In my never-ending attempt at seeking to make sense of events in the world today, I, as a reflex, regularly look back at the first fourteen-and-half years of my life in South Africa, 1960 June – 1975 January. Growing up in the then racist apartheid state has profoundly impacted my life. Day-to-day living was ever so dramatically charged. Such that, on the one hand, one could but choose to numb oneself to the volatility of emotions, if not traumas arising, and live on disenchanted and detached from the gruesome, disenfranchised reality.
On the other hand, one could look at, hop onto the intricate traumatic feelings and thoughts bandwagon, learn survival ropes, and hope for the best; longevity being a remote idea. Wishful thinking. Although the OPEC oil crunch of the early 1970s had already begun to make its mark globally, this period could easily be seen as the golden years of the apartheid regime’s economic might. The oppressed Black population segment was subjected to extremes of state security agencies’ violence.
Oppression is some costly business. It curtails human resources productive potential growth and manifestation. Atrocious. Oppression will last to the extent that the oppressors’ financial base remains sufficiently robust to sustain the oiling of the oppressive state machinery at all levels. Money talks. Money rules. As it is with South Africa, a country’s endowment with a variety of natural resources that the world is willing to pay generously for is of crucial importance. Oppressors maximize their hold by capturing the wealth of their nations, therefore. They personalize the wealth, becoming super-rich individually and along with their family members, as well as their power clique hounds. At the same time, their nations get caught in quagmires of long-term poverty and international indebtedness.
The Soweto Students’ Uprising of June 16, 1976, would not only change the liberation struggle course. It changed the political landscape of South Africa as well; further weakening the oppressive state’s capital base. Apartheid had to ultimately collapse. Not because somebody woke up one morning and suddenly discovered that the system was in fact diabolic. The fact is that it simply was no longer economically viable. And prospects of any meaningful bounce back were bleak. Added pressure from the international trade sanctions had brought the country down on its knees.
The effective brutality of the apartheid regime reproduced itself across the entire Black populace by default – in the home; at absolutely all levels of social interaction. That to the extent that the nature of fundamental survival power relations dynamics cultivated then amongst Black people themselves have endured. Albeit manifest at even more sophisticated, grander scale, and more destructive levels in keeping with societal management complexities and technological advancements of the times in the 21st Century.
During the apartheid domination years, many a Black South African exile carried along with them these survival power relations dynamics into the Diaspora. Not that it helped the concerned exiles much from the point of view of applying the same survival strategies as generally functional in the township, or kassie culture in Black South Africa. Kassie is a corruption of the Afrikaans language word, lokasie; which means location. Observing, establishing, and maintaining links with fellow South African exiles has kept my fascination with the Black people’s fundamental survival power relations dynamics alive during all these years.
Post-1994 South Africa has also been accessible to me. It’s the land of my birth, the land of my family’s maternal-side ancestry, after all. Thirty-eight-and-half years since living abroad, I returned to stay in the country for five years, 2013-18. As such, I have been in touch with the trends in the land all along. Much had changed drastically at about all levels. However, characteristic personal survival attitudinal attributes have remained constant. I shall dwell on these later on in this essay as I unravel prerequisites for the workings of the ruthlessness of kassie jungle law rule.
Kassie is a funky catchphrase these days. But originally, it essentially implied a slum; not much unlike Brazilian favelas, for example. In practice, the meaning hasn’t changed in any big way. From the colonial era, peaking during the apartheid years, and stretching into contemporary times, tens of thousands-upon-thousands-to-millions of Black South Africans were dumped here. It initially was predominantly male labourers working in the mines and the agro-industrial complex.
There would be a few state functionaries and even fewer professionals in various vocational categories here and there. Much as there would be numerous fortune hunters engaged in all kinds of illicit endeavours; from petty crimes to large-scale organized crime activities involving alcohol, drugs, precious stones and metals smuggling, human trafficking, prostitution, and more. Family units would eventually emerge as a natural human development process, of course. Children would be born, raised, become adults, lead miserable lives, and subsequently die; the indignity of poverty accompanying them to the grave. Causes of death variable, from murder to illness, if not natural causes.
Prevalent land conditions are far from prime in the townships. This makes the construction of decent domiciles a daunting challenge for impoverished people. Sustainable subsistence food production from the land is near impossible. Minimal to total lack of functional social amenities comes with the package here. If there was anything prime about the original townships, it was the potential to induce and generationally perpetuate poverty with all its attendant maladies: disease, moral decay, ignorance. All that to facilitate self-annihilation amongst Black people: kill them; let them kill themselves; create space for more European trash to come to work, settle, and add to the growth of the white population in the country.
