Disrupting the silencing of voices
By Himal Ramji
Earlier this month, I was asked to go to the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) exhibition at UCT with the task of writing an article on the event. At that stage, I had decided I would focus purely on the art. If RMF chose to speak through art, then it would be my job to convey what I could harvest from that expression. But I cannot write that article.
March marks a year since Chumani Maxwele threw human excrement at the Cecil John Rhodes statue at UCT, an act that set in motion a series of events, which would lead to a student uprising and the shutdown of tertiary institutions across the country under the #FeesMustFall banner last October.
To celebrate and commemorate the moment, the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) collective arranged an art exhibition at the Centre for African Studies (CAS), at UCT on 9 March titled ‘Echoing Voices from Within’. And it was here, on the opening night, that the movement had to face their contradictions.
Allow me to first explain the proceedings of the art exhibition on this particular evening. 300 students marched across campus, from Azania House One (Bremner, they called it) to the sports fields on upper campus. They moved slowly up the stairs to where Rhodes once sat, and where his painted shadow still haunts the space, then through the parking lot where a moment of silence was observed, then through to Marikana Hall (Jameson, they called it) where a group of black female students entered the library area with symbolic sjamboks to cast a pink veil over the Saartjie Baartman sculpture, finally granting her image some respite from the colonial gaze.
From Marikana Hall the group move up through the engineering mall. What followed was a rather magnificent spectacle of students packed closely together between the engineering buildings in the narrow road between. For those who have not been to UCT’s engineering section, the buildings are sheer, tall things, and the road is extremely narrow. The walls look like they would resound, reverberate, amplify. I’m quite sure the sound must have funnelled most supremely through the chasm, erupting in the air around.
Then there was the final push towards the CAS and the exhibition. Before things get truly interesting, there is one thing that has always troubled me. That is: RMF’s aversion to using PA systems. I remember so vividly the mass meeting outside Marikana Hall last year when Max Price addressed a massive crowd and Fees Must Fall organisers refused to use the PA system some kind soul had procured. Again, at the CAS the PA system was ignored by RMF.
Having absolutely no idea what was said during what looked like a lengthy and ceremonial preamble to the actual exhibition, I wanted to leave. After all, the proceedings had begun to look a bit like a Gujarati wedding anyway: women falling into their role running proceedings, men hanging out in the parking lot not really paying attention to the ceremony, white people gawking at the spectacle, fascinated by something they could not understand (at the wedding its usually language, here it was due to lack of amplification). Perhaps this is why what occurred next was so powerful: because it made so startlingly clear what limitations RMF had fallen prey to.
As the director of CAS, Professor Lungile, was getting into some semblance of rhythm with his welcoming speech, a group of about a dozen students, most naked, some wearing only underwear, all painted with red words, stormed into the gallery. There were shouts of approval. Some jeered. They blocked the entrances with their bodies, smeared red paint on the framed artwork and photographs, and occupied the exhibition space.
What transpired was a move by the Trans Collective to bring their place in the struggles of the movement to attention – to make the movement aware that they were being erased and their voices being silenced.
Despite RMF demanding a rethinking and reconstructing of our categories and the ways of thinking and being, the movement brings with it, issues especially of patriarchy. What the UCT Trans Collective was drawing attention to in their disruption of the RMF exhibition is that, even though the RMF collective positions itself as a challenge to colonial categories – of gender, race and class, the trans community, through their action and disruption – brought into focus the dynamics of gender, and the experience of being silenced within a decolonial movement. But here it is not my place to attempt any greater public explorations – that is not my task. Instead I put forward that which the Trans Collective has shared in a recent article titled ‘Giving context to decolonisation; the Trans Collective in South Africa’:
“‘Our intervention is an act of black love. It is a commitment towards making RMF the fallist space of our dreams.’ In other words, the intervention, as well as the struggles that led to it, are not to be appropriated as somehow symbolic of the flaws of the decolonial struggle by those who desire the continuation of entrenched, racist structures of power. That the decolonial struggle is being contested from within is a testament to its rigour and vitality. As the Trans Collective state; ‘Decoloniality is not a metaphor’- it is experiential practice that simply cannot be decided in advance.”
