“We shall overcome…some day”: Aluta Continua. E continua

This week has been one of the most physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting weeks of my life.

On Monday 19 October 2015 just passed midnight, Rhodes university students joined thousands of students across the South Africa to protest against fee increases in higher education. To give an idea of what we were dealing with, at Rhodes we do not have a registration fee. We have Minimum Initial Payment (MIP) which is half of our tuition for the year and is usually paid by the second week of January. In 2015, MIP was just over R41 000 if you are staying in residence. Because Rhodes is located in a small town in the middle of nowhere, the vast majority of students come from out of town, meaning that we have to pay for accommodation and residence is the most convenient option . The projected fee increase for 2016 would have set MIP at R45 000, and the total cost of fees at around R100 000. To make matters worse, the university was only planning on releasing the final fees on 8 December, giving families a little over a month to find tens of thousands of rands or risk their children losing their places in residences and not being able to register for 2016. Other universities such as Wits were dealing with over 10% increase while Stellenbosch was dealing with an increase of 11.5%.

The majority of students who would be affected by high fee increases are of course, poor and working class students who are mostly black. Then of course, there is the so-called “invisible middle class” consisting of the children of civil servants whose earn too much for them to qualify for the government funded NSFAS program but earn too little for them to be able to afford school fees. This means that, although poor and working class white students exist, the majority of people who would be shut out of higher education would be black. This is already problematic considering that we are living in a country where we are dealing with worsening youth unemployment rates and an awful economy, making a higher education more and more necessary in order to get a job.

So as students we went on strike for a 0% fee increase and a commitment to free higher education. We shut down our universities across the country by barricading entrances and ensuring that departments and other various buildings remained closed. We mobilized, every day and protested. And the results were horrific.

On Monday, we decided to join the students at the smaller Eastern Midlands College, another tertiary institution protesting against high fees after we had heard that the police fired rubber bullets at them on Friday. We joined them because we wanted to give them numbers and we knew that going to a respected, formerly white university gave us a certain level of privilege and exposure the EMC students did not have so we wanted to lend that to their cause. When we arrived the police were already there. They were armed and wearing bullet proof vests. Students had been locked out of the institution and were singing outside, demanding to be let in so they could talk to management. After being there for perhaps 30 mins if not slightly longer, I was conversing with a friend of mine when we heard two loud bangs. I turned to see a crowd of people running towards me, and I immediately turned and began running as well. They had thrown stun grenades at us. Later that day, they would return with big police trucks known as “hippos” and blast protesters with chemical water that caused itching and burning.

The police’s treatment of us was not unusual. We at Rhodes remained relatively lucky for the rest of the week as our Vice Chancellor, Dr Sizwe Mabizela, told the police in no uncertain terms that they were not welcome on campus. As long as us protesters remained on university grounds we were safe from the police. But from other universities, stories of rubber bullets, stun grenades, and teargas, all used against peaceful protesters, began streaming in. We heard stories of our fellow protesters being arrested and charged with treason simply for protesting peacefully outside of parliament.

The situation finally hit me when I saw a post on our university’s SRC Facebook page. A male student had uploaded a screenshot of a conversation he’s had with his mother in which she had advised him on what to do if he was tear gassed. Her message included the sentence I never thought I would have to teach my children this. And that’s when it occurred to me, that our parents had gone through years of tear gassing, rubber bullets, stun grenades, and arrests so that we would never have to. Desmond Tutu’s Rainbow Nation dream had envisioned a future where all South Africans, regardless of race, would have their rights recognized and opportunities open to them. Yet here, in 2015, we must fight for the majority working class black population to have the same access to education as the middle and upper middle class. In 2015, we as peaceful protesters, are still subjected to a government that refused to take us seriously and that ultimately did the to us what was done to them when they fought against the Apartheid government.

It’s depressing that as a born-free South African I can now swap police brutality stories with my parents. It’s depressing that as born-frees we have had to put our bodies on the line to fight for what was promised to us years ago. And it is especially depressing that the very same government who claims to be our liberators turned their guns on us.

While achieving the 0% fee increase will remain one of the proudest moments of my life, I cannot help but think about the methods required to get to this point. This week we have told ourselves that we are fighting for future generations of South Africans, but I wonder if our protests will not be enough. If one day, my own children will tell me about how they too ran away from stun grenades while peacefully protesting for something as fundamental as an education.

