Personal

South African Elections: Guilt? Pride? Neither.

SA elections 2014The up-coming South African general elections have me thinking about identity and belonging. They have me thinking in particular about pride and guilt – two things I really struggle to grasp.

I voted last week (I’m in the UK at the moment so I qualified for an early overseas special vote). I almost didn’t go and vote – as would be my right. As I mention below I don’t believe in the concept of a nation, and voting would endorse that structure. But on the morning of the day I decided to go and vote.

Why?

I voted not because I love South Africa. I don’t. I don’t love the abstract concept of a nation – I don’t understand how to, and most importantly I don’t want to. I love individual people living there.

I don’t believe in the “infinite potential” of the country. I fundamentally disagree with the concept of a nation and have no personal affiliation with the sort of national identity the government is trying to forge.

I’m not “proudly South African”. Pride, for me, is a deeply personal emotion. Am I ashamed to be from South Africa? Of course not – I am from there. Am I proud? No, why would I be? I had no say in where I was born or where I grew up. South African society shaped a part of who I am, but I’m not “proud” of that – it’s just a given, in the same way that I’m not proud to have brown hair, or two eyes. I just do. I just am. Do I admire the acts of certain other South Africans? Definitely. But I also admire the actions of individuals from other countries and other histories. Do I empathise with some of the struggles in the country? Yes, but as much as I empathise with the struggles of other people elsewhere. Perhaps it’s because I grew up looking to transnational identities or non-South African media forms to feel a sense of belonging when I was younger that I don’t fully grasp the concept of a national identity. I know a great deal has been written on the subject, but for me it comes down to the realisation that I can choose my subjectivities: being from South Africa is no more important than ‘being Queer’, or than being of German/Lebanese/Scottish/South African (not necessarily in that order) descent. Why should I privilege a national identity in an age of increased transnationalism? How can I be expected to attach concepts like “pride” (or “shame”) to facets of my upbringing over which I had no control?

So no, I didn’t vote because I believe in ‘the nation’. I don’t stand when national anthems are sung.

Rather, I voted because I care about my friends and family living in South Africa. I care about what happens tVoting South Africao them, and the conditions in which they are living. And I care about the conditions in which I live when I travel back and live there.

I voted because I care about certain principles, even if the structures in which those principles are realised are (deeply) flawed.

Of course the end result is the same. Whether I vote because I care about a nation or because I care about certain individual people I’m still buying into the same system. But I do think that intention matters, particularly in relation to defining and understanding one’s own sense of being and belonging (though to some theorists and philosophers argue that, of course, is all a part of the delusion…).

Thinking on that, there does seem to be some sort of shared danger when it comes to active citizenship in South Africa. A danger whether you support principles underpinning nation building, or whether you have individual views on what it means to be democratic. And I think this ‘danger’ is why I take such issue with the rhetoric of “endless potential” in the country. The danger: there seems to be a surge of (online?) voices encouraging people to vote, to be a part of change, to take ownership of the future, to be proudly South African…and yet between elections many of these voices are uncomfortably silent.

The danger is the illusion that active citizenship begins and ends with voting once every 5 years.

I wonder how many of those voices attend rallies and marches over the weekends during their free time. I wonder how many of them make daily ethical decisions about which shops to shop at, which items to buy, which brands to support. I wonder how many of them do more than ‘liking’ a post on Facebook or sharing an online petition. I wonder how many of them actively campaign for rights, or donate to causes, or call out day-to-day instances of prejudice. I’m sure many do. I’m sure many don’t. (And of course, many of those decisions can only be made when one is wealthy enough to make them).

I certainly don’t claim to be a paragon of good. I’m as guilty as the next person about not doing as much as I know I could do. I recognise that and I’m working on it. It’s a constant process.

Active citizenshipYet I do feel distinctly uncomfortable engaging with people who spew speak about ‘endless potential’ at election time and then do or say nothing more about being active citizens. Obviously it would be unreasonable to expect people to fully dedicate themselves to advancing democracy. Some people do, and I admire them hugely. Most people I know are just concerned with getting by day-to-day, regardless of the country they’re in. It’d also be unreasonable to expect that people, perhaps even most, don’t already do something ‘extra’ to speak true to their explicit views. Unfortunately I write from experience, and in my experience many of my connections have freely informed me that beyond being armchair activists and voting come election day they don’t “do” anything else – and many of them feel they don’t ‘need’, or want, to. Or – and this is the more common occurrence – they bemoan the state of affairs whilst actively perpetuating the underlying attitudes. Eating steak whilst shaking their heads about the cruelty inflicted upon Rhinos. Lamenting the spread of capitalism whilst tapping on iPads. That sort of thing . I think we’re all guilty of that hypocrisy at some point or another.

