Concerning appropriation: Thoughts on decolonisation, #mustfall and the distraction of Zuma

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.”

 

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8 thoughts on “Concerning appropriation: Thoughts on decolonisation, #mustfall and the distraction of Zuma

  1. While you write very well, I think you lack both IQ and EQ to truly understand the situation in our country. It’s not the car that matters but the direction it is going. Every nation has it’s car and if we were to reject it then we’d be walking to our goal as a nation. Some of us are born rich and others poor. Unfortunately that is how the system works everywhere. Sure, the majority of the wealth belongs to white people, but it won’t always be that way. In fact, why should we care? We are all children of Africa and you contribute to the problem by separating people based on color. In fact, the whole decolonization movement is flawed. We may as well reject technology, western education and language. This situation is way more complicated than you think and there is no quick fix for it. This #zmf expresses the nation’s distaste for our president. I’m not eating posh food and don’t own a pool. I grew up in a lower class coloured community and I know the struggle as well.

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    1. Keagan,
      Much to respond to…
      Thank you for engaging on some level and thank you for the compliment re- my writing. As for my IQ and EQ I have never been for those tests so I can neither agree nor disagree with your charge that I am not intelligent enough to understand the situation in our country, although I am doing my best through studying the country’s and the rest of the continent’s history tirelessly. But I would disagree with your assumption that one requires a particular IQ/EQ score to understand the situation in the country, I believe that all people are intellectual beings and, as such, are capable of making sense of their world. The notion of a IQ is a Eurocentric mechanism of hierarchy and domination used to divide and rule people by suggesting that some are more intellectually capable than others. It is very linked to class, race and gendered forms of oppression.
      In terms of your view of decolonisation, what exactly are referring to when you say that the whole movement is flawed? I’m also not sure where you get the assumption from that I think the situation in our country is uncomplicated. Perhaps you could expand a bit on those two critiques/points?
      I would suggest that your acceptance of the status quo of white people owning wealth and land and submitting to the reality of some people (Black people) being poor and oppressed, and others being privileged, reflects a colonial mentality – the normalisation and internalisation of the colonial order. It is therein that the necessity for decolonisation lies. Until we – you and I and our families and communities – people of the soil of this country (not the settlers and their descendents) – realise that the situation in this country doesn’t have to be like this and are willing and ready to contribute to a revolutionary movement toward something new beyond the status quo of misery, death, squalor and oppression, Black people will constantly be begging for crumbs in the land of their birth.
      And one last thing, I would like to remind you that it was not I but the colonists who divided people based on colour. The material and social reality around me reflects this division so I can only write about it in the way I see and understand it.
      Forward

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  2. 1. On FB you talk of a conservative political agenda appropriating the #mustfall hash tag, yet this article only speaks of “panicking white liberals” and the black people aligned to them. By definition liberals are not conservatives nor do they follow a conservative political agenda. A dictionary explaining the difference of these terms might be useful.

    2. Further, why do you use this pseudo Marxist like language throughout your piece. You do realise that Marxism has failed every time a country has tried to take his ideas into reality, To me is just sounds stupid when you use these large words that would feel right at home in the pages of Das Kapital and clearly have little real understanding of them. Do you believe that this rhetoric gives the movement some type of pseudo intellectual appeal?

    2. And then when I shop in Sandton or spend time at the union buildings or fly out of King Shaka international I have to see statues of former terrorists and violent leaders that committed genocide on the massive scale. So in reality, you want to remove statues that oppose *your* world view and erect others that support *your* views and ideology.

    4. Further, do you realize that the size of the black middle class now exceeds the number of white people in the country. Your black comprador class is not nearly as tiny as you would like others to believe.

    5. I find it ridiculously funny that you want a future of “radical love”, yet this whole piece demonizes white people and other non-indigenous settlers. A movement that comes from a place of hatred, bigotry and prejudice is never going to lead to love of one another. You go as far to associated settlers with the term rotten. Many of these settlers of course view themselves as South African as you do. Many have been in the country for many many generations.

    6. Incompetence is not only perceived in the SA economy. Please read through an Auditor generals report to gain a better understanding of incompetence and mismanagement. However, I don’t think incompetency is associated primarily with race but more with tribalism and crony capitalism which the current leadership seems to love so much.

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    1. Mack,

      Your comment on the statues reeks of hurtful privilege. Have those statues contributed in ensuring a continued denigration and oppression of your people that reeks to this very day? … so you support Cecil Rhodes’ views and ideology? Would you think it fine and dandy for Hitler’s statue to be erected tall in the big institutions of modern Germany because he had contributed to them?