Conditions are even worse these days, taking into consideration, since 1994, the influx of millions of refugees and fortune hunters from war-torn, dysfunctional African states to the north. Others come from other parts of the world, especially Asia. Competition for limited resources and livable spaces in the townships has spiked exponentially, apparently in favour of the new immigrants. Many of the latter come into South Africa with more by far international hustling experience: higher academic qualifications and vocational experience in both the social and natural sciences, military or guerilla warfare experience, and all that it entails – daring nature, PTSD, and other related outcomes. Also, investment capital for entrepreneurial ventures in various fields, often starting with small-scale grocery stores called spaza shops.
The latter attributes above are often accompanied by extreme manifestations of arrogance of power towards the locals, who are considered to be intellectually lacking, lazy, and fearful of White people, who still own the land, anyway. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that strong anti-immigrant sentiments have mushroomed across the country, culminating in several outbursts of brutal xenophobia-inspired violence in recent years. Afro-xenophobia expression is ascribed to South African Black-on-African Black violence. In keeping with characteristic basal kassie culture, violence is the first instinctual option to eradicating conflict. Tragedy is ever the outcome that never brings forth solutions for a peaceful co-existence for all in the country.
The reality of the matter is that, much like the Ununited States of America, South Africa owes much of its economic might to the historical inflow of migrants from all corners of the world. As I’ve already implied above, these people bring into the country a wide diversity of creative/ intellectual/ academic, productive, and entrepreneurial skills that contribute to the robustness of the country’s vibrant economic and social advancement in the long run.
There’ll always be a few bad apples here and there. But assuming a functional justice system prevailing in the land, relevant policing and legal institutions are there to deal with lawbreakers. South Africa is truly a multi-cultural melting pot. Bishop Desmond Tutu’s broadly embraced Rainbow Nation nickname for the country supersedes discrimination neither based on race nor origin of the people that call South Africa their home, either by birth or immigration.
From an epistemological perspective, it is clear that the concept of township/ location/ kassie in South Africa was never meant to create ideal, conducive conditions for Black people to thrive and propagate themselves; neither to attain ever higher standards of living in time, in pace with national economic growth prospects.
The rise of apartheid economic might was at the expense of the lives of Black people, both at the hands of the apartheid state security machinery, and intra-Black violence across mainly urban South Africa. Many other Black lives were also lost through fatal accidents and occupational diseases in the agro-industrial-mining complex. Functionally concerning apartheid intentions, townships were supposed to provide temporary shelter for lives destined to be “… solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”
But then again, survival instincts abode in all humanity. People can remain wretched only for so long. If they are not wiped off from the face of the earth, they shall engage in all sorts of means to prolong their existence. Perhaps fate can change for someone, someday: break the bonds of subjugation, rise and liberate the people, and, ideally, live happily ever after in boundless abundance.
In the meantime, at the individual level in the South African kassie context, survival was and still is about ruthless “semphete ke o fete” (Sesotho: don’t overtake me, I overtake you) tendencies. Here, the strong survive. The ruthless rule; applying cruelty as their claim to prosperity and longevity.
Set in alphabetical order below are personal dispositions I’ve arbitrarily identified as being cardinal for relative individual survival and ruling potential in the South African kassie culture of violence. That as a tool for understanding the nature of human relations power dynamics, and consequences thereof, at all levels of contemporary society, both locally and globally. The respective attributes may be understood regarding the identification of the individual as to who they are, and what their social standing is concerning behavioural phenomena observed of them:
Bodomo (street parlance – Setsotsi) is derived from the Afrikaans word dom. Alternatively bokwala (Sesotho), it means stupidity; downright idiocy. Amidst events, act like you don’t know what’s going on. Go about your daily business indifferent as to whether or not you cause others harm in your endeavours; you lack empathy. You are not interested in reason. You are a denialist. You are a revisionist.
Bokhopo (Sesotho) is cruelty. When it is deep-seated, merciless, non-benevolent, and non-repentant it is called khohlahalo in the same language. Rule by absolute iron-fisted fearsomeness. Without exception, anybody transgressing you in any way shall suffer the full ruthlessness of your wrath in line with the nature of the offence and the choice of punishment you dim fit. The line between life and death is often very thin here. This tends to elicit baffling loyalty from your cohorts. Much to the bewilderment of your detractors.
Ho tella (Sesotho)/ ukudelela (isiZulu) is an uninhibited show of lack of respect. Total disdain. You are brazen. You bulldoze your way through towards the attainment of your power or material acquisitions, and other egocentric ambitions. In your interpersonal and other relations in the community, it’s your rules or no rules at all.