So I’ve wondered whether the rhetoric of endless potential is damaging to South Africa. Does the amount of energy spent on encouraging people to vote instill a false sense of democratic involvement? Does the speak about potential and voting and being involved foster a false education around what it means to be democratic citizens? Or do we acknowledge that the most we can reasonably expect is a single day of action once every 5 years? (If the latter it does seem to strongly sour the rhetoric of how much potential the people of South Africa have).

I do think that there’s potential in South Africa. Of course there is.

But I think that there’s potential in every country. In every location, with the right people.

As a part of the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship program I listened to a respected historian speak about the history of South Africa: she said something very unpopular, but something which stuck with me. She said there’s nothing unique about South Africa: there’s nothing unique about its history, its people, it cultures. Yes, there’s diversity and difference, but its history and future are not ‘special’. Extraordinary in many ways, yes. Admirable. Respectable. But not unique.

That’s not Afropessimism, of which she was accused. It was a frank assessment of her (very educated and researched) understanding of South Africa.

I think that the combination of a sense of privilege based on a false understanding of being special, and the illusion that democraticUniqueness citizenship begins and ends with casting a vote, is a dangerous one.

As I read news stories I find myself increasingly irritated and angry about the actions of certain politicians and “leaders”. But as I read news feed posts from my friends I also find myself exceptionally irritated by vociferous exclamations of eternal optimism, nationalistic pride and idealistic ambitions. Afropessimism annoys me – where’s the use in it? But Afro-optimism also annoys me – perhaps even more. Hopes and dreams are important, but so is a healthy dose of reality. I acknowledge, though, that straddling that line between reality and pessimism can be difficult. You need optimism to help you get through the harshness of reality – but that, too, is a balance.

Social issues aren’t going to be solved by dreaming, voting, and then retreating back to middle-class suburban bubbles. Whether you believe in nation-building (which I don’t), or you believe in a balance between individualism and a new form of re-imagined transnationalist collectivism (which I, partly, do) social issues are going to be solved by constant awareness, research, dialogue, reflection but – ultimately – engagement and action.

Democracy isn’t an end-point: it’s a constant state of being in which freedoms ebb and flow depending on how engaged a people are.

I voted for the party with the policies which most closely align with my own views, and for the party which currently exhibits the most democratic principles and attitudes. Histories are important to be aware of – but they certainly did not determine my vote. I did not vote according to how a party was 20 years ago. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to determine ‘which party deserves my vote’; to get caught up in discourse analysis – I’m often guilty of that. But at the end of the day action is required, as is the recognition that perhaps 10, 15 or 20 years ago South Africa had the potential to develop a truly pluralistic parliament, but that may no longer be the case.

The election has me thinking about broader questions of what it means to be – perhaps because some (most?) political figures and political parties draw on identity politics to stir up voters. I’ve seen friends post articles about white guilt, middle-class guilt, patriotism, nationalistic pride…and I’ve felt a strong sense of disconnect.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been trained, through my studies, to be highly critical of emotional connections to identity categories. Perhaps it’s because I’ve struggled, personally, with questions about what it means to belong in various contexts where belonging is so conditional. Perhaps it’s just because I have no soul. Ha.

But in relation to white guilt, or middle class guilt, or other forms of guilt that people assume (or often expect) I should be feeling, I often feel quite perplexed. I don’t take responsibility for the attitudes or behaviours of my ancestors. How can I? I don’t feel obliged to identify in certain ways, although sometimes resisting pressures to conform can be difficult. Am I white? Yes. Do I feel proud about that? No, but I don’t feel ashamed or guilty either. I just am. Do I recognise it gives me privilege? Yes, but I act to remain aware of that – I don’t take on guilt or shame for it. In the same way I don’t feel pride for a national categorisation I don’t feel guilt for a class or race categorisation.

