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Sawubona from South Africa!

We spent our first week in Johannesburg going to various monuments, townships and museums, in order to acquaint ourselves with South African history. It was both heavy and humbling. It left me with more questions than answers mostly pertaining to the state of post-coloniality, the correctness of invoking this term in certain contexts and the process of movement–building (particularly as it pertains to figureheads such as Nelson Mandela), in the context of South Africa. So the questions I want to explore with this blog-post are, “Is South Africa a post-colonial state?” and “How do we imagine and enact a praxis of post-coloniality?”

Firstly, the idea of the post-colonial state can sometimes occupy a passive definition to mean the state of a nation after colonial rule has ended and how colonialism affects our languages, our identities, our economies etc. But I want to use Achille Mbembe’s view that understands post-coloniality to be a condition that is occupied by a state that has emerged from colonial rule that has not yet escaped coloniality. He tells us that the post-colony is a harbor of different temporalities that brings together the “being dissolved” and the “being formed.”

In post-colonial, post-apartheid South Africa, bodies of black South Africans are still subjected to violence in ways that suggest the continued existence of colonial forces even in a supposedly “New South Africa,” as well as the development of a neoliberal order through a black political elite. As such, as has been evidenced this week, the past (apartheid forces from which raced inequality was engraved into the South African landscape) has colluded with the present (a black elite intent on monopolizing economic empowerment at the expense of the black majority) to leave the black majority as destitute as they were prior to the end of Apartheid. Two elements from our time in Johannesburg articulate this tension:

  1. Driving on the M1 highway that separates Alexandra Township and the Sandton suburbs, and witnessing the raced inequality that constructs a majority black lower class constricted to a crammed township. This exhibits the lack of economic distribution in post-Apartheid South Africa and the failure of political power to transform into economic empowerment for the majority of black South Africans. It shows us that the end of formal apartheid policies did not necessarily result in a reduction of economic disadvantages for the poor black population. It becomes clear that many black South African’s do not have access to the post-colony that they are told they live in.
  2. The Voortrekker Museum. This hulking fort-like monument that lingers on Johannesburg’s skyline, is a symbolic reminder of the ever-present threat and existence of colonial domination. It’s placement on the city’s periphery speaks to how racism and colonial domination have been formally expelled from the South African public space and yet they exist in quotidian interactions and the grand narrative of the South African post-colony.

I am not trying to suggest that the end of apartheid did not bring about significant change, it is clear, to some extent, that black people have political power and social integration can exist. In post-1994 South Africa, people can love whom they want to love, socialize in the places that they want to frequent, attend the institutions they can attend and there is the opportunity of economic mobility for black people. It is clear that the black struggle was successful in bringing about some change, and in ending formal apartheid. However, the current moment betrays the anti-apartheid struggle and what the Freedom Charter imagined freedom to be. I want to posit that the definition of freedom is cheapened when it is used to explain the state of black people (in South Africa) — given that black South Africans have the vote, are allowed to achieve economic and social mobility, but most of them are also extremely poor, lack access to necessities such as electricity, water; many struggle to attain a tertiary education and yet their current state is designated as one of freedom. The fact that many ordinary Black South Africans experiences of South Africa have not shifted dramatically since 1994, as Noor suggested in our conversation with him, is telling of the myth that is the post-colony, and as a result the futurity that should be the post-colony becomes suppressed, it gets drowned by the unequal present, so much so that freedom as originally imagined becomes a fictitious aspiration, relegated to the pages of the Freedom Charter and never existing as a possibility for ordinary South Africans. This encourages us to probe how we imagine time as  “successive mechanical ages” (Mbembe); how we imagine the present as “free” from the past and the hastened desire to declare South Africa “new” and existing as a “Rainbow nation,” when for so many the past and the present are almost indistinguishable.

In looking beyond a critique to an intervention, the question arises: How does one begin the work of imagining and establishing a post-colonial South Africa?

I think that the decolonial movement developed by South African students during the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movements of 2015 and 2016, creates a space where the post-colony can be negotiated – where the future can be imagined and reimagined such that it has space for even the most violated black bodies. Primarily, it questions the whitewashing of the curriculum, and the production of knowledge given that non-white individuals’ contributions to academia and knowledge production hardly appear on the curriculum. Whilst a valid critique of the movement is that it has failed to surpass the boundaries of the university, and address the colonized conditions that most poor black South Africans live in, I think that it at least begins the conversation that the present conditions that most South Africans are forced to exist in, are not emblematic of freedom; these activists are positing that freedom can look more democratized; more equal.

The movement does not only enact a decolonial praxis in what it aspires to, but also in the way that it builds itself. By centering the concerns of those who are most marginalized — poor black queer/Trans South African women, using an intersectional feminist ideological standpoint, they begin to develop standards for freedom — such that if the most marginalized are not liberated, freedom has not yet been achieved. Additionally, the movement avoids a hierarchical arrangement — it refuses to use the cult of personality to further itself, as was used during the anti-Apartheid movement through figureheads such as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, and instead opts for a horizontal leadership style, that sees black queer women at the center of the movement. It also refuses to hierarchize the cause, such that the concerns of LGBTQ individuals, poor individuals and women are not consigned to the margins of the struggle (hence the importance of a black queer feminist theoretical approach).

As a black African woman student, the Rhodes Must Fall and the subsequent Fees Must Fall Movements continue to inspire me. They encourage me to probe how freedom in my communities is articulated, how power is distributed in my communities, how my idea of freedom lacks liberation even in my wildest, unmitigated dreams. In a more contextual scope, they encourage me to probe and critique the ways in which non-white, non-male, non-straight individuals’ voices never make it to our own curriculums at Duke. As a student who engages with the ways in which Africa is studied in America, I see how African voices are repressed in classrooms that are meant to be centering African lives and experiences; I see how white male professors construct curriculums in ways that refuse to appreciate colonialism as an INTIMATELY destructive force, I see how African students are displaced regularly in American institutions, I see how caricatures of the African continent are manufactured and dispersed through the institution and into American imaginations. And whilst I have not articulated a solution or intervention to these issues that occupy my quotidian life and the grander narrative I exist in, this opportunity to learn and work in South Africa at this pivotal moment, is instructive in articulating problems and beginning conversations that I hadn’t thought of prior. I am excited to see how my understanding of post-coloniality develops in the next few weeks, and how working in a women’s advocacy firm nuances and develops these views.