‘Be­ware of agents provo­ca­teurs’

The dis­re­spect shown to an African icon and the re­fusal to en­gage with white peo­ple show that the stu­dent move­ment has been hi­jacked by ne­far­i­ous forces, writes

CityPress - - Voices -

In more than 15 years of or­gan­is­ing pub­lic lec­tures, I have never seen the out­pour­ing of love for a writer that I saw dur­ing Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s visit to South Africa last week. Wits Univer­sity decked out the red car­pet for Ngũgĩ in what will go down as one of the most his­toric vis­its in the an­nals of the univer­sity. Ngũgĩ was nat­u­rally tired after a flight of more than 24 hours, but he later told me that the singing by the stu­dents re-en­er­gised him. As he held us spell­bound for more than an hour, I found my­self whis­per­ing to Sarah Mosoetsa, the head of the Na­tional In­sti­tute for the Hu­man­i­ties and So­cial Sciences, who also funded his trip: “This is vin­tage Ngũgĩ.”

By the way, I was thor­oughly im­pressed by the re­spect Julius Malema showed Ngũgĩ. Un­like many politi­cians who like to turn events into their own self-glo­ri­fi­ca­tion, Malema showed hu­mil­ity and cu­rios­ity. That’s a mark of lead­er­ship. As Julius Ny­erere once said, lead­er­ship is the abil­ity to say: “I don’t know, tell me more.” For that I give Malema a 10.

Ngũgĩ re­ceived the same kind of rap­tur­ous wel­come in East Lon­don where the Daily Dis­patch and the Univer­sity of Fort Hare jointly hosted him. Vice-chan­cel­lor Sakhela Buh­lungu and his en­tire lead­er­ship team were there to re­ceive him, and so was deputy fi­nance min­is­ter Mce­bisi Jonas.

But, alas, no suc­cess­ful event is with­out its blem­ishes. If Fort Hare and Wits sent out their high­est rep­re­sen­ta­tives to meet Ngũgĩ, there was none of that re­cep­tion by the lead­er­ship of the Univer­sity of Cape Town (UCT). Noth­ing sur­pris­ing there, ex­cept to say it speaks vol­umes about who the univer­sity re­ally val­ues.

What sur­prised me, though, was the rude­ness dis­played to­wards Ngũgĩ by stu­dents wear­ing Black First, Land First and PAC T-shirts. They have dis­re­spected me be­fore, but not even in­my­worstnight­mares­didIev­er­imag­inethey­would­dis­re­spect Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. But they did.

It all started when a young woman walked up to the stage and grabbed the mi­cro­phone – just as Ngũgĩ was about to talk. She then asked Ngũgĩ why they should lis­ten to him in a hall built by colo­nial­ists, which left me won­der­ing what she was do­ing there in the first place.

And then, just as Ngũgĩ started to speak, an­other young woman walked up to the stage with a plac­ard. She sat there through­out the talk, dis­tract­ing from Ngũgĩ’s ad­dress. Ngũgĩ was good-hu­moured about it and went about his busi­ness.

As if that was not enough, a young man de­manded that Ngũgĩ tell the white peo­ple in the au­di­ence to leave. Ngũgĩ would have none of that, of course, and told him as much. He asked the stu­dents why they could not raise their points in the pres­ence of white peo­ple.

When I pointed to a white man to ask his ques­tion, they stood up in protest. I had to bring the pro­ceed­ings to a close.

Frantz Fanon could have been de­scrib­ing the ac­tions of th­ese stu­dents in his es­say, The Pit­falls of Na­tional Con­scious­ness: “Rep­re­sent­ing a race, they will prove them­selves in­ca­pable of tri­umphantly putting into place a pro­gramme with even a min­i­mum hu­man­ist con­tent, in spite of fine-sound­ing dec­la­ra­tions that are de­void of mean­ing, since the speak­ers bandy about in ir­re­spon­si­ble fash­ion phrases that come straight out of Euro­pean trea­tises on morals and po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy.”