I feel proud of my achievements, and I’m proud of many of my friends and colleagues. But I’m not proud of Nelson Mandela, or Desmond Tutu – how can I be? I admire them hugely, but pride? No – I don’t know them well enough to feel pride on their behalf. I feel guilty about not exercising enough, and about writing this instead of my PhD chapter. But I don’t feel guilt about being labelled and socialised as white, or middle-class. Of course, it’s from a position of privilege that I am able to recognise that. But that’s okay – it doesn’t mean I can’t check my privilege and remain conscious of how I think and behave.

I feel neither proud to be from South Africa nor guilty that I do not espouse the values of nation building. I just am from South Africa and I just have a different set of ethics to a nation building agenda. Does that mean I will deride and dismiss achievements? No. Does that mean I will celebrate the potential of the country? No more than I will celebrate the potential of individuals in other contexts.

So what can I take, then, from these thoughts and feelings at election time? Not the hope that South Africa will enter a new era of prosperity – that will only come with hard work. Definitely not a sense of despondency that it will collapse into anarchy – that will only come when no-one fights for democracy. Certainly not the dream that the country will become great, and wondrous, and all shall feel pride – I have absolutely no desire to be a part of fighting for the development of a nation-based identity.

What I think I can take is the personal reminder that it’s easy to disconnect from the world and to be seduced by the bubble of middle-class seclusion – but that will undermine the ethics to which I try and live up. I can take from my feelings of frustration a reminder that constant action and constant consciousness is required – whether in the form of making decisions about where to shop, what to eat, or how to recycle. That engagement does not begin and end with voting. I can take from it the affirmation that even though I am bound to a national structure I can exercise certain prerogatives to take steps towards living out what I claim to be, and what I think are, my principles.

I can take from it the realisation that even though I voted if I truly believe in progress or change I need to follow-through with constant engagement and action, as exhausting as it may be. And I can take from it the very important recognition that even though I have friends who may not vote I cannot, should not, judge them, for they may be far more engaged with democracy and change in their day-to-day lives than I am.

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My non-gay high school experience

16 year old me

High school me

It’s my high school reunion this year, and people I haven’t spoken to in nearly 10 years are adding me on Facebook and tagging me in photos. It’s made me think about my school years.

Although it ended nearly a decade ago school played an incredible role in shaping my anxieties, strengths, and how I see myself. It’s been a long and sometimes tedious process to reflect on who I was and what I did and what I was exposed to. I think being in the UK, where being a teenager is so drastically different from being a teenager in small-town South Africa in the 2000s, has made me really question how I perceived things ‘back then’ and how certain memories which stick out helped and hindered my own identity.

I began high school (which, in South Africa, is a period of 5 years for ages 13 – 18) at a well-respected all-boys state school. For various reasons I was bullied and victimised and, through much sacrifice on the part of my parents, I was able to move to an all-boys private school. I was bullied and victimised less, and the smaller size of the school allowed me to grow and, to some extent, be an individual. (As a side note, 10 of 12 years of my schooling career were spent at all-boys school. Something to think on in another post, perhaps). On the whole I was able to flourish: by the end of matric (final year) I had acquired academic honours, cultural honours for debating, cultural honours for music, and was deputy-head prefect.

In retrospect, these (in the long term, meaningless) achievements were largely in part due to an absolute dedication to the schooling structure and schooling system. Certainly my work ethic was in part to having two teachers for parents, but it was equally in part due to a complete unwillingness to acknowledge any aspect of my sexuality. I don’t mean acknowledging that I was attracted to men (feelings of which I was aware since the age of 5 – again, another post): I mean, quite plainly, that I refused to acknowledge sexuality at all. Now and then in my final year I would flirt with ambiguous text messages and possible hints to one of my good friends. But for the most part it was good ol’ fashion denial.

I pretended that puberty didn’t exist, I literally refused to say the word “sex”, and I obstinately removed myself from any conversations which were vaguely sexual in nature. I tolerated human sexuality only through academic lenses: I could speak about it in biology, in English (thanks to poetry and prose), in religious education (more on this later), and in history (the reproductive lines of various kings and queens). I’m sure a bout of therapy would reveal all sorts of interesting reasons for this process of burying sexuality: a deeply religious (but balanced and loving) upbringing; small-town mentality; extreme stubbornness…

In many ways I unconsciously made myself as clinical and as asexual as possible. This was ‘complemented’ by an ardent and almost militant adherence to rules: rather than rebel against the rules I flourished under them, much to the annoyance of my peers. I never did anything wrong, and prided myself on never getting into trouble. I was a model student. Indeed, the thought of stepping out of line brought on anxiety attacks (for the first year of school I used to carry around a bottle of herbal anxiety medication. Freud and Foucault would have a field-day with me).

