When I approached my 30th birthday in 2014, I could not quell a burning wish to chronicle chapters of the life I have lived and experiences I have had. Thus, I started writing. My desire to write knew no bounds but I faced a quandary. I, being a private person, had reservations in sharing my most intimate moments and my impoverished childhood. At times, I found it embarrassing to reveal myself when well-meaning people wanted to know more than the person presented at face value.
But, I was reassured when I realized that ‘memoir’ means a record of events written by someone who has intimate knowledge of them and has a touch of personal observation as a result. Who better to record my stories than myself? Moreover, I realized that, through writing and talking about them, I would have to confront all my emotional baggage and face those buried emotions that have kept me in limbo. The writing, then, became therapeutic, and as a result, I have managed to internally balance things and once more have the freedom to live life without regrets.
This work will record particular parts of my life. I will dwell on the time lived in my home country, and, in addition, I will highlight the important experiences I have had in the United States thus far.
As I tread through memory lane, I realize many things have transpired in my life already. For one thing, I was born amid an ugly political turn of events in my country, which added an unusual aspect to a life that would have otherwise been a very normal one with nothing extraordinary to tell. Some memories are so frightening I must rush past them while some are not worth talking about, so I will ignore them. Then there are those you cannot afford to ignore as they glare at you every time you dream and they sometimes come unpleasantly as nightmares, thus forcing you to face your demons so to speak.
Memory Lane is full of potholes. I have tried to stop and dig into each one, discovering the important truths about my life. This story is about my journey. But, of course, no one journeys alone. I have had many companions along the way who could tell their stories in their own way. Nevertheless, this is my story and I have tried to be true to my own experiences. I have walked by without recording the most controversial family secrets, deciding they need to be left in the past. Thus, I will include other people while acknowledging some may not be very comfortable with the idea of their laundry hung out in public. As to the controversial aspects, including deep family secrets, those belong to the signposts tossed in the two oceans’ conclave, abandoned and forgotten.
- For the courage and audacity to follow my dreams, and 30 years later sitting with three University degrees and International Awards from various important Art Institutions;
- • For my life that is now on the threshold of starting an international career beginning at America’s capital and being represented by one of the world’s most important Artist Management Companies;
- • For the courage to document my lifespan and share my story with the hope of inspiring my readers, I owe gratitude to my late grandmother—Misiwe Dorothy Ngqungwana (September 20, 1940- August 25, 2008)
Masthathu, Machisana, Ndebe, Khophoyi, Nkomo Zibomvu, Lawu kunye no Hasa (the above words in Italics are Xhosa salutations of veneration to my grandmother’s clan.)
The Political Family
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
My full name is Musawenkosi Bayempini Ngqungwana and my friends call me Chief or Musa. I was born during a rainy Tuesday morning on July 31, 1984, in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. My hometown is located in the Eastern Cape Province about 770 km (478.5 miles) east of Cape Town. It is one of the major harbors in South Africa with a population of over 1.3 million people. British Settlers founded the city as a town in 1820, which provided housing for their people and strengthened the boundary region between the Cape Colony and the Xhosa People. The Colony was founded as a governorship of the Dutch East India Company upon their arrival in South Africa in 1652.
Subsequently the British took over.
My mother’s uncle, Phumlani Ngqungwana, christened me Bayempini, a name derived from the Zulu word “impi” which means “war.” Thus, Bayempini means “they have gone to war.”
You could ask why the resilient name. This referred to my mother’s uncles, all of whom were members of the African National Congress (the current ruling party in South Africa), then viewed as communist rebels. They had been banned as a political party within South Africa since March 30, 1960. They functioned covertly and my name defines the state of their resolve as they planned their coup d’état through strength of arms and guerilla warfare. Hence, I was born into a political family whose norms predefined my early childhood. My mother who is of Zulu heritage from her father’s side, trying to balance the weight of this masculinity, countered with Musawenkosi, a Zulu word meaning for “God’s Grace/God’s mercy/God’s favor.” I always thought this heritage gave me clemency should I need it, and a degree of sensitivity in my bosom.
My birth year right before 1985, was, on the socio-political front, a very difficult time in South Africa. That time period marked the rise of violent protests known in South Africa as the “township uprising.” There were a number of complicated factors leading to this. I shall try to simplify and synchronize them with the timeline of my birth. On May 08, 1980, a committee selected by the then Prime Minister of South Africa, Mr. P.W. Botha, suggested the creation of a tri-cameral parliament. This means there would be three legislative chambers of congress divided into the House of Assembly, House of Representatives and House of Delegates. In this new congressional format a limited representation of Coloured* and Indian people would be included. But, black people were left out.
