Fezokuhle Mthonti & Vimbai Midzi
There is something about the way in which Nina Simone’s voice deepens every time she sings her 1971 hit New World Coming off the Here Comes the Sun album:
There’s a new world coming
And it’s just around the bend
There’s a new world coming
This one’s coming to an end
It is a proclamation of something new. Transformed. Dismantled. Totally different to that which we have come to know. Different to that which we have made routine and banal. It is a promise of an explosion.
Asanda Msaki croons the following in her 2016 hit, Chasing the Suns
Paper puzzles taunt me/
Dead queens and presidents haunt me/
Stay on the grid and toe the line. Don’t make a fuss/
We’ll treat you really funny if you’re not really like the rest of us/
Blue-collar dreams of bondage keeps the beast alive/
The two songs are at odds. Time has been unable to reconcile Simone’s plea for that which is new with Msaki’s incantation of that which is perniciously old. Black life across space and time seems disposable. Black art is disproportionately imbued with sorrow songs for those who have been brutalised by the state with loud, bigoted voices pronouncing violation of every kind.
Art imitates life. The political scourge of sexual violence and fascist rhetoric is replicated in the artistic communities across the African continent. The promise of the new fades into the din and Nina Simone’s prophecy seems questionable. One does not know whether to laugh or to cry. Our political and artistic states of affairs are at best, tragicomedy.
This is what Tony Mitchell would refer to as the “theatre of the grotesque”. Or perhaps even, what Achille Mbembe has termed ‘lumpen radicalism’. Mbembe refers to what Karl Marx called the lumpen, or supposedly unpoliticised, classes of society, who give vent to their inchoate feelings of frustration, injustice and anger through demonstrations that Mbembe describes as “carnivalesque” — “action in which the spirit of collective participation, rather than strategic purposefulness, generates a sense of liberation”.
Mbembe argues that “for those in survival mode — and know all too well what it means to experience social humiliation first hand — Julius Malema and the promise of the Economic Freedom Fighters fill the gaps of disappointment and failure at a time when the promise of liberation has become privatised and the ideals of reciprocity and mutuality enshrined in the Constitution are struggling to find the political and cultural platforms they deserve.”
Elsewhere, Mbembe writes that one of “the main tensions in South African politics and culture today is the realisation that there is something unresolved in the constitutional democratic settlement that suspended the ‘revolution’ in 1994 but did not erase apartheid from the social, economic and mental landscape. This settlement led neither to final victory nor to crippling defeat for any of the protagonists in the historical drama. Rather, South Africa entered a historical interval. It is still caught in this interval, between an intractable present and an irrecoverable past; between things that are no longer and things that are not yet. This is the stalemate many would now like to end”
The lines between political clown and political party have become unbearably thin and our contemporary Southern African politics have called upon and resonated with an old Italian tradition of clowning. In particular, it might be useful to have a conversation about the interplay between two medieval clowns – the guillare and court jester.
Central to this discussion is the notion of the political clown and the interaction between their performative role as ‘misfit’ or ‘fool’ and that of social and political critic. Part of the court jester and the guillare’s duality as performers stems from the spaces that they chose to occupy in performance: and in so doing articulated disparate choices in their performative personas that were then very telling of the institutional ideology that they embodied and reproduced. The court jester found himself puppeteering the sentiments of the elite and creating skits affirming the role of institutions they occupied whilst ridiculing the proletariat. The guillare found himself in a contrary space where he voiced the frustrations of the proletariat through questioning and problematising the power relations apparent in the status quo.
Former ANC Youth League president and current Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Juluis Malema who is often problematised and perhaps even celebrated by the mainstream media as a South African court jester is perhaps one of the most volatile voices in the public sphere.
Politicians have always employed performative techniques, to rally and garner support from their constituencies. Clive Gaser suggests that there has always been a sense of militancy in the conduct of leaders of the Youth League — performativity is not only specific to Malema. It was apparent in Malema’s predecessors. Gaser argues that around 1949, “a group of young , articulate intellectuals in the recently formed Congress of the Youth League, tired of white paternalism and intransigence, demanded a shift towards a more militant style of politics. For example Peter Mokaba had an incredibly militant and revolutionary leadership style that was best conveyed in his public engagements. Inherent in this show of political bravado is a masochistic underside interested primarily, in rage and violence.
