be pretty damn crazy with stuff like that.


On 22 November 1962 two hundred black men marched through the Western Cape town of Paarl, attacking the prison and police station. Two white civilians, Rencia Vermeulen and Frans Richards, were killed when the rioters invaded houses on Loop Street, and five black people were shot dead, one by a civilian and three by the police: Godfrey Yekiso, Madodana Camagu, John Magigo and Ngenisile Siqwebo. The next day, when a group of protestors belonging to the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) marched to the police station to hand in a list of grievances, another man, Matthews Mayezana Mali, was shot dead by the police. The climate in South Africa at that time was already incredibly fraught. Just two years earlier, the government had opened fire on black protestors at Sharpeville, killing 69 and prompting the ANC to abandon the policy of nonviolent resistance that had been one of its key principles since 1912. Following the riot in Paarl there were ominous calls from the white community to ensure that not one living African should be left anywhere in the town. Given the level of fear and paranoia in the white community, a white person would have to be crazy to attempt to defend the Africans, who seemed to be rapidly reverting to their savage natures.

But it was at Judge Snyman’s Inquiry into the Paarl riots that Anna Pearce became the first white person to testify against the apartheid government in a South African court. After years of assisting black people who had fallen foul of the Pass Laws, and keeping the detailed records of their difficulties that would become ‘A Permit to Live’, she was asked to explain her theory about the cause of the riots on behalf of the defence. For three-and-a-half days Anna sat in the witness box and countered the prosecution’s contention that a group of black agitators working under the moniker ‘Poqo’, had come to the area from Tanskei (a so-called ‘homeland’ to the east of Cape Town) to cause trouble. Anna’s argument was that in fact the riots were the result of the corruption of local officials, in particular Johannes Le Roux, (Director of Bantu Administration in a black location called Mbekweni), who had already been acquitted of accepting bribes and free labour in exchange for handing out Passes at an earlier trial. According to the court records, Anna claimed that “[black men in Mbekweni] were either Le Roux men or they were not, and those who were Le Roux men were the ones who were doing well… and those who were not were the ones who were having pass trouble.”

If I ever get my hands on the keys to a time machine, my first trip will be to that Cape Town court room in the feverish South African summer of 1963. In my mind’s eye I can see a forty-year-old mother of four sitting in the witness box, clutching her precious pink folder that contained the stories of families whose lives had been completely destroyed by the cruelty of the Pass Laws. Her hair is carefully arranged in the short, neat style befitting a respectable housewife in a country where the sixties were anything but swinging; her dress conservatively cut and muted in colour, her posture slightly stooped and awkward - not necessarily because she felt daunted by the occasion, but because she sometimes felt self-conscious about being several inches taller than the average for a woman. I imagine that she sat with her hands tightly clasped, or hidden from view, because her mother had once cruelly told her to hide her large hands behind her teacup if she was meeting a prospective husband, and late in her life she would admit that it was a criticism she never really got over. Did she feel intimidated by the presence of men who were more educated than her? Did her training in art, her history of model making, suddenly seem woefully inadequate in a court of law? If only I could go back in time and whisper in her ear that history would prove her right, that her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren would always be proud of what she was about to do. I wish I could tell her not to be afraid.

But then I remember how infuriating she could be! The real Anna Pearce didn’t give two hoots about being in a minority of one; the real Anna Pearce did not know how to back down in an argument, and the real Anna Pearce never gave up on an idea just because somebody said she should! Time and again the prosecution sought to cast Anna as a sly enemy of the government, or hopelessly naive, or woefully idealistic. Once or twice she became confused by a line of questioning, missing a key word and having to have it explained by the judge; at other times she delivered withering rebuttals off the cuff. When the state’s advocate attempted to force her to admit that the Black Sash was a political organisation, she countered that they were in fact overtly apolitical, and supported causes that they deemed to be justified regardless of which side of the political spectrum they were on. They brought up the case of Jacob Hobeni, who could have obtained a pass to remain in Wellington if he had accepted a job offer he was given by a local farmer, and attempted to dismiss his Pass problems as being the result of his own laziness.

‘Jacob Hobeni was eighty-six-years-old,’ Anna replied. ‘He was in the Boer War!’

As a white woman, and the wife of a prominent businessman, Anna’s status in the community earned her a certain status in court. The judge addressed her with gracious respect, and she was told by a friendly policeman not to let them fluster her. There were only a couple of occasions that the atmosphere boiled over: once, outside court, when Johannes Le Roux’s wife shouted that Anna ‘should be shot’; and an occasion on the third day of cross-examination, when it was pointed out by the prosecution that the Department of Bantu Administration could remove the licence of an official like Mr Le Roux at any time, without given any reason to anyone. So if Mrs Pearce had suspected that there was corruption in the distribution of passes, why had she not gone to the police?

‘Why had I not gone to the police?’ she shot back incredulously. ‘WHY HAD I NOT GONE TO THE POLICE? If the whole of Paarl was frightened, why couldn't I be frightened too?’

These words shook me. I had become used to my grandmother as an emotionally detached person, a driven, deluded optimist, and for the first time I wondered whether, under the constant state of agitation in which she lived, there had been moments when more tender feelings like fear or sadness had managed to fight through the roar of mania in her mind. It was a reminder that alongside the real Anna was an Anna that I had totally imagined, and that imagining what my grandmother was like was not enough. The assumptions about her mindset that seemed most certain to me – that she was immune to fear, sadness and vulnerability – were in fact the most wayward.

