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Buntu Siwisa

In conversation with Stephen Eeley


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Because of the apartheid system, I grew up in a ghetto where there was an abundance of decadence around me.  I can remember that I used to gamble as a kid, although there was no economic need for me to do this.  But playing dice on the streets exposed you to violence and I saw stabbings on the street.  People taking their winnings often provoked fights on the street.  At that age I was either watching or rolling the dice for my older friends, because they said that I had a lucky hand: they used to call me my laaitie, or “Little One”.  Not that I was the only one; there were quite a number of younger boys who rolled the dice for the older boys.  There was a lot of decadence, and from a very early age I can remember my mother, my biological mother as things turned out, beating me because I used a foul word learned from the streets and the older boys I hung out with.  They smoked and looked at pornographic magazines in public, and some of these people were a lot older than me; around my mother’s age. And from that age, I became familiarised with the gritty stuff of sex. Sex became banal, nothing to write home about.

My grandparents took care of my schooling.  They were supportive and encouraging, but they never applied pressure on me to excel. They supported me by exhibiting an unconditional love for me whatever I did.  When I started out at school I was a real flop.  I was always the second to last in a class of about fifty nine pupils, and I held that position until about grade three when I was eight years old.  But this wasn’t because I was intellectually challenged; rather it was because of the climate of fear in the school.  The teachers would beat you for anything; for making a noise, for doing badly in class; it was not a conducive atmosphere for learning.  I looked forwards to the weekend, and counted myself blessed if I got through a day without a caning.  Because the teachers were not conscientious and were lazy, there was a lot of chaos in classes that were left unattended.  And then, at the instigation of the Principal the teachers would beat everybody for being noisy.  I remember that once I got beaten for losing a pencil.  But I did not complain; this was seen as something that naturally happened and it happened to everyone.

I remember failing my end of year grade exams, and then taking my report home, unopened, to my grandparents, and standing between them as they read it: and they were giggling.  Later I read the report and there were two words I remember reading, written in our mother tongue.  In translation it read “Buntu has fallen”, and I took this literally.  At the age of six I took this to mean that my teacher had seen me falling in the playground.  Because the teachers never went into the playground I was surprised that this had been witnessed, and I asked my mother how the teacher could have seen me falling.  And that was the question that perplexed me and because I could not work that out I never stopped to think that it meant that I had failed.  So I just told everyone that I had passed, and my parents agreed with me, and they never changed their attitude towards me.  But fom grade four things changed.  I accumulated many friends, I was used to being beaten, and I had become accustomed to the environment: I felt comfortable.  I remember telling my mother that there was no reason why I could not be number one.  I used to enjoy reading, and from the next mid-year exams there was a transition and I went to number two in the class, and the teachers just did not understand it.  They complained to my grandmother that this could not be possible and I was accused of cheating.  So they gave me another exam and I scored more or less the same marks, and from then on I topped some of my classes.  But many of my friends from school have done very badly.  Some did not manage to finish high school and many of them are now unemployed.  But then in the eighties there were big changes in the townships.  I can remember that one of the political slogans was “Liberation Now; Education Later”.  So after grade four many of us did not have secondary schools to go to; many had been burnt down.  But I had moved from Port Elizabeth to the Home Lands, and I moved precisely so that my education would not be disrupted.  My mother’s elder sister lived in a town called Alice which is where the first black university was located.  Her husband taught theology there, and he was also an activist.  My grandparents were very influential in my education, and because I had perceived them to be indifferent to my poor results earlier on in primary school, I became determined to prove to them that I could do well.  They encouraged me when I did well.

My biological mother had very little to do with my education then.  She did very well getting a BA and then doing a post graduate degree in law.  She became a lawyer and married, had children and we are now quite close.  I get on with my siblings from that marriage, although there is a huge age gap.  I am twenty eight now and my closest sister is ten years younger, then there is a brother who is thirteen and another sister who is ten.  But I am not very good with children; I’m better with pets.  So when I am with them I really don’t know what to say to them.  I was very close to my grandparents who have both now died, my grandmother more recently.  She was the cornerstone in the lives of everyone in the family: she was the “Big Mama”.  My grandparents had quite different roles.  My grandfather was more of an intellectual and he was much more politically aware.  As an African man he was quite emotionally detached from his grandchildren, especially his grandsons. 

