Category Archives: International Politics

Had They Been There: The White Middle Class Meets the Radical Politics of a Certain Messianic Nazarene

It was a pleasant afternoon, ordinary enough by the standards of false tranquillity in Johannesburg’s Northern suburbs, when the scarcely-possible happened. In an absurd turn of events, the sort usually constrained to the pages of science fiction, a wormhole opened for a moment at Tashas in Rosebank, transporting a group of white, upper-middle class South Africans across space and time to a particularly tumultuous First Century Jerusalem.

Upon arrival, they complained (but we must forgive them, for this is their second nature), about all the potholes, before running into a messenger for Camel-through-a-Needle’s-Eye Witness News (CNEWN, a local news outlet). The messenger rambled on in Aramaic to the strangely-dressed people. Fortunately, among the travellers was Christina, who had studied the obscure language during her time at university (before, as she is fond of saying, “they ruined the place”). Listening through the interpreter’s ear, they were informed about a certain Levantine Jewish radical who was disrupting the day-to-day lives of the Jerusalem elite.

The man, they were told, was part of a violent minority that, instead of engaging ‘rationally’ and following bureaucratic processes, chose to express its discontent by entering the city and defying, even mocking, the power structures. They were told of how he entered the Temple of Jerusalem, drove out all who traded there, and violently overturned the tables of the dove merchants and money changers [1] . The radical, reported CNEWN, was a self-declared champion of the poor [2] who came from a modest, lower-class family in rural Judea. He detested the Roman Occupiers and those among his own Jewish people who’d grown scandalously wealthy through collusion with Rome. Having arrived only ten minutes earlier, the travellers had no understanding of the complex socio-politics that underlined his actions. They  made no attempt to sympathise with why this radical was angry, for locating an argument within socio-politics and attempting to understand context was never really their forté. So their responses came quickly and rather recklessly:

“I mean, if he really wanted all people to gain access to the Temple, why would he try to destroy it?”

“Don’t the money changers and pigeon [sic] merchants have rights too? Why would he violate their rights when fighting for his own? Did he have to drive out the traders to make his point? Clearly, he’s lost the plot.”

“Couldn’t he protest peacefully? There’s a difference between a protest and a riot, you know? It’s time we call him what he is: a hooligan bent on anarchy.”

“He’s a free-loader. Nothing comes for free hey. He just hates those who have because he’s too lazy to educate himself and become successful. Typical. Why does he want to visit the temple without paying for the sacrifices? How is the temple supposed to run without those fees?”

As they stumbled around later that night, searching desperately for a Starbucks in the streets of First Century Palestine, a messenger brought another CNEWN bulletin, alerting them that the radical, along with 12 accomplices (some of whom were armed and violently resisted arrest [3]), had been apprehended by the authorities. The leader had been detained, and was to be tortured and executed by crucifixion.  Again, the paternalistic responses came quickly from the travellers:

“What? There were only 13 of them? This just serves to show that they’re a radical minority, just as CNEWN has been reporting. The vast majority, the silent majority of people in Jerusalem just want to go back to their daily lives. I’m sure if asked, 77%, at least, would vote to just have things the way they were.”

“It’s called Law and Order. The sooner these hooligans learn to respect that, the better.” 

Within the next week, the Roman Authorities posted a notice in the public square and on the gates of Jerusalem’s Temple:

“Earlier today, the treasonous radical and blasphemer, Yeshua of Nazareth, was crucified upon a hill in Golgotha. It is with great regret that we’ve been forced to take these necessary measures needed to ensure the safety and security of our territory and citizenry.”

Some of our travellers remarked at the terrible necessity of violence to control anarchy, while others openly boasted. The radical, unrecognisable because his strange name and dark skin were untouched by the bleach of Eurocentric whitewashing, was not human to them. So they refused to speak of him as one, to place themselves within his shoes, or upon his crucifix. As they continued to echo one another’s sentiments, space-time snapped back into place, transporting them once again into the sanctuary of their present, the polished tables and airy milieu of Tashas in Rosebank.

Unfortunately, their minds, being tragically linear and hostile towards complexity, were incapable of containing a radical distortion of space-time. Their leap into the past, then, was instantaneously jettisoned, and they retained no memory of it at all. So they finished their meals, climbed into their luxurious sedans and listened to Talk Radio 702 as they coasted back into their gated communities.  Without hesitation, they receded into the perverse normalcy of an outrageously unequal world…

On Mondays, they began their weeks by driving their children to a private school, wondering aloud along the way at why the homeless on the streets couldn’t “just get a job”. On Friday evenings, they ended their weeks by meeting once again at a high-end restaurant to discuss the formulaic pleasures of suburban life. On Sundays, however, many of them went to Church and prayed, kneeling at the foot of that radical – a man whose crucifixion they had cheered and whose torture they had justified, because even when confronted with the struggle of their own Messiah, they could never bring themselves to sympathise with the dispossessed.

