No Longer At Ease: debating race and identity politics in South Africa

30 September 2014 | Story by Newsroom
Assoc Prof Harry Garuba, Prof Njabulo Ndebele and Prof Sarah Nuttall debating race and identity in the John Berndt Thought Space on 18 September 2014, at a packed lunchtime event hosted by the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative (APC).
Assoc Prof Harry Garuba, Prof Njabulo Ndebele and Prof Sarah Nuttall debating race and identity in the John Berndt Thought Space on 18 September 2014, at a packed lunchtime event hosted by the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative (APC).

Three of South Africa's leading public intellectuals talked through a topic that touches on the nerve of national identity politics at an event hosted by Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative (APC) on Thursday 18 September 2014.

Billed as a discussion exploring "notions of blackness, Black Consciousness, African-ness and citizenship in colonial, post-colonial, post-apartheid politics and literature", the debate featured Prof Njabulo Ndebele, Prof Sarah Nuttall and Assoc Prof Harry Garuba.

Initiated by Anette Hoffmann, and convened by UCT's Chair in Archive and Public Culture Prof Carolyn Hamilton, the discussion took place in response to Ndebele's keynote address, To Be Or Not To Be, No Longer at Ease, delivered at the 40th African Literature Association Conference in April this year.

Ndebele: no longer at ease

Author and former vice-chancellor of UCT, Ndebele noted, in opening the conversation, that this was the first opportunity he had had to discuss his paper, which "brings together two texts '“ by [William] Shakespeare and Chinua Achebe". "It was the tension between the two that fascinated me," he said. "I wanted to explore my sense of where Africa is today and what is called the African experience and the place of race, culture, identity and citizenship '“ particularly, in our case, in a constitutional democracy that is relatively new and in which we are finding ourselves."

In his iconic 1960 novel, Achebe narrates the story of an Igbo man, Obi Okonkwo, who leaves his village for a British education and a position in the Nigerian colonial civil service, but struggles to adapt to a Western lifestyle, and ends up taking a bribe. Achebe's title is drawn from the final lines of TS Eliot's poem The Journey of the Magi, which Ndebele recited:

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

Ndebele explained that, for him, these lines "speak to the issue of what conquered people became after they were conquered '“ in our particular case in South Africa, people who were dispossessed of their land, and who were then displaced and subordinated by the social political culture/environment of the country, and suffered, therefore, a long process of deculturation. How they responded to that historical phenomenon is a matter of interest to all of us".

His keynote address in April opened with the following lines: "As a young adult and well into my adulthood, I often felt uneasy about my place in the world. The descriptors 'black' or 'African' to which I often had to respond were mostly the cause of my anguish. I became aware of the first descriptor before the second one. They shaped who I thought I was and how I was to respond to my immediate surroundings and to distant worlds."

Confessing that this address was born of an "intensely personal" and "passionately felt" impulse, he dwelt in the first person on the experience of growing up in a township in South Africa, and the total absence of "institutional affirmation" in these "domestic enclaves", which were established purely for the purpose of exporting captive labour to the cities, endlessly reproducing the conditions and relationships of inequality "and the poverty we tell ourselves we are trying to get rid of". He spoke of the experience as "profoundly confining, restrictive": of the extreme difficulty of "getting out", and, later in his life, of being "ill at ease" in both the township and the suburb.

Reflecting on the intensely multi-cultural, multi-linguistic, multi-ethnic that he experienced in the township as a result of over 100 years of Southern African migrancy from across the sub-continent to the cities and the mines of Johannesburg, he said: "I feel that when I am in a township I am in a better environment socially, culturally and otherwise than I am in an average suburb."

Making the leap to the post-apartheid environment, he said: "At the heart of my paper is the fear that the constant aspiration to be that thing [beyond the historical constraints of the township] continues to detract attention from the self and the possibilities that are there in a township environment '“ that are social, cultural, but lack a political activation that would give one a sense of a new life. When I ponder the notion of identity in this, I note that the racial struggle has been profiled as the driver, the definer of social relations.

