Living -and learning- within the legacy

The Big Issue November 2011 –


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Bylines Thought Leader

Taking on ‘Gareth Cliff on Everything’

I participated in a “blog tour” of Gareth Cliff’s first attempt at a book . Kudos to the good people at Thought Leader for hosting the first pitstop on the tour.

It is far easier to collect books than to actually read them. Recently, even the most bookish of my friends report some measure of difficulty in reading a book from start to finish. These are not people who have spent their lives eschewing books. Many of us spent our teenage years lapping up classics with the same intensity we consumed bubble-gum pop. We got through university successfully combing our individual ways through the drivel sprouted at us but now in the mindless haze between our smartphones and our laptops, we have lost our taste for reading, dare I say it, religiously. It may well be the impending pall of old age that has reconfigured our literary bents. After all, these are our mid-late twenties — the brink of veritable antiquity. But something more insidious has conspired to rob of us what we once loved. Somewhere between our smartphones and computers, in the midst of our restlessness, we have foregone depth.

In our relationships, our reading habits, our consumption of news there is now a remarkable lack of depth. Too busy to actually engage with someone or even a complex idea we skim the surface of the world and then retreat back into ourselves only to fall asleep from the exhaustion of it all.

William Powers in his book Hamlet’s BlackBerry underscores well the need for depth in our experiences. “Depth roots us in the world, gives life substance and wholeness. It enriches our work, our relationships, everything we do,” he writes. It takes some measure of psychological and structural adjustment to regain some measure of depth but in the meanwhile the world is changing to accommodate this lack of depth. The news has been reduced to pockets of 140 characters supported by trifling 200-word reports. Books too have not been unaffected by this trend.

The newly released Gareth Cliff on Everything is one such product that has been primed to accommodate for our collective lack of time and disinclination towards depth. This is certainly not an autobiography and it is not meant to be. It is a collection of short pieces on a dizzying array of subjects upon which Cliff weighs his opinion and emerges supreme. This is not a meaty treatise on the philosophy of Gareth Cliff. These are easily readable chunks of opinion bound together by the force of Cliff’s personality. And while it is easily readable, and in parts very well written it is not always agreeable.

When I was first approached to write a review on this book, I immediately felt repulsed. I am no fan of Cliff. I last listened to him on radio when he anchored the afternoon show on Radio 702. Yes, that long ago. I do not follow him on Twitter but every now and then suffer the misfortune of seeing an errant retweet from him. I eventually accepted the offer to review the book because I believe in the little cliques we form online, we suffer the danger of insulating ourselves from thoughts and opinion that bruise us or just plainly take an opposing view to ours.

The blurb on the book warns that this is a book that will “engage, enrage and derange” you all at once. I picked up this book carefully, well aware that I would not be nodding my head in fawning approval of Cliff but I was ready to try to understand him better. Early on, Cliff reveals that his impatience with religion runs so deep that he cannot take anybody who is an adherent to any religion seriously. What is clear however is that Gareth has swopped religion for self-righteousness. I don’t deny that he does sometimes make sense but too often his views are couched in a saucy superiority but in a piece titled, “Getting the house in order”, he concedes his fallibility. “I’ve never imagined for a second that I was perfect. I know I’m full of stupidity, occasional myopia and some prejudice, but that doesn’t mean I’m not capable of correcting myself,” he says.

He proceeds to offer an apology to Thabo Mbeki, Cindy Nell, the late Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, Blade Nzimande, Helen Zille, his co-worker Damon Kalvari, Alec Erwin, Idolscontestants and anybody else he may have once incensed. It may be a turgid apology but I thought it was a refreshing admission of his own humanity.

Fear not, however, any good will that the apology does extend is easily balanced out by a number of other questionable views Cliff expresses of women, fat people and those he deems stupid. This is a book that Cliff’s fans should read in fitting worship of their hero. It is also a book Cliff’s detractors should read. There is nothing particularly engaging, enraging or deranging in this book. It’s just all Gareth Cliff.

This book, through no fault of its own, or indeed Gareth Cliff, is however a sad indictment of human life today. We have forsaken the complexity of depth for easy opinion — my own included.

* This is the first stop in a “blog tour” organised by representatives of Jonathon Ball Publishers. The writer received a complimentary copy of the book for purposes of this review.

Daily Maverick Interviews Miscellaneous Published

Interview with Andile Mngxitama

I have always associated Pambazuka as a place the super-smart go to write, so it was a a tremendous honour for me to be contacted by the editor, Firoze Manji, with a request to republish my interview with Andile Mngxitama on the anniversary of Steve Biko’s death.

You can read the original on Daily Maverick here and the Pambazuka version here.