Note: Seeing as I may be accused of fabricating these Biblical events, the references to the New Testament are reproduced here:

[1] Mathew 21:12

[2] Luke 6:20-21, Luke 4:16-19

[3] John 18:10

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Red Flags, Red Berets and the Ballot Coup: Free Education and the Wits SRC Election

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(Photo: Delwyn Verasamy, Mail and Guardian)

Wits is alive with the tumultuous energy of struggle song, while political regalia dots the campus with patches of yellow, and patches of red. With the SRC election less than a week away, the campus which birthed Fees Must Fall last October is set to elect its next set of student representatives. At this crucial juncture in South African student history, this year’s SRC election is far more significant than a mere exercise in political posturing. Its outcome will shape the future of the student movement and the strategy that will be implemented in the battle for free education. This year’s election, therefore, demands the undivided attention of us all.

Three parties are set to face off next week. The incumbent party, holding thirteen out of fifteen seats in the current SRC, is the Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA) – a coalition of the ANC Youth League, SASCO, the Young Communists League and the Muslim Students Association. They are being challenged by the Wits EFF Students’ Command and Project W. No party in the field is perfect. However, this should not render them equally ineffectual in the eyes of the student body. Some are better, some are worse, and others are, if we are to be honest, an embarrassment.

To get the embarrassment out of the way, let’s deal with Project W. Project W is a cynical experiment in solipsism, built upon the fallacious notion that a university’s SRC can be apolitical in a political world. Their stunning refusal to engage the complexities of the socio-political space is matched only by their masochistic impulse to lead with this idea of an apolitical campus when publicly squaring off with their opponents. The party patronises students by assuming that we are equally incapable and unwilling to tackle political complexity. Given the role of politics on campus – and indeed, the role of campuses in politics – over the decades, Project W is as ahistorical as they are apolitical. Their neutrality in political situations of moral urgency serves to bolster oppressive power structures and inflate the confidence of the ruling class. Engaging the country’s socio-politics is crucial, extraordinarily so in the context of the movement for free education. Project W is hence extraordinarily irrelevant, even by their own standards. Their conspicuous absence during Fees Must Fall is a sobering reminder that, were they to win this election, their line will jeopardise the future of the student movement. Project W is a galaxy of fallacies that aggregated from a cloud of delusion and apathy. They are a non-option.

The choice is hence between the PYA and the Wits EFF. The EFFSC has abandoned its distaste for the official political space (a distaste that one may argue is justified, given that their party was collectively punished last year and barred from running) and is now a serious contender. The campaign they have implemented balances Bikoist ideology with the consideration of basic issues that directly impact students. (It is noteworthy that this exposes another flaw in the Project W line, for one needn’t be apolitical to aid students in graduating). Echoing the process which drafted the Freedom Charter – amongst the most radical leftist documents in our nation’s history – the EFF has crowd-sourced their election manifesto, compiling it from the suggestions of the students whom they wish to represent. The party’s propensity for political disruption, a core tenet of effective protest, is indubitable – something indispensible in a battle against a system that stifles momentum through bureaucracy and delay. The EFF has therefore built a base from which they hope to claim the majority of the SRC from the PYA. Come next week, the Fighters’ Student Command is hoping to execute a Ballot Coup.

What, then, justifies the urgency of ousting the old guard? The incumbent PYA is aligned with the ANC, and hence a contradiction lies at the core of their organisational identity. Luthuli House provides the party with funding, support, and the occasional order to pacify student populations and halt protests. At times, it seems the PYA has inherited the arrogance of its parent organisation. When the Wits council debated the overhaul of IT infrastructure on campus, a project that will cost over half a billion rand, this SRC supported the move without consulting the student body, failing to account for the fact that it’s absurd to spend a nine-digit figure on improving wifi access on a campus where students don’t have accommodation or food. Moreover, red flags must be raised over the PYA’s decision to halt the university shut down last year before an insourcing commitment had been won. When a party intends to exploit the pain of exploited workers, only to dispose of them afterwards, students must respond in kind and dispose of that party. The workers are not a periphery concern – betraying them is inexcusable.

