On the 18th of March, The Student Representative Council of the university posted a notice on their Facebook page, informing the public of a meeting anointed to take place the next day. It was intended that the student populace; the various student representative societies; members of the university’s higher management; as well as, the office of the Vice-Chancellor would all be present to share one space for a significant moment in time.
Today is the evening of the 19th. Rhodes University is illuminated with tension. The campus transforms into a representation of necessary rebellion. The students run rhythmically through the university’s passages and alleys, spilling onto the main road leading to the Great Hall where the meeting is to be held. Protest songs and struggle hymns are sung with passion and harmonic intuition. As one group of students pass me by while chanting Yinde Le Ndlela Esiy’hambayo, the elegiac Senzeni Na is sung by another group of students who follow them. I step aside from this pilgrimage to witness and comprehend this nostalgic cacophony as though trying to relive the days of a revolution I have never seen.
The Great Hall venue is filled to capacity. Cardboard signs with the phrases LIFE IS HARD WITHOUT A LAPTOP; #WeCan’tBreath; #RhodesSoWhite; and #RhodesMustFall sketched violently on them are waved in the air with disgruntlement and pride. The crowd eventually settles, allowing the meeting to proceed. Great Hall turns from a place of protest into one of torrent testimony. With the Vice-Chancellor sitting humbly at their feet, the students line up on the stage to express their concerns. Vehement booing, clapping and singing accompanies every vocalised grievance.
The meeting is approaching its third hour. The room is damp with vivid murmurs as a young lady is given the microphone and steps forward. She introduces herself to all parties present in the meeting but, fails to begin articulating her concerns. She stutters over and over, subsequently tucking her lips into her mouth and closing her eyes. The room is humbled into silence as she places her hand on her face. The other hand holding the microphone collapses at her side. Resignation. She is in tears. “Be strong, gal!” someone shouts from the back of the hall. “We got you, sweedaat!” another voice shouts. The hall turns into a choir of encouragement as the young lady gathers herself. Finally, she speaks.
“I am black. I am a woman. I was raised by my grandmother. I come from a working-class background” she begins definitively. She holds the semblance of an individual who has lost something important, yet cannot afford to mourn it. It is menacing for me to see her find the strength to speak. It is as though she is calling on the part of myself I refuse to think about. Her testimony is going confront me. I can feel it. The hall is too full and too still to make an unnoticeable exit. I am trapped for my own good and I know it. Because, there is nothing more powerful and astonishing than to hear a black woman annunciate her reality as passionately and intensely as the way she lives it. I sit and listen.
“I come to Rhodes and the culture tells me that we are not enough.” Her voice begins to shake again but, she maintains her posture for the sake of relaying her testimony as clearly as she can.
“The culture here tells us that we need to qualify ourselves each and every day to maintain the fact that we deserve to be here,” she affirms. She manages to quantify one of the most elusive and violent experiences endured by the black skin, in a single sentence. I feel something in me relax. A cryptic muscle that has been working faithfully to maintain the burden of perpetual conviction comes to rest. Her words unlock a cached freedom now available for my claim. An unusual reassurance. I smile.
“It is through our lecturers, who are condescendingly patronising towards us; the white students on this campus just don’t understand.” She is now governed by the story which she tells. Her narrative surpasses her tears. I place my hand on my chest to feel the resonance of her words, for these are truths which I have been living to negate and disregard for as long as I can comprehend.
“They hurl insults at us. They call us stupid. They call us angry for no reason. They call us illogical. Yet, they don’t understand the lived experience of what it means to have the colour of THIS skin on this very campus. There is no cushion that burdens the blow of being black in this institution!” Her protest climaxes. Her last affirmation destroys the feeling of freedom I had begun getting used to. I am quickly overcome by betrayal and it startles me. My solidarity with her seems to be in vain now. We are not the same. The truth about our differences makes me feel as though I am being tricked by everything about me, once again. I pick up my camera and continue to take pictures, distracting myself from engaging with the rest of the meeting. More so, I distract myself from contemplating that particular truth.
I have not been able to remember other occurrences from that meeting as significantly as I remember the testimony of that young lady. The anguish and content of her words continue to register heavily on my conscience. Her testimony continues to pressure me into discerning my emotional responses to her. Her testimony continues to make me contemplate whether or not I am being betrayed by everything about me. In penning down my reflection of this particular experience, I begin to realise two important realities, namely: 1) how the idea of being a Born-Free works for a specific minority such as myself and; 2) why the Rainbow Nation project failed the young lady, myself and many youths existing in today’s democracy.
