I highly, but highly recommend you go and see Goran Olsson’s Concerning Violence: Nine Scenes from the Anti-Imperialistic Self-Defense based on Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth’s first and most excellent chapter on the colonial condition. It is on at The Bioscope this month. Lauryn Hill narrates Fanon’s piercing and hard-hitting truths over the most incredible footage of colonial life and liberation struggles across Africa. Neo Muyanga’s handling of the score is just…well damn if that isn’t another reason to go see this then andazi. The eyes, ears and brain went on a trip that they will never return from. And my date Dineo Seshee Bopape and I had the loveliest most thought bending conversation about the film afterwards in her apartment while watching projected slides of a white family, we are guessing from ‘Rhodesia’, who captured their trip to Vic Falls, their summer holiday to Sweden and lazy afternoon in their backyard swimming pool on slides that ended up at the Wits Hospice Shop where Dineo bought the slide projector and slides. The rhythmic clicking sound of the slide machine to the tunes of vintage Makeba and Pedi gospel and the lovely company of Dineo made for a truly perfect evening.
This was my Facebook status this morning after seeing the film last night. My senses are still on a trip. They have not really landed on a surface on which they can fully explain how this film made them feel. Surprisingly though, it left me very calm. First of all, Fanon’s writing, every single word that he wrote in that chapter is a knife wound to the thick, sedentary festering body of lies that Europe’s self imposed supremacy is based on. He deconstructs colonialism, its condition in the settler and on the native and then further deconstructs the violent process that decolonization is, both mentally and what in the countries that have gone through it legitimately, physically. His treatment of the truth of colonialism, published a few days after he died at the age of 36 in 1961, has been an oracle, a Rosetta Stone for students of the colonial and imperialist condition and its effects on planet earth and humanity. His prophetic sentences are eerily true when one looks at the South African condition and by God’s grace, in the film a Liberian replica of Cyril Ramaphosa in the Marikana case is shown smoking a cigar, talking about using state forces to stop workers from striking, protecting the interests of European corporations rather than the people of his country. Dineo and I could not get over that.
As the story unfolds, one can’t help but pick the side of the story that represents their place in history and today. This film made me think a lot about the term ”white privilege”, a term that has grown in popularity and use in the last few years as black confidence to call out bullshit, aided by the internet, has also grown. The term, while frequently bandied about in columns, conversations and in our national consciousness, is not yet a household name, something that everybody understands, and something that slips out of the lips with minimal effort. I’m in two minds about it. On one hand, its nascence in our national consciousness is important because white privilege still exists and I believe that we should use it to a point where white people are so discomforted by it, that they do something to end white privilege. We are not there yet and here’s a perfect example:
A few weeks ago, I was invited to be an audience member at the Live Magazine Live Debate on Post-Apartheid Race Relations in South Africa. It was held in Braamfontein at The Bannister Hotel and on the panel were Siphiwe Mpye and Fourie Russouw, an Afrikaans Minister from the NG Kerk who calls himself a recovering racist. (By the way, why in this country do we not have something called RA – Racists Anonymous? And RA Meetings and memberships etc). The panel was interesting, I was very interested in hearing from Fourie and after hearing him out, I was happy to engage him because he is a self aware white man who has taken it upon himself to do the hand holding that a lot of white people require from blacks, to help them to ‘’deal with being white’’ in post apartheid SA. It’s a long journey that he began five years ago and even though he has taken his show on the road, at the end of the evening he realized that he also still has a lot to learn. What Siphiwe immediately noticed was the imbalance in demographics in the room. In a room of about 100 people there to talk about race, there were 5 white people and 95 black people and that’s obviously a problem. The evening was meant to be a platform to table issues that are of importance from both black and white people regarding race but of course, it’s hard to have a dialogue when the other team doesn’t show up. This was a perfect indication of the truth of the matter in our country, that race is ‘’a black problem’’. Anyway, the conversation was still meaty and interesting and revealed another alarming trend of some young black people thinking that it’s about time we ‘’get over race and move on’’ and showing no understanding of the bigger picture of institutionalized racism.
Things took a turn when finally, one of the 5 white people stood up to speak. It was just after the host had just explained what white privilege is to the room so I was exblockquoted to hear reactions from the white audience members. A tall, lean and good-looking white woman stood up and took the microphone. ‘’I am not white’’, she said. ‘’I do not see myself as a white person. Whenever I have to fill in government forms and it says white, black or other, I always fill in ‘’other’’ because I do not see myself as white. This is because my Lithuanian immigrant grandparents ran away from Hitler and settled in South Africa’’.
