“Rendered here is an array of interpretations of what it means to be fully human, queer and African – three categories of identity often misconstrued as mutually exclusive. The stories collected in this volume give a kaleidoscopic peek into the many ways in which Africans inhabit ‘queerness’, giving fine grained texture to the lives and experiences of those whose humanity is routinely denied.”
– Barbara Boswell, in the Introduction of Queer Africa 2
The vignette above is taken from the introductory chapter of the recently published Queer Africa 2 book. The book is a compilation of queer centred stories predominantly from different parts of the African continent. Boswell’s introduction highlights that queer people in South Africa and in other parts of the African continent are often denied full humanity. The book, Queer Africa, claims space for queer Africans, boldly asserting queerness where it is habitually denied.
Books like Queer Africa are necessary because they celebrate queer life, but they are also necessary because queer lives are still oppressed in many parts of South Africa. Just a week or so ago rural queers were under attack from the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa). The Eastern Cape Chairman of Contralesa, Chief Mwelo Nonkonyana, while attending the funeral of the Xhosa senior royal member Chief Mthetho Ngubesizwe Sigcawu, said that there will be no land allocation for same-sex couples in rural communities. Reported in the Daily Dispatch, Chief Nonkonyana said, “In our rural areas we will never demarcate residential land for any man who is married to another man, not because we punish them, but because sites are according to our practices and are demarcated for a married man who has a wife.” Furthermore, Chief Nonkonyana shared that “According to God’s law, man should marry a woman. Same-sex union is not only anti-God but also un-African.”
Of course, we have come to expect statements like these from Contralesa leaders. Who can forget their display of contempt for same-sex couples during the debates about same-sex marriage in 2006? Also unforgettable is their audacious proposal that the anti-discrimination clause against sexual orientation be removed from the Constitution. Contralesa has a consistent anti-same-sex relationship record. So when these reports about no allocation of land for married same-sex couples in rural communities, it did not come as much of a surprise. But although it is not surprising, it is still unjust.
The notion that same-sex love is “un-African” is a deeply held belief that doesn’t seem to diminish even with overwhelming historical evidence proving the existence of homosexuality on the continent.
My own research on the lives of married same-sex couples is evidence of the continued existence of same-sex couples. There are countless publications about the lives of African queer people, but the leaders of Contralesa want to negate African queer existence.
Chief Nonkonyana uses the notion of “God’s law” as a basis for discriminating against married same-sex couples in the allocation of land in rural areas. The last I checked in South Africa the Constitution is the law and the Rights of LGBTI citizens are protected under the Constitution.
The statements made by Chief Nonkonyana unveil the “contradictions” that emanate from our progressive constitution, where the Rights of LGBTI people are presented as clashing with customary law.
There is a “clash” only because there is a bias and limited reading of “African” culture. It is my view that Chief Nonkonyana has a limited view of “African” when he says same-sex love is “un-African.” It is a construction of same-sex love as outside Africa while we are living evidence that we are inside Africa and African-ness.
With all of that said, I am also wondering if there is an inherent contradiction between “ethnic” and/or “tribal” identity and citizenship. Can one be fully invested in being a good citizen of a country like South Africa, but still be heavily invested in “ethnic” and/or “tribal” identity? Wasn’t the problem with the pre-1994 political dispensation exactly this, a dogmatic investment in white tribalism?
Chief Nonkonyana presents Xhosa culture as something that has never changed as if it’s been static over centuries. While we know that Xhosa culture, like most cultures, is dynamic and ever changing, and how it is interpreted depends on the politics of the day.
Also, what belongs under “Xhosa culture” is practised differently in many parts of the Eastern Cape and parts of the Western Cape and in Xhosa communities that live in Johannesburg. Chief Nonkonyana assumes that we live the same, we love the same, and that the values held by him and Contralesa are the only Xhosa “African” values there are.
Chief Nonkonyana says that by not allocating same-sex couples land he is not “punishing them” but “land is for a married man who has a wife.” If a same-sex couple is denied land in their rural community, of course, they will experience this as punishment. No land allocation has deep consequences for the quality of life for same-sex couples in rural communities, it affects their belonging needs, and it affects the inheritance of their children or other loved ones. The homophobia inherent in the statements by Chief Nonkonyana has material consequences for same-sex couples.
The threat that there will be no allocation of land for same-sex couples is an abuse of power by Contralesa Chiefs. The statements by Chief Nonkonyana unveil a bigger problem of Chief’s running amok in what was previously Bantustans. Chiefs who have appointed themselves sole trustees of communal land oppress people living in rural communities as demonstrated in the documentary This Land.
In This Land we learn that King Goodwill Zwelithini is the sole trustee of land that belongs to the people in Makhaseneni and sold mining rights on the land to Jindal Africa mining company. Soon after the mining began, the land and the water became contaminated and crops started dying. These are people who depend on their land. This has become an all too familiar story in South Africa’s rural communities.
Thiyane Duda, from the Land and Accountability Research Centre in the Department of Public Law at the University of Cape Town, has also written about the problems experienced by local communities in rural areas where chiefs act like they are sole heirs to communal land. The ANC government is complicit, as they do nothing about the dispossession of people in rural areas.
The struggles experienced by same-sex couples in rural communities and the struggles of rural people under corrupt chiefs is linked to the lack of government leadership in the country. The current South African government has failed rural communities over and over again. The statements made by Chief Nonkonyana are in line with the hostility that the South African government treats the poor. What is important for me here is that we recognise that the problem here is not same-sex couples or poor people from rural communities, the problem is corrupt chiefs who are able to oppress people in rural communities because they have support from a corrupt ANC government.
So how do we move on from here? Well, we must fight for the rights of those living in rural communities, and one way of fighting is through participating in the construction of laws that govern rural communities. As South Africans we have a bad record at participating in our own democracy, this needs to change if we are to hold leaders accountable. The Minister for Rural Development and Land Reform has published the Communal Land Tenure Bill and the Explanatory Memorandum for public comment. As members of the public, we are invited to comment on this bill. The bill is open for public comment until 7 September 2017. We must take this opportunity to push for the protection of communal land rights, and also the rights of other marginalised people with respect to land in rural South Africa. The bill can be viewed for comment on the government website http://www.gov.za/documents/communal-land-tenure-bill-draft-7-jul-2017-0000
“No Justice. No Pride.” describe themselves as “collective of organizers and activists” from DC, Washington comprising of “black, brown, queer, trans, gender nonconforming, bisexual, indigenous, two-spirit, formerly incarcerated, disabled, white allies and together” they “recognize that there can be no pride for some without liberation for all.”
Now, Pride disruptions are not new, they have occurred at almost every Pride cycle, the only difference now is that they are getting more publicity. It is perhaps the political climate we find ourselves in, – signified by the election of President Trump in 2016, and the continued murder of black men in the United States by white policeman with no accountability, no justice – that these disruptions are being taken seriously to the point of making the news.
Now as a South African queer person, who is involved in Pride politics in South Africa, the disruptions come as no surprise. In the past I have written about politics of Pride in Cape Town, and in a forth coming special issue of the academic journal Agenda on intersectionality, I have written about the disruption of Johannesburg Pride in 2012. I am interested in the politics of disruption because as a South African I am well versed in the politics of disruption, and my interest in the recent disruptions of Pride Parades is an interest in what disruptions are able to achieve. In light of these disruptions, it is worth thinking seriously about the politics of disruption.
In the past three years South African universities have experienced much disruption. What started with a group of black students calling for the removal of the statue of John Cecil Rhodes in the middle of campus at the University of Cape Town grew to be a national student movement comprising of student disruptions at different universities all over the country. The #RhodesMustFall movement was the catalyst for other #Fall movements, including the recent #FeesMustFall where students have been demanding free education.
What I want to highlight here is the on-going disruptions of university life. The University of Cape Town closed early in 2016 because it couldn’t function because of the #FeesMustFall disruptions. The #RhodesMustFall and then #FeesMustFall movements have spurned another movement, #DecoloniseEducation. The student movements have used the methods of disruption to be heard. The methods have been incremental in cases, where there was a march, and then the occupation of buildings, the occupation of classrooms – making it impossible to learn and teach, the closing of entry ways to university grounds, some of the tactics have lead to the destruction of university property. This has lead me, and many South Africans, to think hard about the politics of disruption. Disruption can be described as: to break apart, to cause a rupture, to throw into disorder, to prevent something – a process or a system.
What the student disruptions have done is halt the “everydayness of university life”, to say it is not business as usual. One of the biggest complaints about “change” inside South African universities is how the bureaucratic process – which often includes committee set-up upon committee set-up – is at best sluggish at addressing “change.” The disruptions at the universities have necessitated a new direction, because that’s what disruptions do; when they succeed they make you stop and think of a new way forward.
Of course disruptions are nothing “new” in the South African contexts, anti-apartheid methods involved all kinds of disruptions to fight the apartheid state. So disruptions have been part of South African politics, and with the “new” student movements the politics of disruption continues, and now also Pride parades are grappling with disruptions in 2017. I am interested in what disruptions do? How we think about them and most importantly what are the possibilities created by disruptions?
Bringing the conversation back to the Pride parade disruptions; there seems to be a similar threat running through many of the Pride Parade disruptions. Whether the disruptions took place in DC Washington, or Sea Point, Cape Town, or Toronto, Canada, or Rosebank, Johannesburg, the activists involved in the disruptions are all dissatisfied with the current politics, or lack therefore, of Pride. The activists that have spear headed disruption campaigns demand that Pride be more than just a party on floats. Now, although the demands on Pride parade organisers are slightly different in each particular case of disruption, there are many commonalities. The demands that are being made seem to be centred around:
That Pride does not engage social issues affecting other people within the LGBTI umbrella, people that are not middle-class and white and male and cis. Pride does not centre issues such as racism, gender inequality, Transgender Rights, Immigration Rights, and economic inequality. In the Cape Town context specifically, Cape Town Pride has been critiqued for being exclusive, negating black and coloured LGBTI communities that reside in the Greater Cape Town area.
Particularly in the context of the Israeli and Palestine conflict, Pride, in the Jewish state has been criticised for being a vehicle of Pinkwashing the Human Rights violation in the West Bank. For more on this, Sarah Schulman provides some food for thought.
What is interesting to me with these Pride disruptions is the reactions to these disruptions. Now, I want to speak specifically to the South African context, because it is a context I am living in and therefore interested in, but also because it is a context I am well versed in because of my proximity. The reactions from people within the LGBTI movement to the disruption of Pride parades have been divergent. The disruptions of Johannesburg Pride and Cape Town Pride have caused what one might call Pride Wars, where essentially there are two camps, those who support ideas about a more inclusive and political Pride and those who see nothing wrong with the current structure of Pride.
