What intellectuals look and sound like
Reading three contemporary South African women authors: Lindiwe Hani, Pumla Gqola and Redi Tlhabi.
Over the past few months I have been in correspondence with a South African intellectual and academic who is old enough to be my father. Our exchanges have been rich and warm. I have long admired him. When I worked up the courage to share with him my excitement about our conversations and told him I appreciated the time he had taken to read my work, and when I said I was especially grateful because of the place he has long held in my mind as someone of true intellectual integrity, he was kind enough to delve into his archives and share a review he once received from one of his own heroes. He told me he remembered his own gratitude for the attention he had received from this man – a writer and thinker of great stature – whom he too had read and admired from a distance for years. It was a touching act, a reminder to a younger writer struggling with her voice and her place in her society that she was not the first to have jitters; a reminder that even the greats doubt themselves at first. In part, the form and candor of the exchange was possible because of the positions we occupy on the spectrum of our careers. He sits well past mid-age; his most productive years (though perhaps not his best) behind him. I am much younger and so for me the future holds a different set of possibilities.
When I was younger everyone whose intellect I admired was much older than I was. I read people who were published, which 20 years ago when I was reading voraciously as a student, meant they were established. The timeframe between thinking and writing and then between writing and getting published, was much longer then. The spaces were fewer and the options narrower and this meant that to have your name in print – in an era when there literally no such thing as online – you were very talented and connected and lucky.
Writers like Audre Lorde and Susan Sontag and Ursula Le Guin in the United States; Sindiwe Magona and Lindiwe Mabuza who were South African; Ayi Kwei Armah in Ghana and Chinua Achebe who seemed to own the world – they were all much older than me and partly as a function of their age they felt impossibly wiser than I might hope to ever be.
I grew up with pictures of them as models of what “real” intellectuals and writers looked and sounded like. For obvious reasons, the public thinkers who whom I was drawn were primarily African or black, and many of them were women. I was drawn to their minds but I was impressed too with the bodies from which their minds operated – unruly and brown and so different from the mainly angular lean spectacle-wearing bodies of the men who dominated the backs of book jackets that filled the library in my university.
They weren’t my peers. Nothing about them felt within reach. Instead, they represented what, if I was very lucky and worked very hard, might lie in my future. They were a set of goals. Also, because their own age and experience were ever-expanding; they were also a group of people with whom I could never catch up: They were moving targets.
Of course it would be wrong to give the impression that my admiration for them did not stop me from engaging their work critically. I disagreed here and there with some of their ideas. Sometimes as I read them (because my formative adult years were pre-podcast and Youtube clips, when even commencement addresses had to be published and read in print) I shook my head and called a friend and together we would compare notes. Still, my posture towards each of these greats, was that of a student to a set of wise teachers. So when the esteemed older writer ad I engaged, I assumed a position in relation to him that was familiar and comfortable: I was appropriately and genuinely deferential.
There is a beauty in this. In many ways the relationships that occur across generations are what make humans exceptional. Humans and other primates keep our young close. Our societies are complex because we survive across generations and we cultivate relationships well past the point of physiological maturity. In other words we continue to learn from and love one another long past the biological utility of these emotions.
In contrast of course both literature and history are full of stories about the great friendships and dramatic rivalries that have always existed between contemporaries. Aunts and uncles play a special role in nurturing and teaching but siblings – ah, siblings are both a source of camaraderie and deep-seated resentment. There is something about being in a similar stage of emotional and physical stage of maturity that shifts the dynamic. Peers – those who are equals by virtue of age and accomplishment and a range of other factors – can both be the deepest enemies and the closest of allies.
In societies where race operates as a divisive force (which is of course every society where race has any meaning), contemporaries who are raced as “black” are often pitted against one another. There is only room for one spokesperson. The space for black women’s voices in particular is limited. I was told when I first started writing, that I should not approach a certain news outlet as they already had a regular black woman columnist writing for them. For black people there is only so much room. This is in stark contrast with the space provided to white writers. For them there are no limits, no questions that the white male perspective is already covered. Each white man who comments is already seen as an expert and so his commentary is seen on its own merits.