All of that said, I do not wish to discredit everything the Alliance has achieved. Nor am I implying that there aren’t committed comrades within the PYA who are invaluable to the student movement. It is possible to be more nuanced.  Yes, the PYA-led SRC played a crucial role in halting this year’s fee increase, galvanising students and driving free education to the top of the agenda. However, the PYA-led SRC was also crucial in the dissolution of student unity and the obstruction of that very agenda. The breakdown of trust between a university’s SRC and its students crippled last year’s movement for free education and squandered the momentum that we had gathered. We cannot allow for this to be repeated.

The SRC is the sole body with an official popular mandate. Tremendous legitimacy is lent to the movement if its leadership is elected by students, for students. However, we cannot have an SRC led by a PYA that can prioritise its partisan alliances over workers and the cry for free education. We should not accept an SRC that implores students to celebrate a non-increase within a broken status quo, while refusing to address the core of the problem because it involves confronting their superiors at Luthuli House. To allow the ANC to speak through a PYA SRC is to allow the establishment to dictate the terms of a movement that was forged in opposition to its failures. 

Soon, it will become necessary to indict the ANC government and hold it accountable in a concrete way. At the moment, it seems the PYA would rather pander to xenophobia and punish innocent immigrant shopkeepers than do so.  We cannot allow the SRC to be turned into a fundraising office while the structural inequality is left unaddressed. Last year’s failures are proof that we cannot trust the ANC to march on itself. Moving forward, we need a student leadership that is not tied to the agenda of the ruling party. What is needed now is student unity – a unity that is difficult to forge while this conflict of interest is alive within our elected structures. The PYA can be part of the new SRC, but if it’s unity we want, it is best if they do not lead it. If they do, we need to disabuse them of their loyalty to their parent party, or organise beyond the official. However, achieving either of these will be no easy task. Ideally, we need an alternative.

At this election, therefore, I will cast my vote in favour of the party with the largest base among workers, a party that didn’t evaporate after the marginal concession of a 0% increase was won. It is also the party whose iconoclasm has animated our national politics and that is unafraid to articulate the rage of the black child against an ANC that is corrupt and failing to redress inequality. When I walk into that voting booth, I shall strike my pen across the boxes next to the red berets.

The reason for doing so is simple: if the EFF wins a majority in the SRC, effectively counterbalanced by a smaller contingent of PYA members, we will place ourselves within a dispensation wherein student unity can be rebuilt without the risk of the ruling party completely derailing it. The ANC is not the only threat to the forging of a united student front, but it is quite possibly the greatest one we face. If we overcome it, we can prompt a surge in momentum that will once again transform us into a formidable force – a force that must prise open the doors of higher education, with urgency.

I Revolt Because We Are: Marxism and the Case for a More Radical Ubuntu in the Face of Environmental Disaster

It is an open secret, a blaring announcement stretched to a whisper on the slowly-turning wheels of time: our world is edging towards environmental disaster. In a quest to prevent us from leaving an uninhabitable wasteland of a world behind, the communitarian African philosophy of Ubuntu has been proposed as an alternative ecological framework that ought to guide environmental policy. While these attempts to reframe the ecological debate are well-intentioned, in practice, the traditional Ubuntu ethic is insufficient (and even inconsistent) in a world where the dominant ideology is that of global capitalism. Nonetheless, the ethic, equipped with its radical egalitarian tenets, can inform an action plan that effectively tackles the crisis. This cannot be done without rethinking shallow interpretations of harmony and discord which lend themselves to a platitudinous status quo. In order to address the problem of environmental sustainability, a Revolutionary Ubuntu, reinforced by its Marxist elements, must be forged.

The case for Ubuntu is made by Dr. Edwin Etieyibo, a prominent voice on African philosophy (and my lecturer on the subject), in his paper The Ethical Dimension of Ubuntu and its Relationship to Environmental Sustainability. Etieyibo argues that Ubuntu, in its nature as a communitarian school of thought, equips us with an alternative approach that allows for sustainable use of the earth’s resources. This, he says, is in contrast to individualistic capitalist models which commoditise the global ecosystem and serve to exacerbate ecological disasters like global warming and climate change. These sentiments are by no means misguided. However, if Ubuntu is to become a credible alternative, it is necessary to locate it within the current socio-political, and global economic, context. While some tenets of Ubuntu, upon which Etieyibo places emphasis, are indeed necessary to achieve environmental sustainability, they are not sufficient. The classical Ubuntu ethic, for as long as it stubbornly clings to its distaste for confrontation, is incapable of indicting the perpetrators of ecological degradation. For the current, worsening state of the ecosphere was not an inevitable one – it did not simply happen. The degradation of nature is not a feature of nature. The scientific evidence is unambiguous, and damning. The current ecological disaster was caused. An opponent has been dancing around the ring unchallenged, winning round after round by default. If the proponents of the Ubuntu ethic wish to change this, we cannot continue to aimlessly shadowbox.