The decolonial project is not a one-dimensional task. RMF is a complex movement, ever evolving and made up of a wide range of individuals and groups. This is both its beauty, and its greatest challenge. One year on, for the student movement to continue its decolonising project and mobilise for real transformation, it is imperative that it listens to those who make up its dynamic collective.
All images courtesy of the Trans Collective.
UCT TRANS COLLECTIVE
‘TOKENISTIC, OBJECTIFYING, VOYEURISTIC INCLUSION IS AT LEAST AS DISEMPOWERING AS COMPLETE EXCLUSION’
Kimberle Crenshaw captures the motivation for the UCT Trans Collective’s disruptive intervention at the Rhodes Must Fall movement’s one year anniversary exhibition most eloquently.
For the Trans Collective, the commemorations that are happening at this time invite us to reflect on both the decolonial year that has been and the years that are to come. In our reflection we have found that as black, poor, queer, women and non-binary trans people our position in the decolonial theory and practice is unchanged.
It was as early as April 2015, just a month after the inception of RMF, that what is now known as the Trans Collective flagged the issue of a rigid loyalty to patriarchy, cisnormativity, heteronormativity and the gender binary within the space. In our founding statement we made it clear that ‘we recognise that colonization has had a severe impact on how we perceive gender and gender expression and thus we are reclaiming our space in the globalised decolonisation movement and calling for our narrative to be instructive going forward’. However, we had been coerced to construct a smaller decolonial enclave that would run parallel to RMF because of what had become apparent as a gulf in consciousness of many, particularly black cishet men, organisers where the understanding of the colony and how it operates did not connect with an understanding of patriarchy, heteronormativity and gender essentialism as colonially demarcated powers. Often times, there was an outright refusal to acknowledge that the condition of being a womxn, queer, trans, disabled and so forth is not incidental to blackness but that these conditions are collateral to blackness. So suffocating is this that we have had to submarine from active membership. We refuse to avail our bodies and psyches for the violence that has infiltrated the decolonial project through patriarchy, cisnormativity, heteronormativity and the gender binary. Our role has now evolved into speaking back to RMF and keeping it accountable to its commitment to intersectionality precisely because it is positioned as a black decolonial space. We are black, queer and trans simultaneously. These are not severable and we deserve to be freed from their colonial baggage simultaneously too.
Following a year of literally wrestling with patriarchy and trans antagonism in the shadows of running from stun grenades, tear gas, jail cells and private security, the Trans Collective has decided to give content to what has been popularly known as ‘radical black feminist militancy’.
On the occasion of the well-attended RMF exhibition, RMF aligned trans people once again put themselves on the line by physically disrupting the cishetero patriarchy within the movement generally and the erasure and tokenism in the exhibition particularly.
First, the Trans Collective demanded that the organising committee remove all the images, videos and texts of and by trans people. As it turns out that only three out of more than 1000 images that ended up making it onto the exhibition roll featured a trans person’s face somewhere on them. This is truly a disgrace on the exhibition selection committee and particularly those ‘black intersectional feminist’ cis womxn who sat on it for the purpose of ensuring due representation. Even more damning is that it is clear the RMF and the exhibition’s idea of intersectional representation has the faces of 4 or 5 black cis womxn repeated in a spectacular show of false inclusivity.
It is disingenuous to include trans people in a public gallery when you have made no effort to include them in the private. It is a lie to include trans people when the world is watching, but to erase and antagonise them when the world no longer cares. We have reached the peak of our disillusionment with RMF’s trans exclusion and erasure. We are done with the arrogant cis hetero patriarchy of black men. We will no longer tolerate the complicity of black cis womxn in our erasure. We are fed up with RMF being ‘intersectional’ being used as public persuasion rhetoric. We are saying down with faux inclusivity – RMF make it clear, to the world, that we are not welcome here. RMF will not tokenise our presence as if they ever treasured us as part of their movement. We will not have our bodies, faces, names, and voices used as bait for public applause. We are tired of being expected to put our bodies on the line for people who refuse to do the same for us.
