Idolising violence at the Ruth First Memorial Lecture
- Ivo Vegter
- 30 Aug 2016 (South Africa)
In 1905, the philosopher George Santayana penned a famous aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Some 17 years later, after the intervention of the First World War of 1914 to 1918, he ruefully added: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
These words came to mind upon reading the transcript of Lwandile Fikeni’s address at the 16th Ruth First Memorial Lecture at Wits University earlier this month, on the theme of “Violence and Rage”. Fikeni is an award-winning arts journalist working in an industry he describes as “badvertising”.
In his speech, he examines the student protests that began with the campaign against the Cecil John Rhodes statues at UCT. He sympathises with the anger of black youth, who feel that racism is still very much alive in South Africa, which is true, and that it continues to impose systemic oppression upon black people, which is a reasonable argument.
He interprets acts of protest and violence as one might expect of a student of art: as discourse and expression. He calls it the “aesthetics of rage”. However, there is a vast gulf between acknowledging the reason for anger and celebrating the hatred and violence it begets. Fikeni vaults this gulf with the slick agility of a radical rhetorician, mostly by quoting other people.
On the act of throwing human faeces at the Rhodes statue, he quotes another art critic, Athi Joja: “When Chumani [Maxwele] throws shit there it shifts the entire context of ikaka (shit). All of a sudden when you throw shit there you’re shitting on 1994, you’re shitting on democracy, you’re shitting on all the dreams, you’re shitting on the Constitution.”
Fikeni does not point this out as a reason for concern. He rightly raises the fact that white reality and black reality, to a large extent, remain divided by race and history. He is correct in saying that the past leaves a legacy that threatens the future possibilities for many people, and that many people, particularly among the black youth, feel alienated in a society that has not realised the dreams of opportunity and prosperity for everyone.
However, as much as one can understand this alienation, or the distaste for symbols of a colonial and racist past, it is futile simply to rage against history and sacrifice hopes of a better future on the altar of that rage. All wars have causes, and many of those causes seem perfectly justifiable to the belligerents at the time. But a righteous cause does not erase the horror of war. It does not turn violence into art. It does not bring back the thousands, or millions, who spill their blood but never come home to their families. And all that death and destruction never undoes the injustices of the past.
He approvingly cites Franz Fanon, who like Ruth First was a committed communist, and who reportedly said: “You’re rich because you’re white and you’re white because you’re rich.” This statement is demonstrably false. One only needs to show one rich black person, and one poor white person, to falsify the generalisation.
Fikeni goes on to deny the value of individual lives outside the historical conditions in which their race finds itself. This view, again, is easily falsifiable. It is a crass attempt to justify the hostility of identity politics, in which you are judged not, as Martin Luther King Jr put it, on the content of your character, but by the colour of your skin.
It is common to conflate the political beliefs of historical figures with specific causes for which they fought. The lens of dialectical materialism through which Marxists view the world does not simply oppose oppression of one class by another. It casts people into the role of violent combatants, pitching one class against another in a never-ending conflict that can only be resolved by the utter destruction of the other. Conversely, the apartheid state was not a beacon of free market capitalism, but even if it had been, the philosophy of individual liberty and free markets is not undermined by the racism of some of its proponents.
There is right and wrong, good and evil, in every person, present and past. To cast history as a great struggle in which one side is by definition wrong, and the other by definition right, is grossly simplistic and doomed to perpetuate conflict. Many intellectuals have romanticised violent struggle as an “aesthetic”, as Fikeni does, but it is a dehumanising belief that values individual lives as nothing but fodder for the cannons of collectivism.
Fikeni condones the “radical black tradition” in which “you’re black before you’re a man”. This kind of hyper-consciousness of race is fundamentally racist in itself, and is only likely to provoke violent resentment on one side and violent defensiveness on the other. And before we get into an argument about whether black people can be racist, there is no mention of “power” in the dictionary definition of racism:
1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.
2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
3. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.