Lenyatso (Sesotho) is the root of ho tella and leqhoko, immediately above and below respectively. It means to undermine, to belittle other people. Tools applied include patronization, ridicule, insults, unjust criticism, passive aggression, isolation or exclusion, subjugation; all propelled by jealousy and/ or feelings of threat irrationally perceived or real because the victim may, indeed, be the better person in many respects. The idea is to crush the victim, cut them to size, and put them in their place of insignificance. This is pure mental and emotional abuse that often easily degenerates to physical abuse.
Leqhoko(Sesotho) is provocativeness. Be agitative even out of nothingness just so your presence is noticed, is not forgotten. Be relentlessly disruptive. Cause havoc; be an ass. Instigate and sustain fear. Use all means at your disposal: bully, defame, riot, vandalize, pillage, depose, fight, maim, kill. Ultimately, emerge as the leader of the pack; level-headed and solution-oriented, if only to cow and manipulate the terrorized towards aiding to secure attained dominant safe position.
Mamello(Sesotho)/ Qinisela (isiXhosa/ isiZulu) refers to tolerance capacity; endurance in both hard and good times, depending. Good times are generally no big deal. But in hard times, practice self-preservation by keeping to yourself and your own. Hang in there. Stay away from trouble. Be invisible. Make no noise. Cultivate hope. Keep the faith because everything is going to be alright someday. Persevere.
For the mighty, though, mamello/ ukuqinisela means staying the course no matter what: keep on pushing; stand tall, don’t fall. Never, never, never give up! Never change the course of action once commitment to act in a certain manner is made. Here, mamello/ ukuqinisela becomes an interplay of bodomo, bokhopo, ho tella, leqhoko, and manganga in variable doses and combinations according to the circumstances prevailing at any one time and space.
Manganga(Sesotho)/ Inkani (isiZulu) is absolute stubbornness. Take a stand, be resolute to the very end, whatever the cost. Whether or not original intended goals are attained is not the essence. You are defiant to the extreme. Stay rock-steady as a matter of principle because you cannot be wrong, or you cannot be denied your demands. You are the truth. You are the light. If you are not the son of God, then you ARE God! Your opponents shall declare you as deranged, delusional; but that doesn’t bother you at all. You are mmampodi (Sesotho)/ champion; you rule. You live above the law. You own your followers through and through. Each one of them understands that you are their life saviour. A street parlance (Setsotsi) adage goes like this, “Maziwaziwe, maz’bidlikaz’bidlike! (isiZulu)/ If they (e.g. towers) fall, they fall; if they collapse, they collapse!” It is what it is.
Sebeteis a Sesotho word for liver.The liver is considered to be an organ of courage in my part of Black South African culture. A courageous person is said to “have a liver”/ O sebete. Courage is a common thread linking all survival, or power attributes in kassie.
Ho sa (Sesotho, noun), lumps together the attributes above into one virulent trait: petulance as gross as only an extremely spoiled brat can display. The descriptive form of ho sa is “O sele!”, meaning “He/ she is petulant!” People of all ages manifesting ho sa as a characteristic social interaction trait are some of the most dangerous a community can have. Makings of despots emerge here.
Underpinning the relative kassie individual survival and ruling potential laid out above is the question: O tshepile mang(Sesotho)? Which directly translates as, “Who is it you trust?” Who’s covering your back?
Simple as the question might seem, it is not necessarily a daily conversation question posed in my original part of Black South Africa. The question is profound to the extent that it is asked a person directly, or others are asked about a particular individual when the latter’s negative behaviour defies not only mainstream social protocols across the board, but sheer common sense as well. It is believed that there must be some extra-ordinary qualities, some mystic about these kinds of people. For example:
What gives them the guts? What makes them tick?
Whose progeny are they? What are their lineages?
Do they have some guardian angels, perhaps? In that case, who are the latter? Where are they?
What do they have that ordinary people do not have?
Are they working for somebody even more powerful than themselves? Who are these people?
Or are they just raving mad, sick in their heads? Are they bewitched?
Do they have magical powers themselves? If so, from where do the powers derive?
Are they members of some organized crime gangs? Or some secret societies? The Illuminati?
Is it just because they are too rich? But where does their wealth come from?
It’s only if and when sufficient knowledge about these treacherous people is gathered that concerned individuals or the community can effectively react to get rid of them in one way or another. It’s not unusual that the former fall from glory in the most dramatic and humiliating fashions; those who lived by the sword dying exactly as they lived. Such is kassie life. The ruthless rule but momentarily.
The strong are often the smart with senses of moral and ethical awareness. They tend to survive, break out of the mould of kassie misery and ignorance, and live longer. Some in this category will in time even travel wide and see the world, permanently breaking the spell of kassie anti-life attributes. Expressing themselves through diverse media and creative and performance forms, they may also become proponents of liberty, justice, and equality as fundamental Human Rights tenets all of humanity on earth is entitled to.
