Adam Haupt
Adam Haupt

#ZumaMustFall: Whose hashtag is it anyway?

In the build-up to the #ZumaMustFall marches on December 16 (Reconciliation Day), a number of critical voices came to the fore. I wondered whether some #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall activists were perhaps not proprietary in their response to the new hashtag and the planned marches, which appeared to be driven largely by white, middle and upper-class South Africans, citizens who are beneficiaries of what Eusebius McKaiser calls unearned privilege (see Run, Racist, Run for an excellent elucidation on this concept).

This is how I interpret McKaiser’s term, unearned privilege: Whether you think of yourself as a racist or not (that is, whether you think you are guilty of interpersonal racism, or not), apartheid and South Africa’s adoption of neoliberal economics after the fall of legislated apartheid have made you a beneficiary of structural racism. Your privilege continues to be enabled by structural mechanisms.

Critics of #ZumaMustFall felt that a set of privileged South Africans who had not been involved in the struggles of landless people, victims of the killings in Marikana or the struggles for the transformation of tertiary institutions were appropriating the struggles of marginalised people.

After reading Zackie Achmat’s statement of support for #ZumaMustFall, I felt that we need to rise above ad hominem attacks (there were a few) and petty prejudices (there were a few more) in order to address substantive issues at this critical juncture.

While the new hashtag might have looked like a hijack or piggyback, #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall have set something positive off. The student movements have led the way. Let others follow — warts and all. As I know these new revolutionaries, they are steps ahead of many and a hijack is not going to happen easily.

If the beneficiaries of unearned privilege are going to hop onto the Must Fall #, then they are going have to do the homework that the student movements set for them. What is this homework?

My favourite placard from the campus protests earlier this year offers a hint: “A revolution without intersectionality is bullshit.” If the #ZumaMustFall marchers and tweeters are going to jump on the hashtag bandwagon, which was built tirelessly by students in 2015 in the face of arrests, teargas, stun guns, rubber bullets, beatings and treason charges (remember the treason charges?) then they are going to have to engage the issues that these students have brought to the surface in hours of debates and de facto decolonisation master classes.

This is a chance for our new marchers and tweeters to establish dialogue with the student movements and engage fully with the burden of race, capital, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and scores of themes addressed so eloquently by these sharp young minds.

I am hopeful that this dialogue will happen, notwithstanding the fact that many privileged people engaged #RMF and #FMF’s public dialogue selectively (op-eds, social media commentary and comment threads offer a hint in this regard). The Jacob Zuma / Des van Rooyen / Pravin Gordhan issue has the privileged classes riled up and it is possible that they will connect the dots between JZ and the issues that #RMF and #FMF have been raising so well — the links are tangible.

If they cannot or will not engage #RMF and #FMF, then their use of the # is a clear case of cultural appropriation. I have written about cultural appropriation before (see Static: Race & Representation in Post-apartheid Music, Media & Film). If privileged communities “borrow” cultural practices from marginal communities without consulting them and without respecting the ways in which they would represent themselves and their cultural practices, a measure of cultural appropriation has taken place.

To put it crudely, am I saying that white people cannot do “black things”? Not exactly. If borrowing comes at the expense of marginal communities and if it is facilitated by unequal relations of power, we are talking about cultural appropriation. Take blackface in US theatre and cinema, for example. The practice emerged during the era of slavery. White artists would literally blacken their faces and perform racial caricatures of black people for white audiences.

The practice continued well beyond the end of slavery and made its way into contemporary popular culture. Scholar Eric Lott writes that “the minstrel show had disastrous consequences — particularly since black people had little room to contest publicly the social meanings generated out of their culture” (see Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class).

Black people had no control over the ways in which they were represented. They could not lay down the terms upon which there were represented because they did not possess the power to do so. In fact, black artists who attempted to make a living by doing blackface had a hard time doing so because white audiences considered the white blackface artists to be more authentic. Blackface tells us more about whiteness than about blackness because it involves white projections of blackness, and not the black experience itself.

This brings me to the #ZumaMustFall marches, specifically the one held in Cape Town on Wednesday. A wide number of commentators remarked on the glaring lack of diversity of the event. It was encouraging to see many white protesters outside Parliament, albeit on a public holiday when there would be absolutely no disruption to “business as usual” and notwithstanding the fact that legal permission had been obtained.

In short, this was minimal risk event — so much so that #FMF activist Wandile Kasibe’s photograph of a police officer obliging white protesters by taking a happy photograph of them (as if they were at a music festival), went viral along with a number of scathing and somewhat funny critical comments about white privilege. This event was clearly very different from the last march to Parliament that I attended not so long ago: no teargas, rubber bullets or stun guns in action. No police brutality and no frenzied running from the police at random intervals.

My colleague Khwezi Mkhize sent me a photograph that he took at the scene of the protest. It features three protestors holding a banner. The one on the left reads “Honour Madiba” and the one on the right it reads “Drop Kick Zuma”. The three protesters are wearing masks over their faces — masks of Nelson Mandela’s face. Mkhize’s message to me read, “Mandela in Blackface”.

His interpretation is spot on. All of the signifiers of black struggle have been appropriated by white citizens — everything, except for the burden of those black struggles. One sees this often in corporate appropriation of counter-cultures, specifically black and feminist counter-cultures that oppose racism, sexism or capitalist exploitation. This form of appropriation is common in South Africa, though, and it extends beyond the commercial co-option of counter-cultures. For example, we see it in the branding and marketing practices of a leading steak house, which “borrows” heavily from colonial-era racial caricatures of indigenous Americans. In recent years, we have also seen a great deal of debate about Die Antwoord in relation to blackface (see Static).

Broader debates about cultural appropriation and blackface aside, let’s return to the hashtag, revolution and the meaning of Mandela. This is how revolutionary discourses and practices are appropriated by beneficiaries of unearned privilege (whether they think of themselves as racists, or not): Revolutionary signs are appropriated by separating the signifiers (words, visuals, sounds, or performances that communicate transgressive meanings) from their signifieds (the transgressive meanings attached to these signifieds). New meanings (signifieds) are attached to these revolutionary signifiers so that they appear to be revolutionary, but are hollowed out of their revolutionary / transgressive content (see Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style for more on the co-option of subcultures). The revolutionary signs and discursive practices are thus rendered safe — as safe as asking a police officer to take your picture — while still appearing to be revolutionary (dare I use the phrase “game changer”?).

This is what the Mandela blackface photograph by Mkhize is doing. Apart from the fact that they are literally blackening up in blackface tradition, the protesters in the shot offer a selective reading of what Mandela’s political activism means because they have the power to produce such a selective reading. This is how cultural appropriation works. It is produced by power (unearned privilege, in McKaiser’s words) and is also an expression of that power. You represent black struggles and cultural expression in ways that suit your worldview because you have the power to do so.

I have used the term “protesters” in this op-ed repeatedly. This is a misnomer, I know. Was it a protest in the same sense of that adopted by residents of Wolwerivier, for example? How have the #ZMF marchers engaged their unearned privilege? How prepared are they to conduct a critical interrogation of the systemic imbalances that sustain race and gender-based class exploitation in South Africa? Are they prepared to engage a broader range of activists beyond tweets, a march on a public holiday, a dose of cultural appropriation and a hint of blackface? I sincerely hope so.

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