The Breath That Connects Us

Featured Artwork: Feroze Alam

grey-line-png-6

In the same week that George Floyd was so callously killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, I attended a webinar celebrating Africa Month and what it meant to be African. Right here in South Africa, a country that carries the heavy legacy of colonialism, slavery, and apartheid, is irrefutable, scientific evidence that we are all one.

The Cradle of Humankind, a World Heritage site about 50km outside of Johannesburg, contains some of the world’s most important fossil deposits. According to the official website, this is the place where our collective umbilical cord is buried, our connection to each other firmly established long before we were black and white, slave master and enslaved, civilised and uncivilised. It was here that we learned to live, to create, to share stories, to make meaning of who we are and looked up at the stars, one with the earth, destined to become homo sapiens (wise men).

When Europeans conquered, colonised, plundered and oppressed Africa they could not have recognised this as a place that they belonged to, they could not have seen any connection to fellow humans. And if they caught a small glimmer, they must have worked all the more determinedly to distance themselves from it. Derek Chauvin could not have felt any connection to George Floyd as a fellow human being, he saw only his blackness when he could not breathe. And yet, we all started out in the same place, connected by the same breath.

The webinar was an affirmation of what I have written about in my thesis as I tried to make sense of my own life and what it meant to be classified into apartheid boxes. The message, though, was all the more poignant coming in the wake of the killing of not only George Floyd, but Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, the latest in a long list of names. I feel a visceral connection to events unfolding in the USA, having spent two weeks last October on a Freedom Riders’ trip in the South with a group of post-graduate students from the University of Pretoria. The trip was a harrowing walk through apartheid. I wept in Montgomery, Birmingham, and in the courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi where Emmett Till’s murderers were acquitted. Perhaps most valuable was realising how connected our history was to that of the USA; segregation and apartheid winding its way back to global colonisation and slavery.

The New World was built on slavery; the race by colonial powers for God, gold, and glory, justifying the mass enslavement of black bodies, stripping them of their identity, their culture and any connection to their home or family, until they became objects, a source of labour. This stereotyping of black bodies as less than human continues to inform the present, in both the USA and South Africa, and is so deeply entrenched that the whole system needs a complete overhaul. Waves of protest have characterised the struggles in both countries, followed by brutal repression. This time it seems different. This time, we were all watching as George Floyd took his last breath. This time, our ability to breathe is being threatened by a virus that knows no borders of colour, class or culture. It has forced us to sit up and take notice of what is important.

As the ripples reach our shores, in the third month of a lockdown, we are commemorating Youth Month when young people in South Africa were mowed down as they stood up against the apartheid regime on 16 June 1976. Whether we like it or not, COVID-19 is bringing us together. It is ironic that, while practising social distancing, wearing masks to hide our noses and mouths, our eyes are free to connect with each other on a deeper level. Our survival and ability to beat this pandemic depends on this empathetic connection. And what Africa offers us is proof that we are connected. This time, I am daring to hope that we can overcome.