What sort of muscle, then, do we have to work with? The Ubuntu ethic is defined as an attitude which prioritises the ‘greater good’, through what Etyiebo calls ‘caring and sharing’. Within the Ubuntu ethic, the promotion of harmony, and reduction of discord, is paramount. Classically, mediation and conciliation are seen as superior to conflict and confrontation. This is crucial (and indeed, classical Ubuntu’s crucial caveat).

If we are to allow ourselves a little more analytic indulgence: ‘Caring’ is similar to the principle of autonomy in Kant’s categorical imperative and is defined as a form of solidarity, which encourages individuals to make the ends of others their own, to adopt one another’s struggles. In summary, I shall define it as a rallying cry: I struggle because you are struggling; I revolt because we are. ‘Sharing’ concerns an attitude towards resources – to share is to recognise that one’s resources may be needed more by others and to redistribute them in accordance with that need. If the definition of ‘caring’ is extended to include adopting the ends of the common good as one’s own (after all, within Ubuntu, I am because we are), then this tenet of the Ubuntu ethic is best summed up by the popular communist dictum, first used by Louis Blanc and later popularised by Marx – “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need.”

Ubuntu’s explicit reverence for community is in stark contrast to the dominant ideology in the ‘developed’ world, which is one of neoliberal capitalism – built on the idea that if individuals pursue their selfish interests, it will result in economic growth which will better the lives of all. Adam Smith argued, in his work of the same name, that social and economic inequality is necessary to increase the  Wealth of Nations. It is within this dispensation that our current ecological disaster locates itself. It is in opposition to this dispensation that our proposed solution must be defined.

The opponent is in his corner, the ring has been readied – now, finally, let’s step onto the canvas.

Lovably-obscene Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues that problems of environmental sustainability are problems of the ‘commons’, where individuals and corporations are attempting to privatise the “foundation of our being”. This tendency has placed undue strain on the earth’s limited resources. Its endemic myopia is poisoning the planet. The commons, which, in tandem with the community, is foundational within Ubuntu, is being gravely neglected. Indeed, the capitalist order is not simply unhelpful in achieving the goal of environmental sustainability; in its free market manifestation, it directly opposes it.

In her relatively-recent book, This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein puts forward the argument that problems of climate change are “more grounded in capitalism than they are in carbon.” For example, Klein cites the apparent conundrum surrounding fossil fuels and  argues that, if we simply disregard the free market gospel, by reigning in corporations, rebuilding local economies and bolstering working class representation, we can wean ourselves off unsustainable fossil fuels. In prioritising growth, and making the implicit assumption that growth can continue indefinitely, global capitalism is to blame for much of our impending ecological disaster. The problem is structural and hence, according to Klein, requires us to radically rethink the current economic system. This is where the departure from the classical Ubuntu ethic occurs, since what is necessary to apply it in a meaningful way is a confrontation with the cold gears of the global capitalist machine.

To believe that an approach grounded in Ubuntu will be adopted by the ruling classes voluntarily is to capitulate to excessive idealism. Changes in the dynamic between individuals will have no impact upon environmental sustainability if the dynamic between power and people remains unchanged. Interpersonal caring and sharing means little if a small group of individuals are allowed to act against the common interest, while the wealth of nations is not shared among the people of those nations. The adoption of the ethic of caring and sharing should not be supererogatory for the bourgeoisie, the class which owns and controls the means of production. Allowing the ideals of Ubuntu to guide environmental policy will require the creation of a dispensation where the ‘commons’ is prioritised. In order for a culture of the ‘public good’ to be created, structures which concentrate resources in the hands of a few individuals need to be dismantled.

Those allied with the current capitalist order will question whether it is truly necessary to radically reform, or dismantle it in order to achieve environmental sustainability. The response lies in the nature of the free market they defend. In a climate where success is gauged principally in terms of profit and economic growth, while no serious consideration is given to solidarity and the protection of the commons, there is no good market reason to promote environmental sustainability. Moreover, Marx and Engels, in The Communist Manifesto, argued against private property by pointing out that it has already been done away with for the vast majority of the population. For as long as the bourgeoisie, which is unaccountable to the community, is capable of destroying the commons through its use of the means of production, the global ecosystem is at the mercy of a minority. The current order needs to be radically restructured because it is unacceptable that the fate of the commons is dependent upon the whims of the bourgeoisie.

