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Paying Attention To The Pain!

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What is interesting about the protests on both the University of Cape Town and Rhodes University campuses is that while the issues as these students see them are being put forward in no uncertain terms and with all the skills of logic and argument a university education imparts, this eruption of protest is also marked by an intensely emotional outpouring of suffering. This is suffering endured by those who have grown up in the post-apartheid era and who speak of their frustration and feelings of debilitation on campuses which are overtly committed to ‘transformation’ but which still demand that they adjust themselves to a liberal hegemony of values.

In this time of ferment and renewed struggle (and in which most of us at these universities acknowledge the need for ongoing change), there are people shutting each other up by claiming such a degree of pain that anyone without pain to profess is made mute as a participant (except as a commiserater) and by silencing those expressions through outright rejection of that pain. (UCT academics Jeremy Seekings and Nicoli Nattrass have written about this)

At a recent conference at UCT Steven Robins, a social anthropologist at Stellenbosch University who for years has been researching the uprisings of the Western Cape, showed us a photograph of a UCT academic facing off student protesters with a self-made placard which said “Don’t shout louder, improve your argument”. If we are listening to these young South Africans in our tertiary education institutions they’re telling us that a denial of humanity and intelligence is built into our particular forms of rational discourse which we employ not to listen but to control the direction of debate and to deflect the tough stuff. In other words, if I don’t like what you say we denigrate it as overly emotional, devoid of clarity around issues and therefore irrational, ie to be dismissed. Who gets to decide what is rational and arguable? That’s the important question here.

In a recent article for The Con written by Sekoetlane Phamodi, a Rhodes graduate, was posted to Facebook by Niren Tolsi. Phamodi addressed his article to our current Vice-Chancellor directly and refused to be “reasoned” and well-meaning” about his feelings of rage and despair based on the V-C’s public statements and his sense of being “crushed” while studying at an institution built on the “forgotten thousands buried in the earth beneath, butchered defending their land and people from invasion”.

Among the many likes for this article, there were some dismissive responses. But the one which provoked many exits from the Facebook discussion was this one by Richard Spoor: “My heart bleeds for you Sekoetlane. A life of such unremitting misery and suffering must be unendurable. What courage. What heroism. Alternatively you are a self indulgent privileged fuck.”

To which Richard Pithouse responded: “There are evidently some sick people here. I want nothing to do with this.” Spoor replied: “Those in the humanities are such delicate souls. So sensitive to existential pain. Back when, Marxists could care a shit. Fuck you are a pathetic lot.” Even the usually robust Eusebius McKaiser simply did this: #TurnsOffNotifications, but Niren Tolsi (the founder of The Con) appealed to Spoor:  “Richard Spoor. Away from the sarcasm and ad hominem attacks, whats up?” He continued: “I’d like to engage but not in the manner that you have been so far on this timeline….” Jane Versveld responded: “don’t waste energy niren. some will never learn”.

But Estelle Prinsloo weighed in: “Hey Richard Spoor! That’s pretty stupid you have to admit. Then again, you’re not a Humanities graduate so how are you supposed to know, right? I get it. If you had studied the Humanities you would know how intellectually lazy and empty sweeping statements are. And you would have known how telling your choice of words is. Do sensitivity and delicateness (traits associated with feminity, which is the opposite of masculinity, and therefore, undesirable in patriarchal societies) upset you? No? then, why do you use them as insults? I know. Because anything that threatens the dominance of white heterosexual partriarchy (ding,ding,ding: THE HUMANITIES) is judged as pathetic. I’m sorry your view of the world is so narrow. It must suck.”

Then surprisingly Spoor came back with: “Yes I am overreacting and I was offensive. I apologise, it’s not called for. I am a humanities graduate and I do place huge value on empathy, compassion and decency. The ‘whiteness’ issue is however a sure fire way to incite me to fury. I do not accept that an argument is elevated above criticism on the basis that the person advancing it has a special insight by virtue of their race, gender or class.”

Having got fairly used to a predictable pattern in such exchanges in which at soon as there is a reactionary response the discussion is exited – usually with the comment that the atmosphere has become “toxic” – I was intrigued as to how Spoor was engaged enough to apologise. While I don’t think anyone feeling angered and hurt by a response such as Spoor’s first posts, should stick it out in order to educate and humanise the mouth-shooter, I am interested in how these exchanges could be shifted so that listening and conversing can happen.

