South Africa, Maverick Life

Decolonising Wits: A disconnect of content and context

By Greg Nicolson 15 July 2015

As far as documentaries go, Decolonising Wits is, well, different. If you're a fan of structure, plot, narrative and characters, even in a broad sense, it's difficult to watch. The film also lacks context, making it hard to learn anything. The director has latched onto documenting student politics right when it matters, but sadly that doesn't mean you should go see it. By GREG NICOLSON.

Rhodes Must Fall swept up the country in a whirl of revolutionary fervour. The youth are standing up to the conditions of whiteness their parents accepted, confronting a colonial history manifest in the present. Marikana shows of what’s been achieved and the youth are tackling it all, the situations some theorists predicted for post-colonialism, under the banner of a new guard, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

This neat package is at the heart of new documentary, Decolonising Wits, but Aryan Kaganof’s film answers little of what it offers. There is no structure, no narrative. The EFF at the University of Witwatersrand is oversold. There is almost no real politics in what should and could be a political film, yet arguments and theories from the past are as common as the gunshot sound effects.

In a recent speech on decolonising the university, Professor Achile Mbembe of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research noted the need to improve access, refocus the curriculum and recapitalise funding in the academic space to change the fundamental nature of universities. They need to be decolonised so staff and students can feel as though they belong. “Such a right to belong, such a rightful sense of ownership has nothing to do with charity or hospitality… It has all to do with ownership of a space that is a public, common good. It has to do with an expansive sense of citizenship itself indispensable for the project of democracy, which itself means nothing without a deep commitment to some idea of public-ness.” said Mbembe.

He continued, “Black students and staff have to invent a set of creative practices that ultimately make it impossible for official structures to ignore them and not recognise them, to pretend that they are not there; to pretend that they do not see them; or to pretend that their voice does not count.” It’s a feeling expressed by student and youth movements across the country.

Those at UCT founded Rhodes Must Fall, turning a statue into a national rallying point and establishing a movement to challenge dominant discourses that continue to rule after Apartheid and translate into lived concerns such as the slow pace of transformation at universities, the whiteness of the workplace. But if the legacy of the UCT movement lies in what happens now, Wits is even more uncertain, with Decolonising Wits documenting a struggle with much less momentum.

The explosion will not happen today. It is too soon,” words on the screen quote Fratz Fanon again and again. Perhaps that explains why the EFF on campus, the exclusive focus of the film, are so uninspiring. At Wits, their time clearly is yet to come.

The documentary follows the EFF’s Wits chapter for a short period of time but an extended portion of the film. It frames them with quotes from Steve Biko and Fanon and an appearance from exiled EFF party member Andile Mngxitama, who the director has worked with before. Fanon and Biko provide the basis for revolution, but the Fighters do little to live up to their words.

The small group of EFF members talk politics, often they say little of consequence. They tackle an issue with residences prioritising the integration of white students and win. Here we see the determination of student movements and one instance of university management that doesn’t align with their aims. The controversial Mcebo Dlamini from the Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA), aligned to the ANC, is quoted more than the EFF on the matter, but the effect is achieved – students are standing up to management. In another important moment in the film, the EFF struggles to find a suitable meeting venue for a member in a wheelchair and the member discusses the need to cater for disabled students on campus.

Outside classrooms, in the lift, walking to the Great Hall, the EFF students sing, generally numbering no more than a dozen. The songs are the same that other groups across the political spectrum sing, but their numbers are fewer. There seems no particular cause behind the songs. Maybe the unnecessarily long focus on the toyi-touing, perhaps just for Kaganof’s camera, is simply for show, which the director alludes to as a key point of modern politics and its necessary theatrics.

It’s a strange choice to focus on the EFF. The film mentions the upcoming SRC elections at Wits but does not note that the EFF failed to win a single seat, with the PYA and Project W more prominent on campus.

The documentary might work as a snapshot of student politics in a time that holds much potential for change. Some of the strongest quotes come directly from the Rhodes Must Fall protests. We do see a glimpse of what a small group of students (who are at least part of a large organisation, the EFF, that has shaken up South African) politics) think and there is a clear sense that students want change.

There’s also the sense that the EFF students understand Mbembe’s comments about getting creative so that official structures cannot ignore the demands for change. But in this film their creativity amounts only to some slight disruptions of meetings and a lot of toyi-toying, which in South African politics isn’t that creative at all.

The fly-on-the-wall coverage could be interesting if student movements at Wits and across the country continue to have an increased impact, but in this film nothing really happens, we don’t learn much about the characters, and the repeated revolutionary quotes that appear on the screen might resonate across the country but they make it harder to watch what’s not easy to watch in the first place and make the EFF on campus look like oversold revolutionaries who don’t live up to the dream.

The challenges they face are real and the theories fit, but there’s a disconnect between the content and the potential of the student movements. Perhaps that’s the point?

The documentary was reportedly popular after screenings at Johannesburg’s Bioscope this month and is likely to show again soon. Kaganof, according to the Mail & Guardian, is also working on a series of related documentaries focusing on student movements across the country. DM

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