Below is a verbatim transcript of Shabnam Palesa Mahomed’s ’s talk. She was our invited speaker at the SAWC AGM held on 16 February 2019.
Salaam, Namaste, sanbonani and good morning. Thank you very much to Sylvia Garib from The Durban Review and to the SA Writers Circle for this wonderful opportunity to share a few thoughts after recently being published in Drumbeats from Africa, a vibrant anthology of KZN women’s writing. I am honoured to be speaking here because of the SAWC’s history, its vision and previous notable speakers.
The topic I chose to speak about is reading and writing in personal empowerment and social justice. Writing creates worlds and reading builds bridges. And while this sentence sounds like the clever motto of a really good reading and writing advocacy campaign, it’s my own thought, after the Drumbeats From Afrika launch last weekend, manifested into a sentence, now heard by the SA Writers Circle, and hopefully is a source of inspiration for young and old, optimists and pessimists alike.
For me, reading was an obsession, so much so that when my mother made me put the room light off to sleep, I would use the light on my watch to shine brightness into the worlds of my favourite fantasy books. It’s how I ended up wearing glasses. No regrets there! I would race after school to the municipal library in the city centre, past canoodling couples, and spend hours poring through books.
I had about three library cards (technically we were not allowed to!) so I would walk out with books in my school bag, and two shopping packets. One day, the packets burst, unable to contain the weight of these glorious books, books such as The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, which by the way, was far more incredible than the movie. Maybe you’ve seen Narnia.
Anyway, the bags burst and I stood there in shock, wondering what to do. I was 12. The only person to stop and help me was someone who did not even speak to me. She made some gestures. It was the first time I met someone who could not speak as I could. She signed for me to wait, and I somehow understood. After a few worried minutes, she reappeared, with bags that I could put my beloved books in. Not only that, but she helped me put the books into the bag with a friendly smile. I thanked her. But then I realised she could not hear.
And yet, she was the only person to understand the love of books, to understand a 12- year old book worm. It is a memory of kindness that I never forgot. The kindness of a fellow reader, maybe even a writer. The first time I wrote was also in primary school. It was 1994 and my views about equality and freedom were unpopular amongst some of my peers. Apartheid’s ‘divide and conquer’ had worked well to create an irrational fear of people with different and similar skin tones.
I remember one of my classmates saying “Oh well, when you can’t get a job because of democracy, then you will know!” The only way he could have said this was because he learned from an adult. Meanwhile, I had been reading To Kill A Mocking Bird and Cry The Beloved Country. After a spirited debate in class (yes, I was on the school debate team), I wrote a poem.
Its first line was “People, people hear my call, let’s have love for one and all.” The last line was “We are South Africa and we will be free”. And here we are 25 years later, simultaneously wide-eyed and sarcastic during the State Capture Commission, while Eskom holds us hostage like the terrorists they are. The irony. Let’s hope the light stays on today!
One day, when a fellow student complained to the principal that I had shoved him, more like shoved him back, my school principal was so proud to tell him and my classmates that the poem was exhibited in a museum. After that, I would write in the school magazine in both primary and high school, winning almost every English prize award. My maths teacher was not impressed. Maths was not my strong point, possibly because it bored me, and probably because I could not relate to his teaching style.
Students who did not excel, and who did not do their homework, were terrified of the repercussions. It would frustrate him no end that my best friend sitting next to me was a Maths genius, bless her soul. In my matric year, for trial exams, I had 3 A’s, 2 B’s and I failed Maths on standard grade. I believed I was terrible at Maths. The power of a good, patient teacher is immeasurable. My primary and high school years were interspersed with incidents of sexual abuse. A friend’s father, reeking of beer, my aunt’s husband who groomed me with sweets, my grandmother’s brother with whom my uncle’s wife locked me in a room, the radiographer who touched me under the pretext of moving me further up the examining table, while telling me about his daughter, the same age as me.
Yes, reading and writing was a beautiful world, discovering characters and stories that had me spellbound. In retrospect, it was also a way of escape. It was also cathartic as I battled leukaemia. Books helped me to hold on to life as I went through the depression of tests, procedures and medication. But more than anything, reading was, and is my way of understanding the world, a world with more kindness than cruelty, a world which needs us to feel enough to show up and say something, to stand up and do something, to make our world a better place. In other words, activism.
When people ask me how long I have been an activist, I say, since the first time I experienced abuse at age five, found the courage to tell my family about it with the few words I knew, and then going to school, wanting to protect all my friends from abuse. I did not know the words abuse or activism at the time, but I knew what happened was wrong, and that I must speak out. I became very good at knowing which of my school friends had also experienced abuse.