In the South African context, these two groups are shaped by race, geographical location, economic status, gender, ability, gender identity, and gender performance. In Cape Town Pride, the people who want Cape Town Pride unchanged, who want to keep the organising of the Pride exclusive, they are cis-gendered white men living middle class lives and reside in suburbs of the city. Black and coloured LGBTI people, and some white, mostly female activists are demanding a new direction for Pride, one that is political, one that is inclusive of the different races, genders, and accommodates people who are the working-poor.
Recently, I had a conversation on Facebook about the politics of Pride, and why Cape Town Pride is problematic, and how there is no transparency in how the Cape Town Pride is operated. When prompted on what are the issues are, I responded:
“There is an outright refusal to engage opinions about Pride that differ to the people who are seating on the Pride Board. There is a continued neglect of different ideas of what Cape Town Pride should and/or could be. My friends and I (and other people) have attended some of those Pride meetings in past years to volunteer. The Pride meetings we attended were not about generating ideas about Pride, but how we can help the already existing structures of Pride. We don’t want to just be marshals; we want to be involved in the conceptualising of Pride, where it takes place, theme choosing, the geography of the march, etc. so that we make sure it accommodates more than just white people from Sea Point.
In 2015 a group of activists came up with “Alternative Inclusive Pride” and they asked for inclusivity and openness when it comes to Pride.
There are many unanswered questions about Pride. There is NO transparency.
• Who seats on the Board? Who CAN seat on the board?
• When does the Board vote?
• Who can vote?
• Why are Cape Town Pride meetings not publicly announced so all who are interested can attend? Not just “come and volunteer” meetings when all decisions have already been taken about Pride.
Some of the critiques against Cape Town Pride is that decisions about Pride are taken behind closed doors, and there is no accounting for the said decisions. One of the long-standing issues is the location of Pride. Must Pride always be in Sea Point/Greenpoint? The answer to this question is not so important, but the discussion that leads to that answer is what is important. It cannot be taken for granted that Pride must be in Greenpoint. As if all of Cape Town’s LGBTI people live in the immediate areas.
We can’t pretend that apartheid legacy is not with us. We can’t pretend that there are no structural issues that impede working-poor LGBTI people to attend costly Pride events. We can’t address these issues if we are not at the important meetings.”
Interestingly, my response above was in a thread on my social media account about a recent study that found that racism is endemic amongst gay men. What was interesting was the headline of the article that read, “shocking study finds racism endemic amongst gay men.” My response to the headline was ‘shocking for whom’? I doubt if the Black Lives Matter activists who disrupted Toronto pride would be shocked, I doubt if the One In Nine campaign women who orchestrated the disruption of Johannesburg Pride would be shocked, and I know for a fact that my friends and I and other LGBTI people of colour were not shocked by the results of the study because we all have experienced the racism first hand at gay establishments.
These spaces are marketed as “gay bar”, but really should be marketed as “white gay bar.” The “shocked” headline reads a bit disingenuous because LGBTI people of colour have been decrying the racism within the LGBTI spaces for a long time. There are so many blog posts and op-eds about the racism experienced by people of colour on dating websites and dating apps. Some of these written pieces can be found here, and here, and here.
The fact that this study is “shocking” points to a political problem within LGBTI spaces, a problem of not taking seriously the issues raised by non-white, non-cis, non-male LGBTI people. So the study that reveals the racism, and the subsequent “shock” the study prompts from mostly white LGBTI people, enables one to understand why there are Pride parade disruptions. The ignoring of the demands of certain demographics within the LGBTI movement has become so chronic that it necessitates the disruption of Pride to bring these issues to the fore. The question becomes, of course, how do we move forward after the disruptions.
Well, I imagine there are multiple ways of moving forward, chief amongst those is to have open discussions about the Values of Pride, and be committed to creating a Pride that represents LGBTI people and their concerns as whole as much as possible. Before all of that can take place, Pride organisers need to have a politics, a politics that understands the context in which Pride is taking place.
To be able to understand the context, that is the city – the province – the country, that Pride is taking place means genuinely involving local organisations, local activists, and local lay people in the organising of Pride. When a Pride organising committee consists of only cis-gendered white men, and one black person – for posturing – that committee is off to a really bad start. Having one person of colour in a Pride organising committee does not inclusivity make.
Part of the solution of Pride politics lies in the understanding of intersectionality, and adopting a frame of Pride organising that is not blind to intersectional politics. I have made this argument elsewhere discussing the disruption of Johannesburg Pride, and I will re-enforce the argument here. What Pride needs is an acute understanding of intersectionality. This seems self-explanatory but as we have seen with the continued disruptions of Pride and the continued hostility from Pride organisers, understanding of intersectional politics is lacking.
I use intersectionality in the same vein as Kimberle Crenshaw conceived it; in that it helps us understand that our lives are affected by our social position and our identities. The relative smoothness or the difficulty with which we move in society is because of our identities and social position. We each have multiple social identities, and these social identities intersect with each other to give us unique experiences in the world.
For example, a black gay man and a white gay man although both are men and probably can share stories about experiencing homophobia, they experience the world in different ways because of race. The difference in racial experience intersects with their maleness, and their gayness with divergent results. The racial experiences of these two men translate to having radically different ideas/experiences/feelings about their sexuality and their manhood. This is made more complex if you consider other issues like socio-economic background of the two men, their educational background, their gender performance and expression, and the list goes on. In South Africa this is complicated further by the history of apartheid where economic inequality is distributed along racial lines, and is also gendered.
Why is this important for Pride? Well, it is important for Pride because the Pride disruptions have been centred around the silences on issues affecting different demographics under the LGBTI umbrella. It is important because as Kath Weston once wrote “gender is about race is about class is about sexuality is about age is about nationality is about an entire range of social relations” and the implication is that we can’t bypass these issues in LGBTI Pride if we are serious about inclusivity which are part of the Values of Pride.
Pride organisers don’t seem to care about racism affecting LGBTI people of colour; I mean there’s even a study proving that gay men are racist. Pride organisers don’t seem to care about the working-poor LGBTI people; high non-negotiable entrance fees to Pride events that poor LGBTI people can’t afford demonstrate this. It is when pride organisers understand that South Africa is a post-colonial state with post-colonial issues that we can move forward.
It important that Pride organisers keep in mind that apartheid legacies such as apartheid geography still exist, and so when the decisions are being made about where the Pride parade should be, those decisions should take into account that other LGBTI people do not live in the city centre – and they don’t live in the city centre because of history.
Taking all of this into account, how apartheid legacy shapes South Africa, how gender injustice shapes our society, and how economic inequality is at the core of why Cape Town Pride is mostly white, we begin to see why Pride is experiencing disruptions. It is only when the importance of inclusivity within Pride, the recognition and engagement with “other” people’s struggles along with their sexual identities, will we see and experience a more united Pride.
Somizi Mhlongo is probably South Africa’s most popular gay celebrity, this past weekend he walked out of Grace Bible Church because of homophobic preaching. The pastor at the church was preaching that homosexuality is not found in nature, that dogs and lions do not practise homosexual behaviour. After walking out of the church, Somizi posted videos on his Instagram account talking about his ordeal at the Grace Bible Church. I was surprised that Somizi Mhlongo actually went to church. I am always under the impression that interesting people, worldly people, fabulous people, artists, academics, and generally people who don’t give a f*#% don’t go to church.
Of course, like most homophobes, the Ghanaian Bishop Dag Herward-Mils thought he was being clever, referencing nature as proof of the unnaturalness of homosexuality. The bishop is blithely oblivious to the hundreds of examples of homosexuality in the “natural” world. You can read more about these examples, here, here, and here.
According to Wikipedia “no species has been found in which homosexual behaviour has not been shown to exist, with the exception of species that never have sex at all. Moreover, a part of the animal kingdom is hermaphroditic, truly bisexual.” There are hundreds of studies that have debunked this widely held belief that homosexuality is not found in animals, indeed it is thriving in animals.
Also, the idea that “not even animals are homosexual” used by Dag Herward-Mils is based on the assumption that humans are above animals. The notion that we don’t do what animals do because we are better than animals is rubbish. We are a kind of animal. We are part of nature, no matter how far we try and distance ourselves from it. In fact, some environmentalists will argue that it is the problem, that we have distanced ourselves from nature so much and this has lead partly to environmental problems. Humans are not an entity existing outside of nature – we are part of it. The view that sexuality exists on a spectrum has been around since the publication of Alfred Kinsey’s study on “The Sexual Behaviour of the Human Male” in 1948. So the varied ways we experience and express our sexuality is part of the human experience. I doubt if Dag Herward-Mils has ever heard of Alfred Kinsey, or any other study about human sexuality for that matter.
I wonder if we show bishop Dag Herward-Mils that homosexual behaviour does exist in animals, will the bishop approve of homosexuality then?
This is not the first time the church in South Africa is implicated in homophobic rhetoric. The church has a history of homophobic speech throughout post-apartheid South Africa. There was the resistance of the inclusion of the protection of sexual orientation against discrimination in the South African constitution. Once the protection of sexual orientation was included in the constitution, there have been a number of talks about having it removed. The church was resistant to same-sex marriage. Church leaders and members of churches have been known to gather at Gay Pride marches in protest of Gay Pride. There was the court case of the lesbian woman that was dismissed by the Methodist Church because she revealed to her congregation that she was marrying her girlfriend. The homophobia in the church has never been shy, and so this incident with Somizi Mhlongo is an incident in a long line of homophobic incidents.
In the past I have written about how I view the church and the construction of Jesus as violence on black people. My views on black people and the church are clear: black people have no business in believing in god and the concept of Jesus. The concept of Jesus is enslavement. It is a concept designed to tame people, to make people unquestioning, to make people passive in their approach to life’s issues because something out there will solve their problems. It is a tool to quell, a tool to create a submissive population of believers instead of agitators. Therefore my view on black queers and the church is the same: black queers have no business in attending church and believing in the imported story of Jesus.
The most important question for me in this whole Grace Bible Church saga is: what are black queers doing at church? What is Somizi doing attending Grace Bible Church? Grace Bible Church has a “statement of faith” on their website that reads:
“With regards to sexual behaviour, we believe in heterosexual relationships between a natural man and a natural woman within the confines of lawful matrimony. Adherence to this stated principle of sexual behaviour is an inherent requirement of membership of Grace Bible Church.”
In other words, this is a place that has made it clear that it does not want Somizi. In one of the Instagram videos posted by Somizi, he laments that the church must state clearly that it does not want, or like LGBTI people. The “statement of faith” is a clear indication that the church does not endorse LGBTI people. It is clear to me in this statement that Somizi was never welcomed at this church. What is puzzling to me is not that the church is homophobic, that is expected, what I am struggling with is why did it take him so long to realize the church hates him. Why does he think THIS church won’t be homophobic when homophobia and other forms of discrimination are the bedrock of the church?
Let me be clear here, even if the church didn’t have this statement, I would still ask the same question: what are black queers doing at church?
I really wasn’t interested in engaging the Grace Bible Church “debate” but the violence of the church on black queers necessitates that I write this.
