Thursday, 1 September 2011

What does it mean to be young, black and South African?

by Danielle Bowler and Chantelle Malan

Playing on Nina Simone’s lyrics, the African Music Channel, has adopted “Young, gifted and African” as their slogan, which is now frequently featured on t-shirts of the hip and trendy. The slogan aims to highlight the view that, contra the white world’s systematic denigration of the black world, the black world, and its youth in particular, have much to offer the world. 
But what does it mean to be young, black and South African? The recent Fanon: 50 Years Later colloquium and the Roundtable on Race and Higher Education, both held at Rhodes University, saw students engaging in necessary conversation about contemporary South Africa and its meaning. For almost two weeks we immersed ourselves in reflection, considering issues that have significantly informed our lives as young people living in a country with a deeply abject living legacy. 

Every morning at the colloquium, the conference room would slowly begin heaving with people whose many layers of clothing rustled as they found their way to their seats. Deep in conversation, we would be ushered into the conference venues fuelled by the excitement of having the privilege of being able, in the presence of the great minds, to critically engage with issues relating to race and how these impact on the lives of the majority in this country. Frantz Fanon was the principle inspiration for this conversation - as we dialogued with, through and about Fanon we discovered to what extent the trajectory set in motion by him is central for understanding the present and future of Africa. 

A hugely influential psychiatrist, philosopher and freedom fighter during the Algerian Revolution, Fanon dedicated his life to the liberation of the oppressed in addition to theorizing the lived experience of being black in colonial and postcolonial Africa. Both the Colloquium and the Roundtable provided a space where the questions of race could be better understood in the South African context, and be subject to questioning, debate and critique. 

Shack intellectuals, such as S’bu Zikode, President of the Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban, and Ayanda Kota, Chairperson of the Unemployed People’s Movement in Grahamstown, added richness and depth to these debates. Both articulated the experience of poor, black South Africans and what the implications of these lived experiences are for democracy and true liberation. They spoke insightfully about how race and poverty have been mobilising factors in their struggles and, indeed in Fanonian fashion these factors have demanded they be actional in the pursuit of change. 

As a philosopher dealing with the issue of blackness, Fanon is indeed an extremely relevant entry point into the conversation of race in South Africa today. One of his key insights is how racist oppression continues to haunt postcolonial societies, even if those who oppress are no longer exclusively white. Prophetically, for he did not live to see the end result of our struggle, he predicted that a corrupt black elite would replace and/or join the white masters.

In South Africa, this is an evident and demoralising reality. Exploration into this reality and its implications continued in the shift from the Colloquium to the Roundtable, which rather than focusing on the legacy of Fanon, used Fanon and other thinkers to discuss issues relating to race in the South African postcolonial university. 

The Roundtable invited us to think critically about the context in which we as university students live and how the refashioning of these institutions is an indispensable element for bringing about a just South Africa.
Multiple topics emerged around the many challenges the university faces in light of the legacy of apartheid – which included the fundamental question of access. Although one could argue that there are many today who are young, gifted and African – the legacy of Apartheid has meant that many of the gifted do not have the access to institutions which would allow them to enhance, hone and channel their gifts.  

Dr Saleem Badat, Vice Chancellor of Rhodes University, spoke to the challenges posed by attempting to work through the issues faced by the postcolonial university, and how this task of restructuring is navigated “with great difficulty”. That we boldly attempt change, aware of the difficulties, was something often spoken to at both events and an idea that should be the focus of more tertiary institutions in the steering of contemporary challenges. 

For us students, the benefits of the two events far exceeded the varied voices coming together in conversation, and the opportunity to encounter the academic luminaries present at both events. These events were occasions to begin the process of critically thinking about what it means to be South African in the here and now. 

Our thoughts, disagreements and ideas led us to hold our own meeting in a friend’s garden. As we basked in the sunlight, debating the issues brought forward in the Colloquium and Roundtable, we were able to catch glimpses of the kind of rainbow we would want to be emblematic of our society. 

With talk of contemporary elites, redress and revolution we contemplated the necessary restructuring of the higher education sector and, particularly, how we can take advantage of our privileged access to higher education in order to achieve real social change. What we came away with was a feeling of hopefulness and restlessness in our souls, aware of the call to action that Fanon and these events had demanded of us.
Nina Simone sang “To be young, gifted and black, oh what a lovely precious dream”. In her oppressive context it was but a dream to be considered black, young and gifted. That black people can be young and gifted should not point to exceptional particularities and her song calls for the need for the recognition of the capabilities of all black people as human beings, not as the inherent “lack” that plagues much thinking and literature dealing with the black world. 

For us, thinking about Fanon, race and higher education in contemporary South Africa has been a catalyst for action and a fundamental rethinking of our position in this society. It’s a call to be involved in the ongoing struggle to transcend racial boundaries and to not regard being young, gifted and African as an elusive dream but to assert it, emphatically, as a reality. 

Danielle Bowler and Chantelle Malan are Rhodes University students studying philosophy and politics.