Brenda, young Zimbabwean woman & the cold Jozi streets
I am still sick to my stomach over the documentary by Johann Abrahams – whom I presume is South African – and the identified Zimbabwean filmmaker, Godknows Nare, called N1 South: Story of a Zimbabwean Migrant. It was screened as part of SABC’s Special Assignment last Wednesday night.
I read the papers, listen to radio news and watch more television news than the average person, so Zimbabwe is often foremost in my mind, and I admit to growing anxiety over the deepening crisis. My own anxiety has little to do with borders that can barely contain the large number of migrants to South Africa from neighbouring Zimbabwe. Rather, it comes from a deep sadness that Zimbabwe of all places is in the state that we find it in today. It is difficult not to think about the state of Zimbabwe’s education system and economy until not so long ago when cofronted by the fact that many people now earn less than is necessary to buy the most basic necessities, fuel shortages, and as reported this past weekend power outages for up to 20 hours. It pften seems too drastic an undoing.
While I know many people who are divided on Zimbabwe, and that the fate of contemporary Zimbabwe is often reduced to whether land redistribution is justified or not, I remain convinced that this is oversimplistic. As with any situation, what ails Zimbabwe today is much more complex, and the overwhelming focus on one area — land redistribution — is not going to lead us out of the quandary that we are in. We need to continue to ask uncomfortable questions. In
the just need to redistribute land, is any life expendable? Are any and all consequences justifiable? What of the ongoing brutalisation of many Zimbabwans who are not against the redistribution of land so that Zimbabwe really is owned by those dispossesed by colonisation? What self-serving power moves are being dishonestly justified through the language of land distribution? How does the displacement of people in informal housing further the cause of land distribution? In what ways do attacks on the judiciary, including beatings on legal professionals’ exercising their right to take to the streets in protest, further the liberation cause of land distribution? Who are the Zimbabwean state’s throw-away people, and how few are its valued?
I remember Everjoice Win’s letter to Nkosazana Zuma and other South African women in Cabinet a while ago painstakingly pointing out that there is cowardice in pretending not to see what is happening in Zimbabwe as linked to our lives as South Africans. Elinor Sisulu offers regular, insightful and complex commentary of the situation in Zimbabwe.
As I watched the documentary last Wednesday night, then, I was expecting to feel a familiar sense of distress. But nothing prepared me for what I felt as I watched the story of seventeen year old Brenda Ncube from Bulawayo, wandering the streets of Johannesburg. Her search for accommodation, food and employment was frustrated as most people offered little more than “sorry, no jobs”. She could only access temporary accommodation — with friends of the filmmaker, and later at a church shelter. Brenda is a young woman, but she is also a child, really. Joburg is a city of contrasts and it is not the gentlest city to young women — even when they have accommodation, money and some food.
The kinds of exploitations that Brenda is open to on a day to day basis, and her disilussionment by the end of documentary, are an indictment of our inaction and paralysis. I don’t have complete answers for how the South African state should act towards Zimbwabwe, but clearly current forms of engagement are ineffective and ineffectual. The Zimbabwean state continues to mette out violence to children/young women like Brenda. While the South African state cannot be too self-righteous in its stance against state permitted violence against women and other vulnerable groups given the former’s own contradictions, it is time for a more nuanced engagement with Zimbabwe than has been adopted thus far. If anything, such a move should be motivated by the exact same loyalty we feel towards Zimbwabweans for having supported us through the struggle against apartheid. How can we stand by and do so little when it is time for us to return the neighbourliness?