As the saying goes, A luta continua, vitória é certa – the struggle continues but victory is certain. The struggle has certainly continued and will continue for many more years. But when the once oppressed turn into the oppressors, one needs to start questioning whether victory is indeed certain.

Zapiro, Mabulu, and the normalisation of violence against Black Women

[This article was republished on the website The Journalist]

Today has been a bad day on Twitter.

There has been a higher than usual amount of misogynoir and acceptance of violence against black women on my time line. It started this afternoon when Pearl Pillay reported that her ex boyfriend Siya Nyezi had abused her.  Within minutes, Black Twitter flew into a frenzy tracking down Nyezi and informing his place of work, Investec, that he was an abuser. His ex girlfriends one by one came out to talk of how he had emotionally abused them as well.

At the same time, there were many who defended Nyezi, saying that it was wrong to expect a man to be fired because of what he did in his personal life. There were even those who suggested that Pearl may have cheated on him, because as we all know, in a misogynist’s world, cheating makes it okay to beat your partner half to death. Then there were those who blamed her for staying as long as she did and even joked that within a few days she would go straight back to him. In other words, the same tiring rhetoric we have to deal with every time the issue of domestic violence comes up.

But I don’t want to focus too much on Pillay and Nyezi. It is far too tiring.

Instead, I want to focus on the other misogynistic nightmare to appear on my time line earlier this evening. Controversial  artist Ayanda Mabulu released a painting that is far too upsetting for me to put here. Basically, the painting depicts Jacob Zuma naked, because in the world of satirical art, Zuma must apparently always either be naked or at least have his penis exposed. Black men must be degraded like this constantly while even the worst white men like Hitler and Stalin get to keep their clothes on. Curiously enough, this is exactly what happened in Mabulu’s painting; the figure made to represent white capital was fully clothed. But this is a conversation for another day.

As unnecessary as it was, Zuma’s nudity was the least offensive part of this painting. The worst is what is in the center where a dark skinned black woman is on all fours.  Zuma’s extremely large penis is forced down her throat while the white figure penetrates her from behind. Her breasts are also being milked against her will. The woman is frightened, in pain, and is depicted in such a cartoonishly racist manner it seems as though Mabulu tore her directly out of a page of an old colonial guide to Natives.

The painting reminds me of this Zapiro classic:

And this one:

And even this one:

All three of these cartoons use women who are clearly codified as black by their hair and lips as symbols for the justice system and in the last cartoon’s case, free speech. Similarly, the painting uses a black woman as a symbol for the ordinary South African taxpayer who is (literally, in this case) screwed over and sucked dry by both the government and corrupt white multimillionaire business owners in the private sector. In all of the above depictions black women’s bodies are graphically brutalised, but this brutalisation is made to come secondary to the grand symbolic message that Zapiro and Mabulu seek to convey in their works.

And that is the problem. In the world of South African satire, when it comes to criticising mainly black male politicians, black women, our bodies, and our pain are seen as collateral damage. Many of those who are criticising the painting are focusing solely on Zuma’s right to dignity, which is a valid concern, but even more concerning is the amount of people who are neither black women nor feminists who are not even mentioning the woman in the painting and what her depiction says of Mabulu’s attitudes towards black women as a whole. Then, of course, liberal Twitter is heaping praises on Mabulu’s work, calling it, “revolutionary”, and “daring” because in South African satirical art, the more brutal the violence against the black woman, the more poignant the social commentary. Black women’s bodies are mere vehicles to be dehumanised and used at will so that male artists can call that dehumanization “social commentary” and profit off of it.

It’s actually hardly surprising. Given that South Africa has shockingly high rates of rape and gender based violence, widespread misogynistic ideals and norms, and prevalent racism, cartoons like Zapiro’s and paintings like Mabulu’s are one manifestation of our violently racist and patriarchal society. In Pillay’s case, the fact that the number of people who would put a man’s employment status over the life of the woman he abused is not at all insignificant is another manifestation of that. The heated argument I got into with someone who attacked a rape victim for not reporting her rapist and instead of attempting to sympathise with her, strongly suggested that she would be responsible if he raped again, is yet another manifestation of that.

And the fact that so much of the commentary surrounding the painting is focused on whether the painting is disrespectful to Zuma, or whether the artist is exposing the truth in a brave, daring way is yet another.

