Ayanda Sishi-Wigzell is an energetic activist. She shares her story with Salaamedia. [Picture: Supplied]
From Khayelitsha to uMlazi, Botshabelo to Soweto, South Africa’s townships were created to house the cheap labour force of apartheid. Under a white-dominated regime, dignity for the millions of black households was not a priority. It is very much the same in post-apartheid democratic South Africa.
That was the environment in which Ayanda Sishi Wigzell grew up. Many activists hail from these areas by no accident. In fact, as she tells me, these are the very conditions that force one to become an activist: the sewage on the streets, the all-too-common shack fires, the dry taps politicians say they should be grateful for having.
“A lot of people’s lives forced them to become activists in order for them to advocate for not only themselves, but for their communities, because it’s just so bad. It’s just really, really, that deep. It’s that bad,” she says.
Wigzell was born at the peak of the violence that brought South Africa to the brink of a full-scale civil war in the early 1990s. Raised by a single mum of three, it’s almost always been an uphill battle for the now vociferous, vibrant journalist and activist.
“I talk a lot,” she warns at the start of our sit-down. “I love politics. I love news. If you ask people around me, they’ll just be like, ‘That girl’s crazy passionate.’”
True enough, as we connected virtually that August morning, every word Ayanda spoke burned with the fiery passion of South Africa’s youth. Our conversation ebbed and flowed from how everyone’s first impression is that she’s angry to how the minister responsible for youth, aged 74, should technically be retired.
But her awareness of the reality into which she was born stems from her formative years in a private school. Teeming with the possibilities of a fresh democracy, the public mood in the latter half of the 1990s was upbeat. Yet, here was Ayanda, black and “liberated” in an environment still hostile to people like herself.
“When I was seven years old,” she begins, “I couldn’t find a public school in Zululand”. Her mother, Kristine Sishi, decided to enrol her at Felixton College, a predominantly White private school in northern KwaZulu-Natal. That was where, although unaware of the term, she first encountered “racist institutionalism”, as the only black person there.
“There was an inkling in me that told me that there is something that is profoundly wrong with the system in and of itself. People would throw stones at me, people would spit at me, people wouldn’t invite me to their birthdays.”
It was an interesting time to be a curious high schooler in transitioning South Africa. With still much work to do to address the challenges of the past, reform was high on the agenda. The Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) Act was in its early stages of implementation. There was much to talk about.
“You could not shut me up. I was always talking about things that I would be reading in the news, things I was watching. I was always trying to get into those political conversations without necessarily knowing the context of what it is that I’m even talking about.”
It wasn’t always just casual, fun conversation. She regularly found herself having to explain the need for reform among her white peers.
“At that time, you were always having to defend your body. You always have to defend your mind. You always have to defend your hair. You’re just defending, defending, defending and having to push back against what is now seen as just horrific. But back then those were the standards.”
Her forthright manner was not always welcome. “For a person who looks like me, being told that your voice does not matter, especially at that young age, was very difficult for me to comprehend. Why would somebody like me not be able to speak as loud as I want to?”
Today, the vigour and passion Ayanda used to engage her peers critically is now channelled through her work as a journalist and commentator. In a way, she points out, “I still have that inner child in me that is fighting to be like, ‘No, but this is wrong’.”
She is one of a swelling group of young South Africans, supposedly “born-free”, who believe something is not quite right about the way democracy has turned out for them. Aside from the sky-high youth unemployment rate of 60%, there are “people who are being assassinated from Abahlali baseMjondolo”.
She is also fed up with ageing politicians who have failed to train a new crop of leaders to take the country forward. “They want to stay and hold on to power. I know that if young people were to vote – I don’t vote, by the way – this country would be won by a landslide.”
Taken aback by her admission that she doesn’t vote, I probe why she forfeits her right to have a say in the elections. Her response is no less despondent than those I have heard from other young South Africans. “Because what difference is it going to make if I am still going back to my grandfather’s house that does not have running water?”
“Again, I am a reader. I will read a political manifesto,” she quickly points out. “The EFF [Economic Freedom Fighters], I think, had the longest one of 250 pages. I read it. It was intense. There were notes that were taken. I think to myself, my goodness: this was word for word like the last manifesto and the previous one before and the previous one before, and I’ve been reading manifestos since high school.”
Anxious to step away from the subject of politics, we shift towards something lighter. I ask Ayanda about her favourite pastime.
“I watch reality TV!”, comes the hyper-enthusiastic response. “Oh, my goodness. I love reality TV. I love it. And the trashier it is, the better.” But, it turns out, even that links back to our country’s dimming chances of success.
“There is nothing that will take my mind out of what is happening in society and to scoop it back into this really trashy world of reality TV. I absolutely love it. I love things that keep my mind going,” she says.
Next year, South Africans will head to what’s being described as the most important election since 1994. Yet, there is an overwhelming sense that thirty years – almost the entirety of Ayanda’s life – have done little to improve the conditions of ordinary Black South Africans.
“In society, it’s difficult for Black women to get by. Why would it be an exception for me? I think that I should be the exception because of how hard I work, but that’s not the case. No matter how hard you work, the world is the world and black people, especially black women, are at the back foot, nevermind those who are disabled.”
For that reason, people like Ayanda find it necessary to carry the baton forward. The struggle for freedom is far from over. It may not be fought at the ballot, but it has been ignited by the frustration of ordinary youth.