Lala ngoxolo Diba.
You were a one of a kind product of the forces of human history. And this history cannot be repeated.
Here we are now, a generation born in the shadow of such greatness.
And we are envious. We hanker after that revolutionary greatness.
Our envy plays out in peculiar and often farcical ways as we mimic the manner and language of ‘The Struggle’ in a different contemporary reality.
Observe current day non-governmental organisations, social movements and civil society organisations appropriate the iconography of struggle for T-shirts, banners and slogans.
They have the toyi-toying, the “Viva”, the marches.
But look closer and at times something seems a little bit off; a little bit contrived.
Once I was volunteering for a cause and came to feel increasingly disturbed and uneasy with the way so much community participation was orchestrated to appear like authentic grassroots groundswell from the townships. I knew it was not groundswell because I heard the township residents talk about how they were there for a free trip to town, for the free sandwich.
I wrote an email to a fellow organiser and asked them why we were bussing in Black teens to events on school nights? How was this helping the teens?
It was clear that we were bringing the black kids in to pad numbers, to have more Black faces in the audience, to have all the singing that would bring that ’80s ‘Struggle’ flavour. But this was the 2000s.
I was annoyed with the kids; they were showing off their singing, doing it for an external gaze, performing for the benefit of the suburbanites at the event.
The older Black sister in me kicked in as I thought, “You should be home doing your homework not performing as toyi-toyi minstrels for a bunch of wannabe suburban activists”.
They didn’t know they were photo-fodder for funding report purposes, Facebooking and press releases for the organisers who were chuffed with themselves for their “activism”.
Witnessing that farce was depressing; I was ashamed at having had a hand in creating the event.
It was the commercial production of Che Guevara T-shirts that heralded the era of faux-radicalism for a post-Cold War generation who came to political awakening at the tail-end of the great epoch of anti-imperial and counterculture struggles.
There were Che T-shirts everywhere allowing young people to associate themselves with an edgy politics but without actually having to hold onto the ideologies or pay the price of living them out.
There were the white boys in the United States who started listening to rap and driving sales of albums by artists like Ice-T without actually having to bear the burden of being brutalised like the Black men producing that music – nor to be part of the community that was losing young men to systemic violence.
This radical chic became a big part of contemporary political culture where political credentials could be packaged and commodified and literally bought off a shelf through trendy books, T-shirts or CDs or otherwise safely experienced in post-school volunteerist-type causes where one gets to take lots of photos with smiling brown-skinned women and children.
Radical chic saturates so much of today’s ‘cause’ and philanthropy culture. It is partly enabled by a donor culture that pours millions of dollars into the global South to promote ‘development’. Unlike the messy uncertainty of the struggles of yesteryear, donor philanthropy seeks, annually, measurable outcomes. It thrives on glossy pictures and media profiling that can enhance the funder’s brand.
Indeed, the real end-goal of radical chic is not to change some awful system of oppression or deprivation, but to create memorable moments of ‘authentic’ political participation so that those participating and those funding can feel like they are part of momentous historical change.
This way, one could be seen to be ‘active’ or ‘politically conscious’ without actually having to make a true sacrifice or live with the daily grind of dysfunction that continues to plague the communities of those who were oppressed.
When I have observed this kind of faux-revolutionarism in action in post-apartheid civil society, I realised that we were really suffering from a strong bout of struggle envy – the wish to be part of a great political romance so that we can be remembered as the Nelson Mandelas, Steve Bikos and Frantz Fanons of our time.
Of course, this superficial appropriation of struggle-style reflects one segment of post-apartheid citizen organising. For many others, unchanged conditions of deprivation mean that there is an unbroken link between their toyi-toying of today and that of the past.
But even the most authentic grassroots mobilising must face some unpalatable truths about the purpose of political activism in today’s world. Although forms of domination continue, we have to reckon with our increasingly vulnerable position as a species on earth given the kind of ecosystems destruction we have precipitated.
Climate change is but one of the problems we face; a new form of political imagination must arise to help us to adapt.
For the Mandelas, politics was a human-to-human issue; ours will largely be human-to-earth.
Here is to hoping we can put aside our envy to repeat the glory of struggles gone but humbly face a future with uncertain prospects for human civilisation as a whole.