Fikeni wants to “capture the discourse from those who monopolised it”, which is a noble idea. However, he wants to do so by imposing another monopoly discourse upon the collective. He wants to replace the dominant social order of whiteness, which caused so much harm, with one of blackness, which will cause just as much harm. He does not want to free individuals to create their own discourse, establish their own social order, and live their own dreams free of the cultural, social, racial, national and other historical baggage that would keep them oppressed.
He considers the phrase “‘fuck white people” to be a “highly aestheticised form of critiquing South Africa’s social ordering”. He quotes Mbe Mbhele, a graffiti artist, to that effect: “Fuck white people is a perfect articulation of how we feel. Frank Wilderson (an American professor of drama and African-American studies) says there’s no vocabulary, no language to articulate black suffering. That means white people have screwed us to a point that is beyond discourse, that’s beyond political language, that’s beyond respectful, understandable, engagement; so fuck you.”
He goes on to quote student activist Simakele Dlakavu: “Fuck whiteness; but fuck white people also. Why am I not allowed to say fuck you when you fuck me over every day? So fuck you.”
The answer to that is simple. It may be true that Dlakavu feels “fucked over”, but although there are undoubtedly still many white racists, and much structural racism, generalising by the colour of someone’s skin is itself racist. And if there is no political language that permits civil discourse, then you’re saying there is no alternative but war.
Fikeni makes no bones about it. “[The late sociologist Joseph] Gusfield’s conception of a legitimate social movement is limited for he conceives legitimate social action as only that which is a peaceful demand for social change, while in my definition I make room for a Fanonian conception of violence as being a necessary element of such protest insofar as inducing terror in the status quo.”
There are legitimate grounds for anger, and legitimate claims that some of the injustices of the past linger on in the new South Africa. I think it diminishes the very real achievements of South Africa’s negotiated settlement. It is absolutely justified to speak about feelings of pain, dissatisfaction and historical oppression. However, if you believe, as Fikeni says, that “in order to be successful at speaking to its violence one must deploy rage and vulgarity”, you lack both humanity and imagination.
He reduces his own argument to the absurd when says he “the ‘rainbow’ commandment … tells them that their oppression is somewhat imagined for there is no racism in South Africa and the violence and the terror which surrounds their lives is but a figment of their imagination”.
Nobody of note ever said that. Today’s state violence is as unjustifiable as that of the past. Today’s racism is as indefensible as that of the past. But likewise, today’s hatred and violence, which Fikeni glorifies, is as unconscionable as that of the past.
Civilised society prides itself on having moved beyond the crude social custom expounded in the ancient Bible: “Anyone who injures their neighbour is to be injured in the same manner: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury. Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a human being is to be put to death.”
The desire for retaliation and vengeance has been the justification for violence since time immemorial. If Fikeni wants to perpetuate this catalogue of human misery, by painting it as an “aesthetic of rage” that is justified on grounds of race, it is incumbent upon the rest of us to reject it with all the contempt we can muster.
After last year’s Ruth First Memorial Lecture, which went much the same, the moderator, Eusebius McKaiser, wrote a thoughtful criticism of the hatred on display:
“No black person should feel they are insufficiently radical if they are not willing to hate white people. Why on earth is that a marker of transformative politics? Anger can fuel transformative politics, and history is littered with such examples. … But anger, and sheer hatred, are different things I’m afraid. Hatred, and hate speech, have no transformative effect. It simply divides, for its own sake.”
The entire piece is worth reading, if only to reassure yourself that he is no defender of the idealistic “rainbow nation” rhetoric behind which whites too often hide in order to avoid uncomfortable discussions of race. But McKaiser certainly is a defender of common human decency.
The Constitution grants all South Africans “the right to freedom and security of the person, which includes the right … to be free from all forms of violence from either public or private sources.” There is also a constitutional prohibition on speech that amounts to “propaganda for war, incitement of imminent violence; or advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.”
No wonder young black radicals of Fikeni’s kind feel the need to shit on the Constitution. But they should know that by doing so, they also shit on our basic humanity. Oh, the irony. DM
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