SANDILE MEMELA | Error of handing freedom keys to returnees proves oppressive

Robben Island.
Robben Island.
Image: 123RF/mdmworks

The fault is neither in the land nor in the deep blue seas. Our biggest weakness is that we have no confidence in ourselves. In fact, we gave up on ourselves. 

Thus, we lost the spirit of self-determination. Over the last three decades with the unbanning of the so-called liberation movements, release of some political prisoners and return of exiles, since 1990, we do not think for ourselves. 

We are frightened by our own thoughts. It is this lack of courage to be true to ourselves – and not neo-apartheid conditioning – that keeps us as willing underlings in economic enslavement. We have always looked for a messiah, for someone like a father-figure to make things happen for us; to solve our problems. 

Think Nelson Mandela. Robert Sobukwe and Steve Biko. Above all, think of Our Father. Think of white paternalism. We always have placed our fate and future in the hands of others, including ex-prisoners and former exiles, men and women who had become strangers to this land. 

They came back home with an unparalleled sense of entitlement. Like minions, we heaped praise on them as our saviours and watched with gormless glee as they assumed airs. 

When they came back, they did not quite understand the dynamics, the changed relations between the oppressor and oppressed. Worse, they were neither prepared nor ready for the changes that were taking place here, at home. 

Actually, we mistook them for leaders. We did not ask ourselves why they did not stand up for their convictions, their ideals, and principles. We never asked each one of them, what did YOU actually do to liberate this country

Even though we know that a substantial number of them spent their days far from the trenches, we failed to ask them how this contributed to the liberation of the country. What we know is that we who stayed behind to faced more than just the teargas, rubber bullets and the defiance on our faces as we, increasingly, refused to collaborate in our oppression. 

We had moved from challenge to confrontation. From the 20,000 or so who left the country, we never separated the “criminal exiles” from the “political exiles.” We never separated the “education exiles” from those who actually trained to be soldiers and partook in the handful of missions carried out in the country. 

We allowed the children of true exiles to assume the status of exiles when in essence they were mere appurtenances. Oh, yes. Only around 20,000 people left the country in that period of the much-vaunted liberation struggle. It is just another lie to give credence to African countries that allegedly hosted SA in difficult times. 

We have allowed ourselves to be defined by others. Looking back, many were cowards. Not all were cowards, though. Some were, amagwala. They left the motherland in pursuit of self-interest, better opportunities that led deeper into the mind of the colonialists. 

When they came back, we played small, were self-effacing upon their return. We called it Ubuntu. We forgot that we had stayed here, to fight, to defy prison and exile and death. Yes, we were willing to die for the land, for economic liberation and the right to be ourselves. 

Our playing small and humble is what has brought us here. We are in the political wilderness, now. That is where we are, abandoned. 

There was absolutely nothing heroic or legendary about giving former exiles and ex-prisoners keys to leadership and power. It was a mistake. But we wanted to welcome them back home. 

What we displayed at that point was self-betrayal. We manifested lack of self confidence and belief in ourselves. None but ourselves could find solutions to our problems. [But] we betrayed our ideals and principles; and the aspirations and hopes for the future. Our desire to be counted among the returnees gave them permission to do as they please. We encouraged the politics of proximity to fester. Be part of “something”, so as to benefit. 

Everything is in the hands of the leaders, now. After 30 years or so, they do not know what they are doing, still. Thus we are the most unequal society on earth.

But, in the words of Langston Hughes, this is a sore that has festered. It just running at the moment. Will it explode?

Memela is a writer, cultural critic and public servant 

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