I was interviewed by Sophie Schasiepen for the Austrian feminist magazine an.schlage in 2016. The interview covered issues surrounding #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall and feminism within the movement. It was originally published in German here. This is the English translation of the interview. The translated piece is longer than the German version.
In April 2015, the #RhodesMustFall (RMF) movement achieved the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes* from the campus of the University of Cape Town (UCT). Debates leading to this event soon included demands for much more radical and extensive changes than just the removal of a statue: the protests were aiming for the decolonization of South African universities – and the country as a whole. Out of these discussions, many more initiatives were founded on different campuses throughout the country, amplifying the momentum of RMF. In October last year, a new climax was reached when students, parents and staff protested against an increase of tuition fees in, forming the #FeesMustFall (FMF) movement. All major campuses in South Africa were temporarily shut down. Jacob Zuma´s promptly following promise for a 0% increase of tuition fees has not put an end to the struggle – on the contrary, this year, at the beginning of the new term, protesters have been interrupting the registration processes and are continuing to take their demands to the streets.
Sophie Schasiepen: How would you describe the issues that are at stake right now?
Zimasa Mpemnyama: Let me first explain why RMF was so important. It was the first time in post apartheid South Africa that conversations about race, decolonization and gender were opened up through radical politics. From 1994 until recently, race discussions had been very liberal and never gone deep enough. When you were talking about racism it seemed as if you were doing something wrong. There were small pockets in which these issues could be addressed properly, but generally the euphoria of 1994 and the discourses of the rainbow nation were so dominant that people didn´t seem to realize how much had been negotiated away in the so called transformation process. Within this talk of how we should all just love each other, neoliberal thinking was also introduced – Black people were not poor because of colonization and racism: if they worked hard enough, they could make it, too. Integration was desired without having discussed what it meant to us to actually have been colonized. This is something that Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko also talk about: If the people in power, even if they are Black, don´t address the roots of the colonial structures, a postcolony is created – like the one that we live in. The radicalness of RMF made many people feel uncomfortable – not only white people but also people within the addressed institution(s) and people in the country as a whole. It is also its radicalness, the impossibility of the demands that it was posing, that makes the connection to the students and children uprisings of 1976 in Soweto. In 1976 it was unheard of for people to say: “Actually, we don´t want to be taught in Afrikaans. We reject this completely and we are willing to take this to the streets.” So for the first time after that you have young black people who articulate their dissatisfaction in such a way. They were criticising the ANC, too, but they took it further than just to the level of party politics. They took readings from Fanon, Biko and radical Black feminists like Assata Shakur and demanded a decolonized society. They formed a pan-Africanist, radical, Black feminist, queer movement in which discussions could take place about what a decolonized society would look like, and why we are saying that South Africa is still a colony although it is officially a postcolonial country.
SS: So how did this lead to Fees Must Fall?
ZM: From March until October these conversations were continuing and eventually culminated in FMF. FMF happened because students were revolting against fee increases for next year. There was a proposed 10% increase at the Wits University in Johannesburg, where I was studying at the time. Students were saying that they could already not afford the costs and that this increase was going to cut out a whole range of people from the poorest to the so called middle class. And we know that in South Africa class is intertwined with race. Poor people are black people. The institution saying that they were going to increase the fees actually meant that black people were excluded again. This is how RMF and FMF connect. People started blocking the universities, interrupting the normal order. We can´t go on as if everything was normal in an abnormal society. Because a racist society is an abnormal society. And that racism feeds off our bodies as black people, it is a society that does not favour us in any way – be that the curricula, us graduating from university and not being able to get jobs, us not having access to universities because we are black and because we are poor and so on. FMF was so important because for the first time, the government has been made aware of these problems in a way that could not be ignored. It is important to emphasize that the demands are so exciting because they are so big and impossible. We want a decolonized society – that is a big deal! It is a radical move that needs to happen worldwide, it can´t happen in South Africa only. We want society to fall on its head, to change completely. That’s why this movement is so exciting. Yet, in the interim one of the changes that the movement is hoping to achieve is free education – not only for the poor but for everyone.
SS: Further demands of FMF included a change in language politics at universities, an increased commitment to feminist, gay and lesbian positions, better accessibility for disabled people as well as the insourcing of everybody working for the universities – thereby fighting the underpayment of employers such as G4S and Co. How did the government react?
ZM: The response of the government has been very negative and dismissive. They reacted in an almost comical way to RMF, not taking it serious and dismissing whatever was demanded as responsibility of the universities. Since FMF had a wider appeal to people, it was bigger and eventually forced the government to respond. However, they are not actually willing to fully engage. On the contrary: the reactions have been very repressive. People have been tear gassed, shot at with rubber bullets and shady things happened to comrades who disappeared, came back and didn´t want to have anything to do with the movement anymore.
SS: FMF has been called a potential turning point in post-apartheid politics. However, only few seem to make a connection to the so-called Land Question. In how far do you see the protests relating to the restitution and redistribution of land in South Africa?