Meanwhile, South Africa has yet to cleanse itself of the kassie anti-life attributes spell, to the extent that it’s possible. However, given the current display of elite kassie mentality antics in various judicial and organizational platforms in the country, it is clear that much more work remains to be done at this rate. Well, cumulatively from the onset of contemporary European colonialism in the 17th Century up to the apartheid era in the 20th Century, the mechanizations that facilitated their imposition had at least four hundred years to dehumanize my people and screw up our psyche. The Rainbow Nation is only twenty-seven years old.
Khotsois a common Sesotho name for South African males. It means peace. The female version is Mma-Khotso both as a formal name and may denote that the woman is a mother of a boychild called Khotso. The name has significant connotations. In practice and conceptually, peace is a universal prerequisite for progressive human co-existence. That making for harnessing humanity’s creative potential towards a sustainable, infinitely fulfilling life for all. The South African national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika! (Nkosi Sikelela) is essentially a cry for peace, captured in the Sesotho text:
Morena boloka sechaba sa heso/ Lord Almighty, save my nation O fedisa dintwa le matshwenyeho/ Bring an end to strife and suffering
Were the ruthless and the smart kassie people of South Africa and beyond to realign their attitudes and heed the message of Nkosi Sikelela, the future would be bright for all. I want to be here in four hundred years to gloss in the glory of the heaven on earth that South Africa and the rest of the world will have become. I sit here in a space of relative peace. I breathe. I dream. I write. Ever conscious of the lasting impact that my kassie life background has had on me, I have every reason to want to choose to be hopeful.
It is almost two weeks since Svein Sørlie died on Tuesday, August 15, 2017 in Norway. He shall be buried on Tuesday, August 29, 2017. I believe that wherever his soul is in the grander universe, it is thriving in the best conditions of the afterlife; resting in peace, hopefully. There is no rest for the hearts of gold. Gold is forever; larger than life. Such was Svein Sørlie as I knew him, feeling as if it had been all my life.
Svein Sørlie: my student, my friend, my mentor, my protector. In time, he grew to represent a formidable father figure for me as I strove to curve a space of my own in a land that is not of my forefathers, Norway. With his death, it feels like a large chunk of Norway has just been ripped off my heart. The hurt I feel is profound.
I have known Svein, since March, 1989. During much of this time, I’ve watched with awe how he would ever so elegantly balance, sometimes in one and the same space, the role of a father, grandfather, brother, uncle, lover, in-law, friend, teacher, student, colleague, citizen, and community member. I could never get enough of the warmth and love that, on the one hand, Svein exuded, and received, on the other.
It did not matter whether we were in Norway, or travelling in Greece or the UK; he was ever so easy to get along with. I guess it had to do with the aura of humility and compassion he radiated, long before he would open his mouth to greet people, and introduce himself to strangers.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall; dojo, camping, competitions, seminars, party, home, city centre, beach, everywhere: Svein Sørlie was the ever green, the ever wonderful. An IT expert, a former naval officer, and Judo adept, he was a knowledgeable and wise man; a man of the world. His terrific sense of humour made it a joy to talk with him about many subjects of common interest, any time.
On Wednesday, March 29, 1989, Anne-Britt Nilsen helped me arrange and host a public meeting to introduce Karate in the local community of Blåbærstien, Nesoddtangen. I was accompanied by my first ever Norwegian Karate student, Knut Arild Midtbø, who I had already started to train in Oslo since October, 1988. He would translate my message, since I hardly spoke a word of Norwegian, then.
In a packed, rather small community hall, the reception we received was mixture of curiosity, enthusiasm, scepticism, and outright hostility. During an altercation between my assistant, Knut, and a man who was totally against our mission in his neighbourhood, my eyes fell on a bespectacled older man. A little girl was sitting and playing at his feet. As our eyes met, the man gave me a gentle, reassuring smile; I thought the look on his face told me something like, “Never mind him!”
The friendly man was Svein Sørlie, and the little girl was his youngest child and daughter, Toril. For the next ten years or so, the Svein-Toril family duo would be the heart-beat of Blåbærstien Karate Klubb, now Nesodden Karateklubb. It was such that at a time when I had to make one of the most decisive choices in my life, I weighed my options against, amongst others, the joint pillar of strength Svein and Toril jointly represented for me in the club, if not the country Norway … (Continued in the book: “MACHONA BLOGS – As I See It”. Order Simon Chilembo books on Amazon)
Simon Chilembo Welkom South Africa Telephone: +4792525032 August 28, 2017