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Drawing breath from perforated lungs

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Drawing breath from perforated lungs

We are pleased to introduce our new column, ‘Jo’burg Diary’ by Kelebogile Motswatswa. In her first article, she talks about the pressures of just living day-by-day as a Black woman in modern Johannesburg.

July is Mental Health Awareness Month in South Africa, so I felt it appropriate and urgent to discuss some of the issues that affect the collective psyche of a relatively privileged group of young, Black millennials.

Too often, mental health is overlooked as a fundamental component of a functional and fruitful society, especially in African countries where needs such as food, water sanitation, quality education, and employment opportunities are scantly met.

While it is certainly important for governments and civil society to work hard towards meeting the aforementioned needs, it is equally important to discuss and address mental health issues that affect African societies because mental illness, with its concomitant suicide rates, is a reality that is robbing us of so many potential leaders who are needed at the helm of economic development, social justice and transformation.

As a young woman living with mental illness, I recognise that an ailing mind is often a symptom of something deeper; the struggles that are faced by me and my contemporaries have done much heart-wrenching damage to our mental wellbeing as individuals trying to find our purpose and as a collective trying to make sense of the structures within which we operate.

The existence of young Black middle-class South Africans entails consistently negotiating our identity in various spaces – spaces we were forced into without much of our permission and spaces we step into of our own volition.

Replete with angst

Ours is an existence replete with angst birthed by uncertainty, imposter syndrome, feelings of inadequacy, and a fear of vulnerability. Like many millennials around the world, we hide behind Facebook and Instagram posts, and share memes as a form of respite from our quotidian challenges.

We use the term ‘adulting’ to normalise struggling in isolation and to avoid candidly articulating the fact that we’re treading the waters – afraid we’re going to drown trying to draw breath from our perforated lungs – as Black women.

One of my favourite quotes is from Lauryn Hill’s Forgive Them Father, off her solo debut album, the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, in which she sings, “to survive is to stay alive in the face of opposition” – a lyric that laconically summarises my life as a 30-year-old Black millennial living in post-apartheid South Africa.

As a Black woman living in Johannesburg, my opponents are many: systemic violence, structural and institutional racism, non-violent manifestations of Apartheid (gazes that remind you that you’re not really welcome in certain spaces), and the threat of rape and abuse at the hands of men who, while not  all to the same degree, are victims of patriarchy and toxic masculinity as well.

It is excruciatingly difficult to assert myself in a city and society that imposes the obligation to be strong on me while also dictating how much of myself I can assert. We’re told that “you strike a woman; you strike a rock” but when we assert ourselves, we’re gaslighted and told that it is unbecoming of a woman to be “aggressive”.

Every day, I am faced with the discomfort of being a target and of being seen as only half-human, not belonging to myself completely; many men that I encounter in my daily commute to and from work are so confident in their perceived entitlement to my personal space and body.

When I’m being accosted by a stranger, I have to be very careful with how I reject his advances lest I aggravate him. The fear of death strangulates me as I figure out the safest way of asking the fellow to leave me alone. This death that I fear could be physical, spiritual or emotional, either way my soul will be usurped and I’ll end up in the land of no return.

Straddling two opposing worlds

I attended one of the most prestigious all-girl, private schools in South Africa, a privilege that I do not take for granted. Whenever I tell people that I went to this Johannesburg ‘best school of all’, as we’d carol in our school song, people assume that I come from a wealthy background. Far from it!

My mother, a single parent, sacrificed a relationship with me to afford my fees; there’s no way she could have afforded to send me to that school had she not migrated to the UK. I would be in class with girls from affluent backgrounds but, at the end of the day, I had to take a commute home that reminded me that I was not one of them.

When I moved to Cape Town to study at yet another world-class institution, I found myself feeling blacker than I had understood myself to be. I may ‘speak so well’ but I wasn’t welcomed in many spaces; I may have ‘sounded white’ but I wasn’t white enough to belong. I felt othered in a way that I, to this day, find difficult to articulate.

The othering didn’t end in spaces that were predominately White; when I find myself in spaces where languages such as isiZulu or Sesotho are spoken frequently and fluently, I still feel isolated as I have become so accustomed to speaking English habitually. In those spaces, I am not Black enough.

Add to the foregoing the fact that most educated Black graduates labour for three years, only to struggle with finding employment. It is the most frustrating experience, having qualifications that end up gathering dust as you try to figure out whether to wait on tables or go teach English in Asia, while your parents bemoan the fact that their money went to waste or the government institution that funded your studies sends anxiety-inducing emails regarding your student loan and the payment thereof.

I don’t know what it’s like to be so poverty-stricken that I don’t know where my next meal will come from, but I also don’t know what it’s like not to be discriminated against because of the colour of my skin. I’m hardly ever at ease.

Mental illness is a taboo topic, particularly in African societies. My struggle with bipolarism has put me in situations that have forced me to reflect on what it means to be human outside of being Black.

Here in South Africa, and I’ve heard that it is so for many Africans in the Diaspora, there is this misconception of mental illness being a ‘White problem’.

This detrimental sentiment is what makes it very difficult for many young, Black South Africans to reach out for help or speak to their loved ones about their mental health challenges. Sadly, mental illness is perceived as a typification of weakness and a character defect. Since suffering is inherent in the daily lived experiences of Black people, when someone opens up about their mental health struggles, they are criticised for not being resilient enough and we’re told to man up because, “Hey man, life is hard.”

As a young black woman living in Johannesburg, in post-apartheid South Africa, I find myself navigating the most rough and heaviest of seas, and I’ve seen how it has affected my mental health and that of my contemporaries. As South Africa observes Mental Health Awareness Month, I hope we won’t be afraid of being vulnerable about our struggles; may we be deliberate about creating safe spaces for ourselves to be real about the things that are holding us back from being the effective leaders our cities, countries, and continent need.  NA

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