By: Gcobani Qambela*
I recently read a poor attempt to silence South African social commentator and activist Andile Mngxitama, or rather a call to “boycott” him by Kameel Premhid and Thorne Godinho in the Mail & Guardian’s Though Leader page. The duo claims that “Mngxitama has a long and troublesome history of advocating a-part-hate. His racial tirades are well-known and are equally problematic for how hateful and intellectually inferior they are.” [My emphasis] This call to boycott Mngxitama followed an opinion piece written by social activist Jared Sacks on the recently formed Agang political platform by former Black Consciousness leader Dr Mamphela Ramphela. In the op-ed, Sacks argues that Steve Biko, the former Black Consciousness leader, would not vote for Mamphela’s party if he were still alive. Mngxitama’s reaction to the article was that to accuse Sacks of abusing Biko’s legacy and in defence of Biko, Mngxitama called on “true bikoists” to physically assault Sacks in anyway.
At the outset I should state that I myself am no fan of Mngxitama having been subject to one of his emotional outbursts when I critiqued him for some of the elitism in his “activism” in 2010. While he did not threaten to have me beat up like Sacks I can say I know what it is like to be subject to his verbal outbursts. So suffice it to say, I also do not agree with his alleged call for “true bikoists” to assault Sacks. But despite this Mngxitama’s thoughts still matter to me.
I do not think emotional outbursts are sufficient reason enough for the authors to merely dismiss this Mngxitama’s life work as “intellectually inferior” and irrelevant. In much of public commentary, there are always high emotions and outbursts wherever you are in the world. This is something that University of Pennsylvania Professor, Anthea Butler for instance has noted. She notes that many great thinkers would offer public commentary but they often shy away precisely because of how heated these discussions can get, which wears most people out and so they avoid it however valuable their contributions might be.
This should not be unexpected. The nature of these discussions are not simply university-esque debates where one is dealing with fictional hypotheses, but actually involve people’s lives and have considerable influence on the people privy to them. For instance, a politician reading Mngxitama’s writings might have a change of heart about a policy issue on race and inequality, so these writings and discussions – as heated as they can get – are still important. A University of Chicago graduate student, Arrianna Marie Coleman, succinctly sums it up when she tell us the act of writing is a deeply political one. As Coleman notes, writers like Mngxitama “challenge hegemonic narratives of our self and subjectivity by telling stories that disrupt […] coherence”.
Premhid and Godinho state that “One could argue that the race question has so plagued Mngxitama that he has become paranoid over [it].” This is a careless and unthinking statement, but is also reflective of much of the real genesis of their piece in an important way. Kameel and Thorne did not write their opinion piece because they genuinely care about constitutional infringements by Mngxitama, the level of intellectual commentary in South Africa or the potential assaults on Sacks.
They wrote this to try to shut him up – to stop him from talking and most importantly to stop him from writing about race and the role of white privilege in much of the black suffering in South Africa. They show absolutely no substantive engagement with any of Mngxitama’s writings, journals or talks (most of which are freely available through a simple search on the internet). The irony of course being that although implying intellectual superiority to Mngxitama, these authors’ article is solely researched via tweets that are used without context to the extent that Mail & Guardian had to issue a correction on their misreading of one of Mngxitama’s tweets where they had embarrassingly confused an article written by Heinrich Bohmke which was withdrawn by the Harvard International Review after publication.
I have selected at random through internet search one article by Andile Mngxitama to illustrate my point, that the author’s concern is with Mngxitama’s writings on race more than a concern with Mngxitama upholding the principles of constitutionalism.
In his January 8th (2013) Sowetan article titled “Brace for year of ‘kganyapa’, when blacks will suffer the most” Mngxitama takes us through why post-Mangaung blacks in South Africa are going to suffer the most in 2013. He criticises the ANC (and DA) for disregarding the “feelings of those whom they rule”. He takes on the poor pass rate and the low standards set for students, and how poor students end up taking the fall for these low standards set, for the priviledged have access to best facilities that allow them to thrive. He takes on the failure of the state post-apartheid state to reinstate the resources into the hands of the people. Prophetically he also predicts for 2013 “the return of the white liberals” the effect of which “is white domination of public discourse, which doesn’t end racism, but instead preserves white power”.
Mngxitama’s assertions are not only aligned with current research, but also much sentiment with ‘people on the ground’. Many commentators and leading think tanks like The South African Civil Society Information Service have noted that the ANC is increasingly becoming undemocratic and is failing South Africans. We also know that the education system in South Africa favours the privileged that are mostly rich and white. This is something I have written about, and that other academics like the UCT Vice Chancellor, Dr Max Price has also noted. We also know that the South African government has not done enough since the end of apartheid to transform state enterprises for the benefit of the wider black South African population.
The last statement in Mngxitama’s article is exactly what Premhid and Godinho are worried about. Careful manipulation of statements by the authors like Mngxitama is advocating for “Zimbabwe-style land grabs” feed into white racist thinking about black people and (in)capabilities of running a country, overseeing transformation and holding leadership positions. The authors show no engagement at all with Mngxitama’s necessary call for blacks to get back land that was largely forcefully stolen from them, instead this is tactically used to play into white paranoia about having to let go of “their” largely unearned land.
Mngxitama’s association with groups like the Blackwash and the September National Imbizo, “organizations that distributed leaflets during the height of xenophobic violence calling for black South Africans to instead turn on “the white settler elite” – the real enemies” continue to further instil fear into white supremacy, which of course is not supposed to be reminded that indeed, for the most part it was responsible and still is largely responsible for the political and economic disenfranchisement of black South Africans. After all, as Mychal Denzel Smith has noted in his piece “White People Have to Give Up Racism” the thing about racism is that while “not every white person is a racist, the genius of racism is that you don’t have to [necessarily] participate to enjoy the spoils.” And white South Africans are sure enjoying the spoils earned on the backs of black blood.
Mngxitama’s work is directed exactly at people like Premhid and Godingo who remain the embodiments of white supremacy in South Africa: The people for whom it is not in the interests of for black South Africans to advance and take their rightful place alongside whites. Premhid as an Indian male sits comfortably on the side of White supremacy, but is able to be ‘black’ when it suits him (for BEE purposes of course). Thorne, is the is the quintessential white male born in South Africa and who by birth will join the ranks of his white male elders to earn nearly eight times the ordinary black South African. Perhaps what is most telling about Thorne is his self-identification as an “unapologetic (white) liberal” — and we know what Steve Biko warned against with white liberals. Both Kameel Premhid and Thorne Godinho are not people whose interests Mngxitama’s writing serves.
Coleman writes: “To use our words, images and [black] bodies to tell a story that doesn’t fit the neat binary constructions of hegemonic narratives is to be political”. We need more black voices that are not afraid to be political. We need people like Mngxitama who are not afraid to be “plagued” by the race question until all black South Africans are also able to enjoy the privileges and opportunities that Premhid and Godinho enjoy by virtue of being born into white privilege and power.
* Gcobani Qambela is a Regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum Contributor. Read his short biography and previous articles here.