My thoughts about Spoor’s statements are that:

Those reacting with anger to pain are assuming that the suffering of the present is illegitimate because we are living in an era of democracy and liberation. It’s also illegitimate because this era has severed our relation to not only the immediate apartheid past but very definitely to the colonial past. Any attempt to show that colonialism is alive in our present is to be therefore discounted with vehemence.

Expressions of racially-based suffering are also taken as personal attacks, owned directly and then instantly rejected. Can a white person not allow a black person to express themselves (even with emphasis and hyperbole) without immediately involving themselves as the recipient of the expression? It seems to me a technique most of the reactionary in these exchanges need to learn and learn quickly is that you personally are not always the intended object of the expression.

I’ve been looking at these kinds of exchanges on blogs, Facebook and Twitter for a while now (and I’ve been focusing my attention particularly on those that get really heated over racial issues), and it’s quite startling how social media provokes a level of ad hominem aggression that we’ve removed from face to face conversations and from other mediums of communication. Is there something about the fastness of the technology, the remove via a device, the hit the buttons before you’ve got your mind to think about consequences, at play here?

Or is it about our “culture of speaking” which seriously devalues listening? Marietjie Oelofsen posted on my Facebook page a link to a post by Maria Popova on Brain Pickings which comments that we use listening as “the idle pause amid the monologue of making ourselves clear”. This sounds like a comment on the manners of being a good conversationalist. But it’s way more than that. In heated and heightened political struggles, it’s the first thing that goes; real listening has to involve paying attention and you don’t want your own political stance modified by any kind of empathy for the person in front of you trying to change your mind if you’re going to hold fast to the course of action.

As part of our research into media and citizenship in South Africa we’ve made a great deal of use of ‘listening theory’, which came to us via a group of Australian researchers but which is nicely expounded by a political theorist called Susan Bickford (The Dissonance of Democracy) and a person with roots in radio called Kate Lacey (Listening Publics). The essence of this approach is that giving voice to people in society stripped of it, is not really about creating more ways for those people to speak. It is far more about getting those with power to actually listen and pay attention in ways that alter the relationship between trying to shout louder and louder and actually being heard with attention and respect.

It seems to me that while academics and administrations are demanding rationalism and manners from their activist students, they should also be checking their own impulses to talk over, jump to conclusions and out-think the anger, arguments and demands being put forward.

If the young South Africans waging this struggle now can be emotional and rational; vocal and attentive, political and personal, clear-minded about their goals without turning their opponents into enemies and non-humans, then they’ll have succeeded where previous revolutions didn’t. And we should be helping them by paying real attention.

 

‘Don’t abdicate your citizenship’

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Songezo Zibi, Business Day’s new editor, is an unusual business journalist, he has a powerful political awareness and a keen interest in how our democracy is working. He also has some critical things to say about capitalism (which needs an overhaul in his opinion). He visited the School of Journalism and Media Studies in September at the invitation of Reg Rumney, director of our economics journalism programme, to speak about his new book (Raising the Barand his ideas about journalism and citizenship.

Zibi, who didn’t study journalism because it was too dangerous to do so in 1992, opted for a BCom, which he hated. But as he was also studying public relations (which he loved) he then worked in this capacity for Volkswagen and Xstrata (now Glencore) and then came into journalism via a relationship with the Financial Mail for which he wrote columns.

His attitude as an editor is that journalists cannot be “passive observers” of the way our democracy is unfolding, because “those in power do not like [explaining] why” they have made certain decisions and taken certain actions. “Our role is to illuminate, to show what it means. Our role is to say why, and to provide knowledge and context.”

Zibi is scathing of the kind of journalism that Allister Sparks called “stenography” — bland reporting of the immediate events and statements. Zibi, as an editor, demands a journalism that “joins the dots”, makes the connections, tells us what from the past we ought to know to interpret the present.

He’s particularly concerned that right now those in power are putting extreme pressure on the media and the legal system and that most actions taken against the government for access to information or for keeping the public space open are being taken by journalists without sufficient back-up by other organisations. “There is an abdication by citizens of responsibility to the media,” he said. This allows the government to characterise the media as their particular enemy and “it isolates journalism”, he said.

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Get thee to a literary festival!

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If you want to get into a really thoughtful and provocative conversation about politics and the state of the nation, then you’d better get yourself to the nearest literary festival, the spaces of choice for middle-class South Africans to debate (with good coffee, a sip of wine and usually marvellous views) their truly ingewikkeld society.

On Human Rights Day two colleagues and I drove a group of final-year writing and editing students from Rhodes University down to Knysna to spend a long weekend thinking about writing the real issues and meeting their authors.

