Before the start of a public lecture by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in South Africa, student activist Kolosa Ntombini requested the renowned Kenyan writer and academic to ask white people in the audience to leave the hall as only black people could meaningfully discuss decoloninization. Kolosa recounts the episode.
It is always interesting to read the headlines that follow after students contest spaces. One of the media outlets reported, “Acclaimed writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o interrupted during UCT lecture”.
I must admit, I could not help but laugh a bit. To ask a question of clarity in the beginning of a lecture is to interrupt.
The media has sunk into a sensationalist propaganda machine that reduces robust intellectual engagement to interruptions by so-called ‘unruly students’. It then, becomes important to clarify positions in order to promote critical engagement that is not bias, which is what I hope to do with this piece.
The evening begins with Associate Professor Harry Garuba and Professor Xolela Mangcu addressing the audience. In the midst of the constant engagement on issues of gender and the use of pronouns, both greet the audience with the problematic “ladies and gentlemen”, which erases those bodies that do not identity with those two classifications.
Due to my positionality as a cis-woman writing, I do not wish to take up space by speaking on an issue which I have no lived experience on, but it is important for us to critique the rigidness of both academics to the use of gendered pronouns after so much dissent has been expressed by students in the past.
Now, what I can comment on is the so-called 'interruption' in the beginning of the lecture.
As our Father, Professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o takes to the podium, students sitting in the front raise their hands in unison to grab his attention. He recognises them and they point to the left where I am sitting and I rise to address him. He is not irritated but seems genuinely interested in listening to the question and asks me to speak over the podium.
To paraphrase, I ask wa Thiong'o about the configuration of the space. As the father of decolonial thought, he writes extensively on the relations between the oppressed and the oppressor, particularly looking at the Mau Mau uprising. Today in South Africa, as in post-independence Kenya, the relations between the oppressed and the oppressor have not fundamentally changed. The oppressed, therefore, still need to form a consolidated voice on decolonisation. But, how can we do this in the presence of our oppressors? So we ask Professor wa Thiong’o to set the tone of the talk by allowing us to converse without the presence of those that oppress us.
Before Professor wa Thiong'o can answer for himself, Mangcu jumps up to oppose the request.
It is interesting to unpack his swift opposition to a fundamental question of the power dynamics in the room and the deeper implications of this. But I won’t dwell on this as Comrade Lindsay Maasdorp’s forthcoming article deals with this.
The moment which I want us to focus on is the necessity of the question.
Firstly, the execution of the question: a critique of student activism in the past has been the seemingly haphazard nature of our activism. Beforehand, students sat down and reflected on Professor wa Thiong'o's work. For students, his work challenges us to take bold and even unpopular decisions in order to realise decolonisation. Perhaps one of Professor wa Thiong’o's boldest decisions was his agitation for the abolishment of the English department at the University of Nairobi. His decision speaks to the desire of the oppressed to create their own pathway towards complete liberation. It answers the question of how can the oppressed use, primarily, the language of the oppressor in their struggle for real liberation. This cannot be, he argues eloquently, as the oppressed must be the protagonists of their liberation. They must fashion a kind of liberation struggle that speaks to their very essence and using their own language is an integral part of this.
Students argue then that if we are to be the protagonists of our liberation, we need to form a consolidated voice. Understanding that no-one knows definitively what decolonisation looks like and that there are contentions, it should follow that when we iron out this contentions in lectures such as the one hosted at Baxter Theatre, we cannot have those that contribute to our continued oppression present in the room.
Steve Biko, puts this well when he discusses the role of the white liberal in the Black person’s history. Like him, we agree that segregation is not a natural order of life but it is necessary. To allow white people to be present as we fashion our resistance is nonsensical.
In the words of our father Biko, “It is rather like expecting the slave to work together with the slave-master’s son to remove all the conditions leading to the former’s enslavement”.
This is such a fundamental position that often I wonder why it needs to be clarified.
The presence of white people in decolonial spaces does not make sense. Professor wa Thiong’o was delivering a lecture on decolonising the mind and from a basic understanding it is obvious whom the target of this knowledge is: it is those whose mind has been colonised and that is not white people. Yet white people have this sense of entitlement to be present in these lectures and conversations. To me this questions the genuineness of their so-called liberal stance. They claim to want to help dismantle the system and claim to want to move us forward as a society yet when we ask for our space in order to engage with a man whom we revere, they refuse. The onus should never have been on Professor wa Thiong'o or even us to ask white people to excuse themselves, but rather if white people had really engaged with decolonial work and were genuine about being allies to Black people they should have, quite simply, not attended the lecture out of respect.
As I write this piece there is a sense of disappointment I cannot help to feel towards older Black South Africans.
During the lecture, when Professor wa Thiong’o would say something remotely radical, they were quick to applaud, yet when it came to being radical practically, they opposed us.
It is as though we are only happy to be radical in rhetoric.
Rhetoric will not help us gain mental and economic liberation. Rhetoric will not bring back the dignity of the Black person nor will it bring back land and generational wealth. What will bring those back is bold and decisive actions on the ground.
We need to be clear: we are not here to massage whiteness with decolonial talks in fancy universities, no! We want to reclaim our spaces in order to gain our dignity. In the words of Bantu Biko, “the liberal must understand that the days of the Noble Savage are gone”.
I truly hope that Black people would come to truly understand this. The time for asking nicely is gone.
* Kolosa Ntombini is a University of Cape Town student activist. This article first appeared in Black Opinion.
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