By Fezokuhle Mthonti and Ntombizikhona Valela
There is a popular refrain that can be heard in the recent student movements across the country: “Sixole kanjani?” It is an invocation of words that were said all too often by black people during apartheid. “How can we possibly forgive this?” “How can we possibly move past this point?” Except this time, we had to project it into the future tense: where will black people find the supposedly endless repositories of forgiveness that will help us deal with this exact moment?
Reports of students being arrested for “sitting while black” at the University of Witwatersrand and the University of Cape Town, as well as the threatening of a lone female student activist by what is believed to be two policemen at Rhodes University, remind us again of this popular dictum. Some of the scenes of racialised violence from the University of Pretoria, the University of the Free State and North West University raise questions of where one can find the divine formulation of forgiveness that was bestowed to us by Desmond Tutu’s rainbow myth during South Africa’s transitory period.
But where will we find the benevolent capacity to forgive our institutions for their increased securitisation and brutalisation on campuses across the country?
This refrain has even more weight in 2016 as this year marks the 20th anniversary since the beginning of the TRC hearings, and the 40th anniversary of the 1976 student uprisings. Further to that, the images of violence across the country in both previously white institutions and historically black universities have made us think through the ways in which rainbowism, reconciliation and rugby have had mutually reinforcing effects on our country’s political climate.
Danielle Bowler makes these parallels clear in a piece entitled Jansen’s Post-Racial Utopia Laid Bare. Bowler writes that the “image of Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar at the final of the 1995 Rugby World Cup is so often held up as a symbol of post-apartheid unity. It is almost uncanny, then, that events at a rugby match would point to the discontinuities that remain. University of the Free State vice-chancellor Jonathan Jansen’s mythic post-Reitz Four racial utopia and the rhetoric that he remains so attached to, has cracked open, revealing a space just as fractured, splintered and polarised as every other. Racist utterances on social media, the events on our campuses and daily violence surface the seething underbelly of a country where the non-racial centre cannot hold, where it has never truly held.”
As Bowler notes, now more than ever, this moment calls for a deeper meditation on the limits of rainbowism and its significations. Black students coming on to the rugby field in the middle of a Varsity Cup fixture in protest against the untransformed institutional culture at UFS in 2016 disrupts the mythmaking that has underpinned our post-apartheid national identity: an identity premised on unequivocal racial harmony.
Nhlanhla Maake reminds us that “myth hides nothing. Its function is to distort, not to make disappear … the aim of mythmaking is after all to cause immediate impression, it does not matter if one is later allowed to see through the myth, its action is assumed to be stronger than the rational explanations which may later belie.”
The myth that was propagated to millions of South Africans in 1995 was that rugby could be seen as a reconciliatory tool. This is not a contestation of playing of the sport in and of itself, but it is important think through the ways in which rugby as a ‘formalised’ sport was imbued with numerous apartheid significations. How do the historical features of the game disrupt the myth that it could have been an alternative marker for national identity?
The South African rugby match has always been a symbolic frontier for the establishment of varying permutations of nationalism. It served as a tool for reconciliation prior to the 1995 IRB Rugby World Cup. In 1906, rugby built the proverbial ‘bridge of reconciliation’ between Afrikaners and Britons after the Anglo-Boer War, four years before the Union of South Africa brought together the four republics (Cape, Natal, Transvaal and Orange Free State). Prior to this, rugby, like soccer and cricket, had been part of an imperial project of assimilation into British culture as advocated for by Canon George Ogilvie in 1861.
In Beating Them at Their Own Game: Rugby, the Anglo-Boer War and Afrikaner Nationalism: 1899-1948, Dean Allen notes that rugby was appropriated by the Afrikaner nation as part of affirming the nationalist Calvinist narrative of a chosen people who had endured against all odds. ‘Strength’, ‘adaptation’, ‘skill’ and ‘inventiveness’ were assumed to be highly favourable characteristics of the sport, and by extension, the Afrikaner people.
By the 1930s, through the Broederbond, Allen further notes that the appropriation of this sport would serve “to challenge the imperialist hegemony that had introduced the sport in the first place”. Rugby became a sport that promoted and affirmed Afrikaner uniqueness outside of the bounds of British imperialist control. The sport was jealously protected because it was an integral part of Afrikaner identity. While other racial groups may have participated in the sport during the apartheid era, rugby ironically remained an exclusively ‘Afrikaner’ sport.
It was in 1995 that the IRB Rugby World Cup would be positioned as reconciliatory force in the new South African dispensation. This time – a mere 99 years later – the reconciliation would not be between former colonisers, but an attempt to reconcile an entire nation, black and white. Whereas rugby was initially about uniting white South Africa, this time, the project would require recognising a group of people rendered invisible by the reconciliatory action after the Anglo-Boer War and prior to the formation of the Union – a country of former colonisers.
Whereas 1995 saw the rugby match being encircled by post-apartheid rainbowism, 1998 saw the real power of Afrikaner nationalism. This was when the South African government sought to investigate claims of racism against the Rugby Union. The investigation was challenged by then president of the Rugby Union, Louis Luyt, who was also president of the union when the Springboks won the 1995 World Cup. President Mandela was subpoenaed by the court to give his own testimony and ended up denying any claims of racism, which resulted in the case being thrown out. It is difficult to say if the president did not recognise the institutional and historical implications of the sport, but one can certainly see how black South Africans might have felt betrayed by that moment. In an attempt to curry favour with the likes of Luyt, Mandela kept quiet.
