The story of Happy Sindane puts the lie to South Africa’s rainbow shibboleths

A short South African Press Association bulletin on Monday announced the death of one Happy Sindane. If you don’t remember him (and South Africans are notorious for their short memories), he “made headlines in late May 2003 when he alleged that he was a white boy who had been kidnapped by black people.” Sindane had grown up in Mpumalanga, a South African province on the border with Mozambique and Swaziland. Four months later a judge ruled that Sindane’s real name was Abbey Mziyaye, the son of a black domestic worker and her white employer, who had both abandoned Sindane after he was born in 1984. It was Apartheid after all. Sindane was raised by a black woman in a black township until the day he walk into a police station to announce that he had been abducted and that he was white. Sindane, not surprisingly, dominated the headlines in South Africa for a few months. As New York Times correspondent Lydia Polgreen reported at the time, Sindane came “to symbolize the intensity with which South Africans still scrutinize matters of race — years after apartheid’s demise and despite real progress toward building an integrated society.” An advertising agency (and a paint company) made some money at his expense (because everything is apparently up for grabs in the “new South Africa”) and then he vanished from the media view, except when he was arrested once for some minor crime. The news this Monday was that he had been stoned to death. But to go back to when the story of the lost white boy first “broke.” At that time my friend Herman Wasserman and I co-wrote an op-ed on the Sindane case for South Africa’s Sunday Times (published on June 1, 2003) which is worth revisiting today:


What’s next, a pencil test? The story of Happy Sindane is putting the lie to some of our rainbow shibboleths. From the start, this has not been the story of a lost boy but of a lost white boy who, as Mail & Guardian columnist John Matshikiza has pointed out, like Tarzan walked out of the jungle of a black village. It has also been about what he is not. About race-marking.

The initial story was given front-page headlines and first place on radio and television news bulletins, and occasioned much speculation and public curiosity.

Then came what was presented as deflating news. reported earlier this week: “Happy Sindane is not white.” That he has lost his parents, that he might be reunited with relatives, is of secondary importance. Happy is a problem to be solved. He must have an identity and the first component of identity, it seems, is still some 19th-century, apartheid-era or primordial sense of “race”.

From the way we are talking and writing about him, it seems more important what Happy is not. That is, not white. And chances are now he will become “coloured”.

We still expect black people to stay in townships and whites in suburbs; we still consider whites who speak an African language to be some sort of freaks; we are still obsessed with bio logical explanations of identity.

It seems that we are still disciples of social Darwinism in that it seems natural to us when people belonging to different “races” and cultures “fit” into an entrenched social hierarchy. When they step out of this hierarchy, they earn society’s admiration for having “made it”. Or they earn society’s sympathy when, being white, they make it back to whence they came and where they, naturally, “belong”.

The way Happy’s story was told by the media (and discussed in our living rooms, on our shopfloors and in bars) is proof that although we have witnessed the legal change from apartheid to liberal democracy, the passage from old to new is not finished.

True, we have experienced a period in which the social order has shifted, identities are renegotiated and cultural borders have been transgressed, as difficult-sounding academics want us to believe.

But although we do not speak of ourselves and others in the way we did under apartheid, the power relations and material constraints of the past have not disappeared.

On one level, the attempts to construct identities that break with apartheid do challenge the fixed categories and enforced ethnicity of apartheid. It would seem that identities are indeed fluid, changing with the social context. So, for example, 5fm plays Mandoza and Gcobani Bobo is definitely not a “development rugby player” who came to the sport late (he went to Rondebosch Boys’ High in Cape Town). One shebeen in Soweto plays only Afrikaans music.

However, it would be foolish to overstate the extent to which such identities and change are generalised. Overwhelmingly, exclusion and hardship are still based largely on race and ethnicity, and these exclusions operate among the previously disadvantaged as well as the previously advantaged.

Race and ethnicity still hold political currency, on both sides of the former divide. Significantly, the story of Happy Sindane reminds us that material factors and power relations still have a determining impact on the definition of identity.