Real world problems require us to confront the structures and systems of the real world. To fail in this project is to fall prey to fallacies of detached abstraction and excessive idealism. What is argued for here is neither a new Maoist or Leninist Party, nor a repeat of the horrors of Stalinism, but rather a radical reaffirmation of the egalitarian principles which underlie both Marxism and Ubuntu. This can only work if the latter is isolated from its tendencies of non-confrontation and made to take a stand against the reckless capitalism that has been systematically degrading the environment. We cannot settle for an illusion of harmony within a system of normalised, deceptive discord.

With each passing round, our absence from the ring strengthens our opponent and weakens the ecosphere. The bell has been rung by the heavy hand of capital. For the sake of the commons, the people must reclaim the arena.

 

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Suspension has Ended: Revolution is Returning

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The fierce urgency of now. This was the phrase, coined by Martin Luther King Jr., that I scribbled onto a piece of paper on Friday afternoon, while camped in solidarity inside an occupied Senate House. Surrounding me were scores of students – sisters, brothers, comrades, the dispossessed and their allies – sitting in the nucleus of a movement that was in its third day of a successful shut down of Wits University. A few meters before me was the student leadership, donning the shirts of parties accustomed to rivalry between themselves, negotiating with Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib. Habib had suggested he leave Senate House to convene with council and was met with thunderous objection from the crowd gathered. Eventually, the people decreed that they would not wait – council would meet that day, in Senate House, in full view of the students whose lives were impacted by their decisions. No closed doors. No secrets. Direct accountability. Habib agreed. At that moment, Dr King’s declaration echoed in my mind: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today”. We were indeed confronted with the fierce urgency of now – and it was glorious.

This departure from the lethargic politics of bureaucracy and delay was invigorating. Inside the dimly lit, vast chamber of Senate House, we were a revolutionary collective. Although student leaders (crucially, female leaders who were pushed out of the spotlight too often) spearheaded the movement, they were aware of their role as a proxy for the people. They stood on the shoulders of the students, and weren’t allowed to forget that without popular support, they could not stand up to the powers that be. Every decision, down to the organisation of food, was ratified by popular consensus. The spirit of democracy danced among us. A healthy suspicion of authority sat in our ranks. Hierarchy slowly dissolved in the acid of persistent mockery, directed towards power structures and their petty manifestations. Inside our contingent collective, the vice-chancellor wasn’t afforded his title. Civility remained, but decorum was discarded. We refused to engage in the fruitless spectacle of ceremonial flattery and political theatre. In contrast to the town hall meetings hosted by political representatives, where citizens queue for the opportunity to ask a question of an aggrandised figurehead, the engagement with Habib did not give him much leeway to engage in tactics of diversion and duplicity. Although he was not being held against his will, he was under pressure to engage with students possessed by an uncompromising political will. The ordinary, impotent mode of discourse had been turned on its head.

The Senate House I sat in was radically different from the one I’ve walked into countless times before. Of course, it was materially indiscernible – the same brown and blue university banners hanging from beams spanning the high ceilings, the same concrete pillars climbing to the skies, the same set of converging stairs rising like a peculiar altar from the polished floor and descending into a crypt below. However, the first time I walked into that foyer of the executive, the fumes that clung to the walls of my nostrils were those of polish from the gleaming floors. On Friday evening, it was the choking stench of pepper spray. The space had changed.

It was not just the halls of Senate House that had transformed. During the three day peaceful occupation of the university, it was all too apparent that business as usual had ceased. Some areas of campus were left almost eerily deserted; others were filled with the vibrant energy of rhythmic protest. Seeing the university in this radically different light is, if I may be so bold, a variation of Camus’s Absurd, spawning a peculiarly pleasant kind of Sartrean Nausea. The buildings on campus ordinarily wear the garment of the Institution. The occupation disrobed it. It divorced the space from the veneer of authority and the presumptions of power which usually pervade it. It illuminated our agency to radically redefine it. The realisation of radical freedom may be existentially unsettling, but it is politically liberating. Looking upon an institution that has departed starkly from its usual character, an aura of anarchism meets the eye: the university is not inherently imbued with any indomitable hierarchy, nor is the society which surrounds it structured in a manner that is unchangeable. Its people have no concrete, pre-ordained telos. We are the agents who define the essence that existence precedes. This movement is the product of a generation’s realisation of its own power. And, when we stand together, worker and student hand-in-hand, powerful we are indeed.

Later on Friday evening, while the pepper spray dissipated in the packed halls of Senate House, key members of the council convened. Feverish negotiation followed, stretching deep into the night.  As the sun was only just beginning to peer out from beyond the horizon the next morning, an interim agreement was signed: the decision to raise fees will be suspended, no students or workers who participated in the protests will face punitive measures and crucially, the university will not be at liberty to revert to its original position if negotiations break down. In a vindication of protest tactics, the students had emerged with a clear path towards victory. Those perched atop their privilege, who spent much of last week trying to justify their inaction or opposition by cynically criticising the occupation, were forced to face the concrete results those tactics had produced. In our hands, we held a declaration of our own power – a testament to the strength of our political will.

