by George Matsheke
posted in Editorial
Headmaster, Mr Van der Ryst, thank you very much for those kind words, the invite to address this combined assembly and a reminder of some of the exploits of our class and myself in particular. Allow me to recognize a few people in the audience here, worth mentioning. Acting Headmaster of the Junior School, Colin Hartley, who was my class teacher in Grade 6 in 2002. To the staff of both schools. To my parents, Mzwabantu and Ntomboxolo, imigudu nenzame zenu zokuba ndifunde apha, will never be forgotten. To my own class, the class of 2008, and to the most important people in this room; the gentlemen in black and gold, right from the Grade 1s here in the front, and to the the matrics (also in the front), a good morning to all of you, and it is my pleasure to be back at QC, a place I spent most of my time, between 1997 and 2008.
I say this, because it is the truth. I spent more time here at Queen’s than I did at home in Komani Park, because that is the nature of one’s experience here. To be engaged in academic and cultural work and the sports programme at QC gave many of us an opportunity to put in place the early building blocks, that have informed where we are in our lives now. The confidence that I take into boardrooms, government advisory panels, the radio studio, columns and many other pursuits, was honed in the debates and contests we had here at QC. The ability to write, was honed in the history and English classes we attended here. And a sense of the importance to confront injustice is something I also learnt here, and at home.
Now, I have it on good authority, Mike Boy, that some of those sitting behind me have said to the men of QC, don’t listen to Ayabonga Cawe, because he is ‘political’ and controversial. Those who have said this, are correct. 100% correct. Unlike many of my peers, I do not have the luxury, to not be sensitive to politics of identity, power and history and how these shape our lives. Unlike the ideal that many of the teachers here would want, I do not have the luxury to not see race. My black skin every day, marks me for many things. My incompetence is assumed until I prove otherwise. Until I open my mouth, my place at the table is questioned until I prove my worth, competence and merit. This is the world that Queenians will have to confront. To starve them of this insight in the name of shielding young people from ‘controversy’ and politics is the biggest disservice you can do, to these young men. Adults who peddle in these scare tactics, are the worst remains of the regime whose effects we are trying to undo. A regime which was defined even by the United Nations, as a crime against humanity. I am surprised that some adults in this space, continue to act as foot soldiers for the National Party war machine whose effects we want to overcome. The verkrampte attitudes, it seems, never die. Aside from this being utterly out of order, it presents the most anti-intellectual, conservative and racist elements that continue to make part of what we call the Queen’s family
The fear, that I will come here and speak politics, and where some don’t understand, these questions will be posed in the classrooms, stages and fields of this school, is a fear of curiosity and inquiry. Surely that is what the educational process is about. As I reflected on what I would say today, I asked myself what the function of such addresses, is anyway. Is it to impart a message, a lesson, to share anecdotes or to convey some wisdom?
I believe that it may be a mix of all of these. Or even more, an encouragement to meditate and reflect on the diverse world all of us are being prepared for. Men of Queen’s you may now be sitting, uniformed as you are in the black and gold, and you are being prepared in a Victorian and blazered sense to be a perfect gentleman. There is nothing wrong with that, however that Eurocentric notion, no longer adequately shapes up to a diverse, changing and increasingly critical world. The problems of 1858, or even 1988, are not those of 2018. Viewed in this way, we must ask, as all members of the QC family, whether educational systems based on rules for everything, rewards based on obedience and loyalty, are what is needed to prepare young men for a changing world with a social crisis that we see in every corner. My view is that only disruptive change, which is not a neat or linear process, will take us to a better place as a country. In this regard we must encourage ourselves to listen, to engage and never be afraid of ideas, even those we disagree with.
Now I may not have the wisdom of age, but I do think there are some experiences that I have come across which I wish to share with the men of Queen’s. Much of these experiences are informed by a realization that when I last stood here, in November 2008, and now in April 2018, much has happened in the world, in our country, in our community and in our school.
When I sat where Mihlali is sitting now, in 2008, the greatest recession and economic meltdown in recent memory, had just started with the Lehman Brothers scandal in the US, which sparked the economic downturn we are still in the throes of now. Jacob Zuma had just won the ANC electoral contest in Polokwane in 2007, and in a few months would become the President of the Republic. It is however, the mood of the time, that is slightly different to where we are now. Back then there was a questioning hope, in what the country could achieve in resolving the historic injustices of our country. There was hope. I cannot lie and say that, that hope is the same or still there. Nor can I say that time has healed divisions between us. Time and inaction, has actually deepened those divides. On either side of the divides; black and white; rich and poor; included and excluded, we’ve retreated into familiar and comfortable behaviours and looked away.
