Thursday, March 23, 2023

Back from Jozi, with hard-won wisdom

Those who listen to good music from early Motown would be familiar with a Gladys Knight and The Pips song about a one-way ticket passenger on the midnight train to Georgia whose intent is to reconnect with “a simpler place and time.”

Many, many years ago when he sneaked into South Africa, Ranko Selato wanted to imbibe all the cheap thrills that the Bechuanaland Protectorate of 1952 and Morwa village couldn’t provide but, at least by what he heard, were abundant on the streets of Johannesburg. Much like the subject of Midnight Train to Georgia, he sure found out the hard way that dreams don’t always come true. His Dionysian pursuit of great nasty fun on Jozi streets did not yield superlative results and there being no m0:00re time left for any more gallivanting, he has had to leave behind the life he had come to know.
Back home for the first time in 60 years, Ranko now fully appreciates the full meaning of “home is where the heart is” and at his welcome ceremony, his younger brother, Ipelegeng, actually reaches for its Setswana equivalent as the SABC 1 cameras rolled: “Gaabo motho go thebe phatshwa.” Or is it? But that is a topic for another paragraph.

Those cameras necessarily had to be at that ceremony because it was the involvement of the South African TV channel that Ranko reconnected with his family. Khumbul’ekhaya (Zulu for ‘remember home’) is a South African Broadcasting Corporation reality show through which prodigal sons and daughters are reunited with family members. The show is almost-equal parts commerce, humanitarianism and elaborately staged theatre. As regards the latter, Khumbul’ekhaya’s M.O. is to keep its flair for the dramatic to the absolute maximum, milking a millisecond of drama to its last drop. One aspect of the theatrical formula is the preening delivery of the long-lost people in a luxury car that has South African Post Office stickers on both sides, clear dramatisation of the point about human cargo being mailed back home. For moments of intense emotion when tearducts’ floodgates are breached, close-up face shots are standard fare. In a future when Julius Malema is national leader and white-owned farms have been liberated and redistributed among the hoi polloi, ABC (a name change that will be necessitated by the renaming of the country) will by presidential decree, harvest these tears for an irrigation scheme in the driest parts of the Socialist Republic of Azania.

Early this year the programme featured Ranko speaking from a residential care centre in the township of Alexandra. The video, which has been posted on YouTube, shows him shuffling through a doorway with the aid of a walking cane as the presenter, a Zulu-speaking peroxide blonde looking all 7:30-pretty, introduces his story. Then he is shown seen seated and his words come out exhausted as he pleads with viewers to help reunite him with his family in Botswana. It was a stab in the dark that thankfully hit the target. Relatives in Botswana watching the evening show exploded with excitement and some of them couldn’t even sleep a wink that night. Shortly thereafter, Ranko’s fate hit the Kgatleng echo chamber and in the morning, SABC was bombarded with text messages from Botswana. This is the commercial aspect of the show.

In a sense both literal and figurative, Ranko’s homecoming was replete with a rich pageantry of song and dance. At the beginning of the road trip back home, staff at the Itlhokomeleng Association for the Aged and Disabled Persons is shown singing and dancing joyfully around Ranko as they walk him to a waiting, basic-black late-model Jeep Cherokee. In his first clear shot, he is reaching for and gripping the car’s overhead grab handle too tight. Using his residual strength, he hoists himself up and wiggles into a comfortable position in the back seat. As staff members wave goodbye, the Jeep slithers out of the gated entrance of the compound and zips through an Alexandra concentration camp that sports not a speck of Black Economic Empowerment-occasioned affluence. A few shot later, the car is buried in light stop-and-go city traffic, then is seen tearing across acres of virgin land at filmable speed. During the journey, Ranko – who is evidently giddy at the prospect of being reunited with his family in Botswana, lavishes fulsome praise on SABC for its generosity and in the process renders khumbul’ekhaya into Setswana: “gopola gae.”

Through a succession of shots, the all-terrain car is shown gobbling up the kilometres between Johannesburg and Morwa under a flawless blue sky, its VIP (very important passenger) snug in the backseat and because of poor sight, unable to fully enjoy the sights whirring past. In its final motion shot, it is grinding on a dirt road at stately speed then rolling to a stop in the front yard of a homestead in a sylvan setting. The camera cuts to a lone figure of an elderly man walking towards the car – taking delivery of the parcel as it were. He opens the door, sticks out his right hand to help Ranko out who, in turn swings his legs 90 degrees towards the door and lethargically slides off the seat into standing position. By stages his face registers curiosity, anxiety and puzzlement. There is some inaudible communication between the two men but the YouTube video subtitle has Ranko asking: “Who are you?”

“I’m Ipelegeng, your younger brother,” he replies, watching Ranko intently.

“You are Ipelegeng?” he asks, his voice at once croaking and cracking. “O a ntseba?” [Do you know me?]