The Student Awakening is spreading. As sparks from the fire raging at Wits find kindling at UCT, Rhodes University, and the others that will most certainly follow, it’s clear that our generation is shedding its image as the one born outside of Apartheid and inside of Apathy. As we move forward today to hear from council, we are mindful of the fact that our struggle will not end here. The decision to raise fees was not taken in a vacuum, but rather in a climate of marginalisation, commercialisation and dispossession that has excluded the poor for too long. It was the flashpoint, the prelude to a paradigm shift that must occur. Reasons to resist have not evaporated: from the exploitation of outsourced workers, to wealth inequality that is staggeringly high; from dwindling government subsidies, to the fact that even without increases, fees remain too high for too many. Struggle, therefore, should not cease. No longer can we allow our universities to perpetuate a status quo they ought to challenge. If we conserve this momentum, we can become the custodians of a force Victor Hugo deemed indomitable: an idea whose time has come. South Africa’s students have awoken, and we’re ending the suspension of its revolution.

Dear Aylan: A Poem on the Human Tragedy of the Refugee Crisis

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Dear Aylan

Aylan,
You slipped through fingers
– tyrants and terror of zeal
How fear must linger
infant eyes, begging: Feel.
 
Hope lies on the oceans,
guarded by tempests and beastly gale
Forced by fate through the motions
with wretched Death you set sail…
 
Body of humanity
lying lifeless in Turkish sands
slain by wars and nationality
that sealed shut selfish hands
 
Aylan –
criminalised, traumatised,
dehumanised
 
Aylan –
innocent, brave,
Human
 
Aylan, Aylan
washed up on a tide of tears
murdered by the war machine’s gears
An untimely meeting with an embrace of waves
for we saw not people in those countless graves.
 
So if we see not in your coffin a child, a son,
certain we are that of hearts we have none.
 
Aylan,
it will matter not that we wail
If we follow fear’s orders
and bolster our borders,
your memory we will fail.

Raees Noorbhai

Progress beyond Paper: On the Need for De Facto Feminism

No law or edict, just or unjust, moves the elements by virtue of its existence alone. It must be dutifully enforced by servants of the order and acceded to by subjects of the system. Legislation, therefore, cannot cure a social ill without the aid of civil society. An agenda of progress, if it is to succeed, must move beyond paper.

This disparity between written proclamation and implementation is one that is apparent in the contemporary feminist movement. When legislative battles have been waged and won, the movement finds itself on the frontline of a culture war. Make no mistake, the battle to overthrow entrenched legal sexism is by no means over. Too many of our sisters around the world, in countries like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran, are strangled by the hands of authoritarian states that seek to control and subjugate them. Their testimony is disregarded in court, they are mandated to obey their husbands and seek his permission to leave the home, they cannot travel unaccompanied by a man, they cannot seek a divorce…the list is indeed too numerous to be included here. They are shackled by the law to the whims of the patriarchy. Our endeavours to aid them in ending their servitude will not cease until they are afforded the absolute equality that should never have been denied to them. However, even in secular democracies like our own, where gender equality is guaranteed by a progressive constitution, the patriarchy and misogyny thrives. It is the disease that breeds beneath the skin of the law and causes the body to fester. It is high time we eradicate it.

How then do we diagnose this blight while the legal skin is seemingly without blemish? The state is a human invention that shapes human experience, but in its absence, human experience will not cease to exist. In the absence of suppressive laws, civil society may fill the repressive role. Let us not sell ourselves the illusion of progression by buying the delusion that only the state stood in its way. In the same way that the end of Apartheid in South Africa did not automatically and wondrously vanquish racism within its borders, ushering in a race-blind meritocracy, the end of institutionalised sexism did not spell out the demise of the patriarchy. If the lived experience is to change, the societal perceptions – the somewhat subtler sexism – must change. This is our project.

