Angela Davis and middle class politics
Last week Sanele KaNtshingana attended the 17th annual Steve Biko Memorial lecture. Towering intellectual and civil rights activist, Professor Angela Davis gave the address. While she spoke to the 1956 Women’s March, the #FeesMustFall protests and the recent demonstrations at Pretoria Girl’s High, KaNtshingana asks critical questions about popular struggles and middle class protests.
The lecture spanned a range of interrelated popular but relevant subjects like the ‘unfinished activism’ of her generation, Trump in the US and the hidden dimensions of structural racism accompanying his facile campaign, a fierce critique on the militaristic police response to protests, global capitalism and the legacy of Steve Biko in student movements, #FeesMustFall and #BlackLivesMatter campaign in the US.
I was blown away by the self-reflexive manner in which she conducted the lecture by reflecting on some of the contradictions she had confronted together with her comrades in the height of her activism years.
This line captures the essence of some of the contradictions in any struggle that is ever being waged. “The revolution we wanted was not the revolution we hoped to produce,” she proclaimed.
On so many levels, this lecture broadened the local experience and scope of understanding Steve Biko and Davis gave us a taste of a receiver in the US, in a similar way we receive and interpret the works of Paulo Freire, Fanon or Du Bois, in a way that is relevant to our contexts. This lecture was indeed refreshing because it transcended the narrow and totemic way of talking about Steven Biko such that the talk doesn’t transcend the person but focused on the permeability and global applicability of Biko’s ideas.
It was a good opportunity for Davies to ask us uncomfortable questions. However, her talk affirmed the popular middle class politics of student’s activism and did not transcend the popular culture of representing our history.
We are removed from daily realities
It ironically predicated on popular struggles of the #MustFall happening in socioeconomic realms that are palatable to the mainstream media. Her sharp focus on hyper-visible struggles foreclosed and erased so many struggles of the voices that are on the peripheries. From the 1956 women’s march to Soweto Uprising; to the release of Mandela in South Africa and the dominant ANC narrative of the defeat of apartheid. With the Fees Must Fall moment to Pretoria Girls protests; this lecture was mainly framed around popular iconic historical moments, thus perpetuating the silencing of our history.
What about the Sharpeville Massacre that was influenced by the Pan Africanist Movement? What about the other roles of other parties that lead to a defeat of apartheid like AZAPO and PAC? What about Andries Tatane? The Marikana massacre? The Transgender collective at UCT? The young students who are protesting for basic services every now and again in the township schools? These are the questions I had hoped Angela would perhaps provoke in her talk.
But perhaps I expected too much from an American who has been exposed mainly to the popular history of South Africa. History that has erased so many contributions of the ordinary women, and not just popular faces like Nompendulo Mkhatshwa’s, that have been constructed by the media as “leaders” of our movement, even when we have emphasised so many times that we are a flat structured movement with no single leader. What role has journalism and academia contributed in this way of remembering history?
We have been so removed from the daily realities of our people, it seems that political slogans like “Black Lives Matter” and “Intersectionality” and so forth are coalesced and buttressed within particular spaces, often within previously white institutions for the middle class. They don’t transcend the university walls to galvanize masses outside our ‘fetish’ as a method of sustaining the movement and as a way of forging broader mass mobilisation.
I have major respect for the protests that started at Pretoria Girls High and spilled on to other former Model C and private schools in South Africa. The courage of the young girls to challenge the deeply entrenched racism in those white arrogant schools was remarkable and they truly espoused the philosophy of the Black Consciousness Movement such as “Black is beautiful” and that “Black hair matters”.
But similar to the #MustFall movements in previously white institutions, this story of young middle class black girls protesting was palatable to the media, hence the focus on Zulaika Patel as an angle or highlight of the Davies lecture.
The sharp focus on the black middle class and popular iconic historical moments both by Angela Davis and the mainstream media send a powerful statement that “Black Middle Class Lives Matter” a big contradiction to her entire lecture.
Until and only when the silenced voices are added to the popular narratives, not only in passing lines but in a truly meaningful sense, would slogans such as “intersectionality” make more sense in our struggles. Without having done this, vocabularies and discourses of inclusiveness, interconnectedness, and intersectionality will only make sense to a particular strand of a community, often of the black middle class.