Imagine freedom beyond whiteness

2018-04-29 06:05
Celebrate Freedom Day on 27 April by visiting one of South Africa's museums (Photo: iStock)

Celebrate Freedom Day on 27 April by visiting one of South Africa's museums (Photo: iStock)

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Black people have been involved in a struggle for freedom since time immemorial. This is to say, in so far as our memories can stretch, we have always been participating in a struggle to free ourselves from the shackles of colonialism and all its stages of metamorphosis: slavery, imperialism, neo-colonialism, apartheid, capitalism.

Un-freedom for black people happens at the moment of encounter with white people. To try and access a time in history when black people were free would be to demand the impossible from memory. History of a utopia for black people is beyond grasp. This is not to suggest that black people did not have a history prior to colonisation. Of course there is a history, but the only means available to traverse to any precolonial time are white means. From the erasure of Egyptian epistemology to the representation of Shaka Zulu in movies and books, the history of blacks has always been misinterpreted and read through the white gaze.

The cruelty of colonisation is not just that it erased our history, but that it presented us with distorted facts as our history, Steve Biko would say.

Black people are not yet free. The texture of our past and present is laden with the vestiges of slavery, colonisation and apartheid.

My interest is in thinking about the ways in which we imagine freedom when our bodies and minds remember nothing but bondage. I am interested in the limitations of our understanding of freedom and the complicated meanings of freedom.

For a long time, freedom has been associated with whiteness. The resistance of apartheid was predicated on this logic. Why must we carry passes when whites do not have to? Why are we not allowed to vote when white people can? Why do they control the land when we do not? It is these kinds of questions that crystallised and made whiteness synonymous with freedom. This has denied us the ability to imagine what our freedom looks like without reference to whites. This is not to suggest that these questions were wrong or unnecessary, but it is through this dominant vocabulary of freedom that new forms of bondage have successfully been created.

“Post”-apartheid and we are still locked into this dangerous and oppressive logic. The Fanonian caution rings truer than ever: “The destiny of a black man is to be white.” I refuse to believe that destiny is freedom.

Ncedisa Mpemnyama writes about how unpalatable it is that, just after black students protested for decolonised universities, they celebrated graduating from the very same colonised universities. It is not the graduating that is problematic, but the reverence of the gown as some sort of achievement that is meaningful. This is symptomatic of a kind of thinking that suggests that freedom is occupying the same spaces and positions as white people. Like working in Sandton for white firms, driving a posh car and going to vacations is freedom. This thinking is evident in social media spaces, where success is associated with assimilating into white spaces. Where black excellence means getting recognised by white institutions. Where Inxeba is a great movie when it gets an Oscar nomination, where Esther Mahlangu becomes a great artist when she is recognised in France and where having photographs in Vogue magazine means one is a great photographer. If this is what we think freedom is, then it means we need to question the elasticity of our imagination.

Frank Wilderson believes that we can attain freedom, but that it is only attainable when we go to the depths of our imagination and confront what we find, even if it scares the hell out of us. This is true because even those whom we regard as revolutionary are still preoccupied with manifestations of freedom, but not black freedom in its totality.

The politicians are convinced that the attainment of economic freedom will liberate black people. This is evident in slogans such as “economic freedom in our lifetime” or “radical economic transformation”. I believe this kind of thinking is myopic because it suggests that we not free because we are poor. It assumes that what we were dispossessed of can be articulated in economic terms. This is untrue, because what was taken was not just our wealth, but our being. Land restitution is of course important because, as the saying goes, land does not give us bread, but our dignity also. But is the return of land the zenith where we will be able to spread our arms and say we are free?

As mentioned above, the existing vocabularies of freedom are limited and have the potential to create new forms of oppression or lock us into existing ones.

For blacks, freedom has always been a mirage we have never stopped chasing. In the black intellectual and resistance movements in South Africa there has not been a coherent outline of what we imagine black freedom looks like, a collective freedom as such. Is there the potential and the possibility of conceptualising or even realising a period when we could say black people are truly free?

This is what haunts me about Saidiya Hartman’s intimation that a truly black revolution makes everyone freer than they want to be.

There is a scene in a movie titled Beasts of No Nation where a child soldier escapes and finds refuge in a home. The child escapes because he cannot bear the idea of being free. Can we bear to imagine freedom beyond what we have been given?

- Mbhele is a Wits University student and an author of an anthology of short stories titled Crazy Father and Other Very Short Lies

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