Evok­ing the Sobukwe of unbound imag­i­na­tion

Daily Dispatch - - Weekend -

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

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