Conformists to this doctrine of subtler sexism are conditioned to think that women ought to fulfil a pre-ordained role in society. They hang an expectation of domestication above her head. As she grows up, they teach her to cook and clean with the expectation that her husband, inexplicably incapable of sharing the load, will require it of her some day. This, says the particularly regressive wing of the patriarchy, is the place of the woman – managing the affairs of the home, birthing and raising children, while the man goes out to seek work and sustain their livelihood. These reactionary voices masquerade as magnanimous, by citing a principal of separate but equal – the notion that the respective natures [a problematic concept on its own] of the male and female prescribe their particular roles, which, while different, are equally valuable. This extends to the caucus of misogyny in the professional world that believes certain spaces in the workplace are to remain a male-only club. Even the scientific community is not immune from this scourge, as Nobel laureates express appalling sexism concerning the presence of women in the lab. This is egregious. There is no justification for, and indeed no nobility in, stifling the potential of one’s fellow and confining her to a box. Of course, this is not to say that women who fill traditional gender roles are party to an inherent evil. Rather, it is the normative expectation and the intolerance of deviation from it with which we take issue. A woman’s place, we assert, is wherever she chooses it to be.

This normative expectation extends to the woman’s place in civil society. She is expected to embody typical ‘feminine qualities’ and is criticised heavily for losing her ‘ladylike composure’ when she becomes too assertive for the tastes of male-dominated society. Her sex life is held to a different standard than that of an equivalent male – she is shamed for being sexually active, while he is lauded for it. Debates even rage on what is appropriate for her to wear, as if the way she clothes her body is a matter of public interest that ought to be decided by legislators and religious clerics. Under the banners of ‘modesty’ on one side and (ironically) ‘freedom’ on the other, her choice as an individual is subordinated by the cultural and religious norms of the group. Indeed, her body is seen as an entity in the public domain and so she is charged with protecting it from the predatory male gaze. An intolerable culture of cat-calling means that she is forced to face the carnal impulses of perverse men on a daily basis. If she is harassed or even raped, she is blamed for dressing ‘inappropriately’, for being a ‘temptress’ oblivious to the inherent dangers of the world. This is a view which sees the woman as a sexual object that must be protected, as opposed to a person who must be respected. Through its lens, sexual violence is seen as a predator in whose shadow we must quiver and from whom we must seek refuge. When the beast mauls a woman, she is seen as foolish for not taking the necessary precautions. While seemingly well-intentioned, this view is tremendously counter-productive. We are all too capable of slaying the barbarous beast.

The extent to which the sexist mindset has embedded itself into the public psyche is, at closer inspection, rather daunting to those of us who wish to challenge it. The subordination of women is so engrained within our culture that many of us have become blind to it altogether. Think of the notion that the purported Designer of the Universe, who is believed to govern the totality of existence (and presumably must be genderless), is afforded a male pronoun, by default. Or that when the title of doctor, or lawyer, or engineer is mentioned, the prevalent mental picture is that of a male. How then shall we overcome this entrenched social ill?

A culture of silence appeases ignorance. If we allow patriarchy’s spokesmen to have a monopoly on debate, we will have lost the culture war. We need to stand by the ideals enshrined in our progressive laws and defend them when they are attacked by the reactionary impulse. Ours must become a culture in which sexism is seen as toxic. Those who espouse patriarchal ideas must be challenged, whether they are political candidates or religious leaders or any other figure in the public eye.  Our arguments are stronger than their voices are loud. We cannot afford to let them bury us beneath heaps of vitriol.

At a time when feminism – the project to achieve gender equality by championing the historically suppressed woman – is slurred as a machine to generate hatred towards males, it is imperative that as men, we reaffirm our commitment to the movement. We must acknowledge our privilege and create a climate of solidarity where we stand by our female counterparts to battle sexism and misogyny. As beneficiaries of a historical injustice, our apathy is inexcusable. It only serves to perpetuate a status quo that, in the end, harms us all. We are not calling for a doctrine of censorship and false moral outrage to defend political correctness. Instead, we call for a paradigm shift in the way society views women, for a re-evaluation of the gender roles we have come to take for granted and for the dismantling of the patriarchy.

It is time for us to peel the words from the pages of our progressive laws and forge from them blades to sever the ropes that bind us.

Raees Noorbhai

This manifesto was written to coincide with ‘Still We Rise’, the Amnesty International Wits campaign focusing on the creation of a feminist culture and challenging gender norms. An event will be held by Amnesty between 4 and 6 p.m this week Wednesday (12th August), focusing on these themes. It will take place in Central Block Lecture Theater 15 on Braamfontein East Campus.

Update: The Amnesty International event originally scheduled for the 12th of August has been postponed. It will be held on the 31st of August instead.

Release Raif: Letter to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia

Je Suis Raif: a variation of the popular Je Suis Charlie hashtag which emerged in solidarity following the tragic shooting at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, underlining the importance of protecting free speech, wherever it is under attack.

