Gay Pride: The politics disruption



“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.”

The disruption of the Capital Pride Parade in DC, Washington has made headlines in many LGBTI corners around the world. During the disruption, activists were calling for a more political Pride parade, chanting “No Justice, No Pride” as they disrupted the Capital Pride parade. In recent years a number LGBTI Pride parades have experienced disruptions by activists calling for a different kind of politics in Pride marches. There was the disruption of Johannesburg Pride in 2012, there was the creation of Alternative Pride in Cape Town – which marched in the Cape Town Pride in protest of the non-inclusive nature of Cape Town Pride, in 2016 there was the disruption of Toronto Pride by Black Lives Matter activists, insisting that Toronto Pride was anti-black, there was the disruption of Phoenix Pride by a group of gay immigrant-rights activists in 2017, and there was also the disruption of Celebrate Israel Parade by activists from Jewish Voice for Peace in 2017.

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:

The One In Nine Campaign activists disrupt Johannesburg Pride in 2012 in Rosebank. 

  • That Pride has become apolitical. That Pride is only interested in having a party, for white middle class gay and lesbian people devoid of any politics.
  • That Pride has gone to the market, where pride organisers are only interested in revenue generation through sponsorship. The corporatisation of Pride has been a topic of discussion for many writers including, India Ross, who in the Financial Times dubbed Gay Pride – Gay Christmas, Danielle Kurtzleben who wrote a piece of how corporations are profiting from Pride Parades, and of course Alexander Chasin’s Selling Out: the gay and lesbian movement goes to market.
  • 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.


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?


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.”

The “first black” and Racism as distraction

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.

Lastly, linked to the first and second point, Penny Sparrow’s racist verbiage follows on the footsteps of some really horrifying racist incidents that have taken place in the last few years in different parts of the country. The year 2015 deserves honourable mention. There was that Guardian piece that asked if Cape Town is racist, and then there was Cape Town school that was involved in a racism row, then there was the UCT students who attacked a black woman in Rondebosch, there was also the horrific video of black kids being beaten by a white man, then there was the Stellenbosch professor who was fired over a racist SMS, and who can forget Tim Osrin who assumed Cynthia Joni was a prostitute in Kenilworth and attacked her (as if being a sex worker is an invitation to be beaten). So no, Penny Sparrow is not a shocker at all.

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.