In looking away, we were shocked that the children we raised, taught and interacted with, once they left the walls of this institution, became foot soldiers in the fight for free education, the land and the decolonization of our society, among many other things promised to our people at the end of Apartheid. In 1995, there was a symposium here at Queen’s, in the Queen’s Hall. It was in the early days of Mandela magic and the ‘New South Africa’, and it seems that then there was a greater appetite for dialogue, thinking and engagement on how to decolonize schools like this, which are in essence colonial constructs, never built with us, black people in mind. But now we are in the majority here. What says we are in the majority here, aside from the school fees our parents pay. Yintoni ngesisikolo ethi, sisikolo sabazukulwana baka Hintsa, isizukulwane sikaStokwe wama Qwathi, who fought the British not too far from here, in what is now Ngcobo? Put simply, what scares us about the notion that this is and ought to be a truly traditional African public school? What is it that we need to unlearn in order to do away with such fear? At a simple level, what needs to be done for instance, for abantwana baseZibeleni to stop having to catch taxis after late afternoon practices eTrek, exposed to all manner of dangers in Winter? Senzani thina as black old boys who know, these challenges? These are questions, for which I have no answers, but that all of us need to confront and entertain.
Our parents, as black folk must also answer the call. Many of them, certainly during our time, retreated into their intimidated and distant interest. The complaint was that they felt sidelined by whites in these spaces. Saturday rugby was more taxing for them than imingcwabo yempelaveki. Or maybe I am too harsh, because we also understand that HIV/Aids wrought more havoc in Ezibeleni nakwaMlungisi than it did in Top Town. This the story of not just us, but many in our country. We’ve lost so many of our people and had to bury so many of them, that the touchlines of a rugby match, pale in significance. Bazali bethu siyayiqonda ingcikiva yenu and the sacrifices you have had to make to get us here.
Yet, bazali bethu, we must tell you, that we are sometimes angry. Sometimes the self-same people who we shared the kindergarten box with, outside Mrs Venter’s class in Sub A, are the same people who think we are savages and ungrateful when we want the land our forefathers were killed for. The same classmates with whom we shared wooden desks for 12 years, also suggest and share a message with the world that we are black savages with a political programme to kill white people. That a white genocide is underway could not be further from the truth. What we want is to revisit the norms, values and aspirational standard that the world has placed before us, and say as Africans we also have values and norms worth celebrating and imparting, and those must find expression in schools like this.
Our struggle, least of all for 90% of you here, without land, trust funds or a debt free household balance sheets, is on many fronts. Your parents will look from corner to corner, in every nook and cranny, to find money to take you to university. When you get there, you must fight, as many of us did, who know the havoc that injustice can wreak on family life, you must fight so that those who come after you, do not have to understand the pain of being excluded from study because your parents cannot afford.
As we wage it, we must never forget that it is also an uncomfortable fight for those, whose memory is worth remembering. The College Song, which Mr Van Der Ryst has assured me will have isiXhosa kungekudala, has a haunting line, ‘may a light from the past enkindle our dreams’. Whoever wrote it, may not have known that we would one day ask, ‘which past?’ and ‘which dreams’?
Kaloku, we do not and should not just sing it without scrutinizing it. That past, is at times not my past. That memory, is not my memory. I sit on the other side. Racially, politically and historically. I am the one who would enter the Rec at the Southern Gate behind wire mesh. I am the one that those we remember in the amphitheatre were sent to kill at the border. I am not a member of the ‘country’ they were sent to defend, because that country had no place for black people like me. This is the truth. I am of the people, that the Cadet Detachment No.3 was established to defend the settlers against and keep at bay. Our detachment, is the 3rd of its kind in SA, as the new boys test I wrote suggests. The reason why it was set up, is simple; this school was built 160 years ago, in the middle of the many wars between the British, Afrikaners and Xhosa and Khoi people of this land. The ultimate victory, after 9 wars of plunder and dispossession of the African people, was what made the militaristic exercise of cadets something of pride and value for the local white community. It was a reminder of their victory over our people. It would also come in handy after the National Party victory in 1948, to mobilize for their conscription project, where all able bodied white males were expected to serve in the army, the police and elsewhere, in defence against the ‘swart gevaar’. This is a history we must return to, to understand some of the things we do. Cadets are an example of what Frederic Bastiat refered to as a moral code that justifies plunder;
‘When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time, a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it’
I have said before, here at Queen’s that we must always ask the right questions about what is presented to us as ‘tradition’. Whose tradition? As old boys, pupils, teachers and parents we must make space for that dialogue, as uncomfortable as it may be. From the trooping of the colour to the naming of space to how we engage cultural rites of the AmaXhosa people (who make up the numerical majority here), like ulwaluko. I was glad when QCJ named its cricket nets after Zandile Gwana, for the immense contribution he has made to cricket at Queens after unification, similarly, I was also very touched to see the Lorraine Thomas Gates, a woman whose name is etched in the memory of QCJ, because for many decades the legacy of memory, was an honour black people and woman could never access.
