‘Beware of agents provocateurs’

2017-03-12 06:16
Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Ngugi wa Thiong’o

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Xolela Mangcu

The disrespect shown to an African icon and the refusal to engage with white people show that the student movement has been hijacked by nefarious forces.

In more than 15 years of organising public lectures, I have never seen the outpouring of love for a writer that I saw during Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s visit to South Africa last week. Wits University decked out the red carpet for Ngugi in what will go down as one of the most historic visits in the annals of the university. Ngugi was naturally tired after a flight of more than 24 hours, but he later told me that the singing by the students re-energised him. As he held us spellbound for more than an hour, I found myself whispering to Sarah Mosoetsa, the head of the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, who also funded his trip: “This is vintage Ngugi.”

By the way, I was thoroughly impressed by the respect Julius Malema showed Ngugi. Unlike many politicians who like to turn events into their own self-glorification, Malema showed humility and curiosity. That’s a mark of leadership. As Julius Nyerere once said, leadership is the ability to say: “I don’t know, tell me more.” For that I give Malema a 10.

Ngugi received the same kind of rapturous welcome in East London where the Daily Dispatch and the University of Fort Hare jointly hosted him. Vice-chancellor Sakhela Buhlungu and his entire leadership team were there to receive him, and so was deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas.

But, alas, no successful event is without its blemishes. If Fort Hare and Wits sent out their highest representatives to meet Ngugi, there was none of that reception by the leadership of the University of Cape Town (UCT). Nothing surprising there, except to say it speaks volumes about who the university really values.

What surprised me, though, was the rudeness displayed towards Ngugi by students wearing Black First, Land First and PAC T-shirts. They have disrespected me before, but not even in my worst nightmares did I ever imagine they would disrespect Ngugi wa Thiong’o. But they did.

It all started when a young woman walked up to the stage and grabbed the microphone – just as Ngugi was about to talk. She then asked Ngugi why they should listen to him in a hall built by colonialists, which left me wondering what she was doing there in the first place.

And then, just as Ngugi started to speak, another young woman walked up to the stage with a placard. She sat there throughout the talk, distracting from Ngugi’s address. Ngugi was good-humoured about it and went about his business.

As if that was not enough, a young man demanded that Ngugi tell the white people in the audience to leave. Ngugi would have none of that, of course, and told him as much. He asked the students why they could not raise their points in the presence of white people.

When I pointed to a white man to ask his question, they stood up in protest. I had to bring the proceedings to a close.

Lack of respect

Frantz Fanon could have been describing the actions of these students in his essay, The Pitfalls of National Consciousness: “Representing a race, they will prove themselves incapable of triumphantly putting into place a programme with even a minimum humanist content, in spite of fine-sounding declarations that are devoid of meaning, since the speakers bandy about in irresponsible fashion phrases that come straight out of European treatises on morals and political philosophy.”

Their favourite European phrase is “ageism”, which they invoke whenever they are told to respect older people. Could it really be that, in their upbringing, these black nationalists and pan-Africanists missed out on the most sacred of African values – respect for older people?

The Steve Biko that I knew would have been appalled by such disrespect towards an African icon. He would have been appalled by the refusal to engage with white people. One of Biko’s most important papers, White Racism and Black Consciousness, was presented to an all-white conference sponsored by the Abe Bailey Trust at UCT in 1971, more than five years after he had broken from the National Union of SA Students. He was never afraid of walking into the lion’s den. But our radicals seem to display a fear of white people that would have been unthinkable to people like Biko and Sobukwe, and, of course, Ngugi. As Fanon put it, “the racial prejudice of the young national bourgeoisie is a racism of defence, based on fear. Essentially, it is no different from vulgar tribalism”.

By the way, Biko would have been appalled by the concept of “Biko-ism” that is being bandied about in South Africa. Biko hated personality cults, and so did the movement to which he belonged.

That brings me to how agents provocateurs have always distorted black history and hijacked our political struggles.

Shortly after the outbreak of #RhodesMustFall in March 2015, the students asked me to address them about how they should conduct their struggle. As a teacher, I asked them to first read Marshall Ganz’s classic essay, The Story of Now, which is about the importance of social movements defining and owning their narratives. If they failed to do that, their movement would be hijacked by nefarious forces and agents provocateurs.

Alas, that is exactly what has happened. In isiXhosa we call agents provocateurs “oo-funzeweni” – they tell others to jump off the cliff while they stand back. I have been in the struggle long enough to smell an agent provocateur from a distance. I am told that the lead agent provocateur here is in the pay of the Guptas. I have neither the time nor the interest to follow the money. Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters expelled them from their party before they could cause any harm. The students need to do the same if they are to retain the authenticity of their movement. After all, these people were not there when the action started, but they have managed to hijack their movement, as agents provocateurs are wont to do.

It is not difficult to predict what they will do next. They are going to kill somebody. One of their own wrote to me to say I am lucky to come out alive from these encounters. I protested that I had been the first to make the call for the transformation of the universities, long before the student movements emerged.

But that’s precisely what makes them mad: I have been aiding what they and their paymasters seek to destroy.

And so, to the student movement, I say: Beware oo-funzeweni, don’t let them disrespect our African icons and desecrate our history. I am not asking you to stop being critical. But not even the apartheid government succeeded in turning us against basic African values such as imbeko, or respect. Think about it. If stuck, consult Steve Biko’s essay, On Some African Cultural Concepts.

In other words, stop relying on the agents provocateurs. Go to the source itself, and you will find your liberation, and perhaps your humanity.


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