“For many of us,” Oxford student Tadiwa Madenga observed, “history is not on the surface where we can find it, it’s easy to name a country something else and bury the evidence.” She was speaking of how the experience that “pioneered” the development of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) had been built on the plunder and violence that characteristically left “black heads cracked open like coconuts”. It was a historic “stain”, a horrific and violent experience that the 1979 Lancaster “breakthrough” couldn’t remove from collective memory. Ta Nehisi Coates put it similarly, speaking of the experience of black people in the US;
“There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. This legacy aspires to the shackling of black bodies”
We need not change the name of this country, from a “direction” (South Africa is not a name but a direction) to attempt to conceal its heritage and legacy. A carefully crafted storyline of new beginnings was all that was needed. Interestingly, this new storyline didn’t only provide us with hope, but also obscured the continuities in the present, of a history of unresolved activisms, extraction, migration, betrayals and unfulfilled promises. With continuities obscured, history leaves the surface only to emerge in visuals “alive with possibility” until disturbed by burning paintings and overzealous policemen “doing their job”.
But that’s just on the surface, it’s what we accept as self-evident that’s more revealing. It is the acceptance as self-evident reality, the alienating performances of poverty porn, that black youth have to undertake to get access to institutions of higher learning. The children of Africans stand in long queues to perform their poverty, to have a fighting chance to access an education. Conversely, it is the same system that criminalises those who militantly say there must be “another way” rather than filling out numerous affidavits filled with the details of our lived poverty; Makhulu’s receipts for the pensions that never reach us all, to get an education that might not free us all. It is therefore unsurprising, as one of the poets in the Cape Town-based collective Whispers of Wisdom laments, that students display a sense of despondency and agitation with the pedestrian approach of the state and the university administrations;
‘‘Senzeni? Imfundo imahala emajele, kumele senze amacala siboshwe yhini?’
(What have we done? Education is free in jail, do we need to commit crimes to get it?)
Difficult questions emerge behind the inferno of tear gas, stun grenades and fire barricades that have come to find a home on campuses alongside the beautiful manicured gardens and water features. What happens when the aesthetic appeal of rhetorical hope or social cohesion is emptied of meaning? What happens when the praise singers of Rainbowism can no longer, with “political messaging” and “branding”, conceal the continuities of settler colonialism and apartheid?
Mlandu. There is an assured and confident defiance about his gait. An urgency to finish this or the other, to move from this place to the other. An affinity to build sits restlessly alongside the impulse to destroy. “We must” he said as he pulled from his cigarette, “build the archive of Africanism and decoloniality”. This was the same “builder” who alongside and in struggle with others felt (and still feels I believe) it necessary to destroy Rhodes, his legacy and all he represents. I met him long before he was considered for a temporary prison number at Pollsmoor. May 2015, just before #Luister and months before #FeesMustFall or #Shackville for that matter. It was just after Rhodes had fallen, and at Rethink Africa we were interested in what the students meant by “decolonisation” and what a “21st century decolonised university looked like in form, character and content”. We were later to be hosted by the #RhodesMustFall movement a week before the start of #FeesMustFall in 2015, for an Insourcing and Living Wage march at UCT on October 6.
Furthermore, the student struggle has shown us that we must caution against exceptionalising or even essentialising the campus as a space of resistance, when the townships and villages of our country have never stopped burning. It is this inferno of ongoing resistance in our communities, with causes as numerous as the unsolved grievances of our people, that gives birth to many of the leaders of this movement, which is often depicted as leaderless. To understand this nexus between the township, shop floor and ivory tower, as Mlandu suggests below, is to understand the root of the conflict and its associated tactics and militarisation;
“I don’t like going home, damn that place, it freaks me out, but at the same time there is this love-hate relationship with that place, and the love is obvious because it’s the only place I call home, the memories are there…. I curse that we have happy memories in that hell.”
More important, the generation Masixole emerges from has done more than most to shatter the glassy palace logic of locating black people and their experiences geographically and aspirationally at the periphery of human knowledge, initiative and progress. The student movement has done two notable things which, even if the militarised state response destroys the bodies of those who lead it, they will have bequeathed to us a great gift in defiance.
First, they have exposed alongside others in the Black Consciousness and pan Africanist tradition, the unfortunate act of celebrating townships (as spatial representations of black pain) as spaces of nostalgia, resistance and recreatable positive memories, rather than places, as Eric Miyeni wrote, “where the butchers of the horror that was apartheid sent us to die of disease, filth and self-hate”.