I have attended the funerals of black queers in South Africa. I have had conversations with my black queer friends about the omission of not only the sexual orientation of diseased black queers, but the omission of life partners, all to save face for the church.
I have seen black bishops like Dag Herward-Mils who preach homophobic hate on the Sunday sermon, but don’t make the connection of the hate they preach to the brutal often fatal violence experienced by black queers, particularly gender non-conforming black queers. The black queers who have survived physical and sexual assaults have told stories of how the perpetrators use the language of “not even dogs do this” or “this is the way God intended it.” With this in mind, I find the statements made by the Grace Bible Church spokesperson Ezekiel Mathole when interviewed by Eusebius McKaiser deplorable. To speak about the homophobic position of the church as if it doesn’t have consequences for people is irresponsible. This is not only irresponsible for Grace Bible Church, but it is irresponsible for all churches in South Africa.
The church in South Africa gets away with murder with being able to preach homophobic hate, and then turn around and call it their “biblical view”, their scripture, while black bodies are mutilated by people using the same rhetoric as the church. The homophobic taunts and jeers that black queers experience on a daily basis are partly born in the church rhetoric. The people who violate us are granted permission and then immunity by the church because people have “the right to believe” their homophobia and to preach their hate speech according to Mr. Ezekeil Mathole.
In South Africa there is a fear of the church. There is often a quiet diplomacy on the wrong doings of the church. The church has too much power in this country. The constitutional ruling on the case of the lesbian Methodist preacher who was let go from her post after she announced intention to marriage is indicative of the power of the church. Even the Constitutional Court shies away from calling the church into order. I am not going to be silenced by the church. What bishop Dag Herward-Mils said at Grace Bible Church is hate speech. That type of speech has no place in a constitutional democracy, in a country that’s recovering from a history of discrimination.
As I have shared before, I find it puzzling that black people are united in the idea of fighting against white imperialism, but do not see the church and the construction of Jesus as part and parcel of white colonial ideology. Jesus, just like Jan Van Riebeeck came on a ship. Jesus might as well have been on the Dromedaris. The concept of Jesus is as foreign as the Jacaranda tree in South Africa. As far as I am concerned, you are not serious about anti-colonial politics if the construction of Jesus remains intact. In fact, I don’t think anti-colonial politics can work with the ideology of believing in a white God and white Jesus that black people are supposed to pray to and submit themselves. The psychological calamity is of epic proportions. You don’t have to go far for evidence of the church madness; black people are eating grass, and drinking petrol for salvation. There is video evidence of this madness, here and here. The one that really gets me is the buckets of money; I mean literally buckets of money black people give to the church.
The church is a place of hate production. The venom that has also been unleashed by churchgoers on social media platforms in the aftermath of the Grace Bible Church incident is indicative of the hate. The homophobic statements uttered by Dag Herward-Mils are the kind of statements the church thrives on. The statements are not shocking, they are something we expect from the church, which is why the church is not a place for black queers, and not a place for blacks in general. Black people need to abandon the church. Black people need to abandon the fictitious idea of Jesus.
As for Somizi Mhlongo, he has an interesting life and doesn’t need Grace Bible Church. He is probably South Africa’s best choreographer and certainly the most famous gay South Africa celebrity, and I think he should follow in Kathy Griffin’s famous footsteps and tell bishop Dag Herward-Mils “Jesus can suck it.”
It was just last week that my friend with a daughter in Model C high school in the northern suburbs of Cape Town was telling me about having to send an e-mail to the Mathematics teacher because the teacher made comments about the daughters hair. The daughter’s hair is in a natural mini Afro.
So when I was reading about the protests by black girls at Pretoria High for Girls this weekend, I immediately thought about my friend’s daughter. The administration at Pretoria High School for Girls, like many white South Africans, does not take seriously the dignity of black people.
Maybe it is good a good time to insert here that the South African Constitution, in the Bill of Rights, guarantees for everyone – including black girls – a right to human dignity. It reads, “Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected.” The administrators at Pretoria High School for Girls and other Model C schools in South Africa seem to ignore this important right while formulating “general appearance” guidelines.
In South Africa, lip service is paid to the idea of human dignity but there is a lack of respecting this right in practice. In other instances we speak of human dignity, but we have caveats, we say human dignity for all but not for the sex-worker, not for the homosexual, not for the gender non-conforming bodies, not for the black foreigner, not for the poor, and not for women.
Instinctually I want to say, how crazy is it that South Africa has a population that is more or less 80% black, but it is that black 80% that needs to modify to fit into European beauty ideals. I stop myself because although it is “crazy” because it is unjust – because it should not be so – it not crazy in that there is a history that leads us here. It is 350 plus years of colonization and then apartheid that brought us here. It is years of missionary education that was premised on racism. South Africa has a long history of denying black people their dignity, hence the specific inclusion of human dignity in the Constitution.
In South Africa we don’t always acknowledge the full impact of colonialism on present day society. In South Africa we are discouraged from engaging the history of colonialism. The history of colonialism is often neglected in discussions about race and racism and the creation of a democratic South Africa. Statements such as “we need to move on” are often used when colonialism is brought into a conversation.
What have those years done to our collective historical psyche?
What we need to interrogate and ask is why do we not engage more with colonialism and the effects of colonialism? We have a museum for apartheid, we have one for District Six, we have the Voortrekker Monument, but as my Boyfriend once asked, where is the museum or memorial for colonialism? Are we to pretend that the 300 years preceding 1948 never happened?
I suspect the answer to the colonialism museum question has to do with who has the power, – monetarily, socially, and otherwise – to realise such a museum. Building a colonialism museum would imply that there will be a place where we can go and engage with colonialism and its legacy. And yes, it would be a museum of horrors. It would be a museum where the violence of whiteness is on proper display, where it is obvious.
Instead of thinking hard about colonialism and then apartheid and their legacies, in South Africa we are encouraged to “move on” and “leave the past in the past.” This is a futile exercise of course because the past is not in the past; the past is here with us and the protests by black girls at Pretoria High School for Girls is evidence of this.
You might ask what does colonialism and then apartheid have to do with the protests at Pretoria High School for Girls?
We are often blind to the ways that we are all affected by colonialism. The fantasies that white South Africans still have about black people are palpable. You see part of what colonialism has bequeathed on us is the investment in an authoritarian Christian nationalist ethos. The bizarre notion that imposing rules on how you look will instill “discipline” and make students excellent – as if you think with your hair. South African schools really need to rethink the dressing codes, the school prayers, the school songs, and school traditions that were part and parcel of the colonial and then apartheid regimes. The problem at Pretoria High School for Girls is real and its 3 centuries in the making.
The rules and regulation of grooming practices for black girls at Pretoria High School for Girls has everything to do with our colonial past and then apartheid. These grooming practices were established during colonial and then apartheid years. The idea that black people’s grooming practices must be monitored is as old as 1562. The ways that black girls are treated at Pretoria High School for Girls, and other Model C schools is rooted in the ways colonialists and then the apartheid regulated the “neatness” of black bodies.
The language of “neatness” is still part of the guidelines of Model C schools. It is used to discipline black girl’s bodies in order for their bodies to closely reflect the dominant European ideal. It is when the black girl’s hair does not reflect the European ideal that it’s “neatness” is called into question. Talk about a need for decolonising the South African schooling system.
The black girls who get into trouble with Model C school administrators are not black girls with “properly” combed European looking weaves, it is not black girls who do their hair in the “ordinary” way – an ordinary that pleases the white administrator. It is the black girl with an Afro. It is the black girl with dreadlocks. It is the black girl whose hair pronounces I am black and I know it and I love it.
Many white South Africans, including white teachers at Model C schools, have not caught up with a post-apartheid South Africa that is supposed to be rid of racism. How is it ok for a white schoolteacher to think that it is acceptable to call a black girls hair a “bird next”?
Some white South Africans might have missed it, but whiteness just isn’t what it used to be. But you see blackness is also not what it used to be. As demonstrated by #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall, and now #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh with regards to whiteness and previously whites only institutions, it is not business as usual anymore.
The black girls at Pretoria High School for Girls are a clear demonstration that blackness is not going to be lived in ways that pleases white administrators at Model C schools. Black girls at Pretoria High School for Girls are fighting back. They are fighting for their dignity. They are fighting to exist in a South Africa where their being is not measured against European standards of beauty disguised in discourses of “proper grooming.” Black girls shouldn’t be policed like this. In fact there’s already too much policing that girls experience what with the patriarchal culture that we live under, teachers cannot and shouldn’t be part of the policing. They should be helping high school girls forming positive body image.
What is taking place at Pretoria High School for Girls is shocking because black girls in high school shouldn’t have to protest for their dignity and their identity to be valued and respected. However, what is happening there it is not surprising. Model C schools have been mistreating black pupils all throughout the post-apartheid period. We have had reports of schools not allowing black languages to be spoken in class. We have seen schools with very questionable admissions policies.
Who can forget Simphiwe Dana deciding to move from Cape Town to Johannesburg so that her children can have access to good schools that offer black languages? So, no, this is not surprising. The black students I have met at university who went to Model C schools speak of the racism experienced at these schools. They speak of the pressure to assimilate to whiteness. Students are denied the Right to speak their mother tongues in Model C schools, and in addition they pick up a distinct “Model C English” accent. For most of us high school was tough, but there is a particular self-loathing that is produced by Model C schools.
The reaction from the school authorities towards the protests by black girls at Pretoria High School for Girls is disgusting. It is apartheid style tactics of making the school a victim with teachers speaking of being “threatened and scared”. This is a typical whiteness response when white people and white institutions are called into order about their racism.
White South Africans are so used to treating black people and black people’s bodies with disregard that when black girls demand to be treated with dignity, white teachers speak of feeling “threatened and scared.” Of course the irony is that the white teachers are blindly unaware of the “threat” they pose to black girls identities and self-worth. They are blindly unaware how “scared” the black girls must be to have to put themselves in the line of fire with the school administration. Also, what about the fear that the teachers place on black girls who have to extensively calculate the “appropriateness” of their hair with every new hair do.
It’s impossible to miss the gendered nature of hair “guidelines” or “general appearance” guides for schools as they are often designed for girls and much less is said about boys. Since Pretoria High School for Girls is a girl’s school, I imagine the policing must be doubly intense. We are already aware of the many ways that black women’s bodies are surveilled in society. Places like Pretoria High School for Girls institutionalize the policing of black girls bodies under “dress codes.”
In the policing of black girls bodies at this school, how do they deal with the diverse ways that gender is experienced and lived. I shudder to think how pupils at places like Pretoria High School for Girls who have gender non-conforming identities, or who are forming gender non-conforming identities. The violence that must be visited upon such pupils at a school that has dress and hair policies that are admittedly “conservative.”
The “rules must be followed” and “all schools have rules” response to the protests by the black girls at Pretoria High School for Girls is telling. Although it is a typical response from many South Africans who value authority and rules for their own sake, it is problematic. That “rules” must be followed even if the rules are unjustified, colonial, and affect the dignity of black girls is unacceptable.
