By: Lindokuhle Patiwe
On Friday 13 April, there was some media traffic amongst some “Fallists” in congratulating comrade Ncedisa Mpemnyama on his recent article The Fallists have Fallen off. It is hard to grasp properly what is it that comrade Ncedisa offers as the main argument in his article. The last two paragraphs of the article indicate that it is the wearing of the gown at graduation ceremonies and one could probably even stretch the argument to say the celebration of graduations itself. However, for a main point, this receives very little attention in the article by comrade Ncedisa, only coming up in the last two paragraphs.
Below I try to respond to some of the claims made in the article. Even though I will entertain some of the other points raised in the article, like the lack of the movement wrestling the struggle out of universities and into communities. My focus will be on the wearing of the ‘colonial gown’ in graduation ceremonies.
The article by Ncedisa starts off with a quote from Dambudzo Marechera extracted from a letter he wrote to his girlfriend back in London. The extracted quote is as follows:
“It is such academic mad houses that keep on churning out arrogant, snobbish, hypocritical and pea-minded bastards who enter the world with the superior airs of holier-than-thou, we and them attitude calling themselves Doctors, Professors or any stupid titles to distance themselves other ordinary folks whom they look down on as dunces. These idiots have done little in changing the world for a better place. If anything, they have contributed in making it worse by joining their counterparts in the right-wing maggoty camp influencing policies that worsen this Babylon called earth. They wear gowns and mortar boards receiving degrees from pink-faced old blokes who shake their hands and congratulate them for entering the world of knowledge.”
Disappointingly, Ncedisa does not go on to explain the use of this quote from Dambudzo in relation to his piece. One is left wondering if Ncedisa is accusing Fallists of the same tendencies that Dambudzo is decrying in that letter? If this is the case, I argue that comrade Ncedisa is guilty of a hyperbole here. Whatever the failure of the so called Fallist movement, one cannot make controversial statements like “These idiots have done little in changing the world for a better place. If anything, they have contributed in making it worse by joining their counterparts in the right-wing maggoty camp influencing policies that worsen this Babylon called earth”, without giving a proper analysis as to why that is the case. This is in no way saying that the so called Fallists are not guilty of this, but my modest intervention is to say that one cannot just put this out there and not give us the reasons. Such a conclusion is not an uncontroversial one, and as such one must give the premises that led to the conclusion.
The first part of the quote seems to me to be a critique of the universities themselves more than the individuals who graduate from these institutions. Dambudzo here argues that “it is such academic mad houses that keep churning out… distance themselves (from) other ordinary folk…”. But surely even on this one, Fallists cannot uncontroversially be accused of using their academic titles to look down on the ordinary folk, it was precisely the urge to give an anti-thesis to this dominant narrative of university graduates that gave birth to the #RhodesMustFall movement.
But I wish not to dwell much on this quote, but my point was to show that it would have been more helpful had it been explained within the context of the article itself.
As a hip-hop enthusiast himself, Ncedisa uses the hip hop metaphor for “falling off” which he explains as a reference to someone who “has lost their essence or soul with respect to their craftsmanship”. But again, Ncedisa only comes to explain why he thinks that the Fallists have fallen off in the last two paragraphs of his piece. The main argument that I got from the article is that the Fallists have fallen off because they are now celebrating that which they were fighting against in the first place.
Firstly, in the article, comrade Ncedisa decries the fact that after graduation, graduates find themselves in the predicament of trying to find a job. It is unclear if Ncedisa argues that it is reactionary to seek a job as a Fallist or he is simply stating the dire predicament that graduates today face. Therefore, I shall not deal with this point in detail, for fear of putting words in comrade Ncedisa’s mouth.
The main point that Ncedisa seems to want to tackle in the article is the celebration of graduation ceremonies and the wearing of the graduation gown by the so called Fallists. I shall state from the onset that I agree with Ncedisa on graduations and the gown. But I agree with him for completely different reasons and my reasons have nothing to do with an ideological conviction. I do not like graduation ceremonies because I think they are such an inconvenience. One seats there for three hours only to see their loved ones thirty seconds of fame on stage. I just think that it is way too much of an inconvenience to having to celebrate one’s achievements. On the gown question, I also do not like it, but for different reasons. I think that the gown just messes up with one’s outfit, after going all out and getting the best designer clothes or the best mbhaco (traditional attire) that you have you are going to put a huge black cloth over all of that.
