Black coffee. No sugar. It’s an acquired taste, to put it mildly. Not really something you’d do out of choice. It speaks to me of coercion and sacrifices. And it reminds me, strangely enough, of the apartheid years.
In the mid-1980s, I remember drinking it at the ANC’s Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (Somafco) outside Morogoro in Tanzania.
A wet-behind-the-ears journalist, I had been invited to look at Somafco and show the world that it was an educational institution – and, hopefully (in the ANC’s estimation) it would become less of a target for the SA Defence Force.
No sugar, no milk, they said. We keep those for the children. And don’t expect an egg for breakfast. The kids need them more than we do.
That spirit of sacrifice, of commitment, was something that stood out at Somafco, as did its truly nonracial composition. Innocent I may have been then, but I came away with a feeling of optimism for a new South Africa, whatever that would be after apartheid had fallen.
Today, I see those little, healthy children in Tanzania, sitting in their classrooms at Somafco, and think about the ones who drown in pit toilets at their schools in a liberated South Africa. And why? Because those running our country have made it clear they come first – it’s their “time to eat” – and to hell with the children and anyone else in need.
I’ll bet that none of these chiefs have their coffee without sugar – or without an accompaniment of single malt whisky…
Later, running a newspaper bureau in Namibia, I met our new recruit, writer Jon Qwelane, and apologised for only being able to offer him black coffee, no sugar. That’s because the company wouldn’t shell out for the fridge needed to keep milk drinkable in the Windhoek heat … and because sugar attracted columns of ants, no matter how you wrapped it up.
JQ laughed. I’m used to it, he said. We called it “detention coffee” because that’s what the boers served us when we were locked up.
That recollection reminds me that the sacrifices of those who opposed apartheid – who lost their freedom and even their lives – are slowly being eroded and forgotten, especially by the angry young posters on “Black Twitter”, who denigrate their elders without pausing to think if freedom simply fell from the sky.
All of the past seems about to be swamped by a new toxic anger which paints Nelson Mandela as a sellout, places all the ills suffered by the country at the feet of white monopoly capital and, of course, apartheid, and screams loudly for land as the country’s cure-all.
There also seems to be a gradually worsening civil war as those supporting President Cyril Ramaphosa face off against the fightback from those supporting Jacob Zuma.
On the one hand, it may be alarmist to talk about civil war, especially as the conflict within the ANC and broader society is not based on race or ethnicity, as have been all the civil conflicts in Africa to date.
But given the magnitude of what is at stake – the massive corruption feeding trough which is government and parastatal coffers – I don’t think it is beyond the bounds of possibility that people will start to die. And soon.
And that’s a prospect far more bitter than any black, unsweetened coffee.