Panashe Chigumadzi, the founding editor of Vanguard Magazine in South Africa, is the author of a novel, Sweet Medicine (2015), and a forthcoming collection of essays, Beautiful Hair for a Landless People. She is currently in residence at the Iowa International Writer’s Program. (November 2017)
With little time before the rally, Tsitsi had to apply her mind on how to best improvise the party regalia so that it was figure-hugging, flattering, and functional. She stood the Mother in front of the home salon mirror in a red-and-yellow two-piece dress suit and headwrap—printed, of course, with the Father’s face—and admired her work. Tsitsi would be the first to admit, the style was loud, gaudy, vulgar even, but it would be effective. It would color-coordinate with the T-shirts, zambias, and dhukhus that the Mother demanded the Youth League find in time to be distributed alongside the bags of maize and fertilizer at the afternoon’s rally.
By the time we were graduating from “liking” to the possibility of “loving,” it was no longer the Rowans, Joshuas, and Craigs, but the Tshepos, Thulasizwes, and Rapelos, who were the object of my affection. By then, we children of Nelson Mandela’s “born free” generation, kids who had moved from primary school to high school together and were witnessing many of our childhood friendships lose their color-blind innocence, understood the tacit rule that we didn’t date each other.
Soap has been at the center of some of the most visceral private and public expressions of racism in South Africa. For all the “apart-ness” that the government tried to enforce through both “grand apartheid” and “petty apartheid,” which worked to control the public interaction between black and white bodies in public toilets, benches, trains, buses, swimming pools, and other facilities, a contradictory intimacy developed in everyday private interactions as black people still labored, and even lived, in the workplaces, kitchens, nurseries, bedrooms, and bathrooms of white South Africans. The uses—and alleged non-uses—of this ordinary household item are thus entwined in the country’s history.