Malema’s skill set is not necessarily rooted in acrobatic talent or in his ability to embody or transform into a number of theatrical characters, rather, it posits itself in the unique ability to fuel contentious debate through the use of slogan and songs. Anyone watching the South African parliament knows of the multiple slogans that brought honourable proceedings to a halt over the past two years, including #ZuptaMustFall and #PayBackTheMoney. It is clear that whenever Malema speaks or rallies up a crowd, one should get the sense that he is in fact giving a well constructed performance that transforms his audiences from being a largely disenfranchised black populace to an audience that is allowed to consider alternative socio-political realities
The combination of the two opposing voices of the guillare and the jester performs perfectly the moment we’ve found ourselves in, both in South Africa and across the border in Zimbabwe. This “theatre of the grotesque” shows itself strong in various spaces, eliciting painful laughter from its audiences. We straddle the two worlds of disappointment, pain, exclusion, and hope, a fighting spirit and optimism. The theatre plays out in Zanu-PF’s legacy of violence against opposition members, its politicisation of food aid in rural areas, its selective and poor implementation of policies that are so-called emancipatory, and the impunity it continues to give its corrupt leaders.
The party’s jesters break into perpetual songs of praise for their sole leader, planning Million-man marches and lavish birthday parties for the playwright. The audience either laughs encouragingly so as to be seen as supporting the party, or laughs painfully with the realisation of how accurately the play represents their leaders’ aloofness to the violence enacted on black bodies. Here, Msaki’s Chasing the Suns plays loud and clear, drowning out any thoughts of freedom or change.
But whither the guillare? Simone’s voice plays softly in the background in contemporary Zimbabwe, slowly moving into a crescendo as she carries the feeling of hope that sails through the air from time to time.
Recently, Zimbabwe’s stage has been fully occupied by performances of resistance. Various guillares take centre stage, voicing their concerns about the state of the country, and their desperation to see it change for every citizen. Young voices, tired of painful laughter, dismantle the system of power that only seeks to make them objects, and never subjects, of their own destinies.
Legal academic Alex Magaisa writes about both the resurgence of the repressive state in Zimbabwe and the use of social media platforms to organise citizens and put pressure on the government to deliver meaningful reforms. The performance of recent stayaways, protests and riots (albeit relatively sporadic and not representative of all citizens) is a clear indication of the frustration of citizens with the status quo. Last week’s court appearance and subsequent release of the #ThisFlag campaigner, Pastor Evan Mawarire, was the surge of hope many in the country needed. The political jesters had exited stage left, the guillares taking centre stage. Painful laughter was still painful, yet eased by the sounds of Simone’s voice, promising that a new day was coming. These moments of ‘lumpen radicalism’ are a momentary respite from the violences of the state. But to a large extent, the new day that Simone beckons is still far away on the horizon, and only the consistent acts of guillares will lead us to true freedom.
These are troubling times. Times of trepidation and fear. Yet, one must hope beyond hope that something new, un-bigoted and free from the paralysis of the now is likely. As political commentator and academic Richard Pithouse writes:
“It will have to take a critical distance from the language, concepts and authority of our rulers strung between the state, business, civil society and various forces mobilising the authority of tradition; understand how imperial power works in the contemporary world; refuse the normalisation of colonial categories; reach for as much of the truth of our lived realities as it can; and, as Aime Cesaire affirmed in 1950, understand that the ‘essential thing is to see clearly, to think clearly – that is dangerously”
Perhaps it is time to abandon the court jesters and propel ourselves into a future filled with mavericks, revolutionaries and perhaps, a genuine conception of the guillare.
Main Photo: Protesters in Zimbabwe during the #ThisFlag critique against President Robert Mugabe’s government during a week of protest and stay-aways in the country — by Tawanda Mhindurwa
Midzi is passionate about the empowerment of black African women, urban governance and telling the full range of African narratives. She blogs about gender, politics and development at roarofsilence.wordpress.com