It also shows up the perspective from which the mass media witness identity in a post-apartheid society – perhaps not so much white (since the faces in media boardrooms have changed hue) but elitist and class-based.

Recently the Cape Argus ran a front-page lead story about a white man from a posh Cape Town suburb engaging in the so-called “liberating” act of going to stay in Guguletu township. Why should that be seen as so brave, given that hundreds of thousands of people live there day in and day out, without having a similar choice of where they want to stay?

Nowhere did the article ask his new (black) neighbours what they thought of moving out of Guguletu. (Even though it was clear that this was nothing but a cheap stunt by an average pop singer to gain media attention, the reporter failed to say so outright).

It’s also a case in which our interactions are mixed with the newly acquired values of individual responsibility and private initiative that are permeating our society – but within well-defined market segments.

So, for example, the SABC’s TV news recently reported on the “kindness” of a white housewife in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs who trekked south to pay the electricity arrears of a pensioner. Her behaviour was juxtaposed with that of protesting residents who wanted a more systematic response by the Johannesburg Metro Council and Eskom to their plight. That was shown to the coveted SABC3 audience, while earlier in the evening the Xhosa news provided a more nuanced account of these happenings.

Why all the sympathy for the lost Happy Sindane (who, granted, must be quite confused at this stage in his young life) when the lives of hundreds of thousands of township children go by largely unnoticed by the mass media, unless they are the occasional beneficiaries of some visiting celebrity’s kindness or an international company’s sponsorship?

To think creatively about those new formations that have come and are still coming into being, we must take into account the effects that material factors, political struggles and the inequalities of the past have on the construction of post-apartheid identities.

But it is also necessary to try to establish what new formations have come, and are still coming, into being. That means breaking with the simple binaries of black/white and bourgeois/working class to explore new schisms and new loyalties.

And it also means not making sloppy arguments when race, while far from irrelevant, is not the sole overriding issue any more, but has taken new forms and mutations, or its old fault lines operate under different conditions.

Seemingly, however, unchanged race (and class) distinctions remain our master narratives. That says a lot about our society. Happy Sindane does not need to tell us that.


It is worth adding here what another friend and AIAC blogger Jonathan Faull told me after I had already published this post:

Happy Sindane, from the perspective of a child seeking identity and acceptance, slipped between the lines of South Africa’s perverse racial understanding of itself. By seeking a place in his society he was met with an obsessional confusion, initially swathed in the trope of a “fallen” white child, then as the “bastardly” outcome of miscegenation. In all of this his humanity was rarely acknowledged, and then he was forgotten.

However his life and death were ultimately shaped by the hallmarks of (black) poverty. He was raised in penury as an orphan, struggled for dignified work, and suffered a violent and premature death. His body abandoned at a roadside for posterity. These are the markers of democracy for South Africa’s rural poor.


20 thoughts on “The story of Happy Sindane puts the lie to South Africa’s rainbow shibboleths

  1. I am so disturbed by this post. Don’t you feel that you have given awfully short shrift to this dead young man, who, you note in a rather off-hand way and without further comment, was “stoned to death”? It seems like you deny his very humanity. I can’t believe that is really your intent here, but simply reading this post, without further background on the story, that is what I bring away from your words. Think of his terror and pain.

    • Yeah, Sean I agree with Susan. A lot more regard for his passing is respectful. Simply put, he and his life is not simply a “Well done article…”.
      May Your Sad Sad Soul Find Peace And Rest Young Brother Happy Simelane,
      For You And All Those Who Are Dying Too Young For No Worthy Cause In Our Very Sad And Angry Land.

      • I thought the minimalist approach to the death of Mr. Sindane was deliberate; a literary device. It doesn’t diminish the atrocity of his death – that can be another story. The focus of the actual article offered a perspective not usually seen in mainstream media. That was well done.