Their favourite Euro­pean phrase is “ageism”, which they in­voke when­ever they are told to re­spect older peo­ple. Could it re­ally be that, in their up­bring­ing, th­ese black na­tion­al­ists and pan-African­ists missed out on the most sa­cred of African val­ues – re­spect for older peo­ple?

The Steve Biko that I knew would have been ap­palled by such dis­re­spect to­wards an African icon. He would have been ap­palled by the re­fusal to en­gage with white peo­ple. One of Biko’s most im­por­tant pa­pers, White Racism and Black Con­scious­ness, was pre­sented to an all-white con­fer­ence spon­sored by the Abe Bai­ley Trust at UCT in 1971, more than five years after he had bro­ken from the Na­tional Union of SA Stu­dents. He was never afraid of walk­ing into the lion’s den. But our rad­i­cals seem to dis­play a fear of white peo­ple that would have been un­think­able to peo­ple like Biko and Sobukwe, and, of course, Ngũgĩ. As Fanon put it, “the racial prej­u­dice of the young na­tional bour­geoisie is a racism of de­fence, based on fear. Es­sen­tially, it is no dif­fer­ent from vul­gar trib­al­ism”.

By the way, Biko would have been ap­palled by the con­cept of “Biko-ism” that is be­ing bandied about in South Africa. Biko hated per­son­al­ity cults, and so did the move­ment to which he be­longed.

That brings me to how agents provo­ca­teurs have al­ways dis­torted black his­tory and hi­jacked our po­lit­i­cal strug­gles.

Shortly after the out­break of #RhodesMustFall in March 2015, the stu­dents asked me to ad­dress them about how they should con­duct their strug­gle. As a teacher, I asked them to first read Mar­shall Ganz’s clas­sic es­say, The Story of Now, which is about the im­por­tance of so­cial move­ments defin­ing and own­ing their nar­ra­tives. If they failed to do that, their move­ment would be hi­jacked by ne­far­i­ous forces and agents provo­ca­teurs.

Alas, that is ex­actly what has hap­pened. In isiXhosa we call agents provo­ca­teurs “oo-fun­zeweni” – they tell oth­ers to jump off the cliff while they stand back. I have been in the strug­gle long enough to smell an agent provo­ca­teur from a dis­tance. I am told that the lead agent provo­ca­teur here is in the pay of the Gup­tas. I have nei­ther the time nor the in­ter­est to fol­low the money. Julius Malema and the Eco­nomic Free­dom Fight­ers ex­pelled them from their party be­fore they could cause any harm. The stu­dents need to do the same if they are to re­tain the au­then­tic­ity of their move­ment. After all, th­ese peo­ple were not there when the ac­tion started, but they have man­aged to hi­jack their move­ment, as agents provo­ca­teurs are wont to do.

It is not dif­fi­cult to pre­dict what they will do next. They are go­ing to kill some­body. One of their own wrote to me to say I am lucky to come out alive from th­ese en­coun­ters. I protested that I had been the first to make the call for the trans­for­ma­tion of the uni­ver­si­ties, long be­fore the stu­dent move­ments emerged.

But that’s pre­cisely what makes them mad: I have been aid­ing what they and their pay­mas­ters seek to de­stroy.

And so, to the stu­dent move­ment, I say: Be­ware oo-fun­zeweni, don’t let them dis­re­spect our African icons and des­e­crate our his­tory. I am not ask­ing you to stop be­ing crit­i­cal. But not even the apartheid gov­ern­ment suc­ceeded in turn­ing us against ba­sic African val­ues such as im­beko, or re­spect. Think about it. If stuck, con­sult Steve Biko’s es­say, On Some African Cul­tural Con­cepts.

In other words, stop re­ly­ing on the agents provo­ca­teurs. Go tothe­sour­ceit­self,andy­ouwillfind­y­ourlib­er­a­tion,and­per­haps your hu­man­ity.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o

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