Skhumba and what satire isn’t

A whole lot of people have had a whole lot to say about the Wits students who staged a topless protest on Tuesday as part of the ongoing #FeesMustFall protests. Now, there’s nothing new about topless protests. Students at Rhodes University earlier on this year went topless in order to protest about rape culture, and while the causes may differ, the purposes had similarities including showcasing the vulnerability of the protesters in sharp contrast to the armed police who had been violent towards them.

In predictable fashion, misogynists and pearl-clutching conservatives alike took turns bashing the protesters. The criticism mostly ranged from hysterical “these girls have no respect for themselves” slut-shaming to body shaming the protesting women for having the audacity to be topless while not looking like airbrushed supermodels. One such detractor was themostly irrelevant comedian Skhumba who released a video in which he body-shamed the protesters by comparing their breasts to “wet sneakers without shoelaces”.

Twitter responded accordingly. Within hours, the social justice organisation Amandla.mobi launched a petition to have Skhumba removed from Kaya FM until he apologized for his offensive comments. Although he did give a (half hearted and defensive) apology, that didn’t stop many of his fans from complaining about how the evil feminists are incapable of taking a joke with even some of his fans bringing up the excuse that consistently manages to make my skin crawl out of pure irritation.

It’s just satire!

I struggle to think of a term that is more misused and misunderstood than the term “satire”. Over the years, I have witnessed the term satire being used as a lazy, politically correct way to allow comedians, both professional and self proclaimed, to say the most offensive thing they possibly can without taking any responsibility. Its extensive misuse has aided the rise of the Schrodinger’s Douchebag, the person who makes an offensive statement and then decides based on the reaction of those around them whether or not they were joking.

Comedian Skhumbo, who is in hot water after making offensive comments about protesting students’ breasts

Those who misuse the term satire in this manner show that they have absolutely no understanding of what satire is. When one simply looks up the term satire on Dictionary.com, it’s easy to see one. Satire is defined there as, “the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing,or deriding vice, folly, etc.”. Well this is true on a shallow level, this definition misses the primary function of satire.

What satire is:

The purpose of satire is to effectively “punch up”. Satire is used as a tool to challenge powerful/privileged individuals and institutions, bring them to account, and to challenge the status quo. It often uses sarcasm, ridicule, and exaggeration to expose and denounce the worst aspects of powerful individuals and institutions as well as provide social commentary on topical issues.

One can see this happening in the most famous examples of satire we have. This includes one of the earliest examples of literary satire, A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift. In his pamphlet, he proposes that in order to convert the starving children of Ireland into “sound and useful members of the Commonwealth” they should be fattened up and fed to Ireland’s wealthy landowners. In reality, Swift was making a scathing social commentary on the debilitating and dehumanising conditions of the Irish under the English and the wealthy Irish landowners of the time. Although Swift does criticise the common Irish citizens for not doing anything to rise up against their oppressors, the wealthy and powerful remain the primary targets of his critique.

Other more temporary famous examples of satire include the highly controversial Monty Python film The Life of Brian which ridicules the Christian church and organized religion, among other things. An example of satire that is not necessarily funny is Animal Farm by George Orwell, which uses animals to on one level criticize the Russian Revolution and communism yet on another criticizes the circulatory nature of revolutions. Perhaps one of the most famous examples of South African satire is “In detention” by Chris van Wyk which ridicules the Apartheid police force’s official explanation for the death of Steve Biko, who died in police custody.

Still from “The Life of Brian” by Monty Python

And what satire is not:

Although successful satire takes many forms, it is by definition concerned with holding the powerful to account. Comedians such as Skhumba are not doing this by joking about the perkiness of protesting students’ breasts. Neither are comedians who make jokes relying on tired, centuries old stereotypes related to race, gender, disability, sexuality, or any other marginalized group in order to tell jokes. I’m looking now at Fox News, who decided to air a blatantly racist segment on Asian people earlier this week and then defended themselves saying it was “all in good fun”. In fact, what they are doing is continuing to uphold long standing beliefs about marginalized people. Ironically, so-called satire in these examples is being used to do the exact opposite of its purpose: maintain the status quo rather than challenge it.

Satire is not an excuse to through out whatever bigoted statement one might have been thinking and then shout “ha, I was just kidding” when that statement is challenged. When done properly, it can be an incredible tool to challenge the powerful, the privileged, and the status quo. I truly believe that continuing to associate satire with the kind of lazy Family Guy type offensive humour displayed by comedians like Skhumbo undermines satires entire purpose and cheapens its value.