Because in a society where patriarchy and racism exist not just side by side but always connecting and intertwining with one another, the lives of black women don’t matter.

Maybe I should stay off Twitter for a while.

The Raven Complex: Understanding New Black Mentality

Since the end of last year, the term “New Black” has become used more and more frequently. The term was coined after Pharrell Williams stated “the New Black doesn’t blame other races for our issues. [He/she] dreams and realizes that it’s not a pigmentation; it’s a mentality.” Since then, a number of black celebrities followed suit with similar remarks. Raven Symone most notably stated that she no longer wanted to be identified as African American in an Oprah interview and even Common making questionable statements on how black people loving white people is the cure to racism.

I particularly pick on Raven in this article because although Pharrell coined the term, she has become the New Black poster child by defending racist statement after racist statement, defending Bill Cosby after the rape allegations came out, and even bizarrely declaring that she’s from every continent in Africa except one.

Certainly, there has been a lot of backlash in the form of tweets and thinkpieces written by other black people in response to this mentality. While I myself have been very critical of New Blacks, the truth is that thinking about them also makes me feel slightly embarrassed, because I myself was once one and can therefore understand the mentality

But first, what is the New Black mentality?

The New Black Mentality is essentially what happens when black people buy into colourblindness and believe that institutional racism is a thing of the past. They think that continuing to believe that racism exists is holding the black community back and that upward mobility is a quick fix solution to the residual effects of white supremacist systems such as Apartheid or the Jim Crow Era.

This is a mentality that completely ignores the lived realities of many black people. It ignores the existence of power dynamics, white privilege, and even class privilege to a degree as, in my experiences, those who embody the New Black mentality are often middle class or higher. Most disturbingly, the New Black mentality blames black people for feeling offended by, or for even having experiences of racism. It portrays black people who speak about racism as reactionaries who are blaming personal failures on an outside force. In reality, racism is still prevalent in South African society, and the New Black mentality is one that simply ignores current racial disparities for a kumbaya approach that blames black people for still being economically and socially disadvantaged by claiming that racial disadvantage no longer exists.

The New Black mentality is one that is infuriating to deal with. And while I could never condone it, I cannot pretend that I don’t understand why it is an easy trap to fall into. I grew up in a position of immense class privilege. I attended one of the most expensive private schools in the country and this was the period where my New Black attitude truly set in. I acknowledged the fact that the majority of black people in the country were economically disadvantaged and that the common narrative was that this was due to the inequalities set in place by the Apartheid regime.

However, in my mind, Apartheid was over. To keep blaming black people’s societal disadvantage on a regime that technically ended in 1994 didn’t make sense to me. The fact that my father had achieved phenomenal success despite growing up as a black man under the Apartheid regime himself solidified for the 14 year old me that Apartheid was no longer a valid excuse, and that black people who were holding on to it did so because they needed to blame their own shortcomings on something other than themselves.

In my mind, racism was violent. It was white people shouting racial slurs at me. It was enforced segregation. It was laws preventing me from having the same rights as white people. I never personally experienced any of those things. I had white friends, my white teachers never treated me differently as far as I could tell, and I did not yet understand that the microaggressions I experienced on a daily basis, the forced assimilation into English culture, and the respectability politics pervasive at my school were acts of racism in and of themselves. Whenever I did hear of or see acts of racism I believed that they were isolated incidences and that those who held those beliefs would soon die out. I believed that racism was over, or at least dying with the older generation, and that if you simply worked hard and behaved in a “civilised” manner then you would transcend whatever residual effects of our past remained.

Then, in matric, I began reading up on racial theory, educated myself more on my country’s current social, economic, and political situation, woke the hell up, and began envisioning ways to teleport myself into the past so I could give the 14 year old me a good slap.

When I thought about my past self and the beliefs I held, I began to realise why I thought the way I did. Acknowledging the existence of racism is a painful experience. It is painful to acknowledge that you and others like you will be treated differently because of the colour of your skin. It is painful to acknowledge that once you enter the working world, it is likely you’ll have to work harder than your white peers just to be taken seriously, or that you are more likely to be seen as a criminal by both the police and shop owners, or even to acknowledge that, except in severe cases, racist actions against you are likely to go unpunished. It is far easier to believe that these are battles that were already fought and won by your parents and not battles that you will likely have to face in your own life.