“Yes, you are aubuti [big brother] Ranko.”

A few short seconds later and off-camera, a man’s voice proffers greetings and Ipelegeng introduces the speaker as he comes into view: “He’s your younger brother, Motentha.”

Ranko visibly stiffens. “These are my younger brothers,” he says, mouth open in what looks like the onset of a primal scream. He only manages to choke back soft sobs and lets his head fall forward onto the window of the still-open car door.

Ipelegeng puts a gentle hand around him and cajoles in gentle but manly voice. “Don’t cry.”

From a knot of onlookers in the background, a woman’s voice is heard to coo pitifully: “Aooo!”

One of six boys and three girls, Ranko went to live with his aunt who had no male children at the instance of his grandfather. The general memory of a cousin that Ipelegeng introduces in the video as Seloi is that Ranko was an all round, sweet-natured teenager with whom she took turns wrangling and penning the family goat herd after school. She went to school, he didn’t. One of the major topics of conversation that Ranko would have with his peers around the time he was coming of age was of peers who had stolen away to South Africa to look for work.
There was great worshipful curiosity about Johannesburg among these village boys, all of whom coveted the joie de vivre of those who started life by running away to South Africa.

“When we got together we would talk about how so-and-so had just left for Gauteng [Johannesburg] and all of us were planning to do likewise,” he recalls.

And so one fateful day in 1952, sans passport, Ranko caught a Mafikeng-bound passenger train. A few days later, he was working as a labourer at a construction site and thereafter, headed out to Johannesburg where he became a self-taught builder. The city of gold was also where he met and latter married a Swati woman by whom he had his only child. Both later died, the child first.

Having left Morwa as a boy, Selato acculturated into South African identity and in the process, supplanted his mother tongue with what in Botswana is colloquially called ‘seSouth Afrika’ – ‘South African’ as it were. This is a version of corrupted Setswana that is heavily salted with a passel of words from sibling languages like Sotho and Pedi as well as a soupcon of domesticated Afrikaans and is marked by an accent (and in parts, tonality) that is markedly different to that of the purer form spoken in Botswana. Ranko would have had a multi-tribal cast of associates because while his principal conversational language is SeSouth Afrika, he also speaks fluent Zulu, Xhosa, Venda, Shangaan, North and South Sotho (or “Moshoeshoe’s Sotho” as he refers to the latter) as well as Afrikaans.

As early as now, one can tell that there will moments of confusion when Ranko deploys uncommon seSouth Afrika vocabulary. Within minutes of his arrival, Seloi asks him whether he ever missed his family back home and his election of the Sotho word for ‘a lot’ (haholo) over a Setswana one (thata) momentarily stems the flow of conversation. With the prodigal son’s voice now more relaxed, the exchange goes like this:

Seloi: “O ne o seke o re tlhwaafalela ne monna?”
Ranko: “Haholo,”

Seloi: “Mma?” [What?]

Ranko: “Ke ne ke le tlhoafalela ha-ho-lo.”

When she asks the next obvious question, his answer is that he did not have a passport: “Ke ne ke ise ke ise ke e lokise.”

In the 60 years that Ranko has been away, Botswana has minted new words that he now has to learn. The sidebar to the main story is that technically, he is still a South African. At the ripe old age of 77 no one is supposed to buy green bananas but Ranko will have to renounce that citizenship and acquire Botswana’s as well as the national identity card. The Setswana word for the card still does not come easily to him. “Nto ena e bitswang mona? E bitswa…” he pauses mid-sentence as his mind gropes for semantic light switches around the tip of his tongue. “Omaaang!” he exclaims at the precise Eureka moment.

Getting Botswana’s citizenship will involve another complication. Soon after explaining away his long absence to Seloi, Ranko finds himself in another awful spot as Ipelegeng grouses about his use of a ‘Ndebele’ pseudonym: “Mathata ke gore o ne o dirisa difane tsa Setebele; Setebele ampo eng.”

Although more than 80 percent of Ranko’s sight is gone, his muscle memory can still trigger physical symptoms of embarrassment as happens when his younger brother reveals this little secret. Swallowing a mischievous-boy giggle, Ranko cocks his head to the side then drops it into his open left hand to cover the eyes.

It will ruin nothing to reveal that the selfsame Morwa man born in 1935 (day and month unknown) whom everyone knows as Ranko Selato is, according to his South African ID, “Molefe Piet Teke” who was born on March 19, 1937 in New Claire. It is not hard to tell why his parents called him ‘Ranko’ and even after he changed his name to something less nosey, one can reasonably surmise that his broad nose would still have been prodigiously commented upon.