This type of discourse is of course not unlinked to the “children must be seen and not heard” nonsense that allows for the silencing of children, where children learn to be silent even when they are being hurt. Rules do not exist in isolation. People create rules. Rules are created by appointed structures, by society with a particular agenda. Rules are set to encourage a particular way of being, of dressing, of styling. Rules are ideological, they embody the world view and assumptions of the economically and socially dominant group who govern institutions. They are underpinned by a certain way of seeing the world – what the world ought to be like. Rules are not objective. So rules that are anti-Afro are rules that are anti-black. Rules that are anti-dreadlocks are rules that are anti-black.
The problem with the white administrators at Pretoria High School for Girls and other Model C schools is symptomatic of the problem of white South Africa. White South Africans are not invested in, and they show no commitment in fostering a nonracial South Africa. It has been lamented time and time again that the people involved in the post-apartheid rebuilding of South Africa is black people.
White South Africans are more interested in living in gated communities with electrical fences and security guards than engaging with black people. In post apartheid South Africa white people still have not taken the time to learn more about the black cultures around them. The poverty porn in Cape Town and Johannesburg galleries and the occasional Sunday braai at a place like Mzoli’s doesn’t count.
White South Africans are still living with strangers, an ideologically far away people. There is very little effort from white South Africans engaging meaningfully with black people and black cultures, and that is why in 2016 schoolteachers can say racist things about black girls hair. That is why administrators are poorly handling the protests at Pretoria High School for Girls. That is why when black girls are screaming to be treated with dignity; they are met with “rules must be followed” responses.
There is a total disregard of the black girls personhood. In this climate, in this culture of ignoring the dignity of black girls, Maliaka Eyoh’s words, a grade 12 pupil at Pretoria High School for Girls, become that much more prophetic when she states, “When we stand together, our message is stronger. We understand that we cannot trust two old white men who work for other old white men to stand up and combat the injustice and incite the change we need.” Maliaka Eyoh understands that she has to fight for her dignity and the dignity of other black girls. She understands the poverty of white South African’s will to meaningfully engage with blackness.
Many South Africans are proud of the black girls of Pretoria High School for Girls. We are excited for the world these black girls envision for themselves. A South Africa that is not anti-black. A part of me, a big part of me wishes that these black girls didn’t have to do what they did. And as I wish this, I am reminded of one of my mother’s favourite 16-century English proverbs, “if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” A luta continua.
I was introduced to Majola’s album, Boet/Sissy by a friend who tagged me on Facebook. I immediately went online to have a quick listen, and then bought the album instantly. The subject matter of the album is of particular interest to me. The album focuses on the experiences of a black gay man, trying to make sense of the world. The album is the life journey of a black gay man predominantly sung in Xhosa. I love this album and I am with Majola in the politics of this album. This album is the epitome of being young, gifted, queer, and black. In this piece I embrace and celebrate Majola’s work talking to all the ways that this album resonates and inspires me. Boet/Sissy is a poignant reminder of the artistic talent in South Africa, but also of the myriad of stories we are yet to tell about what it means to live with the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality, in post-apartheid South Africa.
The first thing that grabs your attention about this album is the title. When I read about the album I was first amused and then really moved by the title Boet/Sissy. You see as an effeminate gay man, I know all too well the weight of the term Boet/Sissy. I’m also acutely aware of the venom that usually accompanies this phrase. Growing up in Xhosa culture (I believe this is the case in other black communities in South Africa) Boet/Sissy was, and to some still is, a derogatory term that is used to bash gay men, especially effeminate gay men. The phrase is directed at effeminate gay men for being men who “act” like women. So Boet (or in Xhosa Bhuti) represents the male side, and then Sissy of course represents the effeminacy. It is a term that is often used interchangeably with “talase” which is a word people call gay me. It is a term that suggests one has both male and female genitalia. So then Boet/Sissy and talase are used as derogatorily synonyms for each other. People who use these words as putdowns often don’t care about the “real” meaning of the words, but are only interested in using the words to shame and to hurt whoever is perceived to be of a different sexual orientation. With the risk of sounding too postmodern, Majola is reclaiming this phrase; he is taking back the power. For me, Majola uses the Boet/Sissy in a productive way, similarly to the ways in which we have reclaimed the word queer. The use of Boet/Sissy is also similar to the way academics and artists have found productive use of shame, shame associated with same-sex sexuality. Majola’s use of Boet/Sissy is a queer thing to do, therefore immensely political. The fact that the album is mostly sung in Xhosa, which means it is directed to a black audience, speaks profoundly of the politics Majola is engaged in. When I saw the name of this album, I immediately thought about the piece I wrote about the complexities of sexual identity and the Xhosa language. In the piece I try to come to terms with having no specific Xhosa words in everyday language to talk about the diversity of sexual and gender identity. This piece sparked a number of conversations over the radio, and it seems the conversation of sexual identity and language continues in a different form with Majola’s album.
In the beginning of the album, in the first interlude Majola is standing in front of a judge before he is sentenced to jail. So his first utterances in the whole album is “I stand in this court a man, fully aware that manhood is a narrowly defined subject within society.” This opening lines targets the narrow definitions of manhood, particularly black manhood that often positions black gay men as outside of manhood. And then Majola goes on to define what he thinks is a man. Although I like what he says, and I think that he is politically astute to issues of masculinity, I find the five interludes in the album interruptive.
After the first interlude Majola then proceeds to the first song, track number two. The track is named Khanyisa, and it starts with the birth of a boy named Khanyisa in 1985 (which incidentally is the year I was born). In the song he does this haunting repetition of “kwazalwa indodana” – a boy is born. As Khanyisa grows up, experiences life, trying to discover himself, he gets lost wondering through life. Khanyisa eventually meets a woman called Nobanzi who saves Khanyisa’s life. The friendship that Khanyisa has with Nobanzi restores him, as this woman loves him. The affection with witch the lyrics are delivered warms the heart. The song is almost homage to the relationship between black women and effeminate black gay men. I have these relationships. These relationships are what got me through high school. I would be nothing, nothing without the love and support of black women. The song sets the tone for the album in a way, as he deals with issues of light and darkness, getting lost and found, and eventually loving yourself.
The third track called Bawo – father – the word is also often used in reference to God. This song is an affirmation of the gay identity. Majola talks about a boy who is cursed out, really chased out by his father for falling in love with other men. Majola begs in this, asking why the father is rejecting the gay son, where will he go? What is this boy to do? There is a theme of redemption in this album, and in this song Majola then continues with the narrative of being lost and found. The gay boy who is cursed out by the father finds his way to the big city and his life spirals out of control. This is a powerful song that speaks to the lives of many lesbians, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTI) young people who escape home because of abuse. The homophobia experienced by young people is sometimes so intolerable that they would rather live elsewhere with friends or on the streets. Majola begs, and pleads for acceptance in this song. The piano keys coupled with Majola’s voice especially as the track fades towards the end has an incredibly haunting sound. I feel like this song is also speaking to the difficult relationship gay men often have with their fathers. A relationship of course that is mediated by the culture of patriarchy which often renders the gay boy useless, not man enough, and therefore not a good son. Having never had a real relationship with my own father, I can relate to this song. Majola is really engaging us in a conversation about masculinity and what it means to be a father to a gay kid.
The Xhosa tradition of men going to the mountain for circumcision is a topic often treated with kid cloves. In the song Mountain View Majola rejects kid gloves and sings about falling in love and having a relationship on the mountain with another initiate. Interestingly, this is the only song on the album sung in English. Majola is bold because not only does he have a love affair on the mountain with another dude, he then sings about it. It is a kind-of middle finger to the homophobic Xhosa culture establishment. Because of what the mountain represents, it is the last place one would expect a same-sex love affair to flourish. But then again, maybe it is the ideal place seeing that it is only men walking around naked often with their penises hanging out. Although men are often all alone on the mountain, there’s often nothing erotic about that space, on the contrary, it can be dangerously homophobic. Maybe Majola is trying to prove to us that you can find love anywhere. I have to say though, getting a boner is not ideal on the mountain seeing that you are trying to heal a wound on the penis. This has got to be the first romantic song about a love affair on the mountain during initiation. The love experienced on the mountain is depicted as raiser sharp. Hot. And saucy. Majola talks about learning to love another man and understanding love. Singing about the lover on the mountain he states: “He was kind to me, patience a gift from him. I understood love, and how to make love from that initiate in the mountain.” Although both men experience great love, the love doesn’t survive beyond the mountain. This is definitely one of my favourite tracks on the album. Audacious. And just awesome.
The second interlude is track number five where Majola talks about being different and the journey to self-love. “I have always felt different to other males, stares of disdain, the name calling, distant affection from elder males and sometimes the violence inflicted on me confirmed that I was indeed different. The price I paid for being different is the excruciating loneliness I felt. Accompanied by guilt, shame and stigma, I overacted being a man and still wasn’t man enough to many … I was a secrete friend to some, and a secrete lover to many. I thought I was deserving of secrete validation, someone had to take a stand for me, and to my luck that someone turned out to be Me.” – Poetic.
Then there’s the title track where Majola captures the anxiety of growing up gay in the township. He speaks of the warnings people often give to visibly gay kids where they warn the young gay about their deviant sexuality. When I was growing up, people would say that you will grow up and become like uNokuku. Nokuku is an effeminate openly gay man that lived in New Brighton and was well know in Port Elizabeth and the surrounding areas. I believe Nokuku still lives in Port Elizabeth. Nokuku is what all young gay kids were warned against, he was used as an example of what one should never be. Nokuku had cult status as an openly gay person in Port Elizabeth, the only gay in the village kind-of status. Majola also references the other warning issued to gay boys that they must not become like the men who are on the Felicia Mabuza Suttle show. You will remember The Felicia Show had a number of episodes that were about members of the LGBTI community. The reference made by Majola of course means that he grew up in the 1990’s, when Felicia Mabuza Suttle was a big talk show host assisting South Africa through the transition to democracy. In the song Majola also makes a reference to “Adam and Eve and not Adam and Steve”. Homophobic heterosexuals often quote this line as if it’s the smartest line ever invented. The phrase ‘it’s not Adam and Steve’ is often accompanied by unintelligent smugness. This phrase needs to die and be buried. In the chorus of the song, Majola repeats “ndingu boet/sissy” –I am Boet/Sissy. He asserts and affirms himself in the song that he is he what he is, “and so what?”
Imbali is the next track. It is a track about love. It’s a lovely tune, but it doesn’t do to me what the other songs do. It is a soft song, and Majola holds himself back as he sings the song. Which I suppose is a good thing for an artist to be able to have restraint. It’s plain song for me, and it is preceded by some really marvellous tracks, so it doesn’t shine that much.