It is far too easy to look at your white friends and your class privilege and think that racism is over, and merely the act of recognizing that there is still more work to be done to eradicate racism is exhausting. But it is necessary. Perhaps that is why we get so frustrated at people like Raven who insist on remaining ignorant. The one thing that I’ve learned when it comes to New Blacks is that you cannot force them to wake up, it’s something they need to do on their own.

So maybe one day, Raven and every other New Black will wake up. Maybe they won’t. But while it is important to continue critiquing the New Black mentality, we cannot allow criticising that to take up too much important space and energy.

#FakeDeep: Hotep Politics disguised as Black Consciousness

I recently joined a Black Consciousness Facebook group hoping to see interesting discussions where people posted links to cool Black scholarship or integrated the ideas of thinkers like Steve Biko into the modern day Post-Apartheid context. I could not have been more wrong. Perhaps I did have high, and admittedly pretentious, hopes for this group. But what I was not expecting was for it to be overrun with Hotep Politics and have a couple of decontextualised Steve Biko or Angela Davis quotes thrown in for good measure.

So what are Hotep Politics?

Hotep Politics refer to a very specific form of “pro-black” beliefs and politics. I put pro-black in inverted commas because those who embody Hotep Politics claim to support the empowerment of all black people yet their politics are riddled with misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and massive inaccuracies regarding African history. Hoteps are typically the type to claim that all black people descend from African kings and queens. They fetishize Ancient Egypt to the point where you begin to wonder if they realize that there were numerous other advanced African civilizations before colonialism. They are adamant that all Ancient Egyptians fit modern colonial definitions of “black” and erase modern day Egyptians from their own history by copy-pasting America’s history regarding the genocide of Native Americans onto Ancient Egypt with Arabs playing the role of the genocidal settler colonists. This narrative is completely inaccurate given that Egypt’s history is entirely different from the U.S’s and studies have shown that the genetic makeup of Egyptians has not changed significantly over the centuries. There’s a post, which was written by an Egyptian, that goes into great detail explaining why the Hotep conception of Egypt is completely wrong*.

But Hotep inaccuracies of pre-colonial Africa don’t end at Egypt. They also tend to state that homosexuality did not exist in pre-colonial Africa and that it was brought over by European colonisers. That claim is not just inaccurate, it is completely and utterly wrong. In fact, here is a source showing 21 different kinds of non binary gender and same sex practices that existed in pre-colonial Africa. But do Hoteps care? Of course not. Many of them firmly believe that homosexuality was introduced in Africa to depopulate black communities and that it is therefore an unAfrican tool of white supremacy in the subjugation of black people.

Hotep politics are not just annoying to see in action, they’re actively harmful. They replicate the very same narratives that have been used to oppress black LGBT+ people and black women for centuries. For example, Hoteps tend to overstate the necessity for a black woman to be in the home and often times reduce her purely to her ability to bear children. Hotep art tends to oversexualise black women by typically drawing them naked or scantily clad like this:

While at the same time, condemning black women for choosing to be sexual, like this:

[The top text is written “Queens sit and watch”. The bottom text is written “While peasants entertain”]

The most concerning aspect of Hotep politics is just how prevalent they are. One finds traces of them within nearly every pro black circle and in this particular Facebook group, I happened to find full blown Hoteps who were completely unwilling to consider that their viewpoints might be wrong. Hotep politics are yet another example of how within marginalised groups those who are oppressed on multiple axes tend to be oppressed within wider social justice movements as well. Hotep politics at best prioritize and at worse over glorify the straight, able bodied black male. The further one deviates from this model, the more one is erased and even excluded from the movement as a whole.

Hotep Politics are not pro black simply because one cannot claim to be for the empowerment of black people yet actively perpetrate ideas and values that have been used to oppress certain groups of black people for centuries. One cannot claim to be pro black yet be selective of the kinds of black people you wish to support. Intersectionality is important.

So you’ll have to forgive me for being wary of black people who spell Africa with a “k” and who insist on referring to all of us as “kings and queens”.

In closing, this poem “Fake Deep” by Cecile Emeke articulates the problems with Hotep Politics, particularly the misogynoir inherent in them, far better than I ever could:

* The original blog post seems to have been deleted so here is the reblogged version of it. It still contains the exact same information as was in the original post.