The story of a lost white boy

The story of Happy Sindane, the lost white boy, who put a lie to South Africa's rainbow shibboleths.

Hillbrow, Johannesburg (Matthew Stevens, via Flickr CC).

A short bulletin in the news wire service, South African Press Association or SAPA, on April 1, 2013, announced the death of Happy Sindane. If you didn’t know who he was (and South Africans are notorious for their short memories), Sindane “made headlines in late May 2003 when he alleged that he was a white boy who had been kidnapped by black people,” as SAPA summarized his claim to media fame.

Until the day he walk into a police station in Bronkhorspruit, in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province, Sindane had lived with a black family, the Sindanes, in a black township Tweefontein.  Sindane’s story, not surprisingly, dominated the headlines in South Africa for a few months. As The New York Times correspondent Lydia Polgreen reported in 2003, Sindane came “to symbolize the intensity with which South Africans still scrutinize matters of race — years after apartheid’s demise and despite real progress toward building an integrated society.” Later in 2003, a local judge ruled that Sindane’s real name was Abbey Mziyaye, and that he was the son of a black domestic worker and her white employer, who had both abandoned Sindane after he was born.

It being South Africa, Happy was the punchline for many racist and insensitive jokes. On the anniversary of the 1976 Soweto uprising that year, Lowe Bull Calvert and Pace, used an image of Happy with the slogan “any color you can think of” to sell paint products for Dulux. They probably reckoned, consistent with rainbow nation politics, that everything was up for grabs in the “new South Africa.” Happy sued and won a small judgment. It was cold comfort. His adopted mom died and he was inconsolable.

Then Happy vanished from the media view, except when, a few years later, Sindane was arrested for some minor crime. The sad news this Monday was that, alarmingly, he had been stoned to death. But to go back to when the story of the lost white boy first “broke.” At that time my friend Herman Wasserman and I co-wrote an op-ed on the Sindane case for South Africa’s Sunday Times (published on June 1, 2003) which is worth reposting below. At that time, Herman was on the media studies faculty of Rhodes University in South Africa and I was a graduate student at Birkbeck College of the University of London.

What’s next, a pencil test? The story of Happy Sindane is putting the lie to some of our rainbow shibboleths. From the start, this has not been the story of a lost boy but of a lost white boy who, as Mail & Guardian columnist John Matshikiza has pointed out, like Tarzan walked out of the jungle of a black village. It has also been about what he is not. About race-marking.

The initial story was given front-page headlines and first place on radio and television news bulletins, and occasioned much speculation and public curiosity.

Then came what was presented as deflating news. reported earlier this week: “Happy Sindane is not white.” That he has lost his parents, that he might be reunited with relatives, is of secondary importance. Happy is a problem to be solved. He must have an identity and the first component of identity, it seems, is still some 19th-century, apartheid-era or primordial sense of “race”.

From the way we are talking and writing about him, it seems more important what Happy is not. That is, not white. And chances are now he will become “coloured”.

We still expect black people to stay in townships and whites in suburbs; we still consider whites who speak an African language to be some sort of freaks; we are still obsessed with bio logical explanations of identity.

It seems that we are still disciples of social Darwinism in that it seems natural to us when people belonging to different “races” and cultures “fit” into an entrenched social hierarchy. When they step out of this hierarchy, they earn society’s admiration for having “made it”. Or they earn society’s sympathy when, being white, they make it back to whence they came and where they, naturally, “belong”.

The way Happy’s story was told by the media (and discussed in our living rooms, on our shopfloors and in bars) is proof that although we have witnessed the legal change from apartheid to liberal democracy, the passage from old to new is not finished.

True, we have experienced a period in which the social order has shifted, identities are renegotiated and cultural borders have been transgressed, as difficult-sounding academics want us to believe.

But although we do not speak of ourselves and others in the way we did under apartheid, the power relations and material constraints of the past have not disappeared.

On one level, the attempts to construct identities that break with apartheid do challenge the fixed categories and enforced ethnicity of apartheid. It would seem that identities are indeed fluid, changing with the social context. So, for example, 5fm plays Mandoza and Gcobani Bobo is definitely not a “development rugby player” who came to the sport late (he went to Rondebosch Boys’ High in Cape Town). One shebeen in Soweto plays only Afrikaans music.

However, it would be foolish to overstate the extent to which such identities and change are generalised. Overwhelmingly, exclusion and hardship are still based largely on race and ethnicity, and these exclusions operate among the previously disadvantaged as well as the previously advantaged.

Race and ethnicity still hold political currency, on both sides of the former divide. Significantly, the story of Happy Sindane reminds us that material factors and power relations still have a determining impact on the definition of identity.

It also shows up the perspective from which the mass media witness identity in a post-apartheid society – perhaps not so much white (since the faces in media boardrooms have changed hue) but elitist and class-based.

Recently the Cape Argus ran a front-page lead story about a white man from a posh Cape Town suburb engaging in the so-called “liberating” act of going to stay in Guguletu township. Why should that be seen as so brave, given that hundreds of thousands of people live there day in and day out, without having a similar choice of where they want to stay?

Nowhere did the article ask his new (black) neighbours what they thought of moving out of Guguletu. (Even though it was clear that this was nothing but a cheap stunt by an average pop singer to gain media attention, the reporter failed to say so outright).

It’s also a case in which our interactions are mixed with the newly acquired values of individual responsibility and private initiative that are permeating our society – but within well-defined market segments.

So, for example, the SABC’s TV news recently reported on the “kindness” of a white housewife in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs who trekked south to pay the electricity arrears of a pensioner. Her behaviour was juxtaposed with that of protesting residents who wanted a more systematic response by the Johannesburg Metro Council and Eskom to their plight. That was shown to the coveted SABC3 audience, while earlier in the evening the Xhosa news provided a more nuanced account of these happenings.

Why all the sympathy for the lost Happy Sindane (who, granted, must be quite confused at this stage in his young life) when the lives of hundreds of thousands of township children go by largely unnoticed by the mass media, unless they are the occasional beneficiaries of some visiting celebrity’s kindness or an international company’s sponsorship?

To think creatively about those new formations that have come and are still coming into being, we must take into account the effects that material factors, political struggles and the inequalities of the past have on the construction of post-apartheid identities.

But it is also necessary to try to establish what new formations have come, and are still coming, into being. That means breaking with the simple binaries of black/white and bourgeois/working class to explore new schisms and new loyalties.

And it also means not making sloppy arguments when race, while far from irrelevant, is not the sole overriding issue any more, but has taken new forms and mutations, or its old fault lines operate under different conditions.

Seemingly, however, unchanged race (and class) distinctions remain our master narratives. That says a lot about our society. Happy Sindane does not need to tell us that.

Further Reading