If 2012 was the year of the worker, there is no doubt that 2015 has been the year of the student. As students have occupied, barricaded, written, debated, come together and fallen out, grand ideas from thinkers, especially Biko and Fanon, have been everywhere. But rebellion is not fuelled by ideas alone. When an academic asked how she could best support students on the barricades at universities during protests by students against fee increases, she was kindly told that what would be most useful was not a workshop or an op-ed piece, but food and water.
Food – not eating it as much as eating it – has always been tied to political action. In South Asia, the practice of abstaining from food as a political action goes back to at least the 4th century BCE and is mentioned in the Ramayana. Mohandas Gandhi, impressed by the hunger strikes of the Suffragettes in England, realised it was a powerful tool and used it to great effect at various periods during his anti-colonial struggles. When the Irish hunger strikers, including Bobby Sands, starved themselves to death in an English prison in County Down in 1981, they were drawing on a long tradition. Hunger strikes in Ireland stretch back into pre-Christian history when they were included in the legal code.
When the Black Student Movement at the institution currently known as Rhodes University occupied the Senate Chamber for a month, the room was covered with pictures of intellectual, artistic and political heroes. Everyone from Fanon and Biko to Nina Simone, Thabo Mbeki, James Baldwin, and Silvia Federici, was up on the wall. But the mundane daily work of sustaining the body had to also be dealt with – where to sleep, what and when to eat, shit, and bath? Other questions arose too: is their space in an insurgent moment for more than just basic survival? What about love, family, entertainment, and beauty? What happens to all the things that we need, not just to nourish our bodies but also to sustain our spirit?
A quick perusal through history illustrates that it is precisely in times of revolution and insurgency that new pathways open up, leading to new intellectual, cultural, and artistic movements. During times of intense resistance and repression in South Africa, jazz became a space for intense and brilliant innovation. Mannenberg became an anthem for people denied a country. But even jazz requires food. The Rainbow Restaurant in Durban, with its banner ‘Jazz for the Struggle and the Struggle for Jazz’, was (and still is) also well known for its bunnychows and peri-peri chicken. In the 80s it was the spiritual home of the struggle in Durban.
South Africans often opened their homes to underground resisters, providing nutrition, warmth, and love in those dark days. The offer of a bed and a meal to a comrade on the run loomed large in the mythologies of many families. During the Treason Trial, which began in 1956 with 156 defendants, there were several groups from different communities across Natal that provided food to the defendants. Food was not only used to abate hunger – it also became a vehicle for others kinds of resistance. In Anna Trapido’s Hunger for Freedom, there is an account of how messages were smuggled between tightly packed rotis that were made as part of defendants’ meals. Once on Robben Island, Mandela and his comrades found that food was used as a means to punish, degrade and divide the prisoners. In times of imprisonment the acquisition of, writing, and yearning for food became integrally linked to home. Among the items smuggled on to the island was a chilli, planted and nurtured in secret.
Food, the lack thereof, how it is produced, who controls production, has often been a central reason for protest and revolution: bread riots in France, famine in India, the tax on tea in the United States of America. While food may have often enticed people into action, it was also food that was able to sustain long-term resistance. In France, Louis Philippe Duc d’Orléans understood the importance of having space to sustain the body and the revolutionary spirit. He opened up the grounds of his palace, the Palaise Royale, and renamed it Palais de l’Égalité. This palace in the heart of Paris was exempt from the censorship of the state. The ground floor was filled with food and wine – there was a market, coffee shops and a restaurant. It was here that the various factions in the revolution engaged in the debates of the day. At night the second floor of Palais de l’Égalité’s public theatre turned into a much needed space of entertainment, with the likes of Robespierre, Desmoulins and D’Anton rubbing shoulders with Mirabeau, Marat and Dr Guillotine.
Outside of d’ Orléans magnanimity, the fleeing nobility of France unknowingly also impacted on the life of the ordinary citizen. As the nobility fled, their highly trained chefs found themselves jobless. Their unemployment did not last long as the chefs took to opening their own places to feed ordinary citizens. Within the year, there were around fifty restaurants opened in Paris. This is how the revolution came to lay the foundations for the great cuisine of France. The proliferation of restaurants was matched by the growth of theatres, the print industry and pamphleteering across the country.
Almost a hundred and sixty years later, food, and the eating of it, was important to another major movement: the struggle for the recognition of the full humanity of African-Americans. One of the key moments of the Civil Rights Struggle in the United States was when four African-American students sat down at a Woolworths food counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and asked to be served. The Greensboro four were refused service at the segregated counter. They remained seated until the store closed. The next day over twenty other protestors joined the sit-in. Soon this political action spread across the segregated South.
While the request for food was a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement, the sustaining of the struggle that would go on for years required very real sustenance to fuel the bodies that were at the forefront of this historical movement. One of the main restaurants that featured heavily in the lives of the Civil Rights leaders was Paschals. Paschals was one of the few places that African-Americans could have sit-down meals. According to its now deceased owner, Robert Paschals, many Civil Rights leaders including Martin Luther King, Julian Bond, Maynard H Jackson and Andrew Young, enjoyed meals there while holding strategic meetings. On the menu were classic southern dishes, such as fried chicken, catfish and collard greens. Many of these dishes came out of the experience of slavery, a system that sought to methodically dehumanise Africans. And yet these meals are a reminder that no matter how hard the slavers and their racist society sought to break the human spirit, they could not.
From the 1960s, the Black Panther Party sought to build self-reliant African-American communities and provide various services to black and poor people. These projects were called Serve the People Programs. They took several forms including education, food security, and armed protection. The investment of this movement in these alternative schemes to build a more humane society is often overlooked in favour of its more militant aspects as this fits the general hysteria around black violence. The Panthers understood that food was vital for daily life as much as it was to fuel the revolution, and they set up various food programmes. In 1969, Panther chapters launched the Free Breakfast for School Children Program. Within the year, the programme was feeding over ten thousand children daily breakfasts before school. A fair amount of the food used in this and other such programmes were sourced locally. The Panthers were also crucial in developing urban gardens across Oakland in the late 1960s and 70s. These gardens not only helped in keeping various communities fed, they oftentimes kept the party fed. Urban gardens remain an important tool for community organising in the United States today.
In the Marikana Land Occupation in Cato Manor in Durban, collective cooking helped to bind people together as they confronted assassinations and eviction after eviction. Community gardens, as with crèches, are often an important part of the day-to-day work undertaken in established occupations. In these struggles, the first response to an arrest is often to get food into the holding cells. After that lawyers can be arranged.
Struggle and resistance is often marked by losses – loss of lives, limbs and various emotional losses.- but struggle can also enable moments of real change that bond people and create new ways of being in the world. It is this that we need to affirm in those who stand up and say: “No more, we will not tolerate business as usual.” We must not forget that those few who stand up and win victories, win those victories for us all. We need to be attentive to the loss that the few bear for the many. While some of those losses cannot be recovered, we can, through solidarity, ease the burden. This solidarity can come in various forms, and providing nourishment of the body and soul is important. Food is often an unnoticed weapon that can be used against the powerful in various ways. When a student is shaking on a barricade after an attack from the police, we can’t make what happened disappear. But we can all take round something to eat and drink, to share and be together to help sustain an insurgent but fragile sociality as it confronts guns and scorn.
How to feed people on a barricade: mobile and easy to eat food is useful – sandwiches, soups in cups, hot drinks for cold weather and fruit. And always make sure there is enough water to go around.
Pic Credit: Members of the Black Student Movement protesting at Rhodes University by Kate Janse Van Rensburg