Daily Maverick, 13 September, 2011-

Like Che Guevera, Steve Biko is the poster child for revolution. His face adorns the T-shirts and posters of a generation who may know nothing of his teachings except that his is a face with some erstwhile significance. Thirty-four years after his death, Steve Biko is an icon but he is also a lot more than a trifling symbol of an ancient idea. I spoke to Steve Biko scholar, black consciousness thinker and organiser, co-editor of “Biko Lives!” and publisher of the journal “New Frank Talk”, Andile Mngxitama about the legacy of Steve Biko, the remaining vestiges of white privilege, the hate speech ruling against Julius Malema and most intriguingly, how often he combs his hair.

On 11 September 1977, apartheid police loaded Steve Biko in the back of a pickup truck. Tortured, dehumanised, naked and restrained in manacles, he began the 1,100km trek to Pretoria where he would purportedly be imprisoned in a facility with medical amenities. So severe were the injuries Biko sustained at the hands of the police during his detention that he died shortly after his arrival at the Pretoria prison. It was 12 September 1977. State officials claimed his death was the result of an extended hunger strike, but an autopsy revealed multiple bruises and abrasions, and that he ultimately succumbed to a brain haemorrhage from the severe injuries to the head. To everybody outside the state apparatus, it was clear that Biko had been brutally clubbed by his captors. It was Helen Zille, back when she was just a journalist, as well as Donald Woods, another journalist and close friend of Biko, who eventually exposed the shocking truth behind Biko’s death.

Thirty-four years later, Helen Zille is the leader of the Democratic Alliance, the opposition party taking the fight to the ANC, and Biko haunts the political subconscious of the “new dispensation”.

“Steve Biko… we say Biko lives. Steve Biko lives,” insists Mngxitama, “The biggest mistake of the apartheid regime was to think they could kill him and his ideas.” Mngxitama believes Biko himself understood the need for longevity in his ideas when he wrote, “It is better to die for an idea that will live than to live for an idea that will die.” Steve Biko is certainly more than a T-shirt. His were ideas that galvanised the struggle against the apartheid and a realisation of self-worth among black people themselves.

Mngxitama believes that time will prove the memory of the contribution of Biko to the struggle to be greater than even Mandela. “Today we see young people outside of the political formation trying to read and understand Biko, try to make sense of Steve Biko in a country which remains basically anti-black. So, from this point of view, it is very clear that Biko lives,” says Mngxitama. While the ANC may claim to espouse the ideas of Biko, Mngxitama believes “Biko is a threat to the current set-up that started in 1994 which continues to treat black people as sub-human. The ANC is basically managing the architecture which is anti-black”. Two weeks ago, at the opening session of the Mail and Guardian Literary Festival at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, Mngxitama shocked the audience when he said, “South Africa is a white country under black management”.

“The best tribute we can pay to Steve Biko is to fight to realise his vision of what it means to be free. It is not the picture it is now. (Biko’s vision) is simply a cantering of black people and their dignity so that every policy, every law, every act by our government is postulated to make… Right now this is not happening,” Mngxitama continues. While the palpability of Biko’s ideas in South Africa is certainly debatable, there is little doubt that Biko’s legacy is indeed a powerful one.

“I think the idea that blacks can be the bosses of their own destiny is the most powerful, distinct legacy of Biko,” says Mngxitama.  “You must remember that until the emergence of black consciousness in our country, black people had given up hope. 1976 is in a sense the culmination of Biko’s teachings. And we all know that it proved be a reinvigoration of the PAC and the ANC leaders in exile, and gave hope to the leaders on Robben Island when there was no hope.” He points out that the “democracy we have today it is unimaginable without Biko’s contribution”.

It is telling that on Monday, while many self-proclaimed acolytes of Steve Biko remembered Biko by replacing their own avatars online with an image of Steve Biko, Mngxitama replaced his Facebook avatar with a picture of a student politician at the University of Cape Town (UCT) Ziyana Miché Lategan. While Nkosinathi Biko, son of Steve Biko regaled among others, Helen Zille with a timely reminder of Biko’s message at UCT, Lategan a fierce proponent of Biko’s principles of black consciousness, was contesting a seat in an SRC election.  Mngxitama lobbied support for Lategan who he says confronted no less than Trevor Manuel earlier with the message that he “was a servant of capitalism and imperialism with his anti-black Gear policies”. For all the quotations proffered in deference of Biko, the reality of his message is not an entirely palatable one. Biko will not be easily made into an anecdotal teddy bear.

Among the newly crowned gentry that is the black middle class, Mngxitama is himself seen as an elaborate joke for his staunch black consciousness ideals. While he is grudgingly feted for pushing the agenda of the advancement of the lives of black people, he is lambasted for driving the debate about white privilege into circles.

