Book Review

BOOK REVIEW: “Bornfrees”/Fees/Dis-ease – We Are No Longer at Ease

WE ARE NO LONGER AT EASE WEB COV

We Are No Longer At Ease (Pic: Jacana Media)

Njabulo Zwane

The question of the “archive”, and who – and also how – gets to curate it was one of the major internal debates within the #FeesMustFall Movement (to be referred to as the Movement from henceforth). This is why there were concerted efforts on the part of many students to document this moment in the history of South Africa as it was unfolding. We Are No Longer At Ease: The Struggle For #FeesMustFall – the latest addition to a growing bibliography on the Movement – is testament to these efforts. If Wits student activist Mcebo Dlamini is to be believed and the Movement was indeed “a moment in the black radical tradition”, then it surely could not have escaped appropriation. Reading the pieces by some of the older and relatively influential folk begs the question about their deafening silence at the time of the protests. Is this after-the-fact commentary not an act of appropriation?

Included in the collection is former Nelson Mandela University (NMU) student Azola Dayile’s critical review of Aryan Kaganof’s Decolonising Wits, which reads the film in the context where “the film industry – along with the mainstream media industry – contributes to the maintenance and perpetuation of a set of power relations that grants the dominant bodies the power to create, produce, reproduce the ‘Other’ in their own conception and desire, through multiple avenues including (mis)represention, which is the dominant method of othering by those who have the power to control the media.” Dayile takes Kaganof to task for having “taken black pain, liminality and precariousness and sold it to the highest bidders at local cinemas where middle-class folk go for entertainment and to pass the time.”  

Although the primary object of Dayile’s piece is Kaganof’s film, its underlying concern is with the problem of being – whose persistence into the so-called post-apartheid dispensation has brought about a “decolonial turn” in (black) youth politics in post-apartheid South Africa. With this turn, we have seen a shift away from the politics of inclusion (into the “rainbow nation”) to a politics of exclusion (from the rainbow nation). The politics of exclusion are not a new thing in South Africa. This type of politics is foundational to South Africa as we know it. The previous decolonial turn, which introduced Black Consciousness (BC) into the political landscape in the 1970s, was born out a realisation by black university students that their white liberal counterparts were practising a paternalistic and half-hearted kind of activism – sure signs of bad faith (in the Sartrean sense). As a demonstration of this bad faith, Dayile brings the reader’s attention to a scene in the film where the students deny Kaganof entry (and therefore filming rights) to a closed meeting.

The meeting was closed in the Falllist sense, which can be read in light of what Fred Moten refers to as “refusing that which has been refused to you.” This refusal is tied to the Movement’s rejection of the rainbow nation narrative – whose logic of inclusion is premised on the non-existence of black subjectivities. For Dayile, Kaganof’s refusal to leave the room “reveals a paternalising attitude that – for the students’ plight to be seen and taken seriously – he and his camera must be there, even when not welcomed.” Otherwise, how else will the students’ struggle be legible?

In her review of We Are Not At Ease, Sarah Smit criticises the book’s form. According to Smit, “putting the theory up front is an easy way to lose any reader.” Although this concern makes sense in the context of South Africa’s famished reading culture, did it not strike Smit that this editorial decision could have been directed to the many critics of Fallism, who have voiced concern with what they perceive to be the Movement’s anti-intellectual culture (as evinced by the “calling out” culture and the turn to burning as a political tactic)? The argument presented by these critics was that calling out problematic behaviour and burning down problematic structures was a sign of a refusal to engage in reasonable dialogue/debate. Is it perhaps not better to read the Movement’s general reluctance towards debate within an understanding of “the over-saturation of dialogue as part of the schematic obscurity of the black grammar of suffering,” as art critic Athi Mongezeleli Joja beckons us to do?