My final year dance outfit

‘Too gay to function’

Of course this was a ridiculous approach to life, and left me excluded from many of the discussions and experiences which define teenage years. Everyone else seemed to be aware of my sexuality before I was, as so often seems to be the case. Or rather, everyone else seemed to be willing to acknowledge my sexuality before I was ready to. I was hardly the defining example of assimilation and discretion, mind you: I mean, what 16 year old wears a bright purple jacket and fedora with purple ostrich feather complete with walking stick to their final school dance? It’s practically a scene from Mean Girls. Come on, Damien!

The beauty of retrospect is that I am now obviously able to acknowledge that my clinical approach to life and my pedantic adherence to rules was a warped attempt to somehow ‘fit in’. Although, curiously, I made a point of being an individual by never doing what was expected of me as a teenager – my rebellion took the form of resisting peer-pressure and getting a name as a goody-goody, and at the time I never wanted to fit in. But my love of rules was an effort to find some degree of acceptance, because I ‘knew’ deep down that should anyone ever discover my sexual orientation I would never be accepted. Well, that’s what I thought at that stage. I often wonder, now, how different my high school career would have been, and where I would be today, if only I had had a positive gay or queer role-model at school. Or even if the schooling system had spoken about general queerness. My experiences around gayness, that dark and mystical pathology, were wholly negative.

The context: all-boys Christian school (previously owned by the Catholic Church) with an emphasis on rugby and traditional masculinity, and a headmaster who explicitly and regularly said things like “boys who care about their mothers are creampuffs”, or “real men aren’t sissies”, or “if you want to be a real man you should care about your school, your country, and God”. Aside: school assemblies became hilarious once you realised you only had to watch some of the teachers’ faces during these moments; their attempts to suppress laugher often brought on bouts of stifled leaky-eyed giggling.

Hardly a unique experience on the whole I know, but it did make my own process of self-discovery pretty complex. [Another aside: I really think that being forced to wear a thoroughly Victorian uniform all year round, and not being allowed to have anything other than a military hair cut in an effort to “look like gentlemen” hindered, and continues to hinder, any form of self-expression and exploration…]

Within this context I have five defining memories about sexual orientation in relation to my sense of being and belonging.

Firstly, my best friend at the time (who came out after school) and I were sitting chatting one day when an older student approached us and initiated a very friendly conversation. As things go when young boys are talking, the topic turned to girls. The student asked us if we had ever kissed girls. I replied with a no, much to his horror, and my best friend said “of course I have”. Later, my friend asked why I said no. “Because I haven’t”, I replied (I didn’t see the point – I had no desire to kiss a girl). He frowned at me and said, “Well, neither have I, but sometimes you need to lie if you want to be accepted and you don’t want them to tease you”.

My second memory was after a (compulsory) religious education class. A good friend of mine was a fundamentalist Christian. We made an odd combination, but enjoyed each other’s company and helped each other study. The class discussion turned, I forget how, to homosexuality and the bible. After the class my friend asked me for my thoughts, and I remember quoting a passage (these were during my dark years of attempting to have a religion – beyond that now, thankfully) which mentioned that Jesus doesn’t judge, or something of the sort. He frowned and kept quiet. We moved on to our history class, and my friend asked our history teacher what she thought. She replied that she doesn’t judge people at all, and she felt that no person should. In all my time at school this was the only positive thought about homosexuality shared with me. My history teacher had an incredibly profound impact on me, and years later I would recognise the extent to which she helped me become myself. But naturally my friend wasn’t convinced by this and for the rest of the day he carried around his bible, reading various passages to me.

My third memory relates to my English teacher, to whom I was very close. She was young, and engaging, and the class loved her. She was passionate, and we shared many interests. During one of the school vacations a small group of students and staff took a trip to a national arts festival. The drive back was 12 hours, and – after having seen a production which dealt with bisexuality – she deconstructed the play with me. The outcome of that conversation was “Matthew, you can do anything you want to do, and be anything you want to be, but promise me now you will never be gay.” Being gay was disgusting, unnatural, anti-God, unholy, and a waste of all my potential.  “Don’t worry, ma’am,” I said,  “I won’t be – I agree with you”.

