This book, as the word ‘Dignity’ in its title indicates, is a thought provoking work.  The research on which it is based reveals the ongoing struggle of people desperate to assert their human dignity in the face of racism, poverty and dispossession.  The Coloured people of the Cape Flats, placed by the circumstances of their birth in the ambiguous space between White and Black, physically, socially and psychologically, find themselves fighting off definitions imposed on them by society, definitions that under apartheid turned them into a separate race group and fixed on them the stereotype of the skollie.

Jensen examines the diverse narratives of the men and women living in Heideveld, the subjects of his study, who, to escape the skollie label, project lives of dignity in the face of violence, crime and disregard.  In their endeavours, some reach for accepted conventions of society in church, parenthood and good neighbourliness.  But the criminal element finds its dignity in elevating to heroic proportions the negative definitions imposed on them.  This is reminiscent of how African-Americans in the sixties turned around negative perceptions in their powerful assertion that Black is Beautiful.  When Michael Jackson sang ‘I ‘m bad, I’m bad, I’m bad,’ he was asserting not just that he was good but that he was great.  Men in the Heideveld turn their violence into forms of heroism: their ability to endure violence becomes heroic stoicism and gang rapes and abuse of women, expressions of superlative manliness.

Apartheid was the formalisation of a system of discrimination evolved by Afrikaners and the British.  It was a system that they took as natural and when the Nationalists came into power they gave it a structure that allowed for the social engineering that uprooted black communities and formally declared them the servants of the master race.  Though we have had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and there has been forgiveness for very human prejudices, we still have gangs of men; men, emasculated by poverty and negative perceptions of themselves, who in their struggle to assert their dignity resort to violence, drugs and crime.  And the women, mothers, wives and daughters of these men, caught in a twilight world of ambiguities, escape into narratives of denial.   

The gang subculture was not dismantled with the abolition of apartheid. It persists and will probably continue to do so until we have lost all consciousness of race and do not have to resort to fear and violence to gain respect.  But Freedom Charters merely present narratives of freedom; the realities on the ground are far too complex.

28 July 2009