- *In the Southern African context, Coloured/colored does not necessarily mean black people as folks might be accustomed in the US; rather it refers to a cultural people of mixed ethnic origin, who trace their lineage from various Khoisan, Bantu tribes of Southern Africa, Malay people of Asia and Europeans. In the Western Cape Province of South Africa, there is a widespread grouping of the aforementioned diverse heritages. From it a distinctive ‘Cape Coloured’ and the affiliated Cape Malay Culture developed. The Coloured People of South Africa. L. Bloom, Phylon (1960-2002) Vol.28, No.2 (2nd Qtr.,1967), pp.139-150
Naturally, the bill was very controversial and many did not wish for it to pass. This included white conservatives who rejected the idea of non-whites’ participation in Parliament at all. In addition, this led to a breakaway party, the Conservative Party. Coloured and Asian people were against the bill, rejecting the system as a sham. They argued that their purported inclusion was just a front and that their designated places in the chambers of Parliament would render them powerless. As expected, many black political parties were also opposed to these proposed reforms and argued this further exclusion of the majority race (black people) in state affairs would exacerbate the tensions that already existed. Moreover, the black parties further wanted the inclusion of a bill of rights that would protect individual freedoms against state misuse.
The ruling party had managed to change the constitution in 1983. They eliminated the position of Prime Minister, thus transferring all authority to the State President including the powers to appoint the Cabinet. This move weakened parliament and made it subsidiary to the State President. Moreover, the government excluded the bill of rights from the final draft of the constitution leading to a massive resistance to this legislation and a lower turnout of Coloured and Asian voters. Nonetheless, the inauguration of the new Parliament went ahead and they created the Tricameral Parliament despite the opposition and controversy.
- The bill of rights that I have alluded to is a very important document, found on Chapter 2 of the Constitution of South Africa. The bill is a human rights charter that protects the civil, political and socio-economic rights of all people in South Africa. These rights apply to all laws, all branches of government, including the national executive, the Judiciary, Parliament, provincial and municipal governments. This bill also prohibits unfair discrimination and seeks to protect private citizens as well. It is quite a lengthy document and for purposes of this book I will not put it all here, but you can access it in whole on this website.
This leads us to my birth year. On September 03, 1984, when the Tricameral Parliament opened in Cape Town, it was not to everyone’s liking. There were protests that started in the city of Vaal in the then Transvaal Province (Modern day Mpumalanga Province where part of the Kruger National Park stretches). They spread throughout the country, marking the start of the longest and most extensive period of resistance to the Apartheid government. The master orchestrator for this opposition bill was none other than P.W. Botha. He pioneered this move, enabling him to become the President of the Union of South Africa, thereby creating further divisions between the constituencies and propelling violence. This continued until the international imposition of sanctions on South Africa and the international intervention.
Thus, I was born amid one of the world's most socially complicated racial situations, which had as its roots segregation and apartheid philosophies. From 1948 until the dawn of the new democracy in 1994, the South African government imposed an official policy of apartheid. The races were to stay isolated and the ruling class controlled the country. Racial discrimination in South Africa had begun in colonial times and found its staunch support in the legislations of the Union of 1910, when South Africa had become a self-governing colony. By then Britain had stopped governing. South Africa would still be a member of the British Commonwealth until 1961, when the country became a Republic and withdrew from the Commonwealth.It rejoined the Commonwealth after 1994 with the advent of the new democracy. However, apartheid was introduced as an official policy following the general election of 1948 when the National Party came into power.
New legislation divided populaces into racial groups ‘black,’ ‘white,’ ‘coloured,’ and ‘Indian,’ and segregated racial areas by means of involuntary removals into townships. From 1958, this legislation deprived Blacks of their citizenship. The government segregated education, medical care, and other public services, and provided people of color with services inferior to those of the ruling class. Therefore, at the time I was born, the riots were a continuation of a very long struggle for the soul of the country, its economy, rule and everything else.
When I was ten months old, the intelligence operatives hired a group of thugs who came and burned our house in the middle of the night. My grandmother recalled that they came just after 11:00 p.m. For the rest of her life, she never went to bed until after that time. This trauma stayed with her for over nine years, well into the first democratic election in 1994. “Mntanam, babunzima obabusuku, Kodwa ke uYehova uhleli enathi ngamaxesha onke” (“My son, that was a very difficult night, but God is always with us”), she explained as tears, streaming from her eyes, broke into rivulets as they ran down her wrinkled cheeks. The perpetrators had come looking for my mother’s uncle, Phumlani Ngqungwana, on orders to apprehend him.