In 2012, Raif Badawi was arrested in Saudi Arabia on charges of “insulting Islam over electronic channels”, after he created the Free Saudi Liberals blog – an online forum for political and social debate. He was subsequently tried for apostasy and for criticizing the ultraconservative religious establishment. Eventually, Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison, as well as 1000 lashes, which the Saudi authorities began ruthlessly administering last week Friday. Yesterday, Raif’s flogging was postponed after doctors determined he hadn’t healed from last week’s brutal 50-lash public beating. Badawi’s wife also reports that King Abdullah has now referred Raif’s case to the Saudi Supreme Court, prompting some cautious optimism that the Kingdom may respond to international outrage over the mockery of justice this case has come to represent.

To all who exercise the right to free speech, who believe in freedom of conscience and who recognize the internet as a platform from which citizens can speak truth to power: We are Raif Badawi. If he is a criminal, then we all are. Yet, it is not we who have been beaten while standing shackled before a mob of onlookers under the midday Jeddah sun. Raif endures torture, incarceration and humiliation for a right we all too often take for granted. It is our moral imperative, as writers, as bloggers, as activists and above all else, as fellow human beings, to raise our voices and demand his freedom.

I therefore joined scores of people worldwide, many prompted by Amnesty International, who wrote to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia demanding Raif Badawi’s immediate and unconditional release. My letter, which was also faxed (yes, they do still exist) to a contact number provided by Amnesty, is now creeping up the spine of Africa, trudging along from Johannesburg to Riyadh at the speed of the postal service. It is reproduced below:

 

His Majesty King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud

The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques

Office of His Majesty the King

Royal Court

Riyadh

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

 

Your Majesty

Raif Badawi is no criminal. By creating a website to enable debate, he is guilty only of exercising his inalienable right to free speech. Yet he has been arrested, detained and threatened with execution by arms of the state over which you rule as Absolute Monarch. This past Friday, mere days after condemning the attack against the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, your state began flogging Mr Badawi in public – a punishment which is tantamount to torture and is deeply incongruent with international human rights law. Is it not hypocrisy to condemn those who attack free speech abroad while brutally suppressing free expression at home?

Mr Badawi has been prosecuted and persecuted on the basis of his beliefs alone and hence is a prisoner of conscience. Liberalism is no crime, regardless of one’s political standing – and is regarded as such only by those so obsessed with control that they seek to dictate the thoughts of the populace. The concept of the thoughtcrime belongs to the domain of totalitarianism. Dissent and debate, as encouraged by Raif Badawi, are necessary components of a free, thinking society and the inability to tolerate it is the hallmark of weak leadership.

Your marginal reforms have been coupled with a vicious crackdown on civil liberties, free speech and fundamental human rights. Mr Badawi’s case exemplifies your state’s wanton disregard for due process and a fair trial, as well as its willingness to use draconian punishments and public execution as instruments of intimidation and control. Seeking the death penalty for apostasy is among the most egregious assaults on freedom of conscience in a world which knows them all too well.

Mr Badawi has denied allegations of apostasy. Notwithstanding his innocence, does not the Quran state that there shall be no compulsion in religion? A theocracy designating apostasy as a crime is akin to a secular dictatorship criminalizing conversion to Islam. One cannot condemn the latter without condemning the former. As a member of the UN’s human rights council, Saudi Arabia is obliged to uphold the fundamental liberties, like freedom of speech and conscience, it so often tramples upon.

I therefore add mine to the cacophony of voices across the globe demanding Raif Badawi’s immediate and unconditional release, as well as the dropping of all charges against him, including those for apostasy. I also urge the Saudi Arabian government to end its use of corporal punishment and cease lashing Mr Badawi in contravention of human rights law.

We will continue to raise our voices until Raif Badawi and other prisoners of conscience like him are free, until beheadings and public executions are filed away into the dark corners of history’s library and until the citizens of all countries have the right to speak truth to power. Jailing Raif Badawi did not weaken his cause – it strengthened it. By persecuting him, your government vindicated criticism of its corruption and brutal authoritarianism.

Amidst the storm of condemnation following last week’s flogging, the message being sent to the Saudi Arabian government, which I shall echo, is clear: the world is watching – and will not stand by in silence while a blogger is tortured and jailed for his beliefs. In order to definitively distance itself from extremism, Saudi Arabia must abandon its bloody, authoritarian version of political Islam which has done nothing but suppress its people and legitimize the extremist brutality of terrorism. It must show a commitment to the values and liberties which the extremists abhor. It must release Raif Badawi.

As the Absolute Monarch, you have the authority to overturn this injustice and return freedom to a man who never deserved to have it taken away. I can only hope that you do.

Yours sincerely

Raees Noorbhai