By Edward Tsumele

Barbara Masekela, the veteran freedom fighter-turned-diplomat, has had a colourful life in some of the world’s leading capitals both pre-1994, when she was in exile mainly in the US, and post 1994, when she became a business leader and a diplomat.

It is the tales she tells in her new autobiography Poli Poli, which is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers about her childhood, growing up in Witbank, that especially appeals the most.

This is because besides knowing the lives and times of the prominent Masekela family, one gets to understand Barbara’s political genesis. It is mainly due to the childhood horror stories told by her grandmother about how the apartheid government disposed many black people off their land around Witbank, only to be replaced by poor whites, who only managed to make the land productive through the exploitation of the former land owners who were forced to work for them for too little or as slaves to the master.

These stories are filled with sadness of how her mother’s people, the Ndebele people of that area and their chief were treated, told to her when she was young politicised the young Barbara and made her aware of the situation in the country as she grew up, especially with regards to white people in general and the unequal relationship with black people.

While her parents were in Joburg, her grandmother Ouma, as Barbara calls her, was the matriarch that made sure there was food on the table to feed the young Barbara and, even sending Barbara’s mother to tertiary school when she was in marriage already. She did this by running a shebeen in the township of KwaGuqa, where they lived.

Barbara’s brother, the late world-renowned trumpeter, Hugh Masekela, was living in Joburg with their parents, and would only occasionally go back to KwaGuqa during school holidays. He left for Johannesburg to join his parents when he turned seven.

Barbara also tells of how her older brother, would get into trouble with the strict Ouma because of his mischief once there, including jumping over the fence of white farms to pick up fruits for example.  Black people were not supposed to enter these farms except for work purposes, but the young Hugh did, and each time he did, Ouma would give him a hiding.

But what is also interesting in Barbara’s book is that through the tales of the often-wretched lives of black people in KwaGuqa, such as her grandmother, a widow once married to a philandering white South African man of Scottish origin called Walter Bower, who died in 1938. When he died, he was in the home of his mistress in Doornfontein. His wife Ouma had to come and collect his body to burry back home as they were legally married.

The point is, through these tales of her grandmother’s, the cruel hand of apartheid and how it destroyed black people’s lives comes through sharply.

For example, the people who lived in KwaGuqa of Barbara’s time were mainly those whose forebears had lost their land to often poor, white rural folk.

As black farmers’ land was taken away forcibly, displaced black families had to either rent pieces of land from the poor white farmer who had been given their land or leave and go and resettle in KwaGuqa or any area reserved for black people. KwaGuqa was one such area in Witbank where black people could live. But the hand of apartheid did not leave them alone as they were still policed in a racist way, including having to carry passes in this mainly mining town.

To make it worse for the displaced, those who did not, or could not leave, but did not have money to pay rent to the white farmer to remain there, needed to sell their labour to the white farmer for a period of time in order to remain on their own farms as tenants.

Through Poli Poli, one also gets to understand excruciating white poverty of the time. The whites that were handed over these farms were poor and perhaps in the same position in which the majority of blacks find themselves today. But because of some sort of affirmative action that the government of the time implemented in favour of the poor whites, to advance them economically, often at the disadvantage and exclusion of blacks, they managed to remove themselves out of that uncomfortable position.

Barbara Masekela, Bantu Holomisa and the late Hugh Masekela

This fact is quite important and crucial to understand the context of post 1994 South Africa and the failed attempt that the post-apartheid South Africa government tried in implementing affirmative action policies aimed at advancing black people in general.

The policy itself was not a bad idea, as it was once used successfully in this country by the apartheid government. The fact that this policy failed to take blacks from poverty to a comfortable position in life, is not because the policy itself did not work. The fact is it worked, but unfortunately the post-apartheid government failed to implement it successfully, and this is the bitter pill all of us have to swallow, especially policy makers in the post-apartheid South Africa.

They have mainly failed blacks with regards to successfully implementing Affirmative Action policies to pull them out of poverty.

“Much later, I begin to understand. Apartheid is designed to permanently erase the memory of that time when whites were dirty, poor, homeless workless underdogs. It is designed to erase that a black child will never again see a poor white person. Indeed, the new laws under the regime of apartheid are legislated one by one so that no white person should ever be without food, a house, a job, medical care or an education.

&Even then, I shielded myself from imagining my grandmother as a child. Instead, I laugh with my peers at their songs, their food, their clothes, their rules, their beliefs, rushing only to adopt the latest of everything.

“In her restraint, Ouma never tells me about the wars of attrition in which the Ndebele Ndzundza Chiefdom, from which her family came, slowly lost their land, autonomy, ways of life and material freedom. She says nothing about the Voortrekkers who first paid tribute to the early King Mabhogo to be granted the right to use communal land for grazing and cultivating, and who with the active mediation of early missionaries ended up making demands,” writes Barbara as she reminisces about her childhood and how she got to understand the place of her grandmother and her folks in apartheid South Africa.

In the book, Barbara speaks a lot about her more famous brother, who she addresses mostly as Minkie, the childhood name she called him by as they grew up.

Barbara makes it no secret that they grew up close even as Hugh left Witbank at the age of seven to live with his parents who were living in City Deep, Joburg, where his father first worked as a mine police before he was promoted to the position of clerk.

Thomas Masekela was ambitious and studious as he continued to upgrade his education, eventually becoming a health inspector.

He was also artistic as he pursued further skills in the arts and became quite good at it, especially sculpture.

He was well-known in art circles, including rubbing shoulders with the likes of Gerard Sekoto and Dumile Feni, before they left for overseas, with Sekoto basing himself in Paris where he eventually died.

When Barbara went to exile, based in the US, London and Lusaka, she rubbed shoulders with her father’s contemporaries, including Feni and Sekoto, whom she met in Paris in 1964, and he was surprised when she told him that she was Thomas Masekela’s daughter, and so did Feni, Barbara reveals.

What is also clear in the biography is that although Thomas was a prolific, even a bit obsessed with making art, he seemed to struggle to commercialise his artistic activities, when his peers, such as Alexis Preller and other seemed to have been more successful commercially.

And this, Barbabra speculates, could have been because he was black and therefore opportunities for success in the arts were difficult for people like him, whereas his white contemporaries did not have such a disadvantage, she argues.

Back in South Africa after 27 years in exile in the early 90s, Barbara made an attempt to trace her father’s artistic endeavour, and indeed found out that his footprint on South African art was there.

In fact, his works were even exhibited at the Joburg Art Gallery, and some of the works are understood to be in the collection of Fort Hare University.

The author seems to have been disappointed by the lack of commercial opportunities for her father. He was simply not afforded a chance to practise commercially and make a success of his art career, just like the Alexis Prellers of the time.

Barbara has therefore not bothered to go and see her father’s collection of artworks at both institutions. The reason, it seems, she is still angry at the way her father’s artistic talent was treated by the arts establishment when he was still alive.

Poli Poli, is therefore a good book to read, especially if you want to know about the background of one of the prominent families in the liberation struggle, the Maselekas, but also understand how the system of apartheid affected particularly blacks going back to the 40s, when Barbara was a toddler (She was born in 1941).

The book is not just about the life of this former diplomat to France and the US and her family, it is also about the history of this country and how the issue of apartheid loomed large in the Masekelas’ lives, just as it in the lives of many black families, including land dispossession and servitude in the hands of Afrikaner farmers.

It is a story of pain and triumph of the human spirit, as Barbara lived to tell this painful story of her upbringing under apartheid. –

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