Our people referred to those thugs as “impimpi,” which means “traitor.” When the angry mobs found them, they circled them, threw car tires around their necks and burned them alive. These instances remain controversial to this day. There was another group, “Amatshaka,” black municipal police officers who, like the boers (government police), were very violent and would shoot, beat up and sometimes kill their fellow black men. The black populace throughout South Africa despised them.
That night the perpetrators caught us unawares. Our house was communal because we always had comrades or church folks visiting and at times sleeping over. That night was not different. One person died because of the ordeal. I do not know who he was. My family knew him and he was part of the local ANC supporters. “Phumlani njandini, uzimele phi? Phuma sikulindele,” the thugs exclaimed angrily (“Phumlani you dog, where are you hiding? Come out we are waiting for you.”). They could not find him, but, instead of leaving us alone, they surrounded the house and put a substance on the doors, so that when they lit the place it would be difficult to open them. I do not know the science of it, but it worked to their advantage and to our misery.
My grandmother suffered an asthma attack because of the gas and substance the thugs used. Fortunately, the screams inside alerted the neighbors who managed to break the windows to get us out of the burning house. My mother, to protect me, her ten-month-old son, wrapped me in her arms. She had no way to pat out the sparks that alighted in her head and began burning her hair. As a result, the fire burned off her hair and damaged her scalp. She would use wigs and hair extensions for the rest of her life.
Apparently, I was the only one who came out of the ordeal unscathed and without a scratch. That nothing affected me, I believe to this day, was God’s grace and favor. Presently, we do not know who the culprits were, but we survived nonetheless. This displaced us for months, while the municipality rebuilt the house. We went to live in one of my mother’s uncle’s houses—Mr. Koko Ngqungwana. I do not remember him much as he passed on while I was still young, not very long after the ordeal we had.
A year old Chief after the restoration of our burned house in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, 1985
As a member of Umkhonto WeSizwe (MK) underground operations, Mr. Phumlani Ngqungwana along many other cadres carried orders. These orders went back to 1979, when the African National Congress (ANC) had begun carrying out armed operations through a special operations unit. This unit carried high impact attacks on strategically placed military and economic targets, which they deemed to use to support the ruling regime. The rationale behind this was that the attacks would serve to improve the morale of the oppressed. In addition, they would also unfavorably affect the economic sustainability of the Apartheid system.
The bigger vision of the MK was to develop an unrelenting armed struggle within South Africa, which it allocated in small platoons across strategic positions within the country. Thus all the cadres who were known to be part of these operations, like Mr. Phumlani Ngqungwana, were highly sought by the government. Governmental agencies were also notorious for kidnapping comrades who would then disappear, and their families would never find out their whereabouts. This is what they did with Steve Biko, a leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, when they illegally arrested him on August 18, 1977 under the Terrorism Act No 83 of 1967:
Section 6 of the act allowed someone suspected of involvement in terrorism—which was very sketchily defined as anything that might "endanger the maintenance of law and order"—to be detained for a 60 day period (which could be renewed) without trial, this was done on the authority of a senior police officer. Moreover, there was no obligation to release information of the detainees; people subject to the act were at times inclined to disappear. http://www.sahistory.org.za/topic/1967-terrorism-act-no-83-1967
On September 11, 1977, the authorities put Steve Biko in the back of a truck like a slaughtered animal ready for a ritual. He was naked and restrained in handcuffs. The cops drove for 1139 kilometers (707 miles) to a prison with hospital facilities in Pretoria, the capital city of South Africa. As you can imagine, emanating from this inhuman ordeal and owing to the injuries he sustained while in their custody, he died shortly after arrival at the Pretoria prison, on September 12.
In their defense, the law enforcement agency claimed his death was the result of an extended hunger strike, though an autopsy showed multiple contusions and cuts. He ultimately succumbed to brain depletion from the massive injuries to the head. To this day, they have not incarcerated the perpetrators, due to “technicalities.” Under this act, the authorities also arrested a family friend, Mr. Siphiwo Mthimkhulu, who served with my mother’s uncle in the struggle, and to this day, they have not found his body. There are a myriad of stories of such atrocities arising from the act, and I suspect, had they found my mother’s uncle that night, a similar fate would have befallen him.