During my university years, I continued to speak out and initiate campaigns about various issues such as domestic violence and #FreePalestine. I chose to study law, naively believing that law and justice mean the same thing. As some, if not most of us know by now, they do not. My very first lesson on that was when I had read the SA Constitution and its famous Bill of Rights. And then, answering a question about a family being evicted from their home. My answer was that the Constitution protected them. My professor said I was wrong.
The police officer who strangled, handcuffed and threw me into a police van on a joyride, for defending a homeless human, also said I was wrong. I say, when injustice is law, resistance is duty. Activism. Undoubtedly, the writing and reading of books by authors and poets who inspire us to be kind, who motivate us to say and do something when we see or hear injustice, who provoke us to join marches, start boycotts and create art that speaks to social justice, are as necessary to life as breathing.
These authors and poets, like me, are activists. We use the written word to plant seeds for reflection, till the soil of unity, and fan the flames of empowerment, revolution rooted in the idea that silence is betrayal, silence is consent. Martin Luther King I, did not consent to the recent murder of DUT student Mlungisi Madonsela, who was shot three times in the back by a private ‘security’ guard, while running away. The reactions on social media were heartening, but often horrific. This is a poem I wrote for him, and us:
They SHOT him!
They shot him in his BACK.
They shot him in his back, while he was running AWAY.
In his back, THREE times,
While he was running away, in FEAR
from the VIOLENCE of poverty in our country.
He was shot mercilessly, 3 times,
Metal ripping through hopeful flesh and bone,
Angry metal paid for by you and me,
our parents and our children’s children,
Icy hot metal with OUR names forever engraved
In scarlet blood. Blood, blood EVERYWHERE.
A poor boy running away from poor men,
Poor men with big guns and robot bodies,
Robotic minds, trained to kill and suppress,
Unleashed on youth, dying to LEARN, and learning to DIE.
They heard LIVE gunshots from death guns,
Not tear gas adding to generational tears,
Not grenades that stun, and stun and stun
They were stunned alright… taught ANOTHER ironic lesson,
again, outside class, like 1976 Reloaded,
by hired death guns owners and expensive Apartheid Casspirs
In South Africa, in Iraq, in the DRC, in Palestine
WELCOME to the military industrial complex! His friends thought he fainted, starving in Durban heat,
They turned around and saw that he was shot,
Shot in the back as he was RUNNING away
No ambulance, no time to wait, or hesitate,
But a car stopped, one human stopped. The hospital did not help him, because, um, WHO will pay the enormous BILL?
His heart stopped, it gave up. Our hearts broke when the news broke.
I wonder if Mlungisi knew, that morning when his eyes opened, that yesterday would be his last.
Rest in power with Kalushi, and Mama Fatima, and COUNTLESS more.
Senzeni na? Where to from here MZANSI?
How many MORE will be treated like traitors,
through their aching backs, empty stomachs, gifted heads, bleeding hearts, and their very souls?
Punished for dreaming of a better life for their families. How bloody DARE they!?
Families who slave as domestics and garden ‘boys’ to send their beloved child to learn,
Depressed, broken, bloodied and dead bodies come back to haunt them, to haunt us into waking up.
The Revolution will not be televised. The media will teach us to hate them.
So talk to us about voting for more abuse, when the political system is DESIGNED to oppress?
Maybe, at the NEXT protest,
the Constitution should be used as a body armour.
Section 29 is the shield. Is it not?
We STAND: ‘Everyone has the right to further education, which the state MUST make progressively available and accessible’.
Don’t talk about reasonable, when the rot of corruption stifles our dreams as a nation.
A future where little Michael Komapes don’t DROWN in pit latrines built by elitist shit,
And Driehoek Hoerskool children are not CRUSHED to death and disabled for LIFE.
MAYBE then Weapons of Mass Destruction won’t massacre young dreams,
And homeless dreams,
And the dreams of a non-existent middle class.
Yes, that means YOU.
Maybe then, monsters won’t profit off daily suffering and privatise service delivery trauma
Maybe THEN we can walk with dignity, and not RUN like the enemy. Maybe.
The Long March to Freedom Continues. ©
Activist writers are many. There are as many fiction as non-fiction. Maybe we just don’t realise it. The fiction activist writer who comes to mind, and we can list others during discussion, is Afghani author, Khaled Husseini, for exquisitely threading into his stories horrific issues children and women face.