We left in the dark from Grahamstown and pulled up in bright, sparkling midday light flashing off the Knysna lagoon just in time for our first session: Frank Chikane telling us “what could not be said” when he was this country’s chief civil servant (DG in the president’s office) and working for Mandela, Mbeki, Motlanthe and, very briefly, Zuma.

Twenty years of democracy will induce reflection and Chikane was in the mood for some: he spoke about how the ANC went into power “with the best – extraordinary – intentions, with a common objective, to do good, with the priority of working for the people”. He then detailed the “mistakes” made since and the realities which tripped up the cadres:frank

·         The contradictions of our society are so deep.

·         Comrades are not angels.

·         The criminal syndicates saw an opportunity in SA’s change of government and were extremely nimble in adapting to corrupting the new people in power.

·         We thought it was an innocent thing to run government: it’s complex, complex.

·         People who have been in the trenches protect each other. They defend each other no matter how wrong they are. They behave as though they are still in a war, they close their eyes to straight forward corruption.

·         The world is not innocent, not honest (this comment about dealings with the US over chemical weapons in Iraq).

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I can’t use the ‘I didn’t know excuse’ for the second time

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Although the Hewitt’s experience Mamelodi for a Month has been written and talked about (and hit the front pages of newspapers around the world), I heard about it last week when Julian Hewitt came to Rhodes University to talk at the invitation of Prof Pedro Tabensky.

In case you need a bit of info: Hewitt is one of those people who calls himself a “social entrepreneur” and he and his wife Ena and their two children, four-year-old Julia and two-year-old Jessica, decamped to a corrugated iron shack costing R170 a month in Phomolong informal settlement in Mamelodi to spend a month living there on R3000 (the median SA household income). If you go to the New York Times article you’ll see the aerial photos showing just how close the Hewitt’s home in a gated community is to Phomolong and how dense by contrast the living is in the squatter settlement.

I knew what some of the reactions to this venture would be (for instance see this Thought Leader piece by Sibusiso Tshabalala) but I was drawn to his talk because I’ve had my own Mamelodi experience and I was interested to find out about his.

My experience of Mamelodi dates to 1985 when casspirs surrounded the township and you needed permission from the police to get in. Ds Nico Smith who had moved into the township and was living there legitimately on church land as the minister of a congregation deliberately set up the encounters to get white South Africans to come into townships and meet fellow South Africans and get to know them. Hundreds of us from all over South Africa descended on the township and were smuggled in via the back routes and housed with willing families who were as curious about us as we were about them.

I had many of these kinds of experiences during the last half of the 80s when freedom and democracy seemed very far away, but when various people in the churches were already thinking about how segregated South Africans were ever going to live with each other if they knew almost nothing of each other’s lives and ideas. Cedric Nunn, the photographer who is at Rhodes as a Senior Mellon Scholar, reminded me this week that the churches were playing a very particular role in that time when most organisations were either banned or paralysed by apartheid repression.

Those encounters and conversations had profound effects on me. As a young adult I made decisive choices about where to put my energies and convictions as a result of speaking to and hearing black South Africans on their home turf.

When I listen to Julian I get some of the impetus that drove them into the township. The smothering love of families that want to keep you and your children safe from harm; the dinner table conversations that blame, blame, blame (the poor if not the government); the endless talk of ‘entitlement’ and decay; the powerful sense that we are cocooned in a white world.

But it seems that the strongest reason was the simplest; Julian says if his two daughters are to make a home in South Africa in the future then they have to know, feel comfortable and connected to all South Africans. “To be a responsible parent, I don’t want my children disconnected from social realities,” he said.

But there’s another: Julian is a Christian and while he is not an evangelist, he asked the audience one simple question: “Do you think if Jesus came back today he would be living in a suburb or a township?” He seeks ways to “make my faith real” against the attitude of many whites that “I pay my taxes” and therefore have no further responsibility to do anything else.

He reminded me that gestures of solidarity, reaching across divides and extending oneself to find out and understand were important features of the churches’ activities in the late 80s and how we arrested that process and called a halt when the larger political events overtook us.

But he also had pointed comments to make: “The second transition is coming our way, the economic transition. As a white South African I cannot for the second time use the excuse ‘I did not know’. I must expose myself to the context.”

The result has been “a whole new lens” on life in South Africa for the majority of people, and Julian says “it’s a burden, it’s hard to integrate and translate this knowledge”.

When the Hewitts returned home, the day they arrived a tree in their garden was uprooted by a storm and fell over, clearing the view between their house and Phomolong. A giant township light fitting which worked intermittently while they were there, can now be seen shining brightly from their house. Julian takes it as a symbol of connection to their neighbours and community in Phomolong.

