Evoking the Sobukwe of unbound imagination
PUMLA Dineo Gqola’s collection of autobiographical essays on power, pleasure and South African culture is this Eastern Cape-born gender activist’s most personal book to date.
Written from classic Gqola antiracist, feminist perspectives,
delivers 14 essays, all extremely accessible to a general critical readership, without sacrificing intellectual rigour.
The following is an extract – chapter 13 – of the book: and Southern Africa who were academics and students on that campus, as I played, unaware of first Biko’s death a few months before and then Sobukwe’s death a few days before I started Sub A.
The vision of myself – for a Black girl in apartheid South Africa, an African child in the shadow of the African torment of slavery, colonialism, genocide and apartheid – is a debt I cannot repay to Fort Hare, but it is one that I hope to have repaid by the time I leave this dimension of earth. Let me start again. As I share my thoughts and provocations tonight, I want to conjure up an image of Mangaliso Sobukwe that is slightly out of focus in post-apartheid Southern Africa. We concentrate usually on the man who gave us the Pan-Africanist Congress in 1959, the man who was imprisoned in 1960 on Robben Island, the revolutionary whose vision, words, humaneness is known to everybody who is here today.
I want to talk about Sobukwe’s valuing of the imagination, evoke the Sobukwe who took great pleasure in the non-obvious, who was creative in as much as he relished the works of the imagination. But he also understood the value of the imagination when unbounded, not limited to the pages of a novel or a performance on stage.
That is what the iconic image of Sobukwe letting soil fall through his fingers is: recourse to the metaphoric, the poetic, and the symbolic, when ordinary words were both unavailable and inadequate. This image is iconic, even as invisibilised as Sobukwe is, it is a moment we recognise from how we speak about him. Although he lived in brutal times, he spoke in his inaugural speech in 1959 of “living in an era that is pregnant with untold possibilities for both good and evil” – a time of confusion, brutality, closing in, but a time that also offered possibilities for imagining new pathways to freedom.
To keep him company I want to conjure up other Pan Africanists who inspired as much as they discomfited.
The late great Kofi Awonoor ends one of his best known poems, much loved by literary Pan Africanists of all ages, The Weaverbird, with the following lines: We look for new homes every day For new altars we strive to rebuild
The old shrines defiled from the weaver’s excrement (ll. 14–16)
Here, Awonoor invites us to reimagine ourselves anew after colonial conquest, rather than hanker after a return to a past that is impossible to reach again. Notably, his is an optimistic view: although the search for homes is ongoing, it is possible to achieve: home is possible again. An Africa in which we can take stock of what we have lost, but in which we remain unwavering in our commitment to finding new ways of honouring ourselves again as African, expanding freedoms, doing the difficult work of love and freedom, being unafraid of asking questions that seem counterintuitive.
The second defiant, freedom-loving Pan Africanist I want to conjure up is Wambui Otieno, Mau Mau scout, feminist, impossible to contain; a woman who defied expectations of class, marriage, love and geography.
Running away from her late colonial middle-class family to join Mau Mau as a scout and fighter, broke both gender and class expectations at the time. A highly efficient guerilla, she was sold out by her comrade and fiancé and raped by a colonial soldier while in detention.
She laid a charge against him, even though she knew that the odds of her word being taken seriously in a colonial court was minimal. Wambui Otieno formed part of a parliament in an independent Kenya and left when she no longer agreed with some of her comrades ideologically.
She went on to build the largest law firm in independent Kenya with her new husband and, when he died, unsuccessfully sued his family in order to bury him where he wanted to be, rather than the ancestral land the family deemed fit. Many years later, she fell in love with and married a man who was to be her lover until her death: working class who was also a third her age. A more inappropriate match seemed hard to imagine for large swathes of the Kenyan public.
Sitting and listening to aspects of her life in 2014, Wambui Otieno sounds like she lived an adventurous life. Yet, this is only possible if we allow ourselves to forget that this was a woman who lived in a colonised land, fought to free her land, made choices that required nothing short of audacity for an African girl and woman. She lived a life with such brazen capacity for the imagination that she makes many of our 21st-century lives in a democracy appear quite tame. Her life showed such determined capacity to pursue her principles and desires that external censure could not contain her.
I think these three, Sobukwe, Awonoor and Otieno, would sit well together.
But what do I want them to do? I want them to help us ask some strange questions about our Africa today and many of the things that frighten, frustrate and threaten to tear us further down. I thought it important to start from a position of hope before I try to make sense of what it might mean to think about African unity in Sobukwe’s terms, to think of ours as an age, ourselves in 2014 as “living in an era that is pregnant with untold possibilities for good and evil” – a time of confusion, brutality, closing in, but a time that also offers possibilities for imagining new pathways to freedom.
Boko Haram has slaughtered thousands of people in Nigeria over the last five years or so. They hit brutally and with regularity. And Borno has suffered more than its fair share of violence from this group.
The Nigerian state’s army and resources appear ill-equipped to deal with the onslaught. In recent days there have been renewed suggestions that Boko Haram was funded from within President Goodluck Jonathan’s government. Such insinuations deepen the mystery that is Boko Haram for many of us inside and outside Nigeria who encounter them primarily through news coverage.
One thing is clear, though: the disjuncture between how we speak about Boko Haram’s reign of terror. We focus on their fundamentalist Muslim identity. We wonder about the strangeness of illogically motivated kidnappings of girls. We turn away from the kinds of slaughter that Africans subject one another to. We deal with them one at a time, imagining we can bring our girls home without facing the reality of who/what Boko Haram is, of how and why Boko Haram exists.
Boko Haram clearly sees the abduction of girls as linked to earlier kidnappings, shooting and bombing sprees. Their reign of terror has long targeted schools, government buildings and police stations. They also hit mainly economically and geographically marginalised communities, but not exclusively. They have abducted boys before.
It is all part of the same project for them. We may have a better chance of unravelling the mysteries, seeing through the smoke and mirrors if we, too, pay attention to the patterns, rather than to individual parts of the Boko Haram phenomenon as though delinked.
This is an extract from Pumla Dineo Gqola’s Reflecting Rogue: Inside the Mind of a Feminist, published by MFBooks Johannesburg. RRP: R240. Available at all good bookstores