While he often sounds alarmingly like Julius Malema, Mngxitama is no praise singer for the embattled ANC Youth League leader. Hours after the Johannesburg High Court ruled against Malema’s right to sing the struggle song, “Dubula iBhunu”, Mngxitama said he believed Malema was a tool in a highly contrived scheme concocted by the ANC to divert attention from the realities of South Africa’s lack of transformation. “Malema did not have to jump up and down to sing the song,” he says, but goes on to opine that the ruling proves the lack of transformation in the South African judiciary. “Increasingly, we are seeing the Constitution as a tool for extreme right-wingers,” says Mngxitama.

His vision for South Africa, he says, espouses the ideas of Biko and is one of “justice and equality”.  “When I read Steve Biko carefully, I have come to the conclusion that Steve Biko must have been a black socialist because when he was asked the question ‘Are you a communist?’ he replied ‘No.’ But when he was asked ‘Are you a socialist?’, he said, ‘Yes’.”

But is Andile a socialist? Only “if you say socialism will maximise democratic life and the democratisation of wealth…” he says cautiously.  Ultimately Mngxitama says his vision for South Africa is one “where communities are happy and secured”.

But how often does Mngxitama comb his hair? He laughs heartily, and then says very seriously: “No, never”. “Let me answer the question this way,” he continues, “For those who take a position against the system, there is a particular beauty in revolution.” DM

Miscellaneous Published

How Much Freedom Do You Have?

A blog post for the fabulous people at The Chirp Room

January 2010-

Growing up in post Apartheid South Africa I was taught to revere freedom. Like candy to the urchin freedom was the gift I excitedly cupped my hands in anticipation of but instead of the clamour of coins falling into my waiting palms, I was bewildered.  I smiled my thanks and held on tightly certain only of its fragility. What did it mean to be free?  The horrors of Apartheid were too far removed from me, its legacy was palpable, yes, but its essence was too far removed, too deeply buried for me to identify against. The only world I knew was the one I lived in, its antithesis was only a narrative.

And as teachers and parents to instruct me to be grateful for the mundane, freedom soon became a buzzword.  ‘Freedom!’ screamed the make-shift graffiti on school property jostling boisterously with ‘FTW!’ for pride of place. Back then of course, geeks were yet to reassign ‘FTW’ with the meaning ‘For the win’.

Above the chalkboard of my seventh grade classroom meanwhile, three years into the new South Africa, my English teacher put up a copy of the newly passed Bill of Rights. Freedom of the person, Freedom of religion, Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Association , Freedom of Movement. ‘Freedom of expression,’ my teacher would one day tell me, a faraway look in her eyes, ‘that one’s my favourite.’ It soon became my favourite too as it precipitated the aura around freedom to slowly unravel.

In high school, I would often be asked by snarky classmates in high-pitched voices and overstated airs of importance, ‘How much freedom do you have?’ Only fourteen year olds could believe freedom to be quantifiable.

What they meant to know of course was if I was allowed to parade myself like a witless doll on the faux piazza of the newest northern suburb shopping complex, staying out late doing God alone knows what fourteen year olds do. Freedom back then was defined in relating our whims against those who had the power, parents and teachers, to stifle it.

I’m still not sure how much freedom I have. Of course now my freedom is not governed so much by parents or teachers as it is by the shackles of my own mind. In Erich Fromm’s The Fear of Freedom relates the individual to the social in an intriguing treatise on what it means to be free-

What is freedom as a human experience? Is the desire for freedom something inherent in human nature? Is it an identical experience regardless of what kind of culture a person lives in, or is it something different according to the degree of individidualism reached in a particular society? Is freedom only the absence of external pressure or is it also the presence of something else-and if so, of what? What are the social and economic factors in society that make for striving for freedom? Can freedom become a burden, too heavy for man to bear, something he tries to escape from? Why then is it that freedom is for many a cherished goal and for others a threat?

Is there not also, perhaps, besides an innate desire for freedom, an instinctive wish for submission?

July 2011-

This year, we’ve looked on in awe as one by one the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya took to their streets in defiance of tyranny, demanding “freedom”. For the people of Egypt and Tunisia the freedom they won was almost a palpable thing. It was a lifting of the spirit, an unclasping of well-worn shackles. Cairo soon began to scream freedom, not just from deep within its people but also its streets.  Street art, unseen in Egypt previously, began flourishing expressing the hopes, fears, anguish and distress for an uncertain future. And that I think is freedom: A physical and mental space that allows for the expression of individuality without the pressure of conformity.