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:
1.WHITE
2.NON-WHITE
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.


3 comments:

  1. I very much enjoyed reading this article, and I've shared it on Google+. I found it thought provoking, and interesting, on a number of subjects. As I've said in my post on G+, I would like to think that at some point in the future perhaps those stories of people, those cases recorded by your grandmother, could be properly published for people to read about. History should not just be written by the victors, but by all of those who took part in it. Otherwise, the only stories to be remembered will all come from a single point of view, and that would be a great loss.

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  2. Great story, well told. As a fellow madwoman grandmother (but one who has been medicated with Lithium to calm sensibility) I kind of envy the Anna of this story. I admire her hugely.

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  3. great post, ur amazing i saw ur post on fb this morning screen shots of it all over the net lol ur real, respect. And thebottom line about furiously pleasurin urself to their profile pics had me in stiches loool
    Stay in touch , visit me at http://its-dominica.blogspot.co.uk/ takecare x

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