ZM: In the movement, we also addressed that we have not received what was ours. Even when we were supposedly free in 1994, we didn´t get our land back that was stolen when Jan van Riebeek came in 1652. People like Cecil Rhodes took vast pieces of land, dispossessed people, killed and dehumanised people. This was then made into law in 1913 using the 1913 Land Act which forced the black majority into 13% of the land (forming underdeveloped ‘homelands’), with the rest under the ownership of white people. This also meant that black people (black being African, coloured and Indians according to the consciousness definition of black) had to move to the cities to find work – but during apartheid these people were brutally and forcibly moved to the outskirts of the city further disenfranchising black people. In 1994 this question was not resolved. 1994 happens and we are expected to just go on as if nothing had happened. This is impossible if we want our humanity back. So the reason why it is so important that land is given back is not only because of reparations, not only because we want back what was ours. This is important. But it is also important for the country and for the whole world to recognize that our humanity was taken from us. It was taken from us when slaves were taken from here and when the land was taken from the Black people who remained in Africa. Black people were taken to the Americas and their bodies were made into things. They were sold next to oxen and chicken, they were commodified. And our bodies, of the ones who stayed here, were also commodified when our land was taken from us. Slave masters in some places were even given money for their loss when slavery was abolished. Slave masters were given money and not the slaves. Which meant again that the pain that the slaves felt was immaterial and didn´t matter because they were non-human. So for us to want the land back is to say we want our humanity back. We don´t even have to do anything with that land: it is ours. This is the impossible thing that RMF and FMF and decolonization want: It is a move to say that we are also human and that this land is ours.
SS: December last year saw yet another ***MustFall – this time it was Zuma. And this time you saw white people dominating in the media coverage. Could you explain some of the differences between the critique of Zuma and the ANC that was articulated there and the ones that people in the movement pose?
ZM: The ANC is the ruling party; it holds 62% in parliament. It has the power to change legislation. It has the power to give people their land back, to establish free education, to make it possible for Black people to live more decent lives. But it chooses not to. It chooses neoliberal politics that don’t work in the favour of the majority of people living in this country. This is what the movement is criticizing. The problem is that some of the people who were leading this movement are ANC aligned. So it becomes tricky for them to criticize their mother body. Hence, some of them have been rejected by the movement because of their alignment with the ANC. The conviction is that party politics as the like of the ANC, DA, EFF have only taken us so far. Even though the EFF speaks about land reclamation and its politics are radical in a sense, they haven’t addressed the race issue properly. People see these discrepancies and realize that the EFF is also in for the power, the money etc. The movement calls for people to look further, to look beyond party politics and to create people centred movements. This is another important momentum that has been created through RMF and FMF.
#ZumaMustFall happened because Jacob Zuma took out Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister and put in this other guy who is his lap dog. But when he saw that the Rand dropped, markets went down, and white people were complaining, he appointed Pravin Gordhan and everything was quiet again. This speaks to how white people in this country actually have power. Students had to get beaten up, march to parliament, take drastic measures. People in Marikana were killed when protesting for their wages and even then they didn´t get their justice. Andries Tatane was killed by the police when he was protesting for water and we all saw it on TV. When ZMF happened it was mostly white people and there was no police repression at all. People were taking selfies while protesting, it was some kind of exercise for them. It was a completely inappropriate move. Must Fall is a radical movement and in this instant it was just hijacked. What ZMF wanted was to keep things as they are, they just wanted to have another president to keep the economy stable and to enable them to go on with their businesses. I personally rejected it completely. But the media took ZMF much more serious than what RMF and FMF had been doing.
SS: Both RMF and FMF have been lead by Black feminists, queers and transgender. #PatriarchyMustFall and #MbokodoLead have been just one expression both of the strength of their voices as well as the continuous struggles the maintenance of their visibility involved. At the end of January this year, protesters at UCT decided to exclude cis men of one of the main buildings of the movement, the Azania House, which was occupied during RMF. This step has been related to a discussion of priorities in solidarity. Which are the relevant parameters in this discussion for you?
ZM: Let me first emphasise that it was very important that the movement put forward Black feminism – what it means and why we need it. It pushed a conversation about Black feminism, about patriarchy, about intersectionality into mainstream. Black feminists like me have been criticized by male comrades because of bringing up patriarchy in a moment in which we were discussing “bigger” problems like colonialism, structural violence and all of that. So it is important to keep on talking about patriarchy in the movement and within Black spaces. We live in a patriarchal society, which – like racism – ingrains our lives and forces us to move into gender binaries whether we want to or not. Black Feminists leaders in this movement made clear that it is part of the decolonization process that we have to talk about patriarchy. We have to look at masculinity and femininity in a different way. People have been reading the works of bell hooks, Assata Shakur and also South African feminist writers like Pumla Dineo Gqola.