Throughout the album there are references to bible scriptures. There is an interesting way that Majola plays with church references. “Khulula ezombadada” is the line said to Moses by God that he needs to take off his sandals because he is standing on holy ground. Sondela is a slow jam. It is about two men making love; it is made that much sweeter by the Xhosa lyrics. Majola speaks of listening to the body parts of his lover, and how these body parts encourage him as they become intimate. The song is beyond courageous. Majola poetically croons about his manhood and the manhood of his lover and all this is done with a persistent haunting sound in the background. My heart skipped a beat when I heard this song for the first time, I had to go back and listen again to make sure what I heard was correct. I am not going to even pretend that hearing a black male artist talk about two men being intimate on a record in Xhosa is not a bit of a mind fuck.
In the third interlude Majola does not shy away to speak directly to the political situation of the African gay. He directs his words to those that prosecute gays all over the African continent. Majola states: “My sexuality is used as political fodder to dissuade from real political issues. Men whose crime is to love other men fill up prisons that should be filled by men who snatch bread from hungry mouths. Who rape and murder daughters and sons of this land. Love is one of the greatest virtues to be possessed by any human being. To be prosecuted for the courage to love is the highest crime committed against life itself.”
After the third interlude there are three tracks that are similar in mood, Ndindedwa, Luthando, and Andizoncama. It is in these tracks that you hear the influence of church or choral music. Although the influence of church music, particularly black Methodist, is felt throughout the album, there’s something about these three tracks for me that really captures that essence. In the title track Majola does make a reference to the Methodist church where he carries the cross in the church procession, but is afraid when he leaves the church that there is a boy that will taunt him on the way home without anyone there to stand up for him. The influence of church music in the album is undeniable. Of course Majola follows in the footsteps of many black artists whose artistry has been “honed” in the church.
Interlude number four is all about loving men. Majola states: “I love men, I love the feeling of being held by another man. In another man’s arms I find comfort, safety, healing, escape, release, pleasure, and unspeakable joy.” These words reminded me of the beautiful piece written by Fumbatha May called a love letter to the black man in the Mail and Guardian. Fumbatha May writes a loving and inspired piece. After speaking these words in the interlude, Majola proceeds to one of the two up-tempo songs on the album. The name of the song is Zithande – Love yourself, which is really an anthem for gay people to practice self-love. Living in a world that is dominated by heterosexist institutions, it becomes political for LGBTI people to love themselves. Majola sings “funda ukuzithanda” – learn to love yourself. In this track I find Majola’s lyrics affirming and reassuring. The way he articulates ‘”learn to love yourself” one can’t help but think of the message of black consciousness, where black people are made to realize that loving themselves is a political act. So in the same way that black love is an act of resistance so is black queers loving themselves.
In queer circles, especially black queer circles Simon Nkoli need no introduction. In the song Simon Nkoli, Majola praises Simon for his activism in the anti-apartheid struggle, the gay liberation struggle, and also his involvement in HIV/Aids activism. Simon Nkoli was a hero and Majola gives him the honour and respect he deserves. In this song Majola gives Simon Nkoli the same reverence that Madikizela-Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko, and Nelson Mandela receive in Thandiswa Mazwai’sNizalwa Ngobani. Also in this song Majola continues his narrative of darkness and light as he speaks of Simon Nkoli as a light in the darkness. And for many black LGBTI people, Simon Nkoli was just that, a light. The up-tempo beat gives the song a celebratory feel, celebrating a man’s life spent trying to conscientise South African society. This album will now be part of the archive of black queer lives in South Africa, and the fact that it pays homage to legendary people like Simon Nkoli makes it even that much more poignant.
The fifth interlude is the sentencing of Majola from the judge who he stood in front of at the beginning of the record. The judge then proceeds to read his sentencing.
The closing track Majola sings about Ikhaya lam – my home. In this track he goes back to his melancholic sound that was interrupted by the two previous tracks. Interestingly, the question of home has been a topic of conversation within my friendship circle. I was born in Port Elizabeth. Many of my friends come from diverse backgrounds and different cities from all over the world, and the question of what is home is always a topic of discussion. Although I call Cape Town home, it is never without qualification. Majola asks for his home to take care of him, to protect him from the world. Home for Majola is a place where he finds safety, a place that offers protection. In this song Majola concludes with the narrative of darkness and light, talking about wanting protection from the darkness of the world. Again, it is hard to miss the biblical undertones. Bible references and all, Majola has given us an amazing piece of art. The album is a bold queer statement. The subject matter of this album is about what it means to be black and gay and live in South Africa. Majola takes us on a journey of a black gay boy, negotiating manhood, falling in love with other men, and experiencing rejection from family. Although one can claim universality in the experiences described by Majola in this album, this is an album about the life experience of a black gay boy. Majola bares himself and speaks his truth, and in the process holds a mirror for me to see myself and I am grateful for it.
As South Africans we are almost always complaining about the state of the nation. What we often don’t do is talk about the ways in which we can solve some of our problems, or at least move towards a direction of solving them. The local elections are upon us, and I propose that the whole country Votes Strategically. I propose that we don’t vote for whom we like, or who has historically been linked to us through our race, but to vote in ways that will unsettle the way power is organised currently.
Most of us are dissatisfied with how the ANC led government has ruled the nation, we are also dissatisfied with the way the DA led provincial government in the Western Cape has been operating. We have evidence everywhere of the ways the ANC led government has crippled the economy, is riddled with corruption, how it has run the Eastern Cape to the ground, etc. Although different, but we are also very aware of the shortcomings of the DA led government in the Western Cape. The city of Cape Town has been accused of being a hotbed of racism, and the leadership in the DA has been in denial about this for a long time. Although recently, they have created an anti-racism campaign, a well-intentioned campaign that is problematic as it does not address systematic racism but talks about it only from an individual level. The DA has also made some seriously dubious decisions about public land in the city of Cape Town. Recently the city shoes to sell public land to private individuals without consulting the public, and as pointed out by Reclaim The City the land could be used for public good or low cost housing.
Clearly having one dominant party with too much power is a problem. Political parties need to be kept in check by having a strong opposition. The DA has mostly been the strongest opposition to the ANC, and having this opposition has been good for certain parts of the country. Now we also have the EFF positioned to be a strong opposition nationally and provincially in certain parts of the country. This is good for our democracy to have different parties and different voices representing the people of South Africa. The diversification of parties in parliament and the people who represent us is good for debate but also having real power that can be exercised when people are not doing their jobs.
Now with Strategic Voting, we as South Africans should vote according to what will create healthy oppositions in political parties in all of the provinces. We should vote to unsettle political parties that have too much power in the provinces and by extension nationally. We should avoid voting for parties we belong to. We should avoid voting for parties we like and love. We should avoid voting for parties because we are racially aligned to them. We should avoid voting for parties that we are emotionally attached to. We should vote strategically for the good of the ward, the good of the province, and the good of the nation. We should Strategically Vote for what will be best for the people of South Africa as a whole. It shouldn’t be a given that the ANC will win local and national elections. It shouldn’t be a given that the DA will win elections in the Western Cape either. Although I think it is good that the DA is leading the Western Cape province, the DA still needs to be challenged by other parties so that it doesn’t rest thinking it doesn’t have to work for the people, all the people. Political parties need to know that ONLY when they work for the people will they stay in power.
With Strategic Voting I am suggesting that we vote for parties that will disturb the power of the dominant parties. For example, in the Eastern Cape, the ANC has had a very strong hold since the 1994 elections. The ANC led government has run to the ground the public health and the public school sector in the Eastern Cape. There are still mud schools and some public hospitals can’t even feed their patience. The poor management of the Eastern Cape’s public resources adversely affect poor people and we know poor people in the Eastern Cape are black people. The ANC has lost major support in the Nelson Mandela Bay, what used to be Port Elizabeth. The DA has gained support and is positioned to take the Nelson Mandela Bay. This is necessary for healthy oppositional political party politics. With the upcoming 3 August 2016 elections, it should be the Voting Strategy of everyone in the Eastern Cape to Vote for any party but the ANC. People in the eastern should vote for the UDM, the EFF, or the DA. And the real completion for the province should be between these non-yet-in-power parties.
Voting Strategically enables us to give a new party a chance to show us what they can do with the power they receive. For example, if the EFF ruled the Limpopo Province and the UDM ruled the Eastern Cape, we as a nation would be able to see if these parties are capable of running a province. Also Voting Strategically will also ensure that the same political party does not control the whole of South Africa. In this way power is spread in the provinces, and political parties understand that their positions in power are not guaranteed. Political parties need to understand through the power of the vote that an opposition can replace them. Maybe then they will be more likely to provide services to the people.
Strategic Voting is helpful for us in South Africa because we often are caught between the two horrible political parties. When elections come around, the biggest conundrum for us as South Africans is WHO DO YOU VOTE FOR in this fraught and corrupt political climate? South Africans often have to choose between the lesser of two evils when it comes to political parties. This is where a Strategic Voting systems becomes important because as citizens can vote to ensure that the power is not with political parties in parliament but with the people who Strategically Vote for the political parties in parliament.
Voting Strategically means that we will forever be changing our voting habits because our alliance does not start and end with a particular political party, but with the well being of the citizens of the country. Of course this is not a 100% full proof system, but it is a strategy that can be used to unsettle the power of the dominant party. Also, in unsettling the power of the dominant party, we need to be aware of replacing one dominant party with another. Voting Strategically is important if we are to change the results of the national elections in 2019. We as citizens need to work together to create a political landscape that is beneficial for all of us. With our votes we need to strategically create a future South Africa with political parties that are answerable to the people. This is possible, but we need to be strategic about how we vote.
So for the upcoming local elections, if you are unsatisfied with the local government, or you think the local government needs a shake up, look for the opposition in your area. You don’t have to like the opposition, but you can Strategically Vote for the opposition in your area. Of course, this is not done blindly, you still need to assess the worth of the opposition, but the voting is not about being emotionally attached to a party or a candidate, but what will be good for the country. Vote for what will unsettle the power of the dominant party. We need to be more involved as citizens in the running of our country. We need to be more assertive about what we want and what we will not tolerate as citizens. Democracy is not a spectator sport; we all need to do our bit for team South Africa. On the 3 August 2016, go out there and Vote Strategically.
The relevance of Peter Hudis’s Frantz Fanon: philosopher of the barricades on Frantz Fanon’s revolutionary ideas to achieving universal human emancipation cannot be overstated. Hudis has been instrumental in helping me make sense of the current student politics, amongst other things, in South Africa because he writes Fanon for our times. Hudis sees it as a matter of extreme importance that Fanon is read in context. Fanon mostly writes in the 1950’s and 1960’s. During this time the Algerian revolution is underway, African countries are “receiving” independence from Europe. The word “receive” independence is deceiving and therefore problematic. Firstly it’s as if Africa’s independence was Europe’s to give, and secondly wars were fought for independence, it was not given. Nonetheless … In 1960 alone 17 countries gained independence from Europe, most of which were French colonies in West Africa. The African national movements were instrumental to ensuring independence. A very specific time in history, with very particular politics, and all of that has to be considered when discussing Fanon’s thoughts and how they are applicable to the South African context in 2016.