Unlike the analytical framework of intersectionality, which is associated with “calling out” culture, Afro-pessimism isn’t explicitly referred to in the book. But I do want to think with this analytical tool, because of how it reveals a tension that is at the heart of the rainbow nation narrative and what Fallism means in the history of black liberation politics in this country. While Afro-pessimism has “fed deeply into the ways we think about protest”, as gamEdze and gamedZe rightfully point out, it oftentimes gets a lot of uninformed criticism – simply because most of its critics haven’t read enough of it – for how its supposed nihilism breeds a dangerous (read angry black man) politics. To the decadent disciplinarians, who advise that we stay within “our” colonial borders (territorial or otherwise), I say that the work of one Lesego Rampolokeng is as Afro-pessimist as one gets. Doubting Thomas’ must peep through Papa Ramps’ “sewer-bound poetics” to see how his oeuvre arrests the optimism that is so foundational to “post-apartheid” time – from Tutu’s rainbow nation to Ramaphosa’s “new dawn.”  

Dayile’s go-it-alone (Poqo) stance can be read within the Afro-pessimist tendency of the Movement, while there is a palpable sense of optimism in the pieces by Natasha Ndlebe, Rofhiwa Maneta and Lovelyn Nwadeyi. But even so, this optimism is like a candle whose light is about to go out. “Dear Steve Biko, I don’t think the oppressor wants to be free and the work of freeing us both is tiresome,” writes Mboya. This general sense of exhaustion is brought about by the “perpetual non-events of freedom, aporias of redress and endless rebirths of Capital,” which structure social and productive relations in many “post-” (colonial or apartheid) societies. The CODESA negotiations in the years leading up to South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994 represent this promise of redress. But for many a Fallist, these negotiations failed to demolish the house of bondage that South Africa was and continues to be (peace to Ernest Kole!).

For the reader, who has been patiently waiting for my verdict on whether We Are No Longer At Ease is worth the exorbitant amount of money books cost in this country, I would say that this book’s major selling point is the intergenerational conversation it presents, which allowed for the half-rant-half-meditation I, in turn, offered above. To my mind, the problem of (Afro-) pessimism is also a problem of generations.

 

  References

  1. Azola Dayile, “Aryan Kaganof’s Decolonising Wits: A film analysis”, in We Are No Longer At Ease, p. 73.                                                                                                                    
  2. Ibid., p. 78.                                                                                                                                       
  3. Fred Moten and Saidiya Hartman, “To Refuse That Which Has Been Refused To You” (edited transcript of a conversation that took place in 2016, part of a series titled Black Outdoors: Humanities Futures After Property and Possession), Available on Chimurenga Chronic: https://chimurengachronic.co.za/to-refuse-that-which-has-been-refused-to-you/ (Accessed 5 February 2019).                                                                           
  4. Dayile, “Aryan Kaganof’s Decolonising Wits, p. 79.
  5. Sarah Smit, “Poor form betrays the revolution”, Mail & Guardian, 22 Feb 2019, Available at: https://mg.co.za/article/2019-02-22-00-poor-form-betrays-the-revolution (Accessed 26 February 2019).
  6. Athi Mongezeleli Joja, “Ayanda Mabulu at Commune.1”, Art Throb, 14 March – 20 April 2013, Available at: http://artthrob.co.za/Reviews/Athi_Mongezeleli_Joja__reviews_Ayanda_Mabhulu_by_Ayanda_Mabulu_at_Commune.1.aspx (Accessed 5 February 2019).                      
  7. gamEdze and gamedZe, “Anxiety, Afropessimism and the University Shutdown”, The South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 118, No. 1, 2019, p. 217.                    
  8. Lesego Rampolokeng, “The Bavino Manifesto (Ars Poetica versus the Arse-Poet-Dicker)”, Available at: http://anirrationaldiary.blogspot.com/2012/09/the-bavino-manifesto-ars-poetica-versus.html (Accessed 1 March 2019).                                              
  9. Khanyisile Melanie Mboya, “The University Currently Known as Rhodes: Reflections from a Female Student Leader”, in We Are No Longer At Ease, p. 8                                           
  10. Athi Mongezeleli Joja, “Provisional Commentary on Vusi Beauchamp’s Paradyse of the Damned”, Propter Nos, Vol. 3, 2019, p. 22.

 

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