Charles Van Onselen has written, and Johnny Steinberg and Du Preez. They are not white men: they are themselves. Media managers sometimes think that having two or three or four black voices weighing in on a topic might be “repetitive.” This is of course a standard that isn’t applied for whites, especially for white men.
This law of limited space is applied especially stringently for black people who are contemporaries of one another. The older generation is allowed to have space – but for up-and-coming voices, well, the space is winnowed.
I make these perambulatory comments to explain why I am increasingly drawn to the public display of support for the work of my contemporaries – where it is warranted. For me, the politics of supporting the intellectual efforts of my contemporaries moves beyond the celebration of black girl magic – a term and phenomenon I have critiqued elsewhere.
Instead, I am mindful that while the intellectual work of black people is often celebrated, it is seldom reviewed with any depth or seriousness. The true hallmark of supporting African thinking it seems, ought to be in the extent to which the work is genuinely engaged, debated and taken seriously on its merits.
Both the volume and quality of work being produced by my contemporaries – black writers in their 30s and 40s – is impressive. The space that was once occupied almost exclusively by the cohort of living writers and intellectuals who influenced my intellectual development – those who cut their teeth in the 1970s and 1980s – is being replaced by people my age. So, while on the one hand there is deep resistance on the part of media owners, universities and established institutions to the multiplicity of our voices, and a real cap on how many of us can be celebrated, on the other hand the demographics are on our side. We have amassed enough experience and credibility – tenuous though these may be – to be on the rise.
The commentary of this generation is substantively different from the commentary of the past. Those who were in their 30s and 40s in the Mandela era embraced the Rainbow Nation. Indeed, they were authors of the narrative and were deeply implicated in the fight for a discourse of multiracialism. This generation of public intellectuals, writers and activists are more ambivalent about these ideas. They write about their experience of living within this ideology; about the Arendtian notion of the banality of evil that has arisen from the very idea of the rainbow.
Three new books illustrate this especially well. It is no accident that each of these books are authored by African women in their 30s and 40s.
The first is Redi Tlhabi’s book Khwezi: The remarkable story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo about the woman who accused South Africa’s President, Jacob Zuma of raping her, and who was let down by a whole chain of people, and indeed by a movement. The second is Pumla Gqola’s autobiographical collection of feminist essays; Reflecting Rogue: Inside the mind of a feminist. The last is Lindiwe Hani’s book Being Chris Hani’s Daughter which explores sadness, trauma, addiction and independence.
Each book explores the complexity of having grown up with one foot in Apartheid South Africa and being shaped by its pathos. Each book is authored by a woman who was a child during Apartheid but has lived her entire adult life in a “free” South Africa.
In different ways, each of these books is really about the end of innocence – about how each author has marked her departure from the halcyon days when the African National Congress and its leaders were held in high regard, to today, when they are seen by and large as having betrayed the ideals of the struggle.
While the daily news headlines in South Africa are obsessed with the political machinations of the day – with the Guptas and corruption and breaches of the Constitution, these books are about something deeper. Tlhabi, Gqola and Hani write about the emotional manifestations of this mass betrayal. Each of these books is concerned with the psychic effects of the ANC’s callousness and what is has meant for the post-Apartheid generations who have been its collateral damage. In Hani’s case, the turn to drugs – and the “shame” and fear of bringing the family and movement into disrepute because of being Chris Hani’s daughter – offers a rich backdrop for the unfolding and tragic dramas of both the party and her life. For Gqola, the continuation of institutional sexism and racism, in systems she has had to navigate, speak to the abrogation of the new government’s duties. And for Tlhabi, the treatment of Fezeka both during the trail but more importantly, in her difficult childhood in exile, are a testament to the myth of justice that has always surrounded the ANC.
Over the next three months I will review each of these books. My aim is to examine each book separately but also to talk about the connections made in the analysis proffered by the women who have written them. My contemporaries are engaged in the important work of looking back and surveying the wreckage of the past 40 years of South African history. They are bridging the generation that bred them and the post-Apartheid era that has shaped them. In the process, they are writing a new future. I hope you can join me as we think together about their work and their words.