The image of a black president walking on to a site of Afrikaner nationalist practice invoked a sense that black people could have a stake in a nation that never quite belonged to them. Yet 21 years later – when black students entered that same site – their non-belonging was communicated viscerally. Violence was used against those who threatened the sacred space of Afrikaner power. It is no wonder that some students at UFS have recently renamed it “Un-Free State University”.
Popular notions of forgiveness and reconciliation were undone by those who had allegedly not been tainted by the scourge of apartheid. The born-free generation, which is often imagined as naive to the brutality of apartheid, re-enacted the same racial violence that had now become out of sync with the post-apartheid narrative. It is instructive that this contestation of power happened on the field, because it shows us that conversation about transformation should not be relegated only to institutions of higher learning, but should also start to run across our sporting institutions.
The UFS campus is where Jansen styled himself as a vanguard of peace and reconciliation, preaching a politics of post-racialism and rainbowism. He, like Tutu and Mandela, has developed a personal brand that is underpinned by reconciliation. As the ‘fathers’ of concepts such as ‘forgiveness’, ‘reconciliation’ and ‘healing’, these men have inadvertently made South Africa’s transitional period about themselves and their own public personas.
The making of this contemporary South Africa has been infused with varying Christian idioms: calls for repentance and forgiveness, andthe creation of modern messiahs who would provide our new nation with salvation. Tutu, both a religious and political figure, called on God and ubuntu to heal the country’s people. His conception of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission tried to elicit confessions out of that which was truly unspeakable, despite the fact that the horrors of apartheid could not fit into any existing linguistic or spiritual paradigm. The spoken word would be insisted upon so that a collective memory could be hastily stitched together and the country could start rehearsing national catchphrases such as “rainbow nation” and “born free”. The testimonies offered in the TRC would lay the foundation for an unequivocally triumphant story reminiscent of the miraculous tale of resurrection.
Rugby’s role in the post-1994 moment was to entrench a new form of nationalism also rooted in Christian spirituality. Mandela’s inaugural speech reminds us of the covenant made by God to Noah never to flood the earth again. We are told that God made good on his promise by setting a rainbow in the clouds, and this was the rainbow that Mandela and Tutu called on when ‘making’ this new South Africa.
A reading of Steve Biko’s classical essay, The Church as Seen by a Young Layman, is perhaps appropriate here, displaying resonances with the critiques we have of the TRC proceedings. Biko writes:
In a country teeming with injustice and fanatically committed to the practice of oppression, intolerance and blatant cruelty because of racial bigotry; in a country where all men are made to feel the unwanted stepchildren of a God whose presence they cannot feel; in a country where father and son, mother and daughter alike develop daily into neurotics through sheer inability to relate the present to the future because of a completely engulfing sense of destitution, the church further adds to their insecurity by its inward-directed definition of the concept of sin and its encouragement of the mea culpa attitude.
The Latin phrase “mea culpa” is ordinarily used as a Catholic expression to denote the acknowledgement of one’s fault. In this instance, we can read mea culpa as the position that has been foisted upon black South Africans by the rhetoric of forgiveness and healing. Mea culpa is the turn of phrase that ensures white South Africans can utter a brief apology for their involvement and maintenance of apartheid and systemic oppression. Black South Africans, on the other hand, need to disproportionately admit to their own complicity in their own poverty and alienation from the rainbow.
The pronouncements made at the TRC no longer allow black people to lament over their pain in the post-apartheid period. This is the same of Jansen’s UFS. Once Jansen had called for “forgiveness” and “healing” after Reitz Four, black students were no longer allowed to publicly rehearse the pain that they felt by being in that institution. The agenda of reconciliation was made abstract and became an ill-conceived story of an imagined nation and its messianic men.
The young people of South Africa have stumbled upon a real moment of political renewal, a moment in which old concepts have been thoroughly worn out and the possibility for something new is present and exciting. In this newness, we can no longer repeat empty rhetoric. The call for transformation and decolonisation has to be grounded in rigorous and sometimes contentious debate. We have to move beyond concepts that masquerade themselves as revolutionary and reconciliatory. It is no longer enough to call out the rainbow nation as a failure. It is time for us to start developing new hermeneutic codes that will enable us to think of a world over the rainbow.
Fezokuhle Mthonti is a Drama student who fell into a Politics Degree. She has basically devoted a whole religion to Nina Simone and is reading for her Politics Masters Degree at the university currently known as Rhodes. She is an UHURU (Unit of Humanities and Research at Rhodes University) fellow. The provisional title for her thesis is “The Hair Salons Are Not Burning: African Migrant Women and Xenophobic Violence in South Africa”. She is interested in how the African hair salon creates new ways to think about xenophobia in South Africa. She interested in how the hair salon, as a site, creates a buffer to the extreme forms of violence typically associated with xenophobic violence in other informal centres of trade. Her Twitter Handle is @fezokuhle1