        Sent from my iPhone

    • I think when we write, if an effort to show how someone was robbed of their humanity strikes readers as robbing that person of humanity, then we’ve missed our communicative goal. And I think you can make that kind of point in a piece like this, but that it works better if you first devote at least a handful of words to the reality of a harsh death, rather than diving directly into the issues of attitude, racism, etc. As I said in my comment, this blog post is the only thing I have ever read about Happy Sindane, so I have no context, and perhaps more of a grounding in the story would have made the post seem less heartless. But that’s sort of my point, too, if this is the only exposure some readers will have to this man’s story then he is owed more respect.

  2. A week ago , I asked about the mixed boy raised by a black family . I was very hurt to learn that just a few days ago he passed on .With respect , the article overviews identity ,politics and the so called democracy within South Africa. Identity remains to be complex ,for the mere fact that he claims to be “white” we should all feel sorry . Is it wrong to be black? So its still a taboo for white or mixed people to stay in a black area.? How many black kids died by “accident “in white school? Sounds offensive revisist your reality and stop putting people in a box.

  3. Reblogged this on LoyZaR and commented:
    Well thought and written article on a young man’s life and the dynamics that still shape and haunt our beloved “rainbow nation”. A great mirror for a nation to reflect.

  4. I too come from a background very similar to Happy Sindane and am finally tired of how people always claim to know how we feel about race, about life, about being South African. It’s all very wrong. From the moment I heard about him, I knew what he would go through and what lead him to his claim. But “we”, illegitimate children of the Immorality Act era, brought up in shame and secrecy and always forced (mostly through aggression) to define ourselves or else…have tried so hard just to live. Add to that, rural poverty, apartheid, lack of parental guidance etc etc. It was hell growing up in this skin colour in South Africa and really still is. Even a simple trip to the store to buy bread involved me being harassed by everyone along the way and the shopkeeper demanding to know why I spoke Zulu and then informing me that my mother must have been a prostitute. It was like growing up with an ugly disability. The white establishment, being the govt harassed us just the same.
    I cried for Happy then and cried even more upon hearing of his death. He never had the chance to flourish and just live. I fought hard for that and I still am – it’s our disability for life and the pain never goes away – Happy at least found the bottle to ease his.
    I doubt Happy wanted to be white. He probably grew up being told he was kidnapped (I certainly did) and since his mother wasn’t around, came to believe it in secrecy. He was standing up against the people who raised him because he was now a teenager who wanted to rebel – something we all do. This was his way of doing so. A very strange way indeed, but we’ve led very strange lives.
    I’m tired of being silenced. There are many of “us” hidden in your townships and villages who probably drink the most, laugh the hardest, sleep around the most, fight the most – all to fit in, be accepted, respected and maybe that quadruple scourge of poverty, illegitimacy, isolation and racism might be removed from you eyes when you see us.

    The same people who told me I don’t belong in their societies, race, ethnic groups, were the same who were quick to claim I didn’t want to be part of their race/society when they saw anything in me that they disapproved of. It’s battle I never one, nor did Happy until he found the drinking crowd who were not sober enough to keep asking questions or harass him.

    “I only drink when i want to forget my past. It haunts me no matter how much I try to forget.” – abbey mzayiya aka Happy Sindane

      • Read my comment again please. Never said that. Everyone non-white in South Africa was largely denied ANY opportunity as a result of apartheid (that was its goal – to oppress, remember?) BUT we all have different stories and I am voicing mine. Your attempts to make me seem like I’m rejecting my identity are weak. My post was meant to show the misery of growing up biracial (for lack of a better word) in a racially harsh place such as South Africa, the whole of South Africa, not just the black community. Thanks for proving my sentiments – folks always trying to prove light-skinned blacks are not really proud of being black. Well I’m sorry to disappoint you, you confronted the wrong light-skinned African and I’ll never apologize for my South African experience. Just like you never have to apologize for yours.

