The last week has witnessed some of the most distasteful appropriation of the symbolism of what has been one of the most exciting instances of Black radical organising in South Africa’s recent years. I speak here of the appropriation of the #mustfall hashtag by a gaggle of picnicking white liberals together with some members of the black comprador class, who are uniting collectively under the banner #zumamustfall (hereafter zmf) calling for the South African president, Jacob Zuma, to step down. In this short piece I intend to tease out some of the problematic and offensive tendencies of this recent zmf fad by engaging with the ideology of #mustfall and attempting to highlight the gulf between that movement and the political position of zmf. My main point here is that zmf represents an appropriation of, an attempted depoliticisation of, and a distraction from the historically-informed decolonial ideological positioning of the #mustfall movement.
In an exceptional piece on theorising the #mustfall movement/ideology as radical creative practice, Thuli Gamedze recently wrote the following:
“MustFallness is an ideology that I understand as one speaking to decolonization (the destruction of the colonial structure, ideology, etc) as a way to make space for new ideas, and new ways of being. In this sense, the word standing before the ‘MustFall’ phrase always speaks to the notion of ‘Rhodes’, and the colonial legacy of South Africa,” (http://africanah.org/decolonization-as-art-practice/ ).”
From this brief excerpt we can draw out the key underpinning of #mustfall- the decolonisation project. The importance of this cannot be overstated; #mustfall is linked intrinsically to the understanding and awareness of the contemporary reality of South Africa as being one of a neocolonial nature. The general contours of South African society reflect those of a settler colony. Our public spaces are littered with the grotesque bronze symbols of violent settlers, the white masculine ‘heroes’ of the colonial project. Settlers and European capital (and a tiny local comprador class) own all the productive land and industry in our country.
SA is neo-colonial rather than colonial in that the government, the façade of power, is now filled by ‘indigenous people.’ The car is the same, the people driving the car look different but the car has not changed direction. What I mean by this is that the apparatus and instruments of power and the general characteristics of the country in economic, social, and geographical terms, remain, by and large, the same as those under colonialism (apartheid included). With an almost negligible amount of nuance, the following generalisations remain true: White people own productive land and industry. Black people produce white wealth by sweat of their labour. White people are protected by the police. Black people are harassed and killed by the police. The con-stitution protects the status quo. This is the violent, oppressive neo-colonial reality from which #mustfall emerges and to which it responds. Its response is decolonisation.
The decolonial project aims to challenge and subvert the central values of colonialism. These I understand as hierarchy and domination defined and informed by a system of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. While #mustfall movements do not always live up to the whole, intersectional task of decolonisation and have often been violently subverted and taken over by forces of misogynist patriarchy, at our best (if we truly pursue a decolonisation agenda), we could move toward a future where relations between people are not determined by hierarchy and the will to dominate others. We could shape a future where there is no hegemonic ideal of a human that excludes and oppresses people based on their gendered identity, their racial identity, their sexuality, or their class. A future where relations between us are characterised by a radical love. I use radical here because it speaks to the approach- we must pursue all means necessary to achieve a society where this form of human love is possible (dismantling patriarchy, dismantling colonial land ownership structures, dismantling class based oppression, etc.), because within the current dispensation this form of human relation is not possible. It is only through a thorough dismantling of the oppressive reality that we have now along with the parallel creation of new ways of being together that the decolonisation project will gain meaning and life.
Taking the above as an understanding of the decolonisation project to which #mustfall affiliates, how then might we understand zmf? What actually are people saying when they say that Zuma must fall and how does that relate to #mustfall, and the decolonisation project? At their picnics with their humus and kettle-fried crisps from Woolworths, what exactly are zmf people asking for? If we get to the root of it, zmf is saying that Jacob Zuma, a whole Black man is not capable of running a country that is (and according to zmf still should be) run for the benefit of white people.
But it also is and isn’t more complicated than that.
If these people had any sense, they would realise that the ANC in office since 1994 has been the best thing that could happen for white people in SA. The farce of the bourgeois democratic transition and the persistence of the neo-colonial reality has meant that not a single white person has had to pay any form of reparations for wealth, land or their general social position of privilege constructed on the dispossession, oppression and exploitation of Black people. So instead of stretching out their picnic blankets in protest, zmf’ers should probably just shut up, take a day off from their exhausting politically active lives and just put ANC on their ballot in the next election. That’s the most likely way to preserve their position of privilege.
Perhaps more important than the above point is that zmf locates itself within the neo-colonial political order, and by doing so, legitimises it. Zmf is not calling for a different car, they are just asking for a different driver. I think that herein is the deepest disjuncture between the ideology of #mustfall and zmf and the most offensive aspect of zmf’s appropriation.
#mustfall understands that the roots of SA society are rotten (read colonial). It understands the political apparatus and the pseudo-democratic order as a central pillar of the system of oppression. Due to this understanding, it has created space away from the bourgeois democratic channels of partisan politics because it understands that voices truly representing the interests of Black people, of queer people, of trans-gendered people, of the pan-African impulse, can never be more than whispers in those halls of power. Its critique goes beyond the political system to the historical foundations of the present social order which it locates in colonialism.
Zmf on the other hand sees no problem with the farcical form of democrazy that plagues SA, only with perceived Black incompetence (read racism). Zmf is also rooted in the social reality of neo-colonialism but the big difference between itself and #mustfall is that its supporters are predominantly the descendents of settlers, i.e. those who have the biggest stake in the continuation of the status quo. They do not want to see the end of the colonial reality in SA, they are quite happy with the current situation here with their land, businesses, swimming pools, big cars, picnic blankets and humus. They just want someone else to drive them around in their European fantasy world. And appropriating a decolonial movement’s hashtag to forward that conservative agenda is, quite frankly, a disgrace.
Am I defending Zuma? Am I a supporter of Zuma? Don’t be absurd. I am defending the decolonisation project. I am responding to the liberal attempt to depoliticise the radical impulse by appropriating our movement (which is calling for the creation of a new society and a dismantling of the present society) by using our popular political currency (#mustfall) to call for the preservation of the status quo.
Zuma is neither here nor there in this conversation. Sure he’s corrupt and is a political maneuverer and has a handful of other flaws as a leader but Zuma might as well be Mandela, he might as well be Mbeki, he might as well be Helen Zero for that matter. The primary problem is the car, not the driver. The car is still driving white people to the promised land. They have allowed a few Black people in but the majority are filling petrol at the garage, washing the windscreen or begging for a few coins at the robot.
Zmf wants a different driver because Zuma is too reckless. #mustfall says: “Stop that car, everyone get out. Give us the car, we will take it apart and build our own thing and it will be better. We are moving forward to something new.”