Concerning the Azania house, let me first explain what happened. In Azania house, a student was sexually assaulted by a male comrade. So this very violent act of this man towards this woman, this sexual assault, spurred on conversations about race, sexuality and gender. How do we deal with forms of sexual violence or any form of Black on Black violence within the movement? Since we are all in this together: How do we treat each other and address each other without continuing to dehumanise ourselves? After the assault had happened, the guy ran away. A witch hunt followed in which people of the movement tracked him down, brought him to the police station and his face and name was published online. I wrote a piece recently, called “Wrestling with Intersectionality” and I got a lot of backlash for it. But my fundamental question was: If this had been a white male, would we have reacted the same way? And underlying this question: How do we deal with internal Black politics that have been ripped apart for centuries? How do we deal with questions of patriarchy and questions of violence, not only sexual violence? To me – and I will get into trouble for this again – there has been an overemphasis on sexual violence of feminists in the movement. As if sexual violence was the one that over determined the lives of Black people, and Black queer and transgender people specifically. Yet, there is tribal violence, there is all the violence that white supremacist power creates by wanting to divide us and put us into different boxes. I would say that I am in a better class position, and I am a heterosexual cis woman. A certain kind of intersectionalism would say that this means that I have more power than a Black queer transgender person. But I think that this is a dangerous way to look at it as a Black person. Because really, the world doesn´t see you as queer first, it sees you as Black. It doesn´t shoot you down because you are a lesbian but because you are Black.
So I actually reject men being thrown out, because: Where will they learn how to remove themselves of their patriarchy if not in a radical movement like FMF and RMF, in a house like Azania house? How will Black people know that it is wrong to kill other Black people if we don´t discuss this in a space together? I think it is completely futile to throw men out and expect them to come back cleansed of their patriarchy. I don’t know where this space is, where men would be together and cleanse each other of their patriarchy. But it is also a general question of Black unity. We don’t come into the revolution, into radical spaces, as pure radical beings. We all come with our flaws. Even some of the comrades who were throwing out the men in Azania house might have tribalistic ideas, might have some petty bourgeois tendencies etc. We all have our own contradictions. I think its important to deal with these intra contradictions within this radical space and not expect people to go out, get to some kind of radical cleansing ceremony and come back washed out of all their backwards tendencies. We should be able to say that Black people are messed up. No one denies that they are violent towards Black women, towards queer women, that patriarchy is violent to men themselves, too. I, as radical Black feminist will certainly say this. But I don´t think it is an appropriate political, an appropriate societal move for us to kick them out of a supposedly radical space like Azania house.
SS: So how do you stand towards the idea of creating safer spaces in general?
ZM: There is no safer space for Black people. There is no such thing for a Black person. Any space, our lives are precarious and this is one thing that we need to get to grips with. Azania house is a supposedly safe space but it is not. Until we will be able to overthrow a white supremacist system there is no place where we will be safe. This is the first point. If you take Black people who live in a township – and I have lived in a township for the longer part of my live, and even now, when I am living in a supposedly safer area – I could be dead anytime, simply because I am Black. Even if we create a space where we sit together as Black people and discuss our radical politics, even that space is not safe only because it is Black and only because it is radical. At any moment, police may come in and shoot you and there will be no recourse for that at all. So, it is a nice feeling to say that we have created a safe space for Black people and we won´t be violated because we are women, we won´t be violated because we are queer. And it is an important thing to do. But it is fundamental to also go back to the fact that as Black people we are not safe. The reason for us to get organized is exactly because our lives are not ours. They might be terminated like that with absolutely no justice, no recourse whatsoever. But I also do think that there is a certain responsibility that comes with being a conscious person and a Black conscious person. This responsibility should be tied with the acknowledgement that our lives are not safe and that therefore we shouldn’t be the ones making our lives unsafe. As in the instance of that brother sexually assaulting another sister. This needs to be condemned completely. So I don’t think it is futile to create spaces such as the Azania house. I think in these spaces it should be possible for people to continuously critique themselves and try to create new ways of being. For me, this is an ongoing thing, an everyday, every hour responsibility for me as a conscious Black person. To create spaces around me in which all Black people are welcome. And I will try to work through them to get them to a space where we are all the same. I don´t think this should be restricted to spaces such as Azania house. It is hard, and I know I am being very idealistic, but I am convinced this is the only way to go forward.
SS: Which role do you see for white people in this struggle?
ZM: That is a very difficult question my sister and I have not concerned myself with that question for the longest time. I think the future will be that Black people will continue creating spaces for them alone. That will be the case for a long time and I think this is something white people need to accept and not try to change. So the best thing a white person can do is to learn, to read and to acquaint themselves with what is going on. Sponsor the movement with money if you have it. Don’t try to speak back, don’t try to police people. Don’t try and interject you´re problems where you are not supposed to, talking about your pain as a white person. This has been a problem with white allies in the past, that they tried to impose their views, derailing the issues, trying to find safer ways for them. Just know that this movement is not only fighting for Black people to reclaim their humanity but it is also for white people to loose some of their power that sometimes is also holding them back from living their lives fully. It is for justice. So if you are a white person and you want justice, the only way this is going to happen is through a movement that supports Black lives. And for justice to happen, white people need to let go of a lot of their power. This is going to be a very uncomfortable process, and a bloody process even. (Its hard and sad that we live in such times where we have to do these things to each other. But its also nothing new. Black people have been suffering and protesting for centuries, and this is just a continuation of this struggle.)