This is not a book review. I am pulling out three sections from Peter Hudis’s book that are helpful in making sense of the current student protests in South African universities. Of course the philosophies of Frantz Fanon are applicable to life in South Africa beyond the academy. The three sections I take from the book, for me, speak to the complexity of the current political moment, but also how we can think through this moment. The sections I have decided to highlight and write about in thinking through our current political climate are: the lack of ontology of blackness, the necessity to engage colonialism as a genesis of where we are, and lastly Fanon’s ideal of achieving universal human emancipation. The selected sections from the book, I write about them insofar as they are relevant for us in South Africa.
The philosophies of Frantz Fanon have been part of the current student movements in South African universities. Lines like “we can’t breath” have become part of the vocabulary of the movements. This was a statement screamed out by Eric Garner in NYC when he was being strangled by white police officers. Before Garner popularised this powerful line, it was a much-quoted Fanonism: “When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.” Fanon has been heavily invoked in the student movements in university campuses all over South Africa. The current political climate at university campuses across the country necessitates a close, contextual reading of Fanon. It necessitates an engagement that asks, what does Fanon mean for us in the current South African political climate (which universities are part of), because surely what it taking place at the university is linked to wider social issues.
Peter Hudis’s book is invaluable in helping us think through the current political moment using Fanon’s philosophy as a guiding light. Fanon’s philosophies are powerful, and they contain within them the roadmap to liberation, but they require immense intellectual labour. We need a meaningful engagement with Fanon’s theories if they are to aid us in grappling with the current political moment. It is this considered engagement that will potentially aid us in formulating an appropriate response to the moment. This is why I think philosopher of the barricades is a necessary read for ALL of us interested in the current political moment. Firstly, this book helps us understand Fanon’s preoccupation with the lack of ontology (existence) of “blackness” – which I see at a point of departure in our engagement with the South African political moment. Hudis writes:
“Unlike the Jew, who (as Sartre discusses in ‘Anti-Semite and the Jew’) is over-determined by the view of themselves that they have interiorized from gentile society, blacks, Fanon contends, are ‘over-determined from the outside’ – that is, they are ‘slaves to their appearance.’ Colonial domination, a rather arbitrary social construction, creates over time a certain way of ‘seeing’, in which skin colour is presumed to have determinative importance. The individual becomes fixated on the supposed ‘fact’ of the person’s blackness. This defines not only the colonisers view of the colonized, but also the colonized view of themselves; they are ‘fixed’ and defined by the ‘gaze’ of the Other. Their ‘being’ is defined by the other – not by themselves. The black comes to see themselves as ‘black’ because of the distorted gaze of the white – who is unaware of the peculiar nature of colonial and racial domination. And since white society tends to associate ‘blackness’ with every negative trait imaginable – again, as a result of its need to justify its domination over them – blacks come to view themselves as inferior to whites. For this reason Fanon writes, ‘the black man (people) has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man (people).’ Ontology refers to the nature of being – it is the study of what constitutes the real. Fanon contends that there is no ontology of blackness, since ‘blackness’ is not a ‘natural’ reality – it is not a form of being that just ‘is.’ Blackness is instead a construct of specific social relations. It is produced, fabricated, not simply given. The black ‘exists’, as black, only in relation to the white: there is no pre-existing black essence that a black person can fall back upon. In other words, blacks ‘exists’ and are defined in negative self-relation to what they are NOT.” … Understanding this is a crucial starting point to understanding and genuinely engaging what’s going on around us.
Linked to the first point about the lack of ontology for “blackness”, a major problem with our analysis and discussions of the current political moment is the lack of historical context. Discussions about why we are where we are are often without any historical considerations. Racism as we have come to know it developed under very specific economic conditions of domination and exploitation such as slavery and colonialism. In South Africa colonisation is something we seem to skip over when we talk about our current political milieu, but it is the genesis of the struggle against white racism. It is the current student movements that have brought the issue of colonialism to the fore by demanding a decolonisation of higher education institutions. When the black students at campuses around the country are talking about economic hardships, having no access to residences, bringing a shack to campus to demonstrate the lack of housing not only on campus but in their communities, they are highlighting (intentionally or not) that the inferiority that plagues the black psyche has it’s origins in economic subjugation, but obviously thereafter “takes on a life of it’s own that surpass that of the economic.” So the socio-economic problem is not divorced from the psychological problem. In South Africa the phrase “human dignity” is often loosely thrown around without any real considerations on what it means for everyday life of black South Africans. This is something the ruling party is very guilty of doing. There is no dignity in poverty. There is no dignity in not having proper sanitation. Poverty is often wrongly framed as a personal failing, ignoring all the colonial history that created the social structure that enables poverty and sustains it. As Hudis demonstrates racism can only be overhauled by dealing with it on both the socio-economic and the psychological level. Hudis notes:
“Fanon adopts a socio-genetic approach to a study of the psyche because that is what is adequate for the object of his analysis. For Fanon, it is the relationship between the socio-economic and psychological that is of crucial import. He makes it clear, insofar as the subject matter of his concerned, that the socio-economic is first of all responsible for the affective disorders: ‘First, economic. Then, internalization or rather epidermalization of this inferiority.” Fanon never misses an opportunity to remind us that racism owes its origin to specific economic relations of domination – such as slavery, colonialism, and the effort to co-opt sections of the working class into serving the needs of capital. It is hard to mistake the Marxist influence here. It does not follow, however, that what comes first in the order of time has conceptual or strategic priority. The inferiority complex is originally born from economic subjugation, but it takes on a life of it’s own and express itself in terms that surpass the economic. Both sides of the problem – the socio-economic and the psychological must be combatted in tandem: ‘The black man (people) must wage the struggle on two levels; whereas historically these levels are mutually dependent, any unilateral liberation is flawed, and the worst mistake would be to believe their mutual dependence automatic.’”
“On these grounds he (Fanon) argues that the problem of racism cannot be solved on a psychological level. It is not an ‘individual’ problem; it is a social one. But neither can it be solved on a social level that ignores the psychological. It is small wonder that although his name never appears in the book (black skin, white masks), Fanon was enamoured of the work of Wilhelm Reich. This important Freudian-Marxist would no doubt feel affinity with Fanon’s comment, ‘Genuine desalienation will have been achieved only when things, in the most material sense, have resumed their rightful place.’” … In South Africa things are far from resuming their “rightful place” – The uprisings on campuses across the country are indicative of this. They are also symptomatic of a larger socio-economic and psychological national problem.
Lastly, Fanon’s ultimate goal was to create a roadmap to achieving universal human emancipation. Although he endorsed nationalism in Algeria and in other African states, Fanon understood that nationalism had limitations. In South Africa and in other Africa states we are very aware of the shortcomings (mostly downright failure) of national movements post-independence. The big question then becomes how do you achieve universal human emancipation, while endorsing nationalism? It is clear that Fanon’s wants us as black people, as Africans, to move us towards what he called New Humanity. Not the European kind of “humanity”. According to Hudis “Fanon’s central philosophy message is that instead of trying to copy or catch up with Europe, it is time to leave it behind – not because all of the values and ideas that arose from it were necessarily wrong, but because they remained unrealised by a Europe which speaks of “man” (humanity) while slaughtering man en masse. Europe has failed humanity; but humanity is not a failure. Its renewal IS possible.” So how do we achieve the New Humanity set out by Fanon while straddling nationalism and full emancipation? Hudis through Fanon seems to think that the seeming contradiction is a necessary one, a contradiction that we need to think through. This contradiction did not come about because of Fanon. “Rather, the contradiction is endemic to the revolutionary process itself.” Hudis states:
“‘Fanon’s commitments revealed a contradiction in his position that he, in effect, never fully resolved, between the wholehearted endorsement of nationalism, and his hope that it would nevertheless produce a nation prepared to transcend its limitations of nationalism.’ This is questionable, since in the Rome speech Fanon does not issue a ‘wholehearted endorsement of nationalism.’ He wholehearted endorses the struggle for national culture and national liberation, which is not reducible (at least in his eyes) to nationalism. Nor does it appear that in the Rome speech he ‘remains divided between the genuine commitment he had to the Algerian movement on the one hand, and the continuing concern he felt for the predicament of black men and black society.’ Fanon plunged into the Algerian movement not because he moved away from concern for ‘the predicament of black men and black society’ but because he viewed the Algerian struggle as the vanguard force in weakening French colonialism and leading to the liberation of black Africa. He did not embrace Algeria’s fight because he became won over to Arab nationalism, but rather because he saw it as a catalyst to the liberation of Africa as a whole. From the start of his career he understood that ‘blackness’ is a creation of colonialism and that embracing any ontology of ‘blackness’ buys into the very logic of racism. [It is crucial then, as we talk about blackness in the current student movements in South Africa, that we don’t get trapped in the very logic of racism we are fighting against] To transcend the fixation associated with racism it is necessary to posit, as an absolute, a particularity that is not fixed or essential but which is the conduit to a new humanism. By the late 1950’s Fanon had wagered that he found that in the national liberation movement.”
“Still, is there not a contradiction between supporting a national struggle, which clearly has a nationalistic component, and seeking to achieve universal human emancipation, which transcends any form of nationalism? There certainly is a ‘contradiction’ here but it is not one that is a mere product of Fanon’s making. Nor is it a matter of him being ‘ambivalent’ about his commitments. Rather, the contradiction is endemic of the revolutionary process itself. Any effort to achieve emancipation entails a development through contradiction – a development from posing particular demands and perspectives to reaching for universal human emancipation. As Marx once put it, ‘the transcendence of self-estrangement follows the same course as self-estrangement.’ There is a tenuous, contradictory relationship between means and ends, and there is no guarantee that it will be successfully navigated – whether we are speaking in terms of struggles over race, class, or gender. An automatic, predetermined teleology is out of the question here. It is not possible to reach the goal except by certain means, but there is no guarantee that the means will be universally recognised as but a step to something else. It is always possible to fall prey to fixation, even in the struggle to liberate oneself from it. This problematic defines the very project of emancipation. One can wish the contradiction away, but it will not disappear. One can seek to deny it by skipping over the particular in order to leap to the universal, or one can ignore the universal in favour of the particular. But in either way case the contradiction is unresolved and remains to haunt us.”
It is my hope that as we strive to achieve a universal human emancipation that we do it in the Fanonian way. Because as Hudis so beautiful put it: “A movement is ‘Fanonian’ not because it consists of peasants, lumpenproletarians, or shackdwellers, any more than it is ‘Fanonian’ because it consists of the working class, students, women, gays and lesbians or blacks and other national minorities. A movement is ‘Fanonian’ insofar, and only insofar, as it ‘re-examines the question of humanity’, rejuvenates it, and actualises it.”
