“No land for married same-sex couples”

“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

Queer Africa 2 (2017)

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

You are black and queer, what are you doing in church?

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.”

Pretoria High School for Girls: Black hair politics and the battle for dignity

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?

Everything.

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.

Striving for Frantz Fanon’s Universal Human Emancipation

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.

Fanon 2

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.”