Later, the authorities imprisoned my uncle in the infamous Robben Island. This is also where the late and former President Mandela was. In addition another family member, Mr. Lizo ‘Bright’ Ngqungwana, Phumlani’s brother, was held there. He was also part of the MK’s* ‘underground’ cadres and had been arrested in Cape Town on August 12, 1987 and sentenced to life imprisonment in a case that became known as the “State vs Ngqungwana and 14 others.” Initially there were fifteen accused but they did not convict Neville van der Rheede and Themba Tshibika and only thirteen went to prison. When the government released political prisoners after President Mandela's release, Mr. Lizo Ngqungwana served on the new South African National Defense Force as a high-ranking officer until his untimely auto accident death in 1998. One other comrade has since died of the original fifteen who stood trial with him.
This is what we know about those times: Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) or MK was the armed wing of the African National Congress or ANC (South Africa's governing political party since 1994, founded in 1912 to increase the rights of the black South African population). Nelson Mandela co-founded the MK in the wake of the Sharpeville Massacre. This is where police killed 69 unarmed people and injured many for protesting “pass laws.” This was a local passport system designed to segregate the population, to relentlessly limit the activities of the black African populace and put restrictions on at night. It further managed growth, and was responsible for the allocating of migratory labor.
- This Sharpeville massacre became the last straw of senseless violence after that, the ANC could no longer limit itself to nonviolent protest. Before that, the ANC had believed in peaceful marches and open dialogue in dealing with the current political climate. The MK’s mission therefore was to fight back against the South African government. Before they began reacting, they warned the government in June 1961 of their intent to do so. However, the government ignored them and there was no open dialogue. This forced the MK to retaliate with attacks against government buildings. Subsequently the government and the United States banned the MK, and classified it as a terrorist organization.
- On July 11, 1963, the authorities arrested nineteen MK and ANC Members in a private farm owned by Arthur Goldreich a supporter of the movement. The famous Rivonia Trial followed, in which they tried ten leaders of the ANC and Nelson Mandela for 221 acts of sabotage. The prosecution deemed all violent and perpetrators of violence and disturbance. It was the trial where Nelson Mandela gave his famous speech. History and Documents Section, ANC Official website www.anc.org.za
- “We of Umkhonto we Sizwe have always sought to achieve liberation without bloodshed and civil clash. We hope, even at this late hour, that our first actions will awaken everyone to a realization of the disastrous situation to which the Nationalist policy is leading. We hope that we will bring the Government and its supporters to their senses before it is too late, so that both the Government and its policies can be changed before matters reach the desperate state of civil war.”
- - Nelson Mandela
I remember when my grandmother took Senzeni, Phumlani’s daughter, and me on various trips to visit the family political prisoners. The first trip was to Royal Prison in Port Elizabeth, where Mr. Phumlani Ngqungwana was imprisoned in 1987. We went there on a number of occasions. I was only three at the time, but I vividly remember the big walls and gates, armed guards and how the prison wardens came around to take closer looks and listen to the conversations. “Lamabhulu acinga ukuba sizokwabelana ngolwazi lomzambalazo kulentolongo, abhanxekile” (“These white warders [guards] think we have come here to discuss confidential information of the struggle in this prison, they are deranged”), she remarked.
When they transferred Phumlani to Robben Island Maximum Security Prison in Cape Town, the three of us went to visit him as well. The last of those trips was early in 1990, as after February of that year they released the prisoners. The Red Cross Society and the National Council of Churches paid for the trips and provided housing for the families. We took the nightly bus, Translux, which in those days was a luxury coach traveling for twelve hours with some stops in-between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth to and fro. My grandmother gave us backgrounds of the cities in-between the destinations—the coastal route via Humansdorp, Jeffrey’s Bay, Knysna, George, Mosselbay, and Stellenbosch. We eventually reached Cape Town about seven in the morning.
Upon arrival, we took a taxi to Cowley House, an old vintage house that was located on number 126 Chapel Road in Woodstock, Cape Town. It was at this house that the families of political prisoners used to stay on their way to see their loved ones. They built the house in 1898 as a home for Anglican missionaries. They were the Fathers of the Order of St. John the Evangelist, also known as the Cowley Fathers. When they left in 1978, the Western Cape Council of Churches took over the building and opened its doors to the families of the political prisoners.
As scheduled, we took a transport to the dock, where a boat ferried us to Robben Island. This was one of my favorite segments partially because my grandmother did not like it. She was afraid of the waves and feared something would happen and often asked what would happen if we drowned. Fortunately, none of that happened, and she asked me in amazement as to why I did not seem afraid of the water; “awuloyiki na ulwandle” (“Are you not afraid of the ocean?”). She also asked if the waves did not cause me dizziness, to which the answer was always “hayi” meaning no, in a laughing mode.