There is a carelessness in the way South Africans and the South African media discuss issues of difference. Whether these issues of difference are about race, gender, gender identity, sexuality, disability, and/or class they are all often dealt with in sensationalist headlines and with disregard of the people affected. You would think with our horrible history of discrimination, and our talk of creating a more democratic and empathetic society, we would be more inclined to pay attention to the way we address issues affecting marginalised communities. I want to use the example of the “first black” to illustrate the ways in which little attention is given to details in the way we talk about race and how racial injustice from the past is always with us, even when we fail to acknowledge that.
The way in which we talk about the “first black” person to achieve a certain milestone in their professional careers is problematic. The first black cricketer, first black president, first black scientist, first black book, etc, have all made headlines. Recently when Cape Town born South African cricket player Temba Bavuma scored a test century, the headlines were “the first black cricketer to score test century.” Now Temba Bavuma IS the first black to achieve this feat in an “official” cricket-sporting event and should be congratulated. So I appreciate the need to recognise people’s achievements, and to praise black people for being outstanding in their professional fields. What I do have a problem with is how being the “first black” is always the leading statement, the prefix, and the introduction to that black person. A google search for Temba Bavuma will show all the headlines with the tittle “first black.” The fact that a person is the “first black” to achieve a certain goal, which often, and certainly in Temba Bavuma’s case, is true, often overshadows the achievement. An achievement, of course, that white cricketers have been achieving for a long as long as South African cricket has existed.
I find this problematic because it often ends at the “first black” and does not continue to substantiate why this is the case. When the “first black” statement is not qualified, there is an underlying assumption of meritocracy and that makes the “first black” sentiment hugely problematic. It is disingenuous to just state that someone is the “first black” to achieve a professional milestone, like the one achieved by Temba Bavuma, without stating the reasons why there’s never been a “black cricketer” to achieve what he has achieved. By leaving out the qualifying statements of why someone is the “first black” suggests that there has never been a black person who has had the ability to do what the “first black” has done. This is obviously not true, there were and there continues to be structural impediments for black people being able to achieve all kinds of professional milestones. The way life was organised during the colonial years and then during apartheid made sure that black people didn’t have access to many professions. For example before Nelson Mandela became the “first black” president there were plenty of black people who were capable of being president of South Africa. They couldn’t run for president because there was a system of apartheid that prevented black people from participating in politics in South Africa. During apartheid black South Africans were legally barred from participating in national sports like cricket, which obviously meant that there would be no black person to achieve a test century in the sport. On top of that, it has been hard to transform sporting institutions in South Africa to include black sportspersons. Almost all sports that were dominated by white South Africans during apartheid have been inundated with critiques of the lack of transformation.
Also, if we are going to talk about the “first black” we should probably also keep in mind that there are many black people who achieved great milestones in their professional fields that were never given the recognition they deserved. Professor Archie Mafeje and Hamilton Naki were both great in their professional fields and were mistreated in their respective fields. Archie Mafeje was appointed as a lecturer at the University of Cape Town and then the appointment was withdrawn because of pressure from the apartheid government. Hamilton Naki was a laboratory assistant to Christiaan Barnard and was not really given the credit that was due to him as he worked with Dr. Barnard. These are two of the most well known cases of people denied recognition for their talents and professional abilities.
What I am trying to demonstrate here is that black people have had abilities to do all kinds of great things, but there were systems in place preventing them from realising their human potential. All of this history is left out when we write and talk about the “first black” without qualifying the statement. The “first black” does not exist in a vacuum. The “first black”, or I should say, the-lack-of-there-being-a-black-person-to-achieve-this-in-the-past can be explained by history and not by merit or ability and that our misshaped society is a product of colonialism and apartheid.
Claiming that a person is the “first black” should come with a qualification of why this is the case, because otherwise it feeds into an already existing negative narrative about black people never having had the ability to achieve career milestone. White people are very quick to point out that someone is the “first black” to achieve something, and black people are always ready to celebrate being the “first black.” My gripe here is with black people celebrating being the “first black” instead of critiquing why they are the “first black.” Yes, celebrate the fact that you have achieved something amazing, speak about working hard to achieve it, but also mention that people before you weren’t given the space to do what you did. It should be taken for granted that many more black people would have done what the “first black” did had they had the chance.
We must also be mindful that we are living in post-apartheid South Africa, where black people have more access to institutions that were previously denied to them because they were whites only institutions. Obviously there will be many “first black” achievements, but we need to be attentive of the ways in which we report on and talk about these “firsts.” We can’t feed into the narrative that there were no black people capable of professional milestones before the post apartheid “first black.” In our excitement, and it our quest for higher achievements, let’s think twice about celebrating being the “first black” because you are only first because generations of our ancestors were unjustly and sometimes violently denied access and some recognition.
One of the reasons that black people react with such excitement to the “first black” sentiment is because we care way too much about what white people think. Although Toni Morrison’s literary career has been about teaching us to avoid the white gaze, although Steve Biko taught us to ignore the white liberal and if they want to help, they should go teach other whites about racism, and although Frantz Fanon gave us a detailed account of the complexity of decolonisation and ignored white people altogether in Wretched Of The Earth, we still care about what white people think. In South Africa, black South Africans care way too much what white people think of them. Blacks care too much for the opinions of white people, while white people at best often treat us as invisible. There seems to be a constant need for black people to prove themselves and to prove their humanity to constantly disbelieving white people. In South Africa whiteness is a hard-wired social structure since 1652, and it is hard to get rid off. I suppose it takes more than having the right to vote to shred generations of self-loathing. What is even more frustrating is that even with a black majority government, white people’s opinions are still highly regarded. Why do black people care so much what white people think? I find the white alter that black people worship at exhausting. The white worshipping is exhausting to read about in newspaper pieces, to hear about it on radio, there’s recently even been a book dedicated to white people (which is topic for another time).
The reactions over the racists remarks made by Penny Sparrow on her Facebook account was one of shock and disbelieve by many South Africans. Penny Sparrow, a white woman realtor from KwaZulu calls black people monkeys and bemoans black people taking over the beaches on New Year’s Day. She then goes on radio and tries to justify the racist’s comments, and all throughout this a race war is raging on social media about her comments. There are three things I want to address: Firstly my first reaction to Penny Sparrow was that this is not shocking. This is a white South African being a white South African. I find it disingenuous for South Africans to act shocked as if white racism is an infrequent occurrence, while it occurs everyday. Angela Davis was on to something when speaking at Centre For The Book in Cape Town when she spoke about our complicity to racism by acting shocked every time there’s a racist incident as if it’s out of the norm, when it is an everyday practise. The real surprise is not that penny Sparrow said the racist things she said, the shock is that South Africans were shocked.
Secondly, Penny Sparrow is not alone in her racist thinking, many white South Africans share her sentiments. We all know that racist language is part of dinner table and around the braai fire conversations; Penny Sparrow is the one that got caught because it was on a social network. She probably thought she would get a few Facebook ‘likes’ and laughs and it would be the end of that. Now she knows social media is a different beast all together, and not as safe as a whites only Friday night dinner for six.
My approach to the whole Penny Sparrow saga is really informed by my approach to most things concerning white people; don’t waste your time thinking about what they think. It is a waste of time thinking about what white people think of you. It is a waste of time and energy trying to convince white people of your humanity. Having to defend your personhood is already dehumanising. The best way to deal with white people and their ignorance is to ignore them and continue with our work of building a better country and ultimately a better world for black people. My approach to white people is informed by Toni Morrison’s philosophy of racism as distraction. She said:
“It’s important to know who the real enemy is, and to know the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
Toni Morisson spoke these words in 1975 at Portland State University, but they are very relevant for South Africa in 2016. Ironically when Toni Morisson made this speech she also mentioned South Africa, and the absurdity of race because the South African apartheid government had just made Japanese people “honorary whites” in order to conclude trade agreements. The words spoken by Toni Morrison are pertinent for black South Africans. Understanding the function of racism as distraction is very liberating. It also enables us as black people to ignore the likes of Penny Sparrow because the hatred she harbours has nothing to do with black people but with herself. The distraction caused by Penny Sparrow is evident in the way she absorbed national attention. Penny Sparrow wasted all of our time when we engaged with her as if she is someone to be taken seriously. Even talking about Penny Sparrow in this piece, I feel like I am wasting precious minutes of my life that I will never get back. But I have to make a point about her and what she represents. This is the first time that I am actually engaging with her racist rant. Even the political parties like the DA, lead by Musi Maimane and ANC Youth League, that normally don’t agree were said to be pressing criminal charges against Penny Sparrow. Think about all the energy, all the uproar about this woman’s racist rant, the newspaper articles, the radio discussions, they are all a distraction. We, black people, have more important things to discuss and to work on.
I absolutely don’t have time for white people like Penny Sparrow. I am ethically above the likes of Penny Sparrow. Penny Sparrow is morally lacking. Penny Sparrow and white people like her are not worth my time and energy or any other black person’s time and energy. She does not deserve all the attention she received from black people. The perfect reaction to Penny Sparrow is to ignore her, as if she doesn’t exist, as if she didn’t say anything. We, as black people, should not care what Penny Sparrow and other white people like her think of us. We should be focusing on creating a better country for black people and not allow distractions by racists like Penny Sparrow. We, as black people, have a responsibility to each other to make this country work. We have a responsibility to young black South Africans to ensure they understand racism as a distraction, and really not about them but about the white people who are racist. The project of rehabilitating our consciousness and this country is our responsibility. The decision is ours on how much power we are going to give to Penny Sparrow and her ilk. I, for one, refuse to be distracted by Penny Sparrow.
“We ‘feel free’ because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.” – Slavoj Zizek
2014 was a dramatic year for LGBTI Rights on the African continent. The ‘we must free our imaginations’ videos came after Binyavanga Wainaina came out in 2014 through an article that was the ‘lost chapter’ from his book One Day I Will Write About This Place. His coming out and subsequently these videos came after the homophobic bills against homosexuality and same-sex marriage were proposed in different African states. Wainaina’s response to the homophobia and irrational justification for the prosecution of queer people in different parts of the African continent was to come out and speak out against the prosecutions. His main message was about the need to free our imagination. He asks us to imagine a different world from the one we are living.
These videos about freeing our imagination were really the inspiration for me to start writing about queerness in South Africa. So I developed the Queer Consciousness website. We often feel so helpless in the face of hate speech and homophobic violence, and I thought maybe writing about it could be a small contribution to us thinking differently and critically about being queer on this continent. The message contained in these videos really challenge us as black people to imagine the kind of Africa we would like to live. It challenges us to see the ways in which colonisation still affects us and affects how we navigate the world. The fact that in many African states colonised by the British, there is still all kinds of laws against “unnatural” acts is just one of the ways we have remained chained by colonial powers and restrictions. These videos were a great inspiration to me, and I hope they will be to you as well.
