Suntosh Pillay
Suntosh Pillay

Are we trapped in conversation?

With black consciousness thick in the air, old comrades smiling knowingly at each other, and images of the late Strini Moodley projected in front of us, those of us too young to be dynamic rebels against apartheid sensed a whiff of what it might have felt like to be at a secret activist meeting. The circular senate chambers of the former University of Durban-Westville, itself a site of resistance, was an appropriate venue for a memorial lecture.

The language fingered the usual suspects: capitalism, cronyism, neoliberals, neo-colonialism, inequity, cultural imperialism, white capital, racism, tenderpreneurs. The usual suspects were invoked: Marx, Fanon, Biko. The unchanged, unanswered questions were repeated: Have we done enough? Are we still mentally colonised? Why are blacks still suffering? Can we be a united nation? Did we sacrifice too much for the sake of reconciliation? Why have our heroes betrayed us?

A poem, The Pride to be an African, by Fasan Paul, invited us to quietly acknowledge Africa Day, May 25. But should we mourn the loss of African dreams, or maintain pride in the face of dreams deferred? The panellists, Moodley’s 1976 co-accused, tried to answer.

Zithulele Cindi reminded us that black consciousness “is an attitude of mind and a way of life, and is needed now more than ever, due to the inundation of negative stereotypes”. But — and central to grasp — is that after “liberation from arrogance, ignorance, inferiority and superiority complexes … consciousness must translate into action”.

Following suit, Pandelani Nefolovhodwe, urged us “to reject any philosophy that relegates black culture to the back door”. He wondered if South Africa could ever untangle itself from a confused identity into a united national identity, suggesting a change in “name and character” first. The loud whispers of “Azania” stirred mixed emotions.

Nchaupe Aubrey Mokoape lamented the betrayal “by our own people” who are merely “tightening the noose of exploitation” while lining their own pockets on the gravy train. “What was the struggle about?” he asked. “What motivated young people to risk their lives and participate in the struggle?” A telling question, indeed, reminiscent of an interdependent era fast giving way to the ultra-individualism and self-centredness that is defining our (inter)national future. Young people, he noted, have been made to believe that the way to success is by joining a local ANC branch and eventually getting a tender or comfy political position. Despite “the silly status symbols of a corrupt youth”, he assured us that “it is the revolutionary’s duty to be optimistic”.

Is it the human condition to resist oppression and always fight back? Is change always inevitable, in favour of the undying spirit of our humanity? This optimism comes with a caveat: the route to real transformation may be messy due to “the impatience of the people”. The Arab Spring is clearly comparable, and the subtext of continuous nation-wide strikes and marches is that the people are restless, and genuine change cannot be denied for too long.

So where to from here? A young lady in the audience politely enquired when and how do we move beyond “a glorified pity party”. The answers were instructive.

Firstly, to accelerate change in society the youth should take up the post-1994 struggle by organising themselves for activism, instead of consigning themselves to being armchair revolutionaries.

Secondly, we should all take action “within our sphere of influence” because our country is still an “unfinished revolution”.

Thirdly, we need to not mimic the tactics of the very tyrannical governments that have been overthrown. Many leaders appear to lack the creativity to imagine new ways of leading and new ways of being.

As we exited, and people mingled and ate and joked and shared opinions, I wondered if the function of these public lectures and symposia is to inspire action, or to unintentionally neutralise it. While we engage in these pertinent social issues, do these academic platforms limit our participation to the cerebral, sometimes moving it to the emotional, but rarely towards the behavioural? Is the post-1994 conversation trapped in story-telling and memory, or do these autobiographies help shape the tangible plans of tomorrow? When we pay tribute to our past heroes, churning out the necessary rhetoric and hoping to breed a fresh avant-garde, are we caught in our very own tragicomedy, endlessly waiting for Godot while things fall apart?

This article originally appeared in print in The Witness, May 29.

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