The year of Elaine Salo

Elaine Salo, who died on August 13, 2016, had done the hard work of liberation and engaged head-on with the limits and promises of the new South Africa.

Elaine Salo, right, and Zackie Achmat, in Muizenberg, Cape Town, circa 2003. Photo: Sean Jacobs

It is very difficult to write or speak about Elaine Salo in the past tense. I first met Elaine in the mid-1990s.  I’ve gone back and forth in my mind about how we met, but I can’t quite recall when and where. In retrospect I’m surprised we had not met earlier. As someone else wrote about Elaine: “It is only a little hyperbole to say that Elaine knew everyone and everyone knows her.”

We had both studied at the University of Cape Town, though she preceded me by several years. She was born in Kimberley in what is now the Northern Cape province, but for me she was so much a representative of Cape Town, the city of my birth. It was like we knew each other all along. The familiarity came from the cadences in her voice, her smatterings of Afrikaans, how she reminded me of my five sisters, or her research on Manenberg where one of my grandmothers briefly lived after being forcibly removed from Kirstenbosch below Table Mountain.

I still remember once, in the early 2000s, while I was still a graduate student, and tasked with recording a conversation between Elaine and the gay rights and AIDS activist Zackie Achmat, about sexual politics in Southern Africa. It was for the Cape Town arts and politics journal, Chimurenga. The interview happened at Zackie’s house in Muizenberg and was later published as “Black Gays and Mugabes.” I was suppose to interview Zackie and Elaine, but ended up mostly watching and listening as these two intellectuals sparred effortlessly, mixing humor, insight, history, cultural politics and solidarity.

It was a lesson in political engagement.

But I should have known: Elaine came from that generation of activists who had done the hard work of liberation, but now didn’t shy away from engaging head-on with the limitations and promises of the new South Africa.

An outstanding quality of Elaine was that she was unapologetic about the people and places where she was from, including identifying with the people she studied as subjects.

At the turn of the century, I moved away from South Africa to New York City, so I saw less of Elaine. When we did see each other however– at conferences mostly, or when I visited Cape Town — our conversations picked up where we had last left off. Elaine still had so many plans for research she wanted to do: on water politics, sanitation, the racial geography of Cape Town, the moral economy of Manenberg. She talked about books she wanted to edit, articles she wanted to write and conferences she still had to go to.

The last time I saw her was last January at an outdoors restaurant in Plumstead, a suburb to the south of Cape Town’s city center. We met for breakfast. Her husband Colin was there too, along with their daughter. They were visiting family. Elaine insisted that my then-10 year-old daughter–curious, a tween, bookworm, fidgety, bright, and anxious at all the unfamiliarity of the city–should meet hers. She thought that they would immediately recognize one another. Elaine was right.

I grew up in one of the dormitory townships of the Cape Flats and it is on that world — one where Elaine cut her teeth as an activist and later as an academic —around which we connected the most: The politics, the hypocrisy of the city’s governing classes and its middle classes, both white and brown, and the potentials — hidden in plain sight — of Cape Town’s very poor black and coloured residents. Elaine’s research work was a model of how to treat the people in that region with respect.

The historian Terri Barnes best characterized Elaine’s work on Cape Town: “Her passion was to clothe the experiences of women and men on the Cape Flats in the dignity they deserved. Not god’s stepchildren, not tattooed gangsters, not gap-toothed drunks on street corners, not child-women shouting at dirty urchins. No. People with histories, communities and choices who deserved respect and careful theorizing.”

One of my favorite memories of Elaine is from the early 2000’s in Cape Town. At the time I had the habit of lamenting what the city had lost with segregation — in terms of the rich cultural life of the world around the mountain — and which it could never recover again. Things that my father, born in District Six and who grew up in Newlands and Kirstenbosch, would talk about. I felt that I could never adequately capture that world or experience it. Then Elaine invited me and my now wife, Jessica, to a party at her her house in Woodstock. As we walked through the door and settled in, a jazz band was jamming in the middle of the living room. I think Colin was on guitar, and the late Vincent Kolbe on piano. I turned to Jessica and didn’t have to say anything. This is what I had been telling her about all along.

A few years ago, I posted a picture on social media of myself as a child posing with my dad at his work. He was a gardener in Bishopscourt, a rich, white suburb in Cape Town, a quick walk from where he was born and grew up. He worked for a white Supreme Court Judge for 40 years eventually. I wrote about how as a child I accompanied my dad when he would go to work on Saturdays and how I didn’t do much work, but ran around the large estate chasing tennis balls, or read from the large pile of newspapers and magazines in the servant’s quarters or badgered his boss with questions.

One friend suggested I write more about that time while a colleague in New York City wondered what my students would make of it. Elaine wrote to me: “My hope for you is that you can make a thousand flowers bloom just like your dad. The beauty of gardeners like musicians is that they share the fruits of their labor freely … Sight and sound cannot be contained.”

That is how I remember her.

Further Reading

Take it to the house

On this month’s AIAC Radio, Boima celebrates all things basketball, looking at its historical relationships with music and race, then focusing on Africa’s biggest names in the sport.

El maestro siempre

Maky Madiba Sylla is a militant filmmaker excavating iconic Africans whose legacies he believes need to be known widely—like the singer Laba Sosseh.

Madiba and Mali

There is a remarkable connection between Mali and South Africa, dating back to the liberation struggle, and actively encouraged by the author’s work.

A devil’s deal

Rwanda’s proposed refugee deal with Britain is another strike against President Paul Kagame’s claim that he is an authentic and fearless pan-Africanist who advocates for the less fortunate.

Red and Black

Yunxiang Gao’s new book takes a fresh look at connected lives of African American and Chinese leftist activists, artists and intellectuals after World War II.

The Dar es Salaam years

In the early 1970s, Walter Rodney, expelled from Jamaica, took a post in Tanzania. In Leo Zeilig’s new book, he captures those exciting, but also difficult years and how it formed Rodney.

Rushing to boycott

The cultural boycott of Russia turns to the flawed precedent of apartheid South Africa for inspiration, while ignoring the much more carefully considered boycott of official Israeli culture by the BDS Movement.

The party question

Marcel Paret’s book, “Fragmented Militancy: Precarious Resistance in South Africa after Racial Inclusion,” tries to make sense of politics in South African urban informal settlements.

The missing pieces

Between melancholy, terror, and disillusion, Petit Pays is a groundbreaking and eye-opening take on one of the darkest pages of African history, one that is often misunderstood in the West.