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“Black First”

So…yeah

I realise that I’ve taken a perhaps longer than intended and strictly necessary break from my blogging. When thinking of how I would get back into the swing of things, I kept pondering on exactly which angle I would take. These four months into 2016 have offered no shortage of political headliners, including the recent ComCourt ruling that is finally holding our president accountable for Nkandla. And of course, there’s the issue that hits closer to home for me.

But I don’t want to talk about Zuma. What I want to talk about is an issue that hits me on a far more personal note. And this is one that is linked to the recent protests at Wits. The one thing that these protests have done is reveal the underlying patriarchy and homophobia that has existed within Fallist movements since their inception last year. Long before the protests began, I had started thinking of our country’s student movements and at exactly what point they began to disintegrate on an ideological level and then on a physical level into the fractured shells categorized by infighting and break away movements that they have now become. And while there are many issues that one can point to, I personally believe that one of the biggest issues within #FeesMustFall dates back far before the movement began. Far before the members of #FeesMustFall were even born.

I am talking of the idea that one is black first. This is an idea that one sees cropping up time and time again in works written by those revered by hoteps such as Steve Biko and Frantz Fanon. The idea is simple: that the black struggle is the quintessential struggle that must be tackled first before one can hope to tackle other “lesser” struggles such as patriarchy, homophobia, ableism, etc. In fact, according to those who subscribe to this belief, the black struggle is characterized solely by racism and classism. All other systems of oppression are not only seen as less important, if one attempts to tackle them in any meaningful way one is automatically seen as “divisive”.

This is a critique that black feminists have faced, and that we are constantly facing even now. We are told that our feminism is dividing the black community or even (and this is my personal favourite attack) that feminism is a concept invented by white women to destroy the black community. For what purpose? Racism mostly. In some versions, white women have set out to make us black women as unloveable as possible so that they can have black men to themselves. Because according to hoteps, there is no more powerful tool in the world than a black penis, which capable even of curing us hateful feminists of our beliefs.

The entire idea that one can be “black first” ignores the ways that different forms of oppression intersect with one another. For a black woman, there is no such thing as “black first” or “female first” and the idea that there is has historically forced women to ignore the one side of their oppression for the benefit of the most privileged group. During the suffrage movement, influential black women like Sojourner Truth were marginalized by their white feminist counterparts while back home in South Africa, black women were told to prioritize racism, which would ensure the the freedom of “all” black people before tackling patriarchy.

The truth is, the only people who benefit from “black first” ideology are the most privileged members. Specifically, cisgender, able bodied, heterosexual, black men. Failing to take into account the multiple oppressions that queer, disabled, and female black people face allows cishet able bodied black men to maintain their level of privilege over other groups of black people. You see this time and time again when more privileged black people actively participate in the oppression of other blacks, like when black men are patriarchal towards black women or black heterosexual people are homophobic towards queer black people. In other words, black men who push for a “black first” ideology are not truly fighting for the emancipation of all black people. They are merely fighting, to use that quote from a black revolutionary whose name I cannot remember, for a “seat at the master’s table”.

Sure, it may be overly simplistic to believe that the black first ideology is the major factor in the collapse of our student movements. I believe that the collapse is rooted in a number of causes, including the leaderless nature of the movements which leads to a lack of a clear voice, a clear direction, and accountability. Such a recipe will inevitably lead to a lack of stability, infighting, voices that seek to co-opt the movement for their own political gain, and eventually fracturing. This is exactly what we are seeing today in movements like #FeesMustFall and the Black Student Movement at Rhodes University.

But what it does show, is a fundamental fault that lies at the heart of many social justice movements. Social justice movements almost inevitably fall into a pattern where the most privileged members at best ignore the struggles of those facing intersecting oppression and at worst continue to exert their privilege over others. We’ve seen this with middle class white cisgender women in the feminist movement and white cisgender gay men in the LGBT movement.

So this begs us to ask what the solution is. As black women, our solution to white feminism was womanism, and for queer black people their solution to the overwhelming whiteness in queer spaces has been to create new black queer spaces such as Soweto Pride. So when it comes to our student movements, the question that we are left with is whether we as female and/or queer black people should start our own student movements, bearing in mind that we have not only performed tireless labour and played instrumental roles in the existing ones but we deliberately set up existing student movements with the intention of making them as intersectional as possible. Or, do we go the route of the UCT: Trans Collective and radically challenge and reclaim our position in these spaces? And of course, what do we do about the violent patriarchy that we face in our movements now, especially when this patriarchy has made it very clear that it is completely unwilling to listen to queer or feminist voices?

It’s tricky. And it’s one of the main reasons so many black women no longer identify with the current student movements.