Although the atmosphere in the court was largely civil, I imagine there was probably private disgust that an apparently respectable white lady could take the side of violent, uncontrollable blacks. Perhaps words of condemnation were subtly whispered – words like ‘shrill’ and ‘haughty’ and ‘hysterical’ – that we reserve for only the bravest of women. Later, Anna would be denounced in the press (the two biggest English language newspapers in the Cape criticised her for saying that the Paarl riots were ‘justified’, though she had almost immediately replaced the word with ‘understandable’), and would even be referred to as ‘that mad woman’ in Parliament. There were other, more insidious forms of intimidation directed at my grandparents: one morning their house in Wellington was unexpectedly raided by the security police, though they didn’t find the folder of evidence that Anna had hidden inside a secret drawer in the tallboy; on another occasion their domestic worker, Joanna, broke down during a dinner party and confessed to being a police informer. It’s no wonder that Anna was afraid: the benefits of being white in apartheid South Africa were entirely conditional on obeying its rules.

Judge Snyman’s Inquiry into the Paarl riots was a disaster for South Africa. Before the Inquiry even concluded, he released a dramatic interim report urging immediate action against the threat of terrorism from Poqo. In April 1963 a General Law Amendment Bill was passed (there was, as usual, only one dissenting voice in Parliament – Helen Suzman, the MP for the antiapartheid Progressive Party), and its contents are horribly familiar to those of us living in a post-9/11 world: under the guise of ‘fighting terrorism’, the state introduced such measures as the ability for any commissioned officer to detain - without a warrant - any person suspected of a political crime and to hold them for ninety days without access to a lawyer. In practice, people were often released after the ninety days only to be immediately re-detained for a further ninety-days. As for the Attorney General’s opinion of Anna, he submitted that the ‘Wellington housewife’ knew nothing about Poqo and had little firsthand knowledge of Mbekweni location. He declared that ‘little value’ could be attached to her evidence.

And yet, Anna had had her day in court. I imagine how her testimony must have burned in the ears of the people in that court, and perhaps played on their minds for years afterwards: that a black man had a right to live with his family! That it was the apartheid system, and not the nature of black people, that was the cause of political unrest! That, one day, Black History would really matter in South Africa.


If we lived in a world where history was told by only rich, educated, white, politically powerful men, I would have no choice but to believe that the Attorney General was right, and that the differences in my grandmother’s viewpoint made her insane – for the definition of insanity is of inhabiting a reality that is different from that which is generally accepted. But now we know that when Anna Pearce sat in that courtroom and described a world where black people should be free to live where they wanted, should be equal under the law, and should be citizens of their own country, she was actually exhibiting a level of foresight far superior to that of the men who so casually dismissed her. In the courtroom of an evil regime, Anna’s mania became a wonderful gift that enabled her to imagine different kinds of reality, and the one she was representing in that witness box wasn’t crazy, it just happened to be thirty years ahead of its time.

Here lies the insanity of history: for there is no objective ‘reality’ behind us, no singular and definitive record of the past, only a great contradictory quilt of different people’s versions all stitched together, with individual threads of truth, falsehood, misinterpretation, subjectivity and bias all woven so tightly around and through and over each other that telling them apart is impossible. One of the greatest threats to an accurate understanding of history is also one of the most subtle, one that lurks in the background, like a slack-jawed bureaucrat: it is our own imaginations. It is so easy to imagine a version of the past, to extrapolate something assumed and solidify it into fact – so easy to believe that a grandmother must have been an entirely different person fifty years ago, that the stories of heroism surely couldn’t correlate with the knowledge of her madness. But we only see history for what it truly is by having the courage to look at it unflinchingly in the eye, to read it in all its brutal truth and sprawling complexity. Sometimes a great deal of time and analysis must pass before we are able to look back and see that some of the lunatics were actually visionaries all along.

The purpose of Black History Month is to remind those of us who live in Euro-centric lands that people of African origin have a rich, complex and important history that is often dismissed and forgotten; but it is also, more broadly, a reminder that history belongs to all people, regardless of race, gender, wealth, status, education or even mental health. There is an African proverb that says ‘Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter’. If we never read the stories of the lions, like Gilbert Nompozolo’s devastating statement with which this article began, all of us will forever be excluded from a full understanding of the reality in which we live. If we don’t study the way that oppressive regimes like the apartheid government have used the ‘threat of terrorism’ and the guise of ‘protecting freedom’ to terrorise their citizens and take their freedom, we will walk like sheep into our own subjugation. If we dwell in ignorance of the strangest fruit that ever hung from a poplar tree, we can never understand the seismic importance of the murders of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. If we are ignorant of the chemical and biological arms race that occurred in Africa in the 1970s and 80s, we cannot fully comprehend the fear and paranoia surrounding the twenty-first century AIDS crisis. If we declare that reality is to be defined by only white people, or only rich people, or only men, then we acquire a kind of elective blindness to the way our world really is, for most of history’s actors were neither white, nor rich, nor male. If I had never been able to read my grandmother’s history as she wrote it, I would have gone through my entire life believing that she was an effective antiapartheid activist before she became mentally ill; but now I know that she was an effective antiapartheid activist because she was probably ill all along.

Celebrating Black History Month means existing inside a reality where the history of black people is meaningful, important and relevant; it is an endeavour that, at times, feels very different from the commonly understood reality; and as we know, inhabiting a reality that is at odds with the generally accepted one is how our society has chosen to define madness. However, even the most cursory reading of history will show that what we call ‘reality’ is not fixed, and the centre of human understanding, like galaxies and mountain ranges and magnetic poles, may seem immutable but in fact is always shifting, drifting, moving on – like Gilbert Nompozolo, searching tirelessly for a place to settle – and time and again we have seen the eccentric’s lonely island become the very epicentre of enlightenment, the mainland of humanity. Once upon a time, Nelson Mandela lived on an island, and Desmond Tutu was a religious extremist, and Anna Pearce was a madwoman. But this month I will be remembering an important lesson that my grandmother taught me in the months after she died: sometimes being crazy is the only way to be right.