After she spoke, I stood up and told her that it is her white privilege that allows her to decide she’s not going to be white because the rest of us don’t get to decide that we don’t want to be black or coloured. And in fact, she doesn’t get to decide that she’s not white anymore now that being white in South Africa is not a walk in a segregated park. She doesn’t get to be doubly privileged. Her privilege lies in the fact that she thinks she can choose to escape the discomforts of being white just by saying so. Before, the white skin was a guaranteed passport to a better life. Today, that fact still remains when we are speaking in economic terms, not just in South Africa, but around the world, but today it is also loaded with the baggage of the principles that ”whiteness”, whether a white person panders to them or not, represents, which are problematic to say the least.
I was frustrated because we were there to discuss race and this person was attempting to single-handedly invalidate the reason that brought us there by arbitrarily declaring that her whiteness does not exist, therefore, what, our experiences of racism should not exist? I also aspire to be just a person one day but I can’ just will that into existence, I have to deal with the facts of being black today. And this is what I find is a missing factor from the white community – few people are willing to deal with the realities of being white in post apartheid South Africa and the result is this blatant denialism or a deep sense of being out of touch with reality. Another white person in the same room, not long after this woman’s announcement, stood up and made an announcement of his own. ‘’I’m not racist because I have a black god daughter’’. He seriously stood up and told us that. In fact, he was expecting some kind of applause. It was like watching the Internet in real life. 2 out of 5 white people people, excluding Russouw, spoke and it was a clear indication that this is clearly a discussion that is still pretty green in the white community, it has not yet materialized as something that is largely understood. A lot of white people literally have no clue. They don’t get it. Whose responsibility is it to teach them? This requires a whole other blog post.
This is one of the reasons why the term white privilege has been bothering me of late. If we keep saying white privilege over and over, subconsciously, one reinforces that constructed reality that whites are better, happier and right – that we should all aspire to have what they have and be like them. Of course it’s a privilege to have land, money, economic power and the monopoly on all types of values – these are privileges that every human in South Africa should have access to.
But having watched this film and knowing what I know about how this supposed ‘’privilege’’ was achieved, ideologically, I don’t think it’s an all encompassing privilege at all to be white in the 21st Century. In the film, I sat next to two well-dressed and cool looking old white men. I wondered how they felt about their whiteness when they watched footage of a Rhodesian guy call Timothy, the butler, ”you stupid thing”, on camera, in a quasi-performative manner for the Swedish interviewer. I wondered how they felt during every single minute of that film when the privilege of the settler was broken down and left in thousands of little pieces and exposed for what it is. I wondered what a European who might have been sitting in the audience thought when Fanon’s words, ”let us not ape Europe, let us not aspire to be like Europe” were flashed across the screen. Maybe they are not bothered by it, maybe they are.
I thought of Maya Angelou and this quote from an article she wrote that appears in the Essence Magazine tribute to her:
”I can’t believe my good fortune, and I’m just so grateful, to be a Black woman. A Black American woman. I would be so jealous if I were anything else. I remember saying this in a small group somewhere, and a white man actually said to me, ‘Now, come on, you know you wish you were a white man’. I laughed so hard, I almost cried. I said, ‘Absolutely not! I cannot imagine having so much power and yet being incapable of using it in a positive way. I dare not conjecture what it would do to my psyche, to know that the factors that created my supposedly privileged place in society are the very reasons I am prevented from using whatever power I have for good. It must be an awful burden to bear – to know that if I tried to use my power in positive way, my people would laugh at me, scorn me, jeer me and probably disown me. So no, I have no desire to trade places with a white man”.
For me, the privilege is the other way round depending on what one holds valuable in the larger scheme of human existence. The poor black deserves to eat, that is a given. But the poor black does not have to go to sleep with the inescapable truth of having a truculent, violent, greedy, devastatingly destructive and morally reprehensible step-ladder to his or her place in the world today. One may not possess the ability to see value in having moral virtue when one is full of bread and wine, but the truth waits for no one to wake up to or to legitimize its existence – it’s always there whether you see it or not, whether you like it or not.
We blacks do, however, in South Africa, have to ponder the fact that when we got the chance to redesign and fulfill our destiny, we chose to imitate Europe. We chose to do the spread eagle for America and Britain, the two economies that benefited most from Apartheid, and are now getting high off the stale taste of Neo-Liberal and Neo-Colonial crack that will ultimately destroy the thing we could hold up high as the one valuable thing that we retained throughout our perdition – our humanity. We are now the ones with privilege that we need to check. We, the middle class blacks are the new white liberals. We are complicit in a deplorable system of exploitation and know it but we don’t seem very interested in changing it with urgency. The film highlights the fact that decolonization, on an individual and national level, fundamentally changes a person or a nation. We as a country, are not there yet. Our deconolization has not begun because we did not trade in colonialism to ”go back to the middle ages” to starve our way into a legitimate nation, the thing that other African nations, like our neighbours Zimbabwe, dared to do and are paying their price for it now. In 20 years time, I wonder who will be laughing between South Africa and Zimbabwe.
