By: Siphokuhle Mathe
One of the challenges that face members of the ‘thinking’ sect is their inability to interpret different intellectual genres. This is because power is not fairly distributed among those who produce and use knowledge. Put differently, a Fanonian and Biko enthusiast often has a difficult time understanding Art History in that they have not been exposed to it.There are many bodies of knowledges that can explain a single subject, some pointing to different apparatus, variables and methodologies. Evidence of this has been in Mandisi Gladile’s failed attempt at giving a fair critique of Nkateko’s Mabasa’s poetic rendition of “If Men Decided To Feel”.
Mabasa’s piece was an ‘artistic’ address of the relational power dynamics between black men and women. His focus was on the horizontal interpersonal relationships that black men have with black women within the scope of patriarchy and the subjects of violence, subjugation and dispossession. His intervention employs ‘strategic essentialism’ (a term first coined by Gayatri Spivak) in which he contemplates black masculinity as that which inherently subverts and consumes women’s power. It is essentialist because it does not develop an appreciation for the various manifestations of black masculinity, but focuses on hegemonic toxic masculinities. This allows him to characterise the proclivity that all black men have the toxicity in various forms and the many behaviours that are borne of the processes of their socialisation.
Mabasa’s vocal technique makes the dialectic relationship between black men and women easily ascertainable. It is this very technique that is imbued in the #MenAreTrash movement – to highlight that there are structural sanctions that incentivise the dishonourability of men. However, Gladile reads Mabasa’s offering as theoretically limited. He writes, “…I will prove…a blatant conceptual historical and political distortion” and further states that Mabasa’s position is a “fundamental misunderstanding of the black liberation project”.
If Gladile was as ‘avid’ a student as he purports to be in his piece, he would understand both the technique employed in Mabasa’s gender analysis and the usefulness therewith. Instead, his injunction is based on a whataboutery that is so often visited upon any critical engagement of gender relations in South Africa. This is a tool of deflection that functions to preclude meaningful engagement on black on black gendered relations. Evidence of which is when Gladile writes, “This emotionally-charged venture by Mabasa to reach conclusive degradation and battering of the Black male imago without clearly theorizing and locating condition-indicators of what subjectivize (sic) his existence and experience under white supremacy finds its most vile expression…” In furtherance of this sly centralisation of white supremacy in a gender relations conversation, he then postulates that black men are “fundamentally structured as non-men”. It is from this that one can deduce that Gladile’s mission is to misplace the agency and accountability of black men in the setting of our own meted dominance.
The whataboutery also stems from a privileging of particular voices, those with a history of fair documentation. This is clear in his referencing of Robert Sobukwe and Bantubonke Biko. He cites the latter in tandem with the Black Consciousness philosophy of a broader ‘black’ category that is inclusive of Coloured and Indian folk in the struggle against white racism. The very laziness he accuses Mabasa of is the very laziness that he displays when he harps on the idea of solidarity about these racial groups against white apartheid. He further tries to destabilise the horizontal oppression of women at the hands of men by mentioning the participation of a Dr Vuyelwa Mashalaba and other black women activists. He does so to convince us that their activism was ‘not obstructed by power-hungry and readily dominating black men. His masculinised text to this extent, obscures and renders invisible the violence and violation that women faced in and out of revolutionary movements and moments. This concealment, at once creates greater room for the praise of Biko and Sobukwe whilst obliterating any intellectual curiosity into the patriarchal embodiments of the two figures. It also is an unintellectual engagement that denies the fact that black men have co-opted other bodies in the black liberation project, making women and other marginalised groups accessories in their attempts to fetch and reclaim their humanity from whiteness. To Gladile it is as if power and superstructures are relational concepts that were transported at the advent of African colonialism.
Mabasa’s “If Men Decided To Feel” appeared to be about an interest in empathy capacity-building, about being understanding, reflective and acknowledging the state of black masculinity. Gladile’s misguided ‘academic’ and philosophical assessment is the very reason why Mabasa’s piece should exist – to appreciate both philosophical underpinnings of black masculinity whilst not discounting some of the visceral aspects of black gendered experience.
When people like Gladile respond to ‘feminist’ injunctions in the way they do, they ensure that people speak past one another and reproduce inequalities by privileging the same authors over mostly silenced black feminist work. If Gladile decided to feel, he would see that his piece is a rude interjection in a conversation he did not start himself. If he wanted to study black masculinity as constructed by many sociological factors, he could have done so in an original piece. The accusation of Mabasa’s piece as reactionary is a tag he can take back and wear on his own forehead. At the end of the day no philosophical -ologisation, -isationing and icalling is useful without the encouragement of empathy, accountability and meaningful community-building. Decoloniality depends on much more than dismantling the pervasion of whiteness.
Siphokuhle Mathe is a UCT graduate in Public Policy and Administration and African Languages and Literatures, a featured author in Writing What We Like (A new generation speaks), a South African jazz enthusiast and sometimes a political and social commentator.