My fourth memory is of the one gay student I knew. He bravely came out at school. He was a year above me, and I couldn’t stand him. Not because he was gay – just because he was annoying. Personality clashes aside, I remember him being horribly teased. I remember the comments every boy would make as he walked past. I remember the teachers being quiet. I remember the ice being thrown at his head every day. I remember the headmaster not caring, dismissing it as “the boy’s choice to tell everyone about his preferences”. I remember shaking my head at him, and getting irritated, and realising many years later how incredibly difficult his journey must have been.

My final memory is perhaps my most formative. Upon consideration it’s not so much a single memory as it is a collection of memories about a particular individual. The school employed a middle-aged gay man; his stares at the boys were obvious, and his comments to the boys he assumed (correctly, for the most part) were gay were wholly inappropriate – not because of their homosexual nature, but because I am of the opinion that a person in authority should not make sexual remarks about students to other students. It’s an abuse of power: how is a 15 year old boy, with barely a shred of self-confidence in relation to his repressed sexual identity, meant to respond to comments from a teacher-figure along the lines of ‘doesn’t he look amazing in that Speedo? It fits him so well’?

He made inappropriate comments to my friends, who were all too afraid to report him. He made numerous inappropriate comments to me, but I ignored them and dared not question the structure of authority – after all, the structure was good and had made me a prefect, had made me a top academic, hadn’t it? A year after finishing school, through a series of events and my sense to use social networks discerningly, it transpired that on two separate occasions he posed as a 19 year old online to try and solicit personal information and pictures from 17/18 year old me. I caught him out, but never confronted him. As the only openly gay man I was exposed to as a teenager he did impart one shred of wisdom: in many ways he showed me the type of gay man, indeed the type of person, I never wanted to be.

ImageSchool was a strange time for me. I left wanting to study genetics, but decided I was more passionate about law and so switched faculties at the last possible moment. As life happened I became more interested in gender and culture, and here I am today – wholly more confident with my identity and sexuality, but still unpacking the implications of my schooling years. Despite the undoubtedly negative impact it had on my sexual identity development, school had some extremely positive effects on my growth. I learnt how to be independent and sceptical.

School is one of those things for which I feel equal affection and rage. It’s bizarre to watch coming-of-age films today, or read contemporary novels, and try and place myself in those contexts. It’s such a different landscape, in so many ways. Of course many students have it far worse than I: I never seriously contemplated suicide, and was never so severely bullied, and always had a strong family support structure. I’m incredibly grateful for the educative experience of school, but I’m not sure whether I’d call my school years happy or fond – I really became myself after school.

It’s the 10 year anniversary of my class this year. Evidently my class mates have very different memories of school, and many are excited about being reunited. I, for one, am glad that school is behind me.

Previous Posts: Reflecting on UKZN

UKZN StrikeI’ve shared my opinions in a couple of other places. I wrote these two pieces about my previous institution, UKZN.

UKZN Crisis – A Letter to Management

And a follow-up piece, when no changes were made:

UKZN Is Failing Its Students

Unfortunately, very little was achieved from the letter I wrote (hardly unexpected). Although many staff and students expressed their thanks and support, and although the letter was circulated throughout the university, management seemed to take little notice. I was dismissed as an annoyance. I am no longer based at UKZN, although I have many friends and colleagues who both work and study there. They tell me that things are much as they were, and that all they can do is to keep fighting and working towards the best interests of the students.

One positive outcome from the experience of sharing these views was that many of the students who I was lecturing at the time read the peace and shared their outrage. It was heartening to see undergraduates take action and recognise their own responsibilities to take action. At a talk I attended, Mamphela Ramphele expressed the view that the problem with democracy in South Africa is that no one taught the people, us, how to be democratic. Democracy is a constant process of struggle, not an end point. People need to realise that the onus is on them to change things, and to fight for that change. If UKZN was (is) a microcosm for the rest of South Africa, the same view can be extended to the students there, and at other universities in the country: they are not taught what it means to be a student in a democratic institution. Being a student means fighting for your own education, taking ownership of your own future, and becoming outraged when decisions are made to curtail your intellectual growth. Bearing witness to that moment of recognition, even if amongst but a few, was a privilege.