As I begin the ironic task of decolonising my mind from these ideological principles of modern democracy, my reflection has no choice but to begin with an explicit reflection on my intimate relationship with white hegemony.
The story of who I am makes perfect fodder for the kind of propaganda which tells an optimistic, yet inaccurate narrative about the quality of South Africa’s social project. I am a post-1994 black child whose parents continue to spend their well-beings transcending poverty in order for me to enjoy the exclusive fruits an affluent life. I was born and raised within the parameters of Africa’s richest square-kilometre. I am not the first person in my family who has gone to university and I am most likely to not inherit the financial obligation of supporting extended members of my family. While I have the capacity to speak and understand three indigenous South African languages with proficient competency, it makes me prouder being able to speak the kind of English that astonishes even white people. The depth of my understanding and engagement with white culture has afforded a beneficial amount of corporate experience. I have even defied stereotypical limitation by being one of the few blacks to compete in aquatic competitions at a national level for two consecutive years. I am socially, economically, politically and even epistemologically of value to whiteness. White hegemony has recognised my capability to understand its culture; it has praised me for participating in it, but more so, it rewarded me generously for assimilating into it.
This anecdote of my relationship with white hegemony is undoubtedly unique. However, it does share some kind of common thread with the stories of those who have consciously or unconsciously assimilated into this culture. In order to avoid generalising and complicating the nature of this topic, I will speak on behalf of my own experience. My relationship with this hegemony is based on three main elements: exclusion, comfort, and fear.
The Exclusionary Nature of White Hegemony
The exclusionary element of my assimilation into this hegemony dictates that I think of myself as a survivor of grievous disadvantages that are hereditary to the life of an ordinary black person. Subscribing to a culture which imposes this way of thinking conditions me to consider myself (and be considered by others) as different in ways which matter, yet also, in ways which should not be questioned. The prevalent consequence that results from this fashion of thinking is that, my ability to have honest conversations about the state of humanity is paralysed. This is why I have been having a difficult time knowing where I should stand, now that Rhodes has fallen. This is why I encounter controversy whenever I attempt to have conversations about which black person on the social, economic and political spectrum of power has the moral credit to be qualified as a racist. This is why I have been having a difficult time emphathising with the possibility of being oppressed by monumental symbols of a colonial past. I am revered by the gatekeepers of this hegemony and resented by those who have not yet qualified to participate in it. My inclusion into white hegemony translates into me being an exclusive member of an exclusive, yet dominant society. This causes me to be an unconventional example of what it means to be othered. This process of othering is abrasively peculiar. I have had to master the skill of negotiating my identity in ways which are emotionally violent and intellectually complex. This is why my living experience is littered with circumstances where my pride or displeasure with being black is determined by how I am acknowledged, accepted and accommodated by those in and out of the popular hegemonic circle.
The Comfortable Nature of White Hegemony The comfort-oriented element of my assimilation dictates that I not only perceive myself (and be perceived by others) as an exclusive and morally infallible member of society, but that this perception actualises itself at the cost of negating the experiences of others who are not included in the hegemonic circle. White hegemony requires that I remain silent- preferably ignorant- about certain aspects of civic life. My endorsement of this silence and ignorance is because I am the supposed better black who has acquired more than I normally deserve. The complex nature of my assimilation into white culture necessitates that ‘being black’ becomes an occasional fixture of my identity, instead of an integral part of it. I am required to constantly prove my blackness in order to belong to whiteness. The burden of proof can range from being expected to have a moderate/liberal concern for topical issues such as poverty; to making that monthly/annual trip to the rural areas to see family; to even attending the odd cultural or political meeting on campus. When I inherit the comfort that comes with assimilation, I am allowed to discard these ‘fixtures of blackness’ until the next time I am required to prove my candidacy to belong in ranks of whiteness once more. When the meeting which took place on the 19th of March occurred, I found myself in the midst of a conscience-threatening dilemma: Do I attend the meeting and commit to the cause- risking ideologically betraying the hegemonic project which I have unapologetically, but uncritically endorsed my whole life? Or, do I not attend the meeting- resting on the assurance that I will not be chastised and labelled morally irresponsible for my abstinence from the conversation in its entirety? The reasons which informed my decision to attend the meeting were completed by that young lady who stood up and relayed her experience. Her testimony was crude awakening for me. Our attendance at an institution such as Rhodes University in a democratic era is not enough to homogenise us. Being black is not a privilege. The young lady’s insecurity about the condition of her identity on campus is evidence of this. It devastates me that she feels there was no security which burdened the blows of being black because, it highlighted an important difference between her and myself: my passive and successful mimicry of white hegemony is my source of security. I am too preoccupied trying transcending the psychology of inferiority by assimilating into a culture which imposes it. I internalise those condescending words of the patronising lecturers she protests against. I endorse my privileged silence when white students dehumanise their black peers for not conforming to the norms of white etiquette. I am welcomed into spaces of social, corporate and political engagement without challenge, as I am symbolic proof that the project of hegemonic civilisation is not a myth.