But clearly comrade Ncedisa disagrees on deeply ideological bases. Ncedisa argues that it is an irony that those that were fighting against the coloniality of the university to be celebrating university degrees today. On the simple celebration part, Ncedisa seems to be torn in between being fine with it and not agreeing with it at the same time. This is probably caused by the fact that in the article he wants to congratulate Chumani for the intervention that he made in the graduation ceremony, yet at the same time whether an intervention was made or not, Chumani did attend that ceremony. And Chumani’s decision to attend is deeply political. In the praises that he made at the beginning of the ceremony he says “Mamelani ndinixelele indaba zenu. Sifikile ke thina benikade nibagxotha!”. It became then very important for him to attend that ceremony and show the establishment that tried to kick him out of the university that they have failed. The attendance of the ceremony itself is then elevated beyond simple celebration of one’s obtaining a colonial degree to an act of protest. It is to show the establishment that they have failed in their attempts to kick him out of the academy.
Similarly, other people that attend the graduation ceremony do it for different reasons. I for one, as stated earlier in this piece, hate graduation ceremonies, but I will attend my one simply to please my family because they would really love to see all their effort come to some symbolic fruition. The point I’m trying to drive home here is that people attend these ceremonies not to necessarily celebrate their new elevation in society to being a graduate, but to fulfill certain contingency matters.
On the wearing of the gown, Ncedisa may be unclear about many things in the article, but what is definitely a clear position is his wearing of the gown. And the critique is on those that call themselves as Fallists, who not so long ago were saying down with colonial symbols in our spaces. Ncedisa argues that it is a contradiction in terms to be a Fallist and still wear the gown. My own intervention here is not to disagree with Ncedisa on whether this is ideologically untenable. But my point is to say that Ncedisa must do more to prove his point. His explanation of the idea of “Falling off” in hip hop culture took me to a Xhosa saying for someone who has done the unthinkable. KwaXhosa sithi “Utsibe ilitye likaPhungela”. Which simply means that you have gone beyond the pale.
We all agree that the gown is a colonial gown. I think that is an uncontroversial statement to make. But to state this is to state the obvious. And the gown is a colonial symbol together with many other colonial symbols that we are guilty of letting go on a daily basis. My question to Ncedisa would be what is it about the wearing of the gown and the celebration of the graduation that makes it ‘beyond the pale’? How is someone that did not attend the ceremony different to the one who did? Because at the end of the day they will both use the colonial degree that they got from the same university to validate the fact that they are graduates. It is not the capping by the Vice Chancellor at the ceremony that confers upon one the problematic validation that they are now part of the so-called thinking class. It is, in the final analysis, the certificate that does that, which itself is a very colonial idea that you need a paper to validate the fact that you can think. But the point I am trying to drive home here is the fact that if you have already committed yourself to the colonial university system, this is an inevitable end and one will use that certificate to open certain doors for themselves whether they agree with the idea or not. Whether people do it in protest, but the attendance of the university is to be able to obtain that certificate to open certain doors that we know cannot be opened without it. Some do it so that they can be able to be considered part of the knowledge production strata of society.
But the point here is to say that this too (the obtaining of the certificate) is colonial. And what Ncedisa fails to prove to us is that why is the wearing of the gown at the ceremony fundamentally different and ideologically untenable compared to the other colonial symbols that we are complacent in every day. For example, many people recently are either finishing their PhD thesis or about to start their PhD’s. Why does one have to get a PhD to prove that they mastered whatever it is that they are studying? Will Ncedisa be more accommodating to this colonial practice of feel goodism* that he is of the wearing of the gown?
Let me restate my point, for fear of being misunderstood. I do not necessarily disagree with Ncedisa’s thesis that the wearing of the gown is an ideological contradiction. However, I am saying that in his article, Ncedisa does not provide sufficient analysis to prove this point. It is when the fundamentality of the wearing of the gown is made apparent to us shall we be at the position to make a judgement on whether we agree or not. A failure to make this analysis runs the risk of falling into a slippery slope because the argument that one should not get a degree because our degrees are colonial is perfectly consistent with the argument that Ncedisa puts forth. But I know he is registered for a degree himself, so clearly, he is not that radical in approach. But then if that is the case, that he can accommodate certain practices. Then the onus is on him to make apparent the fundamental difference that is the wearing of the gown. Without that fundamental difference being drawn out it makes the non-wearing of the gown simple feel goodism, you are more than willing to do all these other colonial practices, getting the degree itself, attending the ceremony and just refusing to wear the gown as some revolutionary gesture, when you are already deep in colonial practices. But clearly this kind of revolt against the system is nothing but a grand standing.
*Feel goodism is the practice of ukuzibasela and being self-indulgent to please your own ego.