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Emile points me to Kriel

A few weeks back, on Youth Day, Leanne wrote a very moving article. We had just attended the premiere of a documentary on the life and tragic death of Ashley Kriel in Bonteheuwel, the neighborhood where he was from.

Bonteheuwel is part of a large, marshy area of Cape Town dubbed the Cape Flats. It was created in the 1950s by the apartheid regime when it started enacting the Group Areas Act and forcefully removing people of color from the central urban areas reserved for whites - particularly the vibrant, multicultural and multiracial neighborhood of District Six. It is sometimes described as “apartheid’s dumping ground” to reflect that dark past. Leanne partially grew up in Bonteheuwel and her grandmother lived there, in a tiny house by the railroad tracks, from the time her District Six home was bulldozed until she passed peacefully, well into her nineties.

Today, July 9th 2016, is the 29th anniversary of the day Ashley Kriel’s young life was cut short so brutally. To many of you, Ashley Kriel may be very anonymous. He was to me too, before I moved to South Africa, back in 2006. I first heard his name in a song by Emile YX, a young MC and frontman of the hip hop collective, Black Noise. I was doing some curious research into local rap music and Emile’s song, entitled ‘Who Am I?’, immediately blew me away. In it, he grappled with astonishing depth and maturity with his so-called colored identity. Since I was myself new to South Africa and still trying to wrap my head around the many nuances that shape culture in the rainbow nation, I was very intrigued by his lyrics, from which emerged a nearly perfect, humorous, proud and unapologetic portrait of himself, his and Leanne’s Cape colored community. In a mere few strophes, he put the finger on all the beautiful mosaic of influences that make up their shared heritage.

In the first, hard-hitting verse, Emile YX writes:

I will not be labelled - I transcend all your attempts to label me.

I am the product of rainbow nation, I Have a Dream and Simunye

If we were truly one, the outcome would be me, a potjiekos of all humanity.

I am slave and colonial, ancestry undetectable; Your current definition of me is unacceptable. Color is a miserable attempt to define me. Look at me and tell me exactly who I be:

I have dark skin, so I am of African ancestry I'm everyone and everyone is me;

A touch of Indian, a pinch of Malaysian,

African, Khoi-khoi, European and Asian. I agree to be, all I can be. No stereotypical box to classify me.

Humanity exists thanks to African Ancestry, one global Mulatto family tree.

Mulatto also doesn't fully define me, I'm indefinitive and therefore truly free. I once was lost, but now I am found,

I have the flag and it will not touch the ground.

No one since has ever been able to so poetically and succinctly explain colored identity to me, then a clueless Belgian with a very warped understanding of the complexities of the land I was about to adopt as my own.

In the Bonteheuwel Civic Center, on that cold Youth Day afternoon, I saw the deep wounds of the past stir buried emotions in a way I had never before, let alone my own wife’s. Sure, in nearly ten years of life in South Africa, I had by now met several prominent activists, and one or two sons of well-known anti-apartheid struggle heroes. However, most of these were now involved in politics, news, the arts or business, having been able to fully take advantage of the opportunities democratic South Africa offered them. They were ‘polished’ and educated and the anecdotes they shared of life under apartheid, if ever mentioned, felt more like historical commentary. That day, though, I witnessed a throng of hard men and women who had been on the frontline of the struggle and still bore today the full brunt of its physical and psychological violence. It was Kriel’s classmates, his guerilla comrades, friends, relatives and peers who packed the rafters of the hall where he used to harangue his classmates to resist apartheid, by force if necessary. Most of them still live in the area.

Before the screening, there were long speeches. Hard memories were shared. Music was played. At intervals, the crowd broke out in familiar but seldom heard revolutionary songs or shouts of ‘Amaaaaaandla!’, promptly echoed in unison by the crowd: ‘Aweeeeeeeethu!’

Finally, just moments before the documentary itself forced everyone into heavy silence, Emile Jansen, a.k.a. Emile YX, took the stage. It was eerie. In a way, if I was there that day, it was partly because Ashley Kriel’s name, dropped in Mandela and Biko’s prestigious company in the 3rd verse of his song, had elicited such curiosity:

I am the memory, the griot, and remember we will. I am every drop of blood spilt for my people I am Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and Ashley Kriel Unsung heroes, past present and to come still I am the silenced slave bones at the depths of the ocean I am the rhythm of life, giving all things its motion I'm more than 600 million Africans victims of slavery The youth, never commemorated for their bravery I'm my peoples’ greatness whispered in the South Easter I'm the prophet and the ghetto train preacher I'm the ancient African soil from whence life sprung It’s me dangling in that tree you racists hung…

It’s that verse that made me want to find out more about Ashley Kriel. It’s that song that brought me to Bonteheuwel. I needed to understand how a schoolboy, albeit gifted with charm and uncharacteristic determination, had managed to so frighten the apartheid authorities that they decided to murder him in cold blood at the tender age of 20. That day, while watching the crowd weep silently in front the archive images of their sometimes smiley, sometimes fiery comrade, the picture came full circle. I understood the deep impact his ephemeral fight still has, nearly 30 years after his death, on the people who hail him as a hero and nickname him the Che Guevara of the Cape Flats.

After the film, I went over to Emile and shook his hand. I briefly thanked him for penning the song that had brought me there but I suspect he’ll never know just how important it was to me, an outsider, to get such an emotional glimpse into the deep psyche of modern South Africa.

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