For the Rhodes audience he summed up the lessons he takes from the experience:

  1. Newsworthiness = national disconnect. The irony that a white family living for a short time the way the majority of South Africans live all the time being news is clear to him. The way this is reported, he says, shows a powerful disconnection from that reality. And of the role of the media in shaping public opinion, he says: “Oh my word, this was so not the kind of message I wanted to send out.”
  2. Transport costs are the highest costs and eat nearly half of everyone’s income in townships. This is a political problem that needs addressing. For Julian to get to his office from Phomolong cost R37 on the Gautrain and R45 by taxi. Taxis need to be subsidised. Transport costs are a massive disincentive to look for work which is far away.
    breakdown of month spend
  3. In response to the criticism levelled at this from of ‘slum tourism’: “the critic isn’t in the ring, the acid test is how we were received by the community we lived in”.
  4. South Africa needs new levels of leadership: open-minded and open-hearted, able to create empowering environments for resourceful communities.
  5. If we don’t create the conversations, the context will create them.
  6. Small things matter; the way you carry through your humanity.

Can the subaltern get your attention? (in a crowded, mediated world)

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The fascination with the idea of whether the “subaltern can speak” belies the view, says postcolonial theorist Robert Young, that subalterns “don’t have any problem speaking”.

Young was the keynote speaker at the recent AUETSA conference at Rhodes University and took at his topic “When the subaltern speaks” (as a riposte to the Gayatria Spivak essay “Can the subaltern speak?” first published in 1988).

He said as a postcolonial theorist he has always been very interested in “representing the unrepresentable or how people are represented when they’re not in a position to represent themselves”.

Of course, representation is a step removed from speaking, and perhaps that’s the subtle difference between asserting that of course the subaltern can say what she wants to say and her being able to reach into the public domain and put her hand on the recognised levers that enable her to represent herself. Young’s interest as a professor based in an English department (at New York University) is not so much in the speaking (which is everywhere and to be heard if you pay attention) but in the records and works which can be considered as generated by the marginal and peripheral, and those are the artifacts at issue here when he animates the question yet again.

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He then outlined how the ‘dialogue’ usually plays out:

  • Subalterns don’t say the things the dominant classes want to hear.
  • Dominant classes repress the speech of the subalterns – they are often “simply not allowed to speak”.
  • Subalterns don’t speak the “right language”: they could be speaking a minor language, or a non-standard language, they might not be using the legal/bureaucratic jargon required. (And as Deborah Seddon commented, “the hegemonic use of English inculcates deep ignorance in the ruling classes” because they speak nothing else.)
  • Someone else is speaking in their place: intellectuals are prone to speaking for subalterns – think Marxism with its idea that the vanguard with its “informed consciousness” will do the representing.
  • Subalterns don’t say what they are expected to say.
  • They speak with “ideological opacity”.
  • There is no reason why they should speak to us instead of speaking to themselves.
  • Subalterns don’t adopt the generic forms of the dominant classes like literature (which, in an aside, used to mean all forms of writing before it came to mean a particularly refined form of writing in the 19th century when drama and poetry qualified, but novels didn’t because of their risible readership – women; “novels were a kind of subaltern speech for women”, Young commented.)
  • Subalterns don’t used the aestheticised forms the dominant classes are used to so the form “in which we search for their voices is not there”.
  • The forms they use are not inside the literary/artistic market place and may even be considered illegal and illegitimate (like outsider art and graffiti).
  • Subalterns use silence because not speaking is more powerful. “Silence is a power and a refusal to bow to power.”
  • Violence is also a form of speech.

Young then made a very interesting point by saying that 20th century commodification has enabled subalterns to speak in public, recorded forms. Artistic forms that Theodore Adorno, for one, would call “superficial”, like film and jazz, have been a “great facilitator of subaltern speech”. Because, said Young, “commodification preserves the speech of ordinary people”.

As proof of this Young referred to the lyrics and music of Mississippi Delta guitarist Robert Johnson, silent movie clown Charlie Chaplin and Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison, the daughter of share croppers. In all three there is “obvious articulation” of subaltern speech in forms that are interpretable by a wide audience.

“Subaltern speech is a form of agency,” Young concluded, “because they are not supposed to have it.”

For journalists and media people keen to find and listen, the question now becomes, where in this overly-mediated, crowded, digitised world do we find subaltern speech that urges us to listen and tells us what we should know and hear?

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