During my career as a journalist, I kept coming back to the same story. Statelessness. The idea that one does not exist unless one has a witness to one’s birth. It is an idea that has persisted through millenia. If I choose to travel and I arrive at a place first, then it belongs to me. Birth of the number.
Call it slavery. Colonisation. Apartheid. Spatial planning. It is based on the assumption that one life is of more value than another. I dress this way, speak this way, choose to socialise this way, and therefore my way is the best way. Actually, no one cares that you conquered a mountain. You chose to do it.
Human beings with the potential to be anything and everything they ever wanted, limit themselves daily. One human being might dream to conquer mount everest. Another will become the richest person in the world. These are simply lives well lived. You have the potential to achieve great things.
Instead, you choose to compete with other human beings. Bored with the mundane, you try to set yourself apart as different. The best writer. Prolific author. Award winning news journalist. Those were my dreams. All that matters is that, right at this moment, I am enjoying my life. I am writing. It doesn’t matter if you think so or not.
Everyone in SA freaked out about the “foreigner problem” when the coronavirus first hit our shores. They are going to make us sick. Coronavirus is going to kill them. No, they are going to do exactly what they feel like doing at that particular point in time. It only affects you if they are with you.
Who cares what happens at the border with Zimbabwe? Do we really think that we solved the foreigner problem? I think we created a problem where there is none. Human beings are wont to move around to suit their purposes. They are pursuing their own happiness. It has nothing to do with you.
One person has stuck with me through the years. His name is Khumbulani Frederick Ngubane. He wanted to be a pianist. Instead he became a number. He was born in South Africa. Then his parents split up and his mom took him to Kenya. She died and he lived with an aunt who also died.
He wanted to return to South Africa to see if he could find any remaining family. That was his mission. His only goal. And he set off on this journey, which will go down in the history of mankind as the most bizarre. When he got to South Africa, he got kidnapped by armed robbers.
He escaped the house in the middle of nowhere and found the police. They returned with him to the house so he could collect the bag containing his number. The cops were too scared to confront the robbers. So they told him to go to another town to reapply for a number.
He did. They told him that his number was invalid and that he had entered the country illegally. But they gave him a paper to help him find someone, anyone who could verify that he was indeed born where he claims to have been born. When he arrived home, the cops picked him up.
He spent time in detention because he didn’t have a number. This was to be one of many times he would spend in a prison cell. At one comical juncture, other people who lived in places he had once lived were called upon to verify if he indeed had a number. Kenya turned him down. No, he is not one of us.
He has had no luck in finding someone to confirm that he exists. It must be terribly frustrating. “Where’s your number?” demands the policeman. “I don’t have a number” he replies weakly. The police puffs his chest: “Then how dare you exist in front of me at this very moment!” This is a capital crime.
So now Khumbulani lives without a number. Every day he lives. Off the kindness and generosity of strangers. He has experienced every form of humanity. Bureaucracy prevails. You only exist because when you were born, your mother had the good sense to tell somebody. Now you have a number.
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