RhodesMustFall on 702: In defence of Nomboniso Gasa

Rhodes lecturer VASHNA JAGARNATH explains why Nombonisa Gasa’s engagement of Wanelisa Xaba on #RhodesMustFall is an example of the rigorous debate and engagement that South Africa needs. 

So I listened to the discussion between Nomboniso Gasa and Wanelisa Xaba on 702. I’ve also seen a lot of the comments and conversations on social media that followed. It did not surprise me that Nomboniso took Wanelisa on during the interview. It is common practice for talk radio hosts to intervene and to object to inaccuracies and logical flaws in positions presented on their shows. In fact, this is exactly what a good host does. This is their democratic obligation.

Yes, these are difficult spaces to be in and yes students are often put into vulnerable positions and yes many have been exceptionally courageous. But this does not give one carte blanche to change facts to fit into one’s desire and argument. This is not a constructive way of dealing with our problems. We have to be honest about how we have come to be in this situation, what the real issues are and what we can do to move forward.

And while today’s students have been very courageous and taken on so much, and achieved so much, that does not mean that they are the first generation to do so. Nomboniso herself has sacrificed so much and given so much of herself to the struggles of this country, much more than people realize.

To go around saying that Nomboniso is a problem and that the older generation is trying to police the youth with the politics of respectability is not helpful. Nomboniso did not police anything Wanelisa said. In fact she allowed her to speak and to explain exactly what her ideas were on the movement. Nomboniso then challenged her, as is her right and also her obligation as a talk show host. This is not policing – it is engagement. A democratic public sphere requires rigorous debate. Nomboniso did not caricature Wanelisa’s arguments, and neither did she make assumptions about what Wanelisa was saying. She just responded to Wanelisa’s points and she did so very clearly.

The mode of engagement aside, for me the most important part of the interview was the content of Wanelisa’s argument. It was not just the fact that she got her history completely wrong. There are real grounds for a deeper concern around what she was saying around destroying everything and rebuilding and returning to some form of black love/humanity. It is easy to say let’s break everything, but then what? How do we rebuild? Who does the rebuilding? How, in this global economy, do we finance it? Why is there an assumption that this generation will have all the answers and be able to rebuild a better society? If they don’t have the answers then how do we come to the answers?

We have inherited a very tough set of circumstances, as does the whole part of the world that was colonized. There are no easy answers. We need to think very carefully and to understand what and who are the enemies. Yes we know that white capital is a huge problem and yes racism continues in the most horrific manner and both capital and racism need to be taken on. But we must remember that that there are also many other problems/enemies we have to conquer.

And while of course white supremacy must fall, black love is just not a credible politics with which to oppose or replace white supremacy. Look at all the various post-colonial societies from Algeria to India, Cameroon, Pakistan, Uganda etc. These are all societies in crisis. The troubles that they face are not solely a result of colonialism and white supremacy. The problems in these societies have continued with black people in charge. They have continued when there is a minimal white presence. India is one of the most repressive states in the world at the moment. The legitimation given for this repression is a fantastical return to some imagined primordial past before colonialism, before Islam, when there was, so the fantasy goes, just good pure Hinduism. This form of politics, a politics of an imagined purity, takes us nowhere but down very dangerous paths that often end up in some sort of chauvinism. In India the politics built on a fantasy of a return to a pure Hindu past before colonialism and before Islam has taken a fascist form. This kind of politics inevitably becomes more insular and narrow as the circle of who is acceptable to the fantasy of a pure identity becomes ever more narrow.

It started with white supremacy must fall, then problematic black elites must fall, then it was struggle heroes who don’t agree with us who must fall, then struggle heroes who patronise us must fall, then people with politics of respectability must fall and on and on it goes. Soon there will be very little left. Who makes these decisions about who is in and out? If it is just based on feelings and personal interpretations about identity things are not going to end well.

Whether we like it or not successful politics is about having a set of principles about the society we would like to build and then attempting to make that understanding hegemonic. It requires sustained mass support, building alliances and strategic thinking about the situation – local and global. Fantasies about returning to imagined pure identities cannot be the basis for the sort of politics that can confront global capital or build a decent education system.

The ANC is in a terrible mess now and it has never been perfect. But, with ups and downs, it has survived for over 100 years and often been a very powerful movement. This needs to be taken seriously. Some of the student movements haven’t even been able to last, in a mass based form, for more than a few months. Serious questions need to be asked about why this is. Serious questions need to be asked about the wisdom of not having formal structures.

If we really want to change the world we need to think hard about why we are politically involved and how we are going to change things. When smaller and smaller groups of people try to out-compete each other in terms of who is most radical, that isn’t real politics and it won’t change the world. All it will do is destroy the possibilities for sustained mass based politics that engages, strategically, with reality.

What I took from that interview is that we have to be armed with rigorous knowledge and deep understanding of how we came to inhabit our contemporary condition. Slogans with ‘radical’ one-liners are not sufficient. Nomboniso was challenging Wanelisa about what she meant about black love and humanity saving us. What disappointed me about the interview is that I did not get to hear her response because I would like to know how she thinks this would work. Anyone with any understanding of history will quickly see that this is not a remotely adequate politics. We need to think seriously about building emancipatory institutions, about building an economy that works for all, about our justice system, our health care system etc, etc.

The Black Panthers were all about undoing the damage of racism and colonialism but they were also actively involved in real community organisations that worked with a variety of different constituents from religious groups to community associations. Their discussions about identity were not divorced from the everyday experiences of the majority of the black population and they developed in relation to this very real politics.

Anyone who enters the public sphere, especially when making claims about politics, must expect to have their claims subject to rigorous debate. Insulting or dismissing people that engage in debate is not going to help us. What we need is an enrichment and expansion of our conversation. Reducing complex issues to naïve and at times dangerous one-liners is not helpful. Historically inaccurate claims are not helpful.

We are all in the debt of the students who raised new questions and won real victories last year. But nowhere in history has any generation ever had all the answers for a society. No political project is without its limits and contradictions. We need as much rigorous debate about our society, and how to change it, as is possible.

Vashna Jagarnath currently lectures at the Department of History at Rhodes University. She writes and researches on Indian Cinema, and the history of Pan African intellectuals. Her PhD looked specifically at the various ways Gandhi shaped and impacted upon the early 19th and 20th century South African public sphere.

This post originally appeared on Facebook.

Editors’ note:
For a roundup of the Friday Stand-In from Nomboniso Gasa’s perspective, click here. 

Featured image by Ashraf Hendricks