Secondly, in a bid to actualise our disgruntlement, a small group of us manoeuvred our way through the crowd, naked and decorated in red paint, grabbed the microphone from the cisgender man who was addressing the crowd outside. We proceeded to enter the exhibition venue and blocked all entrances with our naked and adorned bodies. One of the placards which we placed on top of our bodies read “Go on, jump over us one more time”, making a reference to how trans people in RMF and other fallist movements have been walked over during the last year.
As we lay at the entrances, the crowd festivities outside were continuing. At this point, one of us rose up, interrupted the speaker, took the loudhailer and proceeded to call out the patriarchy, the trans-antagonism, sexual violence that has come to be unchecked within RMF. Furthermore we called out the fact that we have had our bodies and psyches on the line in fallist movements, but are continually erased in narratives by cisgender people. The statement ended by cautioning the attendees that anyone who would enter through the blockaded doors to see the exhibition would be stepping over trans bodies and that they would have to reconcile themselves with the implication that they valued the content of the exhibition more than the trans bodies on the floor and their plight.
We then took the continuing activities outside as an instruction to actualise the work that was being done by our bodies and blockading by communicating our erasure on the exhibition content. We replaced the images with placards which told a truer story of RMF. A story of trans erasure, trans antagonism, unabated sexual assault and complicity. We left other images with marks of red paint as a display of our presence. We may not have been included in the exhibition role in a meaningful way, but it must be clear to all viewers of the exhibition that raging trans people had been in that space.
We must, however, state unequivocally that our disruptive intervention at the RMF exhibition should not under any circumstances be construed as a rejection of RMF or a departure away from decolonisation. We maintain that decolonisation is necessary for a reclamation of our humanity as black queer trans people. Our intervention is an act of black love. It is a commitment towards making RMF the fallist space of our dreams. It forms part of the journey towards the ‘logical conclusion’ of the decolonisation project. There will be no Azania if black men simply fall into the throne of the white man without any comprehensive reorganisation of power along all axis of the white supremacist, imperialist, ablest, capitalist cisheteropatriarchy. To our minds this interpretation is in line with the commitments that RMF has made in its mission statement to in March 2015:
“AN INTERSECTIONAL APPROACH:
We want to state that while this movement emerged as a response to racism at UCT, we recognise that experiences of oppression on this campus are intersectional and we aim to adopt an approach that is cognisant of this going forward. An intersectional approach to our blackness takes into account that we are not only defined by our blackness, but that some of us are also defined by our gender, our sexuality, our able-bodiedness, our mental health, and our class, among other things. We all have certain oppressions and certain privileges and this must inform our organising so that we do not silence groups among us, and so that no one should have to choose between their struggles. Our movement endeavours to make this a reality in our struggle for decolonisation.”
Furthermore, we want to be clear that each and every one of the trans people who put a stop to the RMF exhibition was entitled to. Trans people have an equal stake in the Rhodes Must Fall movement. We have contributed to building the movement from scratch and we will never hesitate to reconfigure it to be in accordance with our needs and wants as trans people and with the tenets of the decolonisation project. We are the trans people who have given Rhodes Must Fall the revolutionary language of ‘womxn’, ‘non-binary’, and ‘trans*’. We are the trans people who lobbied tirelessly for the inclusion of black radical feminism as one of the three pillars of the movement, alongside Pan Afrikanism and Black Consciousness. We are the trans bodies who had invested their time conceptualising and running the Intersectionality Audit Committee. We are the trans people who spent hours at Azania enriching the movement with knowledge about the difference between sex, gender and sexual orientation, gender essentialism, intersectionality, feminism and patriarchy. We are the trans people who have time and time again allowed the violence of being probed, violated, exposed in order to grow and enrich the movement – at the expense of our psyches and bodies. We are the trans people who have spent time tolerating trans misogynoir and transphobia in order to facilitate the learning and growth of individuals in the movement. We are the trans people who have put our bodies on the line for all black people at RMF, only to have to face the same oppressor, merely with a different name, alone while organising under the banner of the Queer Revolution and the Alternative Inclusive Cape Town Pride. We are the trans people who stripped naked at Azania house with cis women when cishet men were victim blaming a rape survivor, yet were erased the next day.
We are the trans people who have loved RMF even when it did not love us.