Guest Column

Making room for true protest

2017-07-16 06:35
Thulile Gamedze

Thulile Gamedze

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As the statue of Cecil John Rhodes was being airlifted from its plinth on the upper campus of the University of Cape Town, I was standing with my sister and her friend, avoiding selfies and trying to tap into the elation of the collective labour that led to this historic moment.

It continues to blow my mind that the removal of this thing – a symbol so obviously a violation to black peoples’ wellbeing – was cause for debate and a national outcry, never mind tear gas, the occupation of university buildings and the criminalisation of students.

In the exaggerated explosion of attention about a frankly boring likeness of a frankly violent white man, the creative work of students nationwide was crudely erased from public understanding.

That said, even through students’ developing decolonial leanings, informed largely by over-emphasised Fanonian discourse, many of us found ourselves far more occupied with producing artwork than on strategising the material destruction of a statue.

The matter of the statue – of all colonial statues – was and remains simple: they need to go because they are distracting us from the creative possibility of writing our histories and moving towards new futures. The matter of these futures, which require intimate and experimental investigation into our past, new approaches to pedagogy, to writing, to raising families, to relating to one another and to learning, is far more complex and, of course, far more exciting. Surely this work is what should be causing a white outcry?

I would argue that, at its core, the nature of true protest is generative. It is important, then, to outline what we understand by true protest.

The #ZumaMustFall movement, for instance, as it was articulated and archived, cannot be understood as either protest or generative practice because the objectives informing this mobilisation were not aimed at societal change, but rather at the maintenance of societal inequality. What motivated many was an anti-corruption stance informed by an individual financial consequence that was poorly fleshed out within the context of our society.

A Pan-African approach

However, I feel that there is little benefit in making sweeping statements around various “protests” because, if we look at anti-Zuma “activism”, we can acknowledge that the radical claim that President Jacob Zuma should fall also implies that the system of white capital around which his body is a symbolic guard, should fall.

Yes, many things should fall, explode or disappear, but it is only within the contexts surrounding activisms’ symbolic centres (Zuma, Rhodes, fees) where we may distinguish the difference between an activism occupied with generating new histories, and an activism renewing or validating oppressive old ones. Perhaps this is just a complicated way to say that the image or the symbol can be used by representative powers such as the media to water down the meaningful substance of a movement.

I am interested in the world of art because it often gives us a distilled example of how symbols, images and gestures are produced and absorbed into society. There are parallels between how the gallery operates – where even the most poignantly articulated resistance work can be swallowed into the intellectualism of “unpacking” – and the way that radical protest is absorbed and represented in public discourse.

If we imagine larger society as a white cube from which creativity struggles to escape, which is what I am suggesting, then we must begin to deeply investigate what it might mean to push the real work – the writing, the art, the conversation – into a space in which we can simultaneously expose the layers of violence hidden within the white walls, and give ourselves the opportunity to experiment with the new forms we are making. As opposed to an exhibition, activism needs to produce livable and fluid space for those it seeks to protect.

I am suggesting a ­Pan-African approach.

At the University of Ghana, the recent activism around a Mahatma Gandhi statue commissioned by India caused controversy, and the campaign for its removal was successful following a number of academics’ articulation that Gandhi’s expressed anti-black racism in South Africa means that the contemporary reproduction of his image on the continent is unwelcome.

My point here is that, while Rhodes perhaps provides us with the most straightforward symbol of colonial violence, the call to remove Gandhi speaks to the same fundamental issues. In its own ways, Gandhi’s work in South Africa was not a liberation project because it did not seek liberation for all, and his early expressions of disgust at black people are a pertinent example of the self-hatred and internalised inferiority that roots the violence of colonialism.

There are activists on the continent using creative, generative means to dismantle colonial structures, and there is a powerful representative
body protecting white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, seeking always to slow these movements by distilling them into their most shallow symbolic constituents.

By looking beyond the European-invented nation state, undoing African borders through creative work and imagining what an African activist society looks like, we might begin to tell our stories, and create our spaces using a medium that the neocolonial demobilisation media station cannot quite get its head around.

Gamedze is an artist and writer. This article forms part of a partnership with Thought We Had Something Going. For more, visit

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