      With the population of whites in comparison to blacks (75% black and 10% white) in South Africa it is of little surprise that black middle class is more than white people but percentages reflect that within the races middle class whites are way more than middle class blacks. That on average white families still earn 6 times more than black families!

      The country needs massive decolonisation, and that time is now.

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  3. Asher,

    I’ll be the first to admit that when it comes to engaging with pressing political issues, I choose to remain inactive and apathetic, perhaps because, as you’ve quite rightly pointed out, sitting down and not doing a thing ultimately serves my interests as a white, cisgendered hetrosexual male. I’ve got it easy; all I have to do is put my head down.

    But that is neither here nor there. I just want to contextualise this comment.

    I would be grateful if you could expand on the concept of relationships characterised by radical love.

    From what you have said in your piece, I understand such relationships to be the end goal of the project of decolonisation. Would that be correct? Can decolonisation be “achieved”, or is it an ongoing process, an ideal towards which we as a society must always strive? Do you think there will always be an oppressor?

    I ask because oppression to me does not seem a natural or helpful way for people to relate. And the dividing lines between oppressor and oppressed are quite obviously arbitrary albeit normalised.

    But dismantling society seems, for lack of any better word, messy. How does one go about it? Are there examples in history that we could draw on? Is decolonisation a novel issue?

    Radical love sounds awesome. Like, I can dig it. Sign me up. But I don’t know how we move towards that. Of course I have ideas about how I could do this in my everyday interactions with others as an individual, but as a political movement – when we are talking about disrupting institutions – I just don’t see how it can work.

    For instance, one of your points is how the Constitution maintains the status quo. Correct me if I’m wrong here – but I imagine you say as much because it protects property rights, and provides justice only for those who can afford it. It is quite apparent that it has not lived up to its status as the transformative god document.

    But I still look at these things from a strictly legal angle – once you toss the Constitution, the rule of law, (Western again – sure), but once that is compromised, what platform do you work from? How can radical love be enforced without any form of oppression? Do we need enforcement once we have radical love? Can radical love be achieved without any form of enforcement? How does society regulate itself?

    I struggle to imagine a world without money, power, authority, property, and therefore oppression. Your thoughts?

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    1. Dan,
      Thanks for engaging. I won’t respond to everything here but to a few points that I think are important.
      Firstly on radical love, if you are interested, read some bell hooks, her formulation of the concept is my favourtite that i have come across.
      Secondly, I believe that the process of decolonisation will be two (or more) processes working in parallel, one disrupting institutions that currently reproduce the status quo, one building new spaces that emerge from people’s realities and embody the vision of the society we are trying to create. At a certain point it will become possible to either overthrow or supplant the institutions that have become redundant and no longer serve society in the way people want them to.
      Thirdly, from your privileged position I think you have overlooked the reality that life NOW is messy. Most people’s lives in this country are constitued by mess. Mess is the fabric of Black life in SA so to say that we shouldn’t embark on a process because it will be messy will only ever be the chant of the elite.
      FOurth, as for historical examples of decolonisation, my favourite is the process followed by the PAIGC in Guinea-Bissau. The writings of Amilcar Cabral are a great introduction to that historical context. Beyond that there have been many other radical movements, many of which have been isolated and/or violently destroyed by global imperialist forces. Many cases in latin america of radical governments being overthrown by US forces who then install and prop up military dictators who serve US capital interests.
      And finally, regarding not being able to imagine a world without oppression, that is perhaps natural because of your social position (?) perhaps you have never had to? dominant modes of oppression (heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism) have served you pretty well (in that they have carved out a comfy place in society for you so there is no imperative to think beyond that?)? I think for people whose lives are, in differing ways and to differing extents, shaped by oppression, poor people, LGBTQIA+ people, Black people, women people, an imagination of a more positive future often all people have until they can make that real. Yours is a very defeatist position and, I think, comes from a comfort with the status quo. When people can’t feed their families because of capitalism, surely they can imagine something else. when women can’t walk around safely in their neighbourhoods, surely they can imagine something else. when people are homeless or living in sub-standard housing, surely they can imagine something else…
      must nurture the radical imagination…

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  4. Thanx man. I wonder what role we as the descendents of the settlers can play in imagining and deconstructing / designing this new car… The feeling one gets from this article is that we are not really welcome in this process and will always be misguided in our thinking because of our history etc… My hope is that this is wrong, and that we can start creatively, critically and urgently moving towards sustainable, cross boundary solutions… Would you say that I am welcome in this process?

    Like

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