      • Funny, when you’re light skinned living in the townships or rural areas, proud of who you are, people will harass you CONSTANTLY about where you come from, why you speak THEIR languages, why you are invading their areas, why you are so light, why you try so hard to be black (insane), why don’t you live with the white or coloured people, where is your white father, let me touch your skin, let me touch your hair, who taught you to dance like a black person, who said you could live here, you were stolen from coloreds etc etc etc etc etc. (All of this has been said to me, mostly on a daily basis). As SOON as you speak of this harassment, the same folks accuse you of not being proud to be black, of being ashamed of your heritage. Then they go play Bob Marley and don’t see the irony. Ironically, he spoke of the same harassment (so did his bandmates, esp Bunny Wailer) and he was never accused of not being proud of where he came from.

  5. Happy Sindane knew who we was. Everyone does. It is ONLY when you are constantly harassed by the same people whom you identify with that you are suddenly forced to ask yourself questions. I’M SO TIRED OF PEOPLE CLAIMING HE HAD PROBLEMS WITH IDENTITY. The problem is that any society, not just South Africa (but South Africa is one of the worst) always forces people to choose sides and you must have some obvious element (ie, skin colour) to prove you belong – otherwise you have to work for that acceptance. Happy spoke fluent Ndebele, had been raised since birth in a specific community, one which he most definitely identified with. The problem is that that society ultimately didn’t identify with him.

    People like Happy forced South Africa to see race, apartheid and how feeble both were and that was too much to take, so they took it out on him.

    RIP Happy.

  6. Hold up! First of all, Happy lived way too far from the border of Swaziland. I am saying so coz I live where Happy lived. It is so sad he died because of alcohol, and he was killed by his friend. Happy lived a very sad and troubled life. I believe Sean should have waited until after his funeral before writing this disturbing article. That is how it is done in our culture.

  7. “Happy Sindane, from the perspective of a child seeking identity and acceptance, slipped between the lines of South Africa’s perverse racial understanding of itself. By seeking a place in his society he was met with an obsessional confusion, initially swathed in the trope of a “fallen” white child, then as the “bastardly” outcome of miscegenation. In all of this his humanity was rarely acknowledged, and then he was forgotten.”

    Oh, fuck off.

  8. No Sean, we are not notorious for our short memories, you are being churlish. Everybody I spoke to remembered this young man quite well. It is a good piece you wrote, pity that from your pedestal in New York, you have to lash out with puerile generalisations. But I agree with (most of) the sentiments expressed in this story.

  9. Happy’s life was generally unhappy. Not more so because he had white heritage, but so because he was a boy with an absent father figure and a dead mother. Those were the first abnormal ingredients of his short life.

    My second point: I think the fact that it takes a boy of white roots to highlight’s South/Africa’s problem is painfully sad, especially because Happy’s life is diluted into a racial story, denying him his own human story. Even Oscar Pistorius case is blamed on the country’s social issues (God forbid a handsome athlete could brew internal demons – not coherent with what we sell in life!)

    I also wish we paid this much attention to how we failed Mercy Keino, the girl student who was found dead on Waiyaki Way in Nairobi, left in the middle of the road (already dead) for cars to repeatedly run her over – an MP’s hands allegedly at play (except in this case journalist underline the part of her being drunk, because it somehow justifies her murder in some of our twisted minds). I wish the Indian girl who was raped and killed in the bus made as much news as the other girls in the ever-present and rising brutal rapes of India. And I wish we focused more on understanding than on the blaming so that we could work on solutions. We blame everything and everyone, analyze and conclude without acting – we are all guilty for failing. Once in a while we write commentary on the Happys of the world and hope the world will automatically get fixed. But it doesn’t and it won’t – not that way.

    I think all people, despite race, should not go through what Happy went through. We shouldn’t bury ‘boys’ and ‘children’ – black, Indian, white, etc. Happy’s case is tragic, but each child lost should deserve media attention and intervention from powers that be. May he rest in peace, he and the 3,000 children that die every minute in Africa (yes, even the ones who die of Malaria – they too deserve our efforts and attention).

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