This manner and level of deception was pretty much par for the course in a chapter of his life that he has closed. In years gone by there have been a cascade of efforts to get Ranko/Teke to come back home and sometime in 1989, Ipelegeng wrote him with a plea that he make good on his promise to return to Morwa. He would have done so, he tells Sunday Standard, had he not gone to prison. He is hazy on the details and because it would be bad form (senior non-citizen abuse to be precise) to press a 77-year old to discuss ugly facts of his life, the conversation moves on to a less irksome topic. However, on the YouTube video Ranko is less selectively confessional and comes close to explaining why he was locked up when he speaks of his past in general terms. “I was too much of a skelem; I was a tsotsi,” he says, meaning by the Afrikaans word that the fast-living Teke who pimp-strolled through Sophiatown was everybody’s worst nightmare and by the Sotho slang word that he was a straight-up gangsta, handy with the portable, steel-made tools of his dark trade and blithely causing a bunch of mayhem on the streets. Fo real. Imparting his two-pennyworth of street-thugging experience to Khumbul’ekhaya, Ranko warns today’s youth against throwing caution to the four winds and holds himself up as an example of what would happen to them if they don’t heed such advice.

The less irksome topic is football and is prompted by the Kaizer Chiefs logo design on the cover of his South African ID card. Ranko confesses to a fondness for South African football but no, he explains, he is not a Chiefs but is a Moroka Swallows supporter. It so happens that the latter had won a match a few days earlier and Ranko’s euphoria has not yet worn off yet. The only thing that the writer knows about football is that its matches take way too long – 90 or more minutes which, in the context of a Tyson-Holyfield fight, would translate into over 200 ear bites. Fortunately, Sunday Standard pictures editor, Oaitse Sejakgomo, has the same passion for football and the two men get into an animated if brief discussion about Swallows’ exploits.

“Ha ba bapala ga ke bone nix; nako e le ke ne ke sheba,” Ranko says, meaning that he can no longer watch his favourite team play on TV because of his poor sight.

One has to admire the fact that rather than beat Ranko around the head and shoulders about his long absence, his entire family has enveloped him with love and, in the most basic sense, he is clearly settling in. He appears to share easy rapport with Ipelegeng’s wife who keeps him fuelled with delicious home-cooking and has become his chief nurse. He spends a large chunk of his waking hours balled up in a sofa in the sitting room and when he has to get up, hobbles with swollen feet encased in comfortable flats, his walker hitting the floor in a series of clacks as he navigates his path around his younger brother’s house. Soon after growing strong enough wings, the family brood flew away to build their own nests and so, freeing up commodious living space for the elderly man was not a problem at all. One item on Ranko’s bucket list still has a huge asterisk next to it. His face hardening at his memory of his parents, he says that he would like to visit their graves but that such desire has continually been frustrated by the fact that no one knows where they are buried.

Although Ranko’s Khumbul’ekhaya wish has been granted, one important factor makes his current situation ambiguous. Notwithstanding the thrill of being back home, he still feels a palpable sense of dislocation because paradoxically, he misses the sounds and blurred sights of familiar surroundings. There is no undertow of regret and naturally he hopes to gradually establish a new equilibrium. At this point, however, there is still a part of Ranko’s mind that on occasion, is inclined to think long and longingly about people back in South Africa with whom he was thisclose.

It is sad to say but he will never ever be as close with his kith and kin as he was with his friends in Alexandra. When these sort of psychological crosscurrents roil through the mind, the pre-global village notion of home being the natural permanent address of the heart – while still real, becomes a little too problematic to assert in its original universalistic sense. After she frees him from an overly generous bear hug, Seloi jokingly tells Ranko that a childhood friend called Madisa is challenging him to a fist fight. From this statement one is left with clear recognition of the fact that for these adults, a huge part of touching base will essentially be limited to recycling childhood memories that are more than 60 years old.

Post-Motown, there is a less touted musical genius called Elizabeth Withers who can run rings round the full roster of today’s top-selling female artists any day but will never roll in as much money as they do because unlike them, her repertoire doesn’t incorporate the sort of soft pornography that comes standard with a Beyonce, Nicki Minaj or Lady Gaga act. Withers, who has had a stint as a background singer for Jennifer Lopez before striking out on her own, has a Malcom X-esque facility with language that enables her to use simple words to convey very powerful messages. On Simple Things, she sings about how she has been “searching in all the wrong places”, “losing my breath in the hassle”, “stressing over nothing”, forgetting that real, durable joy lies in simple things like “the sun shining on my face/your strong embrace/mama calling, daddy calling to see if I’m OK/fresh air I breathe/enough food to eat/a warm place to sleep at night… all the simple things.”

In the final analysis and in a somewhat ironic sense, Ranko’s life story is not all tragic. To the contrary: his homecoming, moral evolution and refurbished mindset, belated though they may be, represent a nominal nod to the fact that life’s real pleasure is natively domiciled in simple things – and simpler places like Morwa.


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