My grandmother was a very superstitious woman among other things. For instance, she did not want us to watch television when we had lightning storms, especially during the summer, a norm in my hometown. She feared that the lightning would somehow come into the house and that it was a bad omen to watch television during those “ordeals.”
I need not tell you that we bumped heads during those times because it so happened that the lightning coincided with my favorite TV shows and I would not have it if someone wanted to switch off the TV. “Heyi mntanandini, cima loo TV, kuyabaneka phandle. Umbane uzakukutshisa” (“You daredevil child, switch off that TV, there are lightning storms outside, they will burn you.”). I complied, only to turn it back on when she went to sleep, even if it meant the volume was down.
I spent a lot of time with her from a toddler stage to well into high school when I was starting to be independent. And much of that time I spent in the kitchen with her, as she loved baking. Of my favorite things, was the breakfast cereal we call “pap” –a traditional porridge made from corn meal that is very popular at home. We added a little bit of butter or milk to it. Mmm delicious!
Another favorite was Umdoko or Amarhewu—a traditional nonalcoholic and fermented nutritious beverage that provides a distinctive acidic/sour flavor to the drink. I poured a little bit of sugar into that and drank it down. In addition to that was another of my favorites: steam bread. I can tell you I have traveled the world and I am perhaps biased, but no steam bread I have eaten since matches hers. Period. At times, I mixed that with maasbank, hake or snoek fish especially on Saturdays, as she loved baking fish on weekends. (Maasbank is a horse mackerel that is an important commercial food fish in southern Africa, as well as the mild hake fish. In addition, snoek - a long, thin, species of snake mackerel found in the seas of the southern hemisphere is also a favorite.)
My other favorite dish she loved cooking was Umnqusho or Samp. It is a dish with several variants but is primarily made of stamp mielies (coarsely crushed corn, cooked with sugar beans). She added butter, onions, and potatoes and let them simmer. She often mixed it with either sausages or red meat to make a stew. Yummy.
I never was able to cook, because instead of learning from her while she prepared meals, I snitched samples of my favorites while waiting. “Sathana womntana, hamba ambokubukela iTV, uyeke ukugqibana nokutya kwelikhitshi” (“Devil of a child, go watch TV instead of finishing food in this kitchen.”). That was it. My chances of knowing how to cook ended there because I couldn’t stop sampling the food.
She was a very strong woman, “Misiwe,” her first name, derives from the Xhosa word “ukumisa,” which means to build upon. Her mother “Malo” had had an unfortunate number of miscarriages and two babies died while they were very little. The story goes that she (Malo) and her husband, the late Reverend Milani Ngqungwana of the Presbyterian Church, known in Xhosa as “Rhabe,” both came from the farms of Somerset East in the Eastern Province.
When they (Malo and Milani) were married and tried to have babies, miscarriages and infant deaths befell them. Upon learning, they were pregnant again, they became anxious lest the same thing happen. However, this time, my grandmother was born a healthy baby, who lived to be 68 years old. They christened her “Misiwe,”—the foundation of the family they were to build upon. Together they had five more healthy children (Mava Ngqungwana, Nozizwe Ngqungwana, Koko Ngqungwana, Lholi Ngqungwana and Phumlani Ngqungwana) until their untimely separation for reasons unknown to me. The Reverend had seven more children (Lulama Ngqungwana, Lizo Bright Ngqungwana, Ndileka Ngqungwana, Mxolisi Ngqungwana and Banzi Ngqungwana, Bongi Ngqungwana and Bongani Ngqungwana) when remarried.
Thus, when I was born, I was raised by my great-grandmother (Malo) and my grandmother, who like her mother had marriage misfortunes in Ladysmith, a city about 187 kilometers (187 miles) North West of Durban, where my mother was born. At this time my great-grandmother, Malo, fell ill in Port Elizabeth, thus my grandmother had a second incentive and inclined to return to Port Elizabeth to look after her. She took the kids with her, my mother, her younger sister, Xolisiwe and her two brothers, my uncles Thamsanqa and Mncedisi who were all very young at the time.
By the time, I was born though, my uncle Thamsanqa had left the country for exile because of his involvement in politics, while my uncle Mncedisi and Aunt Xolisiwe were in Alice, studying there. It is worthwhile to mention that in our culture, referring to your siblings as ‘half-sister’ or ‘half-brother’ is unusual and that they see the terminology or culture thereof as divisive. Thus, when I grew up, I knew all my grandmother’s siblings as her brothers and sisters or my mother’s uncles or aunts.
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