The Punitive Nature of White Hegemony
The fear-oriented element of assimilation dictates that punitive consequences be taken should there be defiance of any kind that threatens the concomitant unity between this hegemony and I. While I have not experienced significant losses from renouncing my participation in white culture, the aim of this element is to instill the kind of fear which impairs rational thinking. Therefore, the thought/act of questioning, challenging or offending any part of this hegemonic project is inhibited by my phobia of doing so. The comfortable and exclusionary natures of this hegemony create a prison for me- of which its bars I have been indoctrinated to not break. I realised this when my Journalism and Media Studies tutor asked the group recently:
“Who feels at home here at Rhodes?”
The majority of the room raised its hands. I noticed three hands missing from the conglomerate of those who were eager to give reasons as to why they considered Rhodes University a home away from the homes they came from. The hands of those who did not feel welcome at this university were all black. I did not realise that my tutor had picked me to start the conversation, as I was preoccupied with how I was going to respond to my phobia for hegemonic disturbances such as this one. I took a guilty glance at my hand which was raised unconsciously in the air. That moment caught me off-guard. I guess I did consider Rhodes University as my second home.
After a few seconds of nervously contemplating an answer, I bursted into speech- rhetorical and embarrassingly fast. I do not recall what I said. All I remember is that my answer was delivered in a sarcastic tone which I knew everybody would find funny.
What was supposed to be a fierce debate about the contemporary legacies of John Cecil Rhodes, turned into an unreflective and safe group-discussion. The quality of the discussion lacked the propensity to evoke actions and statements which could inconveniently reveal our raw attitudes about the topic.
After complicity chipping into what turned out to be a safe discussion-swayed by the majority of the group who felt accomodated at the university- I resigned from engaging any further. I was paralysed by a profound, yet familiar sense of fear and betrayal. I reduced a conscience-threatening issues to banter and fake optimism. It is how I subconsciously divert facing my phobia of challenging the alpha hegemony.
Had I been the kind of person who believed in the redemptive power of honest and inconvenient conversations instead of succumbing to my fear of hegemonic rebellion, the appropriate answer I would have given to that question should have been:
Yes! I feel most comfortable at Rhodes University because, it is more than an escape from the pretences of Northern Johannesburg. There is neither defeat nor victory nor struggle for me, here. The liberal socio-academic environment which embellishes this institution does not dare challenge my identity in ways which matter. As an elite person of colour, Rhodes University is a secluded and affluent space which affords me the ability to unconsciously practice the mimicry of white hegemony, in peace.
My relationship with white hegemony does not solely refer to my interaction with white or black people. It does not directly refer to my attitude towards race and class issues. Neither does it speak about an experience which can be regarded as a norm. The articulation of my relationship with white hegemony is one of many examples which reflect the state of South Africa’s transformation project. My relationship with white hegemony speaks about the inequalities between advances in the structural transformation and regressions in the quality of lived human experience. It speaks about the disparities between material equality and psychological poverty. It speaks about how hegemonic systems of oppression mutate and subsequently, continue thrive within eras of democracy. South Africa is not a phenomenal country. It is a country which is famous for its phenomenal events. However, we are misguided in thinking that the story this country ought to continue telling is one which says that we are survived by our ability to reproduce admirable miraculous. The Rainbow Nation and Born-Free ideologies are contemporary examples of these induced miracles. The declaration of these two ideological projects has distracted us from doing the hard work of healing our society from the core. The endorsement of these ideologies has rendered us paralysed from having necessary, honest and inconvenient conversations about our experiences and collective identity. The unfortunate reality is that these democratic ideologies belong irreducibly to a time where freedom still has the power to choose its proprietors.
We think we are free, yet all we have ever done is cover gunshot wounds with plasters.
Disclaimer: The title of this post is influenced by notions of engagement relating to a paper which is still in the process of development. This particular paper is researched, developed and written by Siseko H. Khumalo.