"I fear that, for black South Africans in particular, the dominance of [racial] conflict perpetuates the conditions that produce it. I was a product of the Black Consciousness Movement, and it is precisely because I am at peace with myself as a result of that path that I don't need to be proclaiming myself as such in an environment in which political power is supposedly in my hands," he said. "I do not need to behave as if the source of relief comes from elsewhere other than myself. Seeking for the relief beyond me constantly puts others in a position ... of power over me. To be 'No Longer At Ease' is a choice to take one's destiny as a human being in the world and carve out your space not on the basis of what you look like, but on the basis of achieving a life and a culture that is the essence of the freedom you have been fighting for for more than a 100 years. The opportunity now is to take hold of that space and work with it positively rather than as a reaction to something else. That is at that heart of what I was grappling with in that presentation."

Garuba: structural power and subjectivity

Garuba '“ who is a poet and author, and an associate professor in the Centre for African Studies at UCT '“ was the first to respond. He situated Ndebele's address within a larger literary trajectory by drawing on a research project he has been pursuing in which he examines the ways in which African writers narrativise their lives. He traced some shared tropes in the work of VS Naipaul (The Mystic Masseur) and Franz Fanon (The Fact of Blackness), celebrating "the use of lived, anecdotal personal experience, as a site for the production of theory (or reflection on weightier socio-political histories)", but went on to critique Ndebele's paper for failing to explicitly mention the role of the "extractive state" and of capital's structural power to produce subjects and subjectivities.

"In liberal democratic discourse, questions of identity have become conveniently disentangled from the larger structures that produce them," he said. "I'm uncomfortable with the idea of 'black', 'African', and so on as 'descriptors'. Referring to them as descriptors ignores the way power produces subjects and subjectivities. It sees them as labels, which they are not."

He took issue with a moment, towards the end of his paper, where Ndebele says that "free people do not clamour for affirmative action, they build civilisations".

"The idea that affirmative action is born of an abandonment of the will to struggle belongs to a certain kind of conservative liberal discourse that does not recognise that there are certain communities that are trapped in inner cities and favelas not because they have abandoned the will to struggle, but because they are structurally reproduced within those circumstances," said Garuba.

Nuttall: a deep entanglement of black and white histories

For Nuttall '“ who is director of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) and a visiting professor at Yale and Duke Universities in the United States '“ one of the key points of dis-ease in Ndebele's text was his assertion that "South African 'blacks' should no longer put store on 'blackness'".

Quoting an extract from the conclusion of Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks, she argued: "Fanon's credo, as is yours [Ndebele's], is a consequence of a certain critique if not of blackness then at least of the trope of the black '“ of black as a protean metaphor. If, for Fanon however, there is no critique of the black that is not, at the same time, a critique of its accursed double, the white, Njabulo, you, for your part, seem ready to let go of that entanglement '“ at least in this text. And yet the deep entanglement of the histories of the black and white is something that we know very well '“ or is it something that we know too well '“ or not well enough? Whatever the case, my question is this: What is the politics of a critique of the black that leaves untalked about its obverse, real or imagined, the white?

"How can we make the figures of 'the extractivist black' and 'the offshore white' obsolete?" she asked in conclusion. "You can't produce change by fighting what is already in place. I think you have to find a way to make what already exists obsolete. So what sort of combat, what sort of politics do we need now?"

Ndebele: the 'new South African'

Admitting that a week or two after he delivered his keynote address he became "uncomfortable" about the apparent absence of tension in his use of the words 'black' and 'white', and emphasised his indebtedness to the Black Consciousness Movement. "There is a black inside of me that cannot be destroyed," he said. "But there is also a white ... The definition of the new South African, if I can call it that, is someone who contains all these identities within them that are all looking for a politics that is prepared to take on the big adventure of re-imagining South Africa on the basis of that phenomenon '“ as opposed to distinct and disconnected identities. To date, I don't think there is any political party that is working with this. To that extent, I would hazard a guess that the public has left politics behind."

Nobody seemed to argue with that.

Story by Alex Dodd. Photo by Je'nine May.

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