There’s a Jean-Paul Satre quote from the explosive and contentious letter to the white settler in the preface of The Wretched of the Earth that I find speaks to more than the settler today: Get to know yourselves in the light of truth and objectivity. The evidence of your privilege is irrefutable.
What I like about how Fanon ends this chapter and how Olsson ends this film, is that he says we the battered natives, need to come together with Europeans to teach Europe what it has not yet learned in its quest for domination, the value of its humanity. We all need to re-imagine a new humanity, create new concepts and systems and ideas of being (enter Solange), because the European way has not worked for good of all humanity.
It’s hard to fight the system on one hand, while having to create another. But this needs to be done. I think that we contemporary revolutionary blacks, the ones interested in lifting our people from the mud, need to be strategic about how we are going to do this. It’s easier to conscientise people of their conditions so that they can think of their own ways to fight them, than to ‘’help’’ people with their physiological needs. As Biko says in his solution to creating an integrated society in South Africa, black people need to get together alone to solve their many problems and white liberals, who want to assist with things like charity organizations and basic services for blacks, also need to get together alone and redirect this need to assist blacks and instead, solve the problems facing the white community: white racism and the miraculous ignorance to its effects. The thing that created all the structural inequalities was white racism, so destroy that problem so that the blacks don’t need help from whites.
Biko’s I write what I like was 30 years ago. While the book is still one of the greatest books ever written on the subject of race relations in South Africa, we young blacks need to be writing new books to solve our contemporary problems, just like black feminists need to be wring a 21ST Century Ain’t I a Woman? We need to come up with creative solutions to the problems that face our people today.
Economic Freedom is a must, so some blacks need concentrate on the pursuit of that. Restoring the dignity of injured people is equally important. It’s important that there are people who are constantly reacting to and calling out racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and other forms of bigotry on Social Media and in articles on the Internet. But for the sake of progress, we can’t all be out there engaging with Internet trolls and rubbish ideas all day because this can be a waste of time. We can’t all be out there teaching white people how not to be racist, or men how not to be sexist – they need to do that for themselves.
The other black people need to be creating. The others need to be thinking of new ways to be human, completely new concepts and ideologies for what is valuable, new ways to fight the system, new ways to ensure future generations don’t have to be having the foggy egotistical conversations we are having, that their problems are more about elevating the consciousness of humanity, an outer space kind of on a Sun-Ra inspired / Willow and Jaden Smith kind of crazy amazing futurism. We need to create new words for the new feelings that we have, words that speak to the conditions that are particular to black women such as Misogynoir, and other more words that are positively affirming and untethered to historic conditions of blackness. We need to create content that also speaks to the psychological paradigm shift that needs to take place within black people so that we can realize our privilege too. We need new ways.
A white friend of mine recently said, twice I might add, that she identifies as black. On both occasions I did not respond. The first time we kind of carried on with the conversation, with me confused and totally dumbfounded by the audacity. The second time, I just kept quiet long enough for her to say, ‘’I can’t get away with saying that can I’’? Of course she can’t. We had a long and meaty discussion on the topic and at the end, when I had to go, I said to her, referring to something else, ‘’you don’t really have a problem’’ and she perked up and sat up straight and said ‘’of course I do, white people are my problem’’. We had a good laugh about it and I said, well my work here is done.
Despite what Mandela tried to do to bring us all together, I think that for the purposes of solving our race specific problems, lanes need to be stayed in. Mandela’s legacy regarding race, is laden with problems, because it’s that of blacks assimilating into whiteness. We went to white schools to learn how to be white. We have excelled in white values and whites that have not had to fundamentally change anything about themselves. They have not had to learn black values, Coloured values, Indian values. While the intensions were noble, they were not balanced. This is not true integration.
If there’s one thing it does, this film places truth in the hands of the viewer and no matter what side of history you fall on, it is a heavy truth to carry in a single pair of hands, and thus, must immediately be shared.
The film is on at The Bioscope (love the work that these guys are doing) in Maboneng during the month of November.
Image: Of a female Mozambican FRELIMO member. In the film, these incredibly beautiful women with face tats and insane hair styles talking about fighting for their independence was one of my favourite scenes.