Mak­ing room for true protest

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As the statue of Ce­cil John Rhodes was be­ing air­lifted from its plinth on the up­per cam­pus of the Uni­ver­sity of Cape Town, I was stand­ing with my sis­ter and her friend, avoid­ing self­ies and try­ing to tap into the ela­tion of the col­lec­tive labour that led to this his­toric mo­ment.

It con­tin­ues to blow my mind that the re­moval of this thing – a sym­bol so ob­vi­ously a vi­o­la­tion to black peo­ples’ well­be­ing – was cause for de­bate and a na­tional out­cry, never mind tear gas, the oc­cu­pa­tion of uni­ver­sity build­ings and the crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of stu­dents.

In the ex­ag­ger­ated ex­plo­sion of at­ten­tion about a frankly bor­ing like­ness of a frankly vi­o­lent white man, the cre­ative work of stu­dents na­tion­wide was crudely erased from pub­lic un­der­stand­ing.

That said, even through stu­dents’ devel­op­ing de­colo­nial lean­ings, in­formed largely by overem­pha­sised Fanon­ian dis­course, many of us found our­selves far more oc­cu­pied with pro­duc­ing art­work than on strate­gis­ing the ma­te­rial de­struc­tion of a statue.

The mat­ter of the statue – of all colo­nial stat­ues – was and re­mains sim­ple: they need to go be­cause they are dis­tract­ing us from the cre­ative pos­si­bil­ity of writ­ing our his­to­ries and mov­ing to­wards new fu­tures. The mat­ter of these fu­tures, which re­quire in­ti­mate and ex­per­i­men­tal in­ves­ti­ga­tion into our past, new ap­proaches to ped­a­gogy, to writ­ing, to rais­ing fam­i­lies, to re­lat­ing to one an­other and to learn­ing, is far more com­plex and, of course, far more ex­cit­ing. Surely this work is what should be caus­ing a white out­cry?

I would ar­gue that, at its core, the na­ture of true protest is gen­er­a­tive. It is im­por­tant, then, to out­line what we un­der­stand by true protest.

The #Zu­maMustFall move­ment, for in­stance, as it was ar­tic­u­lated and archived, can­not be un­der­stood as ei­ther protest or gen­er­a­tive prac­tice be­cause the ob­jec­tives in­form­ing this mo­bil­i­sa­tion were not aimed at so­ci­etal change, but rather at the main­te­nance of so­ci­etal in­equal­ity. What mo­ti­vated many was an anti-cor­rup­tion stance in­formed by an in­di­vid­ual fi­nan­cial con­se­quence that was poorly fleshed out within the con­text of our so­ci­ety.

How­ever, I feel that there is lit­tle ben­e­fit in mak­ing sweep­ing state­ments around var­i­ous “protests” be­cause, if we look at anti-Zuma “ac­tivism”, we can ac­knowl­edge that the rad­i­cal claim that Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma should fall also im­plies that the sys­tem of white cap­i­tal around which his body is a sym­bolic guard, should fall.

Yes, many things should fall, ex­plode or dis­ap­pear, but it is only within the con­texts sur­round­ing ac­tivisms’ sym­bolic cen­tres (Zuma, Rhodes, fees) where we may dis­tin­guish the dif­fer­ence be­tween an ac­tivism oc­cu­pied with gen­er­at­ing new his­to­ries, and an ac­tivism re­new­ing or val­i­dat­ing op­pres­sive old ones. Per­haps this is just a com­pli­cated way to say that the im­age or the sym­bol can be used by rep­re­sen­ta­tive pow­ers such as the me­dia to wa­ter down the mean­ing­ful sub­stance of a move­ment.

I am in­ter­ested in the world of art be­cause it of­ten gives us a dis­tilled ex­am­ple of how sym­bols, im­ages and ges­tures are pro­duced and ab­sorbed into so­ci­ety. There are par­al­lels be­tween how the gallery op­er­ates – where even the most poignantly ar­tic­u­lated re­sis­tance work can be swal­lowed into the in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism of “un­pack­ing” – and the way that rad­i­cal protest is ab­sorbed and rep­re­sented in pub­lic dis­course.

If we imag­ine larger so­ci­ety as a white cube from which creativ­ity strug­gles to es­cape, which is what I am sug­gest­ing, then we must be­gin to deeply in­ves­ti­gate what it might mean to push the real work – the writ­ing, the art, the con­ver­sa­tion – into a space in which we can si­mul­ta­ne­ously ex­pose the lay­ers of vi­o­lence hid­den within the white walls, and give our­selves the op­por­tu­nity to ex­per­i­ment with the new forms we are mak­ing. As op­posed to an ex­hi­bi­tion, ac­tivism needs to pro­duce liv­able and fluid space for those it seeks to pro­tect.

I am sug­gest­ing a Pan-African ap­proach.

At the Uni­ver­sity of Ghana, the re­cent ac­tivism around a Ma­hatma Gandhi statue com­mis­sioned by In­dia caused con­tro­versy, and the cam­paign for its re­moval was suc­cess­ful fol­low­ing a num­ber of aca­demics’ ar­tic­u­la­tion that Gandhi’s ex­pressed anti-black racism in South Africa means that the con­tem­po­rary re­pro­duc­tion of his im­age on the con­ti­nent is unwelcome.

My point here is that, while Rhodes per­haps pro­vides us with the most straight­for­ward sym­bol of colo­nial vi­o­lence, the call to re­move Gandhi speaks to the same fun­da­men­tal is­sues. In its own ways, Gandhi’s work in South Africa was not a lib­er­a­tion project be­cause it did not seek lib­er­a­tion for all, and his early ex­pres­sions of dis­gust at black peo­ple are a per­ti­nent ex­am­ple of the self­ha­tred and in­ter­nalised in­fe­ri­or­ity that roots the vi­o­lence of colo­nial­ism.

There are ac­tivists on the con­ti­nent us­ing cre­ative, gen­er­a­tive means to dis­man­tle colo­nial struc­tures, and there is a pow­er­ful rep­re­sen­ta­tive body pro­tect­ing white su­prem­a­cist cap­i­tal­ist pa­tri­archy, seek­ing al­ways to slow these move­ments by dis­till­ing them into their most shal­low sym­bolic con­stituents.

By look­ing be­yond the Euro­pean­in­vented na­tion state, un­do­ing African bor­ders through cre­ative work and imag­in­ing what an African ac­tivist so­ci­ety looks like, we might be­gin to tell our sto­ries, and cre­ate our spa­ces us­ing a medium that the neo­colo­nial de­mo­bil­i­sa­tion me­dia sta­tion can­not quite get its head around.

Gamedze is an artist and writer. This ar­ti­cle forms part of a part­ner­ship with Thought We Had Some­thing Go­ing. For

more, visit

A statue of Ma­hatma Gandhi on Church Street in Pi­eter­mar­itzburg

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