Friday, May 2, 2008

First Class Lives, Second Class lives

My wife and I were out to lunch today, a rare but happy event - we don't get much time together to chat, and it's a real treat. Today we discussed the recent news from Zimbabwe that the electoral commission had announced the result of the presidential vote. More votes for Tvsangirai than for Mugabe, but not enough votes for the former to instal him as President unchallenged. So a "run-off" election is called for, and everyone suspects that Mugabe's ruling party will disrupt it, so that the vote goes the old man's way and he gets another presidential term of office.

My wife Berlina is something of a veteran in African politics, as she grew up in colonial Africa and witnessed the transition from subject-state to independent nation. Zambia's transition was not painless, but the Freedom Struggle (it is usually dignified with capital letters) for Zambian independence was relatively bloodless: a "copper revolution" one might call it, as Zambia is copper-rich, heavily industrialised and had a well-developed and muscular Trade Union movement, linked to a nascent labour movement in South Africa.

Berlina was a young working woman well before 1964 when Zambia 'threw off the colonial yoke', took an intelligent interest in the 'struggle', and knew many of the young political activists on the Copperbelt where she worked as a Medical Assistant in a Mine Hospital. Many of these were black Rhodesians, as Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was/is the Southern neighbour of Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia) and both were, for a while, members of the ill-fated "Federation" of the two Rhodesias and Nyasaland, all contiguous and sharing tribal peoples, rivers, roads and railways.

Berlina's part in the struggle was typical of her: she pushed the boundaries of what was possible in a country, her birthplace and homeland, where she had no voting rights, no rights of assembly, and no right of access to a shop in the High Street through its front door. Africans were permitted to make purchases from "white" shops, usually termed "First Class" shops, but had to knock at a specially designated hatch at the back of the shop in the back-alley for attention. If attention was forthcoming, they asked for what they wanted, paid their money, and received the goods through the hatch. Africans could otherwise make their purchases in the Second Class Trading Area, from designated Second Class shops. Africans were allowed to enter these shops off the Second Class sidewalk.

Berlina flouted these rules. She had a favourite shop, Vennie Myers, selling High Couture to First Class Ladies (at first class prices). She could see what she wanted through the window, but wanted to try things on (as women usually like to do). So she went in through the forbidden entrance and asked to try things on. She was not challenged about this breach of "petty apartheid", possibly because Vennie Myers was a Jew and knew what it felt like to be treated as less than a full human being, maybe because she liked women with style to appreciate her designs (Berlina did and still loves lovely well-made clothes); maybe she needed the custom.

Berlina also ventured, illegally, to the "First Class" cinema, ate in "First Class" restaurants, rented a "First Class" telephone, took a "First Class" driving test, and otherwise aspired to a First Class status in a country in which everything First Class had been appropriated by the colonial masters and mistresses of the time for themselves. You might say she called their bluff, and they didn't have the courage of their First Class convictions. She makes no comment herself, and she holds no grudges, feels no resentments. But I see her exulting in the freedom she won, and I exult in her happiness too.

The rest, of course, is history. But history is still in the making: in Africa, in Zimbabwe, in Kenya, in Angola, in Darfur.. and this is where I must pick up the threads of our lunch-time conversation again when I resume....(to be continued)

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