No miracle arose in South Africa’s transition from apartheid

We can’t ask him, because he’s six-months dead today, but I’d be surprised if Mgcineni Noki thought South Africa’s transition from apartheid was a miracle.

I didn’t know him at all, so wrapping my thoughts around his shoulders, as I do now, as he did the blanket that earned him the nickname in the press “the man in the green blanket”, gives me pause. He was around my age and he’s dead, for R12,500 per month, which was said would spell disaster for Lonmin Plc’s value to shareholders if the company acceded to the miners’ demands.

At almost 370 GBP per share at the close of trade on Friday, the company’s value has more than recovered from the Marikana “tragedy”, as it’s become euphemistically known. It was a mistake, a senseless aberration, divorced from the predictable man-made arrangements that led to the massacre.

Lonmin Plc has recovered, alright, but too bad about Mambush and the 33 others who died with him on 16 August, and the 10 others who died during those six days where people rose up and asked for their fair share, and got it.

Mgcineni Noki, “the man in the green blanket”

Mambush. Can I call him that? His image haunts me. His head is cocked to the left and he’s smiling, sweetly. Me. A cool, calculating “head” person.

At the same time I’m assailed by an immutable narrative that this country, this Rainbow Nation of ours, underwent a miraculous transformation between 1990 and 1994. The red sea parted and we walked dry land to Canaan on the other side.

Barefoot blanched by fluorescent white light, I look like a corpse. I mouth to my reflection the bathroom mirror: “It could have been me on that koppie.”

It really could. Had my parents died when I was young, as Mambush’s did, it could have been me, the eldest son, on that koppie, making a last stand for wages enough to feed, clothe and educate my younger siblings.

But it wasn’t me. I’m on the other side with the tiny handful who made the crossing. I’m in the promised land watching daily the Red Sea wash away Mambush, Andries Tatane, the Verwaal four and many others, far too many others. And as I stand here on cool, dry ceramic tiles, the sea continues to close in around the millions more pincered in the closing torrent. Twenty years later, being poor and black in South Africa is often fatal, still. How’s that for a miracle?

So whose interest does it serve to promote the narrative, as the History Channel’s Miracle Rising: South Africa does, breathlessly, that some kind of disaster was averted by the negotiated settlement?

Certainly not Mambush’s, whose bones lay in the cold, hard earth. He paid with his life for this supposed miracle.

Apartheid was a system that at its core was about the economic exclusion of blacks for the benefit of whites. All the other forms of exclusion that encased it, political, social and such, existed only to preserve an economic system designed to benefit whites. Had the latter-day apartheid chiefs known that the system could play possum by shedding its outer layers yet keep living without the global moral condemnation and being harangued by blacks yapping on about equality, they surely would have begun negotiations sooner.

See, in exchange for giving blacks political equality, whites got to keep their ill-gotten economic gains, which is what apartheid was about anyhow. To boot: blacks agreed to stop demanding equality in all its forms with the militant urgency that boiled over into a state of emergency in the 1980s. Blacks agreed to accept progressively the freedom they’d been unjustly denied for decades. Blacks agreed that the majority would continue to be excluded and oppressed while a few got theirs.

That’s no miracle.

Mambush surely knew that, which he was up on that koppie, with the cry for freedom that many forgot still on his lips.

For each time the miracle narrative is repeated, and it has been many times and will be many more, another poor black life is snuffed out, drowned by what goes down in my books as the greatest marketing campaign to never be acknowledged as such.

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