Non-fiction activist writers and poets are easier to think of. Some wrote fiction too. Arundhati Roy. Angela Davis. Naomi Klein. Alice Walker. Maya Angelou. Nadine Gordimer. Chimama Ngozi Adichie. Chinua Achebe. Ngugi Wa Thiongo. Wole Soyinka. Susan Abulhawa. Lama Khater who is in an Israeli jail. Edward Said. Rafeef Ziadeh with her poem We Teach Life Sir! Let’s talk about more names later.
Tragically, most of us growing up were not exposed to any of these writers. Our colonised curriculums introduced us only to Eurocentric/American writing, and embedded the dehumanising belief that the best writers in our world look a certain way and speak one language, thus depriving us of a universe.
Writing takes courage. Whether you are writing for the first or 50th time, or you are writing about your life, or you are writing hoping it will spark change. Breme Brown, the author says “The root of the word courage is cor – the Lafin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definifion than it does today. Courage originally meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart. Over fime, this definifion has changed, and today, courage is more synonymous with being heroic. Heroics is important and we certainly need heroes, but I think we lost touch with the idea that speaking honestly and openly about who we are, about what we’re feeling, and about our experiences (good and bad) is the definifion of courage. Heroics is often about putting our life on the line. Ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line. In today’s world that’s extraordinary.”
Extraordinary indeed. My beloved grandmother was extraordinarily courageous. She could read and write very little, but she made sure her children and grandchildren had a better education than her. Her basic reading and writing skills did not cower her. While poor herself, she would still run food gardens for the poor, she would harass the municipality until they installed a bannister so old people could walk the stairs at the block of council flats transferred to her name only a year before she passed, and she would speak on behalf of people who had no idea how to get home affairs to help them. She told the most amazing stories, stories that would come to life before you. If she was a writer, she would have inspired people, she would have challenged the abuse of power, she would have been dangerous. She was an activist. In the few weeks before she passed, I was telling her about a refugee I was working with. And her words to me ring crystal clear, even now two years after her passing. “Fight for Justice”. I will, I must, always do that. With reading and writing, with art and poetry, with my radio show and my legal knowledge, with my love of protesting on the ground and being able to read posters that say The power of the people is stronger than people in power, with our humanness/ubuntu. You see, acfivism is the rent we pay for living on this planet, said the activist writer, Alice Walker.
Let’s talk about literary activism. Arisa White says “Different literary works open us to different states of consciousness. We are refreshed and our viewpoint expands, and that expansion is what leads to innovafive thinking. We need to exercise the imaginafion if we are to be acfive collaborators in solving the problems that face us today. And as writers, we must do the constant work of making sure we are not forwarding the agenda of master narrafives, personally and in our creafive and professional lives.
Do what you are capable of doing to change the literary landscape, however big or small, in ways you can sustain, with the resources available to you. When you teach, inject your syllabuses with new voices, invite more emerging writers to your reading series, start a blog where you interview writers who are impacfing the lives around you, mentor a (young) writer, parficipate and support organisafions that are doing the work of calling out disparifies or creafing spaces that bring marginalized voices to the centre. Essenfially, make literature a catalyst for acfivafing your potenfial, for going into the realms you fear, for making the silenced heard. Reading does not need to be a narcissisfic pursuit, but a means to reflect on aspects of our humanity that we’ve neglected.”
Reading and writing are powerful mediums for personal empowerment and social justice. We are at a beautiful and tumultuous time in history. Whatever you are passionate about encouraging or stopping, in our city, our country, or globally, I hope you will use your powers of reading and writing to do on the ground, online and especially in the powerful social media space. This tiny planet with big problems needs writers and readers. You matter. Your life matters. All lives matter. I leave you with this advice. Ask yourself daily what kinds of power do words really have? What does it mean to be a writer-activist? How can each of us use our writing to push for social change?
- Shabnam Palesa Mohamed is an activist, former journalist, writer, cartoonist, public speaker, media commentator, attorney and manager at the Centre for Fine Art, Animation and Design. She served two terms on the board of the Advice Desk for the Abused, having come out publicly about both childhood abuse and domestic violence that she experienced. In 2007, she was diagnosed with and defeated a rare form of leukaemia, which has given her even greater motivation to live a life of service and empowerment. In 2012, she formed the Stand UP! Foundation, which focused on teaching people their rights and potential roles, and the tools they can use to advance individual or collective rights locally and globally. She was honoured with the inaugural Lady Fatima Activist Award for empowering children and women, as well as the 2018 Woman of Wonder Award, both of which she dedicates to her mother and grandmother.