Second, the students have highlighted the need to bring the struggles and vagaries of township life and black pain to the affluent centres of South Africa’s elite establishment. Viewed in this way, the university is seen as a site of contest around not only ideas, but a tactical testing ground for the decolonisation of society as a whole. To bring a shack (even in protest) into the university not only unsettles the sensibilities of the powerful and well-heeled, but just like the Seskhona Peoples Movement it brings the housing, sanitation and other delivery challenges (in sum, the conditions of inhumanity) of Khayelitsha to the doorstep of Rondebosch and Constantia.
It is a method both of conscientisation and the sharpening of a contradiction; black modes of being, cognising and protest are intentionally excluded because blacks are seen as incapable on their own to contribute to the body of universal knowledge. It becomes important to show people that the normative set of white value systems that produced the seemingly isolated Penny Sparrow, Chris Hart et al. acts of “public racism”, also daily produces material and dehumanising outcomes for blacks. To do this, the well-concealed eyesore of Khayelitsha is brought to UCT packaged in faeces and zinc for all to see. Much similar to what unsettles the institutional establishment about someone like Dr Lwazi Lushaba for instance, and the resistance that has emerged about his teaching of decolonisation and centring of the #RhodesMustFall movements’ experiences in his politics classes. He argues that a decolonised education;
“…is the one that enthuses, that fills us with enthusiasm and the need and energy to go back to our communities and resolve the problems that face our communities”
So aside from being an astute use of tactics and careful selection of issues, the #RhodesMustFall, Shackville and #FeesMustFall struggles serve as a catalytic and complementary re-ignition of existing struggles in post-apartheid South Africa and the re-humanisation of black people.
The glaring embers of burning tyres at midday compete for space with tear gas and later with broken shop windows to accompany the orchestra of struggle songs that remind us we have been here before. It reminded me of a visual I had seen of the looting in Bophuthatswana on the eve of Lucas Mangope’s descent from power. As Ta-Nehisi Coates, argues, forgetting this history serves to “obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth’”in defence of property. No demand, no matter how just, is ever met without this violent defence. But beyond this, it has a subtle bearing on the normative and intellectual edifice society uses as a yardstick to gauge moral and public support for the students’ tactics and cause. As Coates similarly observes in a letter to his 15-year-old son;
“Remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”
When the same universities, as they have already started to do, extract and package the intellectual capital of the students who are shot in the sanctuary of their residence rooms, we must not be surprised. We must remember those who called for the students to be treated like hooligans, thugs and unrelenting criminals. We must remember them, and have these memories as “receipts” of the history whose archive the those languishing in prison have contributed to building, alongside many others.
“Black people have found comfort”, Masixole bellowed out, “in uncomfortable conditions.” It is in this uncomfortable inheritance that our campuses and prisons become a test tube for the experiment whose outcome is uncertain. Those incarcerated are as much essential to the dialogue needed as those who currently occupy power; it is in this vein that I join those who call for the release and the lifting of suspensions, expulsions and other sanctions and the removal of heavy-handed and violent police and private security on all campuses. If we do not, we will dance around the carcass of the wasted lives of our best, and use their sacrifices for well-written papers presented at conferences that dislocate “public institutions” from the psychological, spiritual and material concerns of Gugulethu, Ngangelizwe, kwaNobuhle, Giyani, Botshabelo and Khayelitsha. DM
In other news...
South Africa is in a very real battle. A political fight where terms such as truth and democracy can seem more of a suggestion as opposed to a necessity.
On one side of the battle are those openly willing to undermine the sovereignty of a democratic society, completely disregarding the weight and power of the oaths declared when they took office. If their mission was to decrease society’s trust in government - mission accomplished.
And on the other side are those who believe in the ethos of a country whose constitution was once declared the most progressive in the world. The hope that truth, justice and accountability in politics, business and society is not simply fairy tale dust sprinkled in great electoral speeches; but rather a cause that needs to be intentionally acted upon every day.
However, it would be an offensive oversight not to acknowledge that right there on the front lines, alongside whistleblowers and civil society, stand the journalists. Armed with only their determination to inform society and defend the truth, caught in the crossfire of shots fired from both sides.
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Terry Pratchett forged his own sword from iron and meteorites purely for the occasion of the awarding of his knighthood.