As I conclude, there are five lessons I would love to leave with the men of Queen’s ;
- Lesson #1: Ilizwe Lethu Libolile, from the Guptas, to Steinhoff and the Mark Lamberti’s and Eskom’s of this world. Men in pin striped suits and comrades dressed in fatigues and campaign T-shirts are buoyed by the genuine grievances of our people, and all turn to acts against the same people. Be vigilant. The suits sometimes hide thugs and the slogans often hide demagogues. This is the world you will go into. Be discerning, speak truth to power and always maintain your integrity at all times. It’s all you have
- Lesson #2: Always speak up. Trust your gut, and never be afraid to speak up for yourself, and for others. Never find comfort in a moral code that justifies plunder, or find comfort in injustice. As Martin Niemoller suggested, sometimes there may be no one to speak up for you if you’ve become accustomed to silence;
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
- Lesson #3 Never forget who you are. Where your people come from. Some will say forget about it, it’s over. Never give in. Ungavumi. Some will say we are the same in the name of a reconciliation without justice, a unity without a share in the pain and the spoils. Some of you do not have the luxury not to see race. It was never your political gown to wear. Never forget, ningabantwana beNzaka, ningabantwana bomgquba. You are the children of Ngqika, the children of Ngungunyane, of Nonesi wabaThembu, of Sandile, of Hintsa (who was beheaded by George Southey, whose head we are still looking for), of Makana who was banished to Robben Island long before Mandela, who drowned in an attempt to swim back to the land of his forefathers. We are the children of Stokwe wamaQwathi, of Ngubengcuka wabaThembu, we are the children of Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Your lives, are their dreams in the flesh. Dreams they could never live in. May the light from THAT rich past, enkindle those dreams, as the College song suggests. This is your identity and history, never smother its light and fire because it unsettles others. Also, be reminded, that your task is to fight the tendencies. Racism and unearned privilege, that took our people to the forests, and as Mama reminded us, ‘singayisusa nanini’!
- Lesson #4: It is our task to build our communities. To organize our people. No government, empire or God, will come and deliver manna to us, we need to build that society which we wish to live in. Giving back or paying it forward, is not just about this school with its many fields, cultural and academic programmes, it’s about knowing that Queen’s is not an island, and can no longer be seen as an island of privilege. The people of Komani, this province, this nation and the world, is your community. We must strive to be global citizens, giving our people the hope, confidence, tools and actions to change their lives.
The last lesson I bring to you, is never stop drinking from the well of knowledge. Your smartphones, unlike in our generation, are a treasure trove of knowledge and insight. What you learn outside the class, is as important as what you learn within it. Never stop seeking the answers to your heart and soul’s deepest questions. To live is to discover, and to discover is to be armed with the tools to make meaning.
I have asked and have been asked many questions. Long before my mother, decided to take me to this school. Long before the queues for loans to pay for the exorbitant supplies at Louis Sports, I have asked questions. This for me is the greatest lesson I take from this school, the unanswered questions, that I will ask until I die. This is the task of education, and for me this task continues, but it may not have been possible without the grounding received here. For that I will forever be grateful. Grateful, but never failing to scrutinize the blind spots of this school. It is only in addressing these blind spots, the history, and the divisive present, that this school will continue to play a role as a leader, pathfinder and community builder from its humble beginnings apha eMpuma Koloni. As we approach the double century in 2058, I hope to be alive to see the dream enkindled by our fractured past come to life. The dream of an unashamedly African school, with African roots in a colonial history, claiming its place on the stage of humanity. May I be alive to see that day.
Ndiyabulela kuni nonke. Ndiyabulela kuni bantwana bomgquba, ndithi mathol’anyongande kudlelana, ukudliwa kombona kuchubelana. Njengomntwana wamaXesibe, ooKhandanyawana, amaGxubane ooMbathane ooMatshaya, mandithabathe elithuba lokubulela, ndithi kamnandi bantwana besizwe
I wish you all a blessed, nostalgic and reflective Reunion weekend, and see you all in the many activities of this weekend