A popular saying in intersectional circles is, “you can’t be pro black if you’re not here for all of us”. And until Black First proponents learn that, I don’t think I’ll be able to see myself in the current student movements anymore.

 

 

#ZumaMustFall: the awkward position of a problematic movement

This past week has been an interesting one in South Africa’s history. We have had a grand total of three finance ministers in one week. Nhlanhla Nene was fired last Thursday and was replaced by David van Rooyen. When the rand plummeted to record lows in the wake of Zuma’s latest reshuffling, people across South Africa expressed their outrage and a #ZumaMustFall march was quickly arranged for later on this week. Just when we were beginning to feel as though Zuma had done enough this week, he goes and reappoints Pravin Gordhan as Minister of Finance. Suffice to say, South Africans have now learned that if you go to bed too early, you might wake up to find that Cabinet has been reshuffled again.

Before I continue, I would like to make it clear that I believe that Jacob Zuma is a terrible president who has made terrible decisions and will run this country to the ground if left unchecked. Despite all that has happened, I do still have some (perhaps optimistic) faith in the ANC. I still think that the ANC’s ideologies are the most nuanced, especially when compared to the ideologies of opposition parties such as the DA and the EFF. But that being said, I cannot ignore that there are dangerous levels of corruption and incompetence within the party. The ANC has rot that runs deep and the longer they remain in power, the deeper that rot gets.

Jacob Zuma’s decision to remove Nene and replace him with the admittedly ill qualified David van Rooyen was just another example of how for Zuma, he, the ANC, and even Dudu Myeni come before the country. And for many South Africans, while this wasn’t the most offensive thing that Zuma or the ANC has ever done it was the final straw. And on that count, I fully agree that Zuma needs to go. If social media is anything to go by, so do the majority of South Africans.

That being said, there are a number of issues I’ve found within the #ZumaMustFall campaign. The issues are perhaps best encapsulated by this petition which has already gained over 26 000 signatures. The petition calls for Zuma to step down and, besides the fact that it is poorly written and reasoned, it gives a number of racist and xenophobic arguments which include stating that foreign nationals are “stealing all our jobs”, that Zuma “allowed the immigrants in so they could vote for him”, and that South Africa is worse now than it ever was under Apartheid. Because apparently, a government that oppresses the majority of your population, purposefully keeps them poor and unskilled so they can be exploited as cheap labour, and commits human rights abuses on a daily basis against them, which included torture, is perfectly alright as long as it makes sure that white people are living comfortable lives.

The reason I point to this petition in particular is that it is one of the clearest examples of the strong racist and classist undercurrent running in the #ZumaMustFall campaign. Now, these undercurrents haven’t popped up out of nowhere. For years now, I have heard people speaking of ANC voters and working class black people using overtly classist and racist rhetoric. A popular one is this idea that everyone who votes for the ANC is doing so because they are stupid/uneducated and it is therefore the task of Good Liberal Whites everywhere to venture into the deepest darkest townships of South Africa so they can teach the poor black people there how to think, because Lord knows they can’t do it for themselves. Or, if they’re more honest about their racism and classism they can simply either state or strongly imply that “certain people” shouldn’t be allowed to vote at all.

And let’s make it clear: the #ZumaMustFall campaign and Pravin Gordhan’s reappointment is strongly guided by middle class, white, interests. Zuma and the ANC have been messing things up for a long time but until now, their incompetence has primarily affected poor black people. Now, with the rand plummeting to record lows on Thursday night, foreign investments and white capital was directly effected. Many of the people I have seen preparing to march for Zuma’s resignation this week were the very same people who a few weeks ago were calling student protesters”hooligans” during the #FeesMustFall protests. They were the same people criminalising the miners for being lazy and violent during the Marikana Massacre. They are the same people who have rolled their eyes and spoken about how this country is going to the dogs every time poor black people have protested for basic service delivery or a liveable wage.

 

And so, I’m stuck in an awkward position. I must now argue both with ANC enthusiast’s who believe that the government and the president is beyond reproach and I must argue with people who are using the #ZumaMustFall campaign as a vehicle to express their politically correct racism. Once again I must ask myself whether I should disassociate myself completely from this movement or swallow my discomfort and anger and march along for Zuma’s resignation knowing that yes, #ZumaMustFall is problematic as hell, but we need to deal with Zuma NOW. It’s a difficult position, and I feel that it is an unfair one at that. Because as a born-free black woman I should not still be having to sit down and explain to the very same people I’m supposed to be marching side by side with, that all black people, not just the ones who act and sound like them, are human beings deserving of respect too.

Yet this is the position we find ourselves in in 2015.

Honestly, I still haven’t figured out what I’m going to do.

“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.