Thoughts Must Fall – a rethink

ZMF

The great thing about writing a blog is that it makes you really think about your thoughts. Not just before you write – that, you’d hope, would go without saying – but once they are out there for the world to see. Writing a blog is a bit like walking around with your pants down – everyone gets to see what you’re made of – and you find yourself wondering what so-and-so would think if they read it. It makes you start a dialogue in your own head and with that comes the possibility for further shifts of the mind and heart.

Recently I wrote a blog titled “Thoughts Must Fall”. It was a critique of a critique, and a few weeks later I doubted myself and took it down to reflect on what I had written.

So what had I written?

When the #ZumaMustFall protests gained momentum in December 2015 – with marches in Joburg and Cape Town scheduled for the Day of Reconciliation, a national public holiday – a UCT professor called Adam Haupt had written a Thought Leader piece titled – “Whose Hashtag is it anyway?” – arguing that #ZumaMustFall was cultural appropriation. Haupt’s argument was that the hashtag #MustFall was the property of those within the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements, a voice of the youth that was riling against a status quo which benefitted so few at the expense of so many.

Although by the time of the marches, everyone in the country, regardless of race and age, was pretty much sick to the back teeth of President Zuma and the allegations of state capture and misappropriation of state funds, the #ZumaMustFall protests, at least in Cape Town where Haupt lives and works, was seen as being led by moneyed white South Africans. (Later in January, someone even paid for a gigantic #ZumaMustFall banner to be printed at an estimated cost of R200,000 and hung – without municipal permission – on the side of a Cape Town building.)

Up until then, the #MustFall protests had been directed at people like them – people with what Haupt describes as unearned privilege – and for them to use the hashtag as their own legitimate voice of protest was deemed a form of cultural appropriation.

So what is cultural appropriation? It’s quite a highbrow insult that gets a lot of airing in wood-panelled lecture halls and contains in it a belief that it is wrong to take the icons of someone else’s culture, either for profit, or even, for fun or aesthetic value. So it’s wrong for young women at music festivals to wear feathered Indian headwear since they don’t understand its deeper spiritual, significance and it’s wrong for a fashion designer from Europe to make fashion items using blankets from Basotho culture. They are not yours. Leave them alone.

Woven within the subtext of cultural appropriation is a narrative about power, especially economic power. If I am from a culture or group of people that at some time in history has ridden roughshod over your people, and/or if I am from a group of people who is seen as more financially dominant in world economy scales, then I most definitely must not profit from your stuff. To do that just perpetuates the inequality and stops you being seen.

Haupt’s argument about #ZumaMustFall really irked me, and not just because I find cultural appropriation the most joyless concept on earth – what, no more fancy dress parties? no more pretending to be someone you’re not? – but because it struck me as a subtle form of prejudice that was trying to silence those with what he terms unearned privilege – ie. white people – from exercising their democratic right to protest. It seemed to suggest that the only legitimate and justified form of protest could come from those who feel marginalised by the current system. And it also pre-determines who is marginalised by that system, and on what grounds they are permitted to feel marginalised.

According to his analysis, the authentic marginalised voice is one that is, or sees itself, as outside the fruits of the economic system, fruits that were unfairly grown from an unjust past. If you have fruit but still feel angry, you should think again. You can’t be legitimately angry until you’ve properly understood how your fruity life is built on the fruitless lives of others, and until you’ve started to take their cause as your own.

And yes, it might sound rich coming from me, sitting at my MacBookAir, tapping away in my nice Melville garden cottage, but is that really all we are? Economic beings? The means of production? Is it not possible to feel marginalised if you don’t see yourself represented in, and even locked out of, the political establishment – as many white South Africans feel? Is it not justified to feel cheated and angry if the tax money you pay into the state every year is being corruptly misappropriated by your president? If we accept that in a democracy there is a multiplicity of beliefs, desires and needs, is it not possible to protest on the grounds that your particular needs are not being met?

To his credit, at the nub of Haupt’s argument was a call for #ZumaMustFall protestors to more deeply engage with the “black burdens” (his words) that are fuelling the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall protests. If we are ever to truly create the groundswell of power needed to topple the political fat cats, the haves need to understand and get behind the have-nots. They can’t just cry their own tears.

But really, using cultural appropriation as a means of encouraging dialogue? It’s like knocking someone on the back of the head with a copy of The Communist Manifesto, and shouting “Think again!”

Why then did I take down the piece I had written? Well, because I kept on writing to a place where white people so often go when they feel that their points of view are not being understood – I went on to a place of fear.

It’s a habit in us. Whenever we feel that we are being taken to task or held to account by black South Afrians, we don’t just argue back, we get angry back, and quickly on its tail comes fear. So my argument went that Haupt’s economic reductive analysis is a limited version of humanity (still agree with myself), and that it’s a subtle form of prejudice and we must remember that prejudice can be as deadly as racism (and although I agree with myself here, I’m not sure it was necessary to go here). Look what happened to the Jews I argued. They did not have structural power in Germany, but they had economic power. So does this mean that the Holocaust was racist, or was it prejudiced?

Stop.

How did I get from university students calling for change to the Holocaust? This is what we – white South Africans – do. First we disagree, then we become fearful and start warning people.

It is time that we began to reflect on this habit, because it is a habit, an old one, engineered in us by our apartheid past when we were fed on a diet of ‘swart gevaar’. Little has been done to undo that conditioning, and if anything, the violent crime that the country has experienced post-apartheid has actually deepened many of those fears.

And yet there is a big difference between a criminal and a protestor. Between someone with a different viewpoint to ours, and someone who actually wants to harm us. If we want to live a truly fruitful life in South Africa – a life that is not just economically fruitful – we need to start interrogating these old fears.

After all, as one black writer I know once said to me: “When has a black man ever invaded a white man’s country?”

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

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