Thinking with South African Activists and Artists
The #BlackLivesMatter movement began in the United States, but it has not stayed there. This past July, I came across the phrase at the Post Its #1 art exhibition at the Constitution Hill Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa. Arguably, black lives matter was a sentiment that at least implicitly informed the entire show. What struck me though was that the phrase was explicitly incorporated into two paintings