My adoration of Grace Jones started when I travelled to San Francisco for the first time. I was doing my Master’s in Minnesota when I visited San Francisco during San Francisco Pride. It was real a pilgrimage. I was wide eyed and intrigued. I had heard and read so much about the city by the bay and I was intrigued and mystified and absolutely thirsty for this gay mecca that everybody seemed to rave about. My imagination was obviously too limited to really imagine San Francisco, it was gayer, more beautiful, and so forbearing, than I could have possibly imagined. I had died and gone gay heaven.
When I was in San Francisco I met Kevin, who would become my guide to the city, my reason to go back to the city, and a very dear friend. When we met, one of the first things he said to me was how I reminded him of Grace Jones. He was the first of many people who shared this sentiment during San Francisco Pride that year. To put things in perspective, the Grace Jones references were fuelled by the hairstyle I had at the time. I had a flat top hair cut with red cornrows on the side, about three on each side of my head. This created a striking, almost square shaped face that was feminine yet still masculine. It created this androgynous look. I was born in the mid 80’s, so I was born when Miss Jones was at the pick of her modelling-acting-singing-performance artist career. And when I came of age she had decided to stop recording because of her dissatisfaction with music industry. So of course I would only make the connections, and realise the enormity of the compliment from Kevin much later when I started to learn more about Grace Jones and started to appreciate her art, her life philosophy, and just about everything about her. I was in my early twenties when I started listening to her records, and this was decades after her last recorded album.
Since then, I have followed Miss Jones and she has been more than just inspirational. She has been my guide to living a life according to my own rules, and not bowing down to the societal pressure to be normal and therefore average. Grace Jones’ memoir, I’ll never write my memoirs, is probably the best memoir I have ever read. Granted, I don’t read many memoirs; it’s not a genre I am particularly fond of. But Miss Jones’ memoir is not just any memoir; it’s a chronicle of a life lived without boundaries, dangerously on edge, and completely at odds with the mundane, the slow moving, and the expected. One of the stories that captured me is within the first 100 pages of the book is when Miss Jones describes her first orgasm. She writes:
“Shaving my head led directly to my first orgasm. This is because I am fairly sure the man I had my first orgasm with was Andre, my hairdresser from Cinandre… These days they say DJ’s are god. Back then it was hairdressers who were God… He definitely knew what to do with me. My hair could be adjusted, changed, edited, in much the same way that later my whole body would be treated. He was the first one to style my hair short… I suppose it’s not surprising that my first orgasm was with Andre. His fingers on my scalp working their magic helped… I’d never had sex like that before. It was sex from another era, another solar system. It still started with the mouth but it ended up beyond the body. It made me feel like I was falling backward in time. He was very open-minded and creative, and that seemed to spill over into the sex. He bent me out of shape.”
To say that Grace Jones is sex positive would be an understatement. She celebrates her sexuality; she celebrates her body and takes her sexual pleasure seriously. The description of her first orgasm is poetic, all consuming, and infused with process of beautifying – her hair being cut. Her life is so art infused that even her first orgasm is artful. In the memoir she transports you to that moment, and for a minute I was searching my memory for my first euphoric sexual moment, and it failed to compare to the one Grace Jones had.
There is a refreshing honesty in the memoir. She doesn’t seem to hold back; even her mistakes and misfortunes are laid bare for the world to see. I suppose that’s the power of living your life with integrity, and being honest to yourself about who you are and what makes you who you are. She writes about her sexual encounters, the relationships, the breakup; the reasons for breakups, and of course the drugs. The laissez faire attitude towards narcotics is enlightening. Often when celebrities open up about their use of drugs it is filled with regret, and is linked to moral failure and repentance. Grace Jones’ approach to drugs seems to be ‘use but do not abuse.’ The legendary parties she used to throw had Grace Jones dubbed “the Errol Flynn of the 80’s” and these parties have now taken a mythical narrative. She says “at my parties, I would let people do what they want as long as the didn’t die. That was the number one rule. People could have all the fun they want, but no one should die. No overdoses, no drinking in the bathtub. No accidents. Don’t spoil the party. If you wanted to kill yourself you had to leave the house and walk across the highway.” The directive is very clear, and this is probably why to this day we have never heard of a drug overdose from any of her parties.
When miss Jones started out as a model, she struggled to establish her self in New York. Her “look” was rather too much for the American sensibility. She was dark skinned, boyish skinny, androgynous, and in no way representing classic or ordinary ready-for-vogue-beauty. So following in the footsteps of Josephine Baker, Nina Simone, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and many other African Americans, Grace Jones moved to Paris for a better chance at a modelling career. Indeed her modelling career took off in Paris with artistic magazine covers and photo spreads. It would seem the French and Europeans at large were much more excited about her “look” than the Americans. Although she didn’t speak French when she arrived, she had Latin roots through Spanish and she learned “French in three months flat.” Her attachment to Paris would last throughout her life. The Paris years were dreamy, although she was hustling, they are so mystical and glamorous and read like a movie script. It is also during this time that Grace Jones meets her lifelong friends Jerry Hall and Jessica Lange. I particularly loved reading about her life in Paris because I love Paris and all things French. It is a love that has been fuelled mostly by novels by African Americans who have moved there post World War Two. Grace Jones makes me want to live in Paris.
My obsession with Grace Jones has to do with my love for art and artistic individuals, because I see artists as almost supernatural beings. I am not an artist; at least I don’t see myself as one. Although one of friends once said that the way I put myself together could be considered art. The way she describes the creative process of how she came up with some of her songs with her collaborators is a marvel. There is something intriguing about learning about the genesis of songs like La Vie En Rose, My Jamaican Guy, and Slave to The Rhythm. There is no doubt about the commitment Grace Jones has to her art. She is heavily involved in all of her productions; she wants to have creative input if not full control of her art. She rejects being just a muse. She attracts artist who are interested in creating something new, something different, and something that has not been done before. She celebrates what makes her different, she lets others mine what makes her different and create something artistic out of it. She knows that she is not a conventional beauty, which is why she had to go to Paris to pursue modelling, but instead of hating her difference, she uses her unconventionality for artistic expression.
Her unconventional beauty is matched by her unconventional approach to being a star or a celebrity. She goes as far as to say “I am not a Diva. I am a Jones.” She rejects fame for fame’s sake. She rejects being part of the pack, or a being grouped with other female entertainers. When she was coming up, and starting to make records, producers wanted her to sing like the superstars of the day, people like Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross and she rejected these proposals. The aim is not to be like someone else, the aim is to be artistically interesting, to create something original that has the potential to outlive the artist. The most quoted sections of the book by reviewers are the sections towards the end of the book where she talks about young stars, and what is lacking in female entertainers today. It’s very provocative how she names entertainers who she thinks have copied her. But all of this is done to demonstrate just how different she is, and how far ahead of her time she was. Her artistic philosophy is summed up when she writes:
“I come from the underground. I am never comfortable in the middle of the stream, flowing in the same direction as everyone else. I think people assume that’s where I want to be, famous for being famous, because as part of what I do there is a high level of showing off, but my instinct is always to resist the pull of the obvious. It’s not easy, especially when you have had any sort of success, because the people want you to repeat what it was that made you a success, even if your instinct is to move on, or to want to change, or have other ideas.”
Her disdain of being compared to or told to sing like other female entertainers by record companies is but one example of her living feminism. When you are Grace Jones and you have lived your whole life according to your own rules and have singlehandedly defied and redefined beauty standards of the modelling industry and used your body for sexual pleasure and to create art that challenges norms, you don’t need to go around saying you are a feminist. When you are Grace Jones your whole being and everything you touch is feminism and challenges patriarchy. The feminist thread is weaved throughout the book. The book is a feminist force of how to live a life that undermines patriarchy. When she signed a lucrative recording deal with a Capitol Records, they tried to interfere with her creative vision and she lashed out. She writes: “I was female, and they decided that I was rock and roll insane. Had I been a man, they would have considered I was retaining control, or professionally fretting about the details… You can tell why there are so few female film directors. It’s the same with any job that society has decided can only be done by a man: They find ways to undermine and undervalue a woman doing that job. And the fact that you end up saying ‘they’ makes you sound paranoid… What are the chances of a female president being elected? The men-only corporate reaction is: what about the tampons? Will she bleed everywhere? What if she gets pregnant? What if she is going through menopause? … It’s the same old caveman shit, a power thing. It’s why I want to fuck every man in the ass at least once. Every guy needs to be penetrated at least once. Do it yourself if you want. But that’s the vision – a woman lies there and the man goes in, takes control, whoosh. It’s all about power. The woman is always in the vulnerable position, and the man takes control. Come on. Everybody can be penetrated – mentally too. Slowly, slowly, it changes. Too slowly.” Grace Jones raged against the male corporate machine that wanted to exclude her from the creative process of her own music, and market her like any other female artist. This is what sets Miss Jones apart from her contemporaries and younger artists; she refused to be neatly packaged for commercial success.
Just like Grace Jones doesn’t go around talking about how she is a feminist, because it is painfully obvious, she doesn’t go around chest thumping that she is a gay icon. Grace Jones’ status as a gay icon is like everything else about her, underground. Her first encounter with a gay man is her brother, Chris, who she was very close to growing up. Grace Jones used to go with Chris to gay bars, so she was exposed to gay people and gay culture early in her life. Although Grace Jones has collaborated with gay artists, is close like twins with her gay brother, she was close friends with renowned gay artists like Andy Warhol, she performed in underground gay bars in New York in the late 70’s and early 80’s, she has never branded herself a gay icon. Her memoir is filled with stories about gay men she worked with and some she had crushes on when she didn’t know they were gay. And all of this is treated as but one of the many threads in Grace Jones’ life. And this for me makes her more of a gay icon than the chest thumping icons.
There’s a point where Grace Jones reflects on her friends who died too young in the 1980’s and early 1990’s due to HIV/Aids. It’s a sobering read because she had so many gay men in her life, so she experienced many deaths and the paranoia that followed. It was Tina Chow’s death that really shocked Jones. “Tina’s death made it seem closer than ever. You couldn’t help but think of the people you had slept with or, even more so, of the people who had slept with the people you had slept with. It had been easy to sleep around. In the places I was, everyone was so sexual. In Paris, it was food and sex. Wine, food, and sex. You can’t leave out the wine. Sex was a vital point of individual freedom. It was meant to lead to more life, not death.”
There is no disputing the queerness of Grace Jones. If queer is understood in the David Halperin sense where queerness is about the transformational power of the queer identity. Halperin speaks of a transformative potential of queer culture that Foucault also emphasised. According to Halperin queer is an identity without an essence, not a given condition but a horizon of possibility, an opportunity for self-transformation, a queer potential. This queer conception of identity aims to demolish boundaries; it sets no limits to the ways in which queers can potentially organize their lives. Halperin might as well have described Grace Jones. Grace Jones embodies the essence of queerness. She disrupts the norm; she challenges conventions of beauty, of womanhood, and sobriety. She is someone I look up to for inspiration for a life lived according to one’s own rules. It takes courage to reject the mainstream and to create one’s own path. It requires courage of conviction and a knowing of the self to live your truth without apologies. What a life Miss Jones.