I recently deactivated and deleted all my social media accounts. The idea struck me on my drive home to the Eastern Cape for December holidays late last year. I drove down the Smithfield/Rouxville/Aliwal North route. Those who’ve gone down that part of the world will agree that there exists an abundance of land and sky and clean air, a welcome reprieve from the corrosive claustrophobia of the city.
A closer look at those large swathes of land along the N6 reveals barbed fences behind which spacious pastoral homesteads, concealed by clumps of trees, form the core building units from which the fulcrum of small towns like Aliwal North spreads out like a spider’s web.
Mud and corrugated iron townships dart the rims of this web, supplying farms and farm owners with black bodies to command and possess. Wikipedia says Aliwal North was named in tribute to Sir Harry Smith who was the governor of the Cape Colony when he established the town in 1849. According to the same Wiki entry he named the town “Aliwal” in memory of his victory over the Sikhs at the Battle of Aliwal during the First Sikh War in India in 1846. The entry doesn’t mention whether there were people already living in the area when Smith made it his own. Our so-called South African history is a compendium of subtractions and erasures. Our own collective amnesia further compounded by urgency of the politics of now.
This sudden realisation – sudden for I’d been preoccupied with Donald Trump and whatever else passes for a punchline on my social media timeliness – made me think, seriously, about what I choose to subtract from my everyday experience of the world. At that moment I was either going to instagram Umtali Inn (where I spent the evening) or I was going to google it and discover that it was more than 60 years old.
That in its colourful history people of my skin colour weren’t allowed to shack up in its tastelessly decorated rooms that still reeked of 80s apartheid aesthetic. My companion and I went for a swim in the unlit pool that evening and watched the stars stare back at our scantily privileged black bodies enjoying the exclusive decadence of apartheid in this small town where white men still call a black man ‘boy’.
In my bag I’d packed Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. It was sheer coincidence. In the book the narrator, Bonbon, re-instates segregation in a fictional Los Angeles town of Dickens. And here we were in this softly segregated town, no more segregated than the suburbs from the townships in the city. I wondered if there is much difference between class segregation and other institutional segregations. My thoughts recalled that old Orwellian metaphor about some animals being more equal than others.
I imagined there are books that make sense of post-colonies in current global capitalism and culture. I began to suspect that in these books I’d probably make sense of my place in the current form of the world. A world I have helped create whether by choice, by force, or by necessity. Later, I deactivated Instagram and its carefully curated scenes of happy, interesting lives. I thought of Aliwal North and relics like Rouxville and pondered how they performed non-racial, non-sexist post-apartheid democracy. And so, instead of looking for another world calamity or gossip on Twitter during the holidays I spent time at home reading Mahmood Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject and argued politics with my uncle over beers. The internet is bloated with free e-books and essays and lectures and good journalism. I’ve been downloading, borrowing from the library and jacking free music online. At times when I’m in the library reading a novel or a short story or a play (Parentheses of Blood by Sony Labou Tansi is worth a look) I wonder what I have been doing with my life these past 3 years.