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My long march to freedom.

The inaugural Abantu Festival in Soweto, 22 years after freedom, is the first time in independent SA that literary black folk met without the mediation of whites. For once, it feels like home.

I first went to South Africa at the age of 15. It was a sunny day in April and I was on school vacation. My now late father had preceded me, coming home after 29 years of exile. And I? I was finally coming to a country that I had grown up knowing was home but often doubted I would ever go to. Every time I overheard my father and his comrades being hopeful, something drastic would happen. The plane Samora Machel was travelling on would be shot down by a heartless and seemingly all-powerful apartheid regime; or the ANC offices located in my neighbourhood in Zimbabwe would be bombed; or a well-loved uncle or aunt--one of my father's comrades --would receive a parcel bomb.

Things changed somewhat when Frederik de Klerk became president. Political leaders of the ANC and the Pan African Congress were freed from prison, Nelson Mandela being the most famous. Black political parties were unbanned. And families that were in exile were now free to return. It seemed we were on course to finally become a free South Africa. When I got off the plane, I did not kiss the ground as my Zimbabwean mother had instructed I do. It seemed too dramatic a gesture to my 15-year-old self.

My father was there to meet me and, still searching for his place in a country from which he had been away for a long time, drove me to my Aunt Nontembiso and Uncle Velile's home in Protea North in Soweto. Protea North was nothing like the Soweto of my imagination. A gentrified neighbourhood, it did not have the shacks and matchbox homes that I recalled from television. There were no Casspirs driving up and down the streets with soldiers inside and the only visible items were guns pointed at people. Protea North had large homes and uncles and aunts who drove and a neighbour journalist called ZB Molefe who had enough rooms in his home that he could afford to set one aside as a library. And what a library it was. I always made sure that l was an agreeable playmate to Uncle ZB's daughters, Nonkululeko and Nompumelelo, because I did not want to lose access to the library that ZB generously allowed me to borrow from.

Protea North was so bourgeois that when my younger cousin Zuko told me after a few days that there was a white boy who liked me, in spite of not having seen any white people in the neighbourhood, I believed him. I would later find out that for all its aspirations, there were in fact no white folks in all of Soweto. There might be some who would come and slum it with their domestic workers for a month so that they could write a piece for one of the national newspapers (possibly entitled "My Month in Soweto"), mentioning how the author might have discovered their ubuntu while there. But it would not be Protea North where they would be slumming it. It was not poor enough; the people were not "grateful" enough. The "white" boy that Zuko was speaking of was so referred to because he was a fair-skinned boy named Mandla. Then, and many years later, being in Soweto felt like being on the periphery of the rest of South Africa. It did not feel entirely free. And if Soweto felt this way to me, the rest of South Africa felt even more so.

I constantly felt as though I and other black people were explaining ourselves and justifying our existence to our fellow citizens of a paler hue. This may not make much sense to my African brethren and sistren north of the Limpopo since black folk constitute the majority. And yet, to black and white South Africans it makes a very specific kind of sense. When a majority are dependent on a minority of the population for work, for platforms to express their pain, these people cannot be entirely free. Minority rule may be embedded in capitalism's DNA, but in South Africa, the capitalists are not only the same race but are often the same people who once directed the Casspirs in the streets during apartheid, guns blindly pointed at the people.

ANC politicians refer to it as "white monopoly capital"--interesting coming from them considering that many of them thrive on Lazarus crumbs from the table of that same white monopoly capital and do what they can to protect it.

But things. Things they are a-changing. Or at least, it's beginning to feel like that to me.

The inaugural Abantu Book Festival in Soweto, a brainchild of my brother Thando Mgqolozana, ably curated by Panashe Chigumadzi, with events management done by Nontobeko Dlamini who left formal employment to start her own company, ran from 8 to 10 December. I remember months back as Mgqolozana and I discussed potential guests for the festival. Surely he should invite our white allies? He was adamant that he would not. According to him, we needed a space where we could talk out our problems and support each other as black people. Our paler compatriots, Mgqolozana stated, were free to come and support and sit in but the people who were on panels and the movies we would watch would have black people.

Mgqolozana was right. When I attended Abantu, I realised that I had never felt as free as I did in my own country since I first arrived all those years ago. I found suddenly that we could now give each other critical feedback on a lot of things without feeling we were pulling each other down, when Lebo Pheko, moderating a discussion with retired Deputy Chief Justice, Dikgang Moseneke, charged him for being complicit in drafting a flawed South African Constitution that failed to recognise the dispossession of black people during apartheid, I found myself exhaling. When Judge Moseneke for his part admitted the failure but disclosed that while there were clear mechanisms to solve the land question there was no political will, I wanted to be the one to force the hand of those who are in charge.

This feeling of freedom remained later as Pumla Gqola and Eusebius McKaiser had a frank discussion about their works and still later in Soweto Theatre as Zuko Collective sang their reimagined version of Nkosi Sikelel'iAfrika, and as Gcina Mhlope gave her keynote speech. I felt I was bearing witness to something very special. I was seeing brilliant black South African minds in one space where none of them had to justify or explain their existence. I realised then how much black South Africans had needed something like Abantu Book Festival to affirm themselves and to remind themselves that they matter and this is their country. Having exhaled, having finally become free in South Africa 22 years after the first democratic elections and 25 years after I first came to Soweto, I am convinced I can now write the stories that matter to me.

Caption: Abantu Book Festival--9 December 2016--in Soweto, Gauteng
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Author:Wanner, Zukiswa
Publication:New African
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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