Although my uncle has not done well materially, in that he is unemployed, he has been a great positive influence on me.  He was more like an older brother to me.  He taught me a whole lot of things: how to appreciate poetry and literature.  Although he squandered his opportunities, he is quite sharp.  He taught me liberation poetry and political history.  My grandfather was much more involved in politics but we never sat down and had a talk.  African fathers don’t do that, until at least their sons are circumcised at the age of nineteen or twenty and officially become men.  So my uncle was closer to me and was of course closer in age being sixteen years older than me, and we got on very well indeed.  He was an unusual and eccentric person and we are very close; in fact he is closer to me than he is to his sisters, perhaps because he is the only man, and there is a sense of misogyny in him, just a hint, and maybe this has been fuelled by the fact that all of his sisters are better educated and more successful than he is; I think that he really resents that.  He lived rather a hedonistic youth, and he has not married.  He lives with one of my aunts, the one who has taken care of the family and now lives in the house, or “Headquarters” as I like to put it, where my grandparents used to live in Port Elizabeth.  The “Headquarters” is still central to the family and whenever a family ritual has to be performed it is preformed there.

My mother is now divorced from her husband, but still I owe him a great deal; he was a huge influence on me.  If it were not for him I don’t think I would be here at Oxford now.  I passed high school high grades, but I did not have the financial resources to go to university.  I applied for financial aid, but there were fewer scholarships in the arts and humanities than the so called useful subjects such as architecture, engineering and medicine.  I had been accepted by the University of Natal but I did not have a scholarship or a financial loan and no accommodation.  But my step father was at the University completing a master’s degree in town planning and he urged me to pack up my stuff and get enough money for the Greyhound to Durban and we took it from there.  I slept on his floor for three or four months.  My mother was not there; she had a law practice back in Port Elizabeth.  But because I was there and because of my persistence, I eventually got a loan.  It was a very difficult time, and it was the first time that I ever experienced real poverty and hunger: I existed on bread and beans.  It is quite funny to realise that here, I in England, bread and beans are some kind of a traditional delicacy. So he gave me the courage just to pack up and come to university.  I haven’t seen him now for quite some time.  His divorce from my mother was quite acrimonious.  I regret that I no longer see him because I have a great deal to thank him for, and I mean to go up to his place and see him; he does not live far from home in Port Elizabeth.  He was also very supportive when I went to the bush for my circumcision.  My grandfather was not around, so he acted as a surrogate father in one of the most crucial periods that a man of that age ever goes through.  But for various reasons I have not seen him for a while, and I would like to get in touch with him now. He is a very fine artist and he rejected the more conventional life of material success, and he had very little ambition for worldly achievement.  I am quite the opposite: I think that I am ruthlessly ambitious.  Well maybe not ruthlessly, but perhaps persistently, and that is partly why I came to Oxford to do a DPhil in politics.  I was also very keen to leave South Africa because I had never before been outside the country.  I came as a Rhodes Scholar and I am now in my fourth and last year.

While I have been here I have managed to complete a novel which I have submitted to a literary agent in London.  This novel has lived with me for years and years.  I started out writing poetry when I was in high school.  Here again is the influence of my uncle who taught me to appreciate poetry and literature.  I started to write poetry when I became politically conscious, around 1989/90.  But I first started to write when I was ten or eleven when I began to appreciate the beauty of words.  This was when I went to live in Alice, which is a small town dominated by this great historical university which had been attended by Mandela,  Mugabe and many other great black South Africans.  It was the first black South African university established in the late nineteenth century.  So the whole town had an academic and literary ethos, and when I was at school I can remember that there was enormous respect for writers.

Coming over here has been a great learning curve, because it was only over here that I have learned to do away with the ideas of looking at everything through the prism of race.  Over here I am just treated like any other person most of the times; but I can easily recognize the class system in England and how it works.  I recognize it as a political scholar.  When I came over here I was told which places to go to and which places to avoid: the places I was told to avoid where those frequented by “townies”.  I used to go around with a group of my fellow students who were mostly white and I found their pub life really quite boring, and I remember once I suggested that we should go to DTM (Down Town Manhattan), a club on George Street, and they objected strongly.  They said that the music was “cheesy” and the place was “townie” and so they dragged me to some really boring pub and would not let me go to DTM.  Then I felt that I could not be seen to rebel and go to those places, but later on I took my own line, especially when I discovered other students from Latin-America, Asia and Africa.  I also discovered that there was a large community of black South Africans living and working in Oxford, and when I started to hang out with them I saw that there was a great difference between them and my fellow Oxford students; a difference in their concerns and conversation.  We students talked about abstract political intellectual stuff and our plans for the future.  We could talk about all that stuff from our privileged position.  On the other hand, the topics of conversation for the black South African workers in Oxford were about who got deported? But it wasn’t until I got in touch with them and got to know them that the class divide became so obvious: I realized that what was important to them and what was important to us, the privileged students, even the black South African Oxford University students, was quite different because of these privileges.  Many South Africans over here are working to support families back in South Africa, and I felt so ashamed of myself because things like the fear of being deported do not enter our conversations.  We shared the same culture and language but what separated us was the difference between our destinies.  The white South African students tend to mix with each other and Australians and New Zealanders, not with black African students. 

The plans for my future are all about success and I worry about not fulfilling them.  I want to publish my novel next year and win the Booker Prize with either my first or second novel.  I have applied for a position in the United Nations Secretariat.  I had to write a 4 hour thirty minutes exam for the political affairs programme and the results are coming out next month.  I am interested in peace building and conflict resolution, especially in Africa.  This is the first thing that must be done in the building of prosperity.  You realize after living here and returning to the townships that things just don’t change.  But I have ambitions.  When I was fifteen and becoming politically aware, I used to spend a lot of time in the library in my township.  I was greatly inspired by the biography of Nkrumah, the first President of the independent Ghana, and his vision for the decolonisation of Africa and its unification.  From then on it became my dream to contribute to this vision of unification which will greatly strengthen the economy and political standing of Africa in the world.

I am still quite close to a group of three of my childhood friends: one of them is a medic now here in the UK and we are very, very close: he is treated as part of my family within my family, and vice versa.  I am still close to all of my aunts: the youngest of them is only seven years older than me.  And I have a cousin who is four years younger than me who I am quite close to: we grew up as brothers and we physically resemble each other. 

I met my biological father when I was nineteen.  He had seen me as a child but I don’t remember him.  He left for exile when I was three years old and only returned when I was fifteen.  He died last year.  I never really knew him and I did very much want to get to know him, but because he was in exile there was just no way to communicate with him.  I did speak to him on the phone when he was in Zimbabwe in 1987.  He wanted me to call him “father” but I told him that I couldn’t; it felt strange.  I called him by his name, Grant.  This his English name which my mother referred to him by. By the time she was pregnant with me they had already split up.  Theirs was just one of those teenage affairs.  They were at the same boarding school and my father had a reputation as a playboy.  I also have two half brothers from his side; one is only four months older than me and the other is eight months younger than me.  My mother rarely spoke of him, and when he was in exile she always referred to him as a crook, and that just made me more curious about him.  My grandmother used to say he was a crook, and his friends said the same.  He used to gamble and abscond from school, but at the same time he was very sharp.  Later on in my life my grandmother, when she thought I was being silly or given to eccentric behaviour, would compare me to my father. But he did have a good reputation for being politically astute and brave, and that is why he eventually had to leave the country in 1980. In conversations with my mother about my father I came to realize that she did not know much about him because of their very short-lived relationship.  There were stories about how he would physically run from one woman to another.  And when he went into exile he just disappeared.  When we met a great deal of his conversation was about his remorse at not being able to contribute towards my upbringing as a father.  But there are stories that are now legend about when he visited my family when I was a baby, that he arrived in Port Elizabeth wearing a balaclava because it was so dangerous for him at that time, what with all the spies in the township?  I look much more like my mother, but those who knew my father and know me say that our build is the same.  He died when he was forty eight, and I was very frustrated because it happened when I was here at Oxford.  He died on a Monday and was to be buried on the Friday, and only a month earlier I had returned here from South Africa where I had buried my grandmother who was the centre of my life.  It was quite a shock when my mother phoned to tell me that he had died because I did not know that he had been ill.  I had arranged to meet him several times but he had not turned up.  I think it was the guilt that he had not contributed towards my upbringing.  The first image that I had when I heard that he had passed away was of a horse-shoe shaped library burning down; it was so frustrating.  So all the information on him that I could get was from his brothers and sisters and my half-brothers. If I had managed to talk to him more I would have a deeper political knowledge of all that he was involved with.

My last name, my family name is from my mother’s family.  My first name, Buntu, means “Humanity”.  I was given that name by my grandmother.  Names in South Africa mean things, and express the context of the birth.  When I was born there was a sense of rejection that went with a teenage pregnancy out of wedlock.  And so when I was born my grandmother made a plea to my grandfather and to the other members of the family that they should accept me for humanity’s sake.  My second name which is Sesibonga means “nevertheless we are grateful”.  It’s not a very wonderful name and I was taunted for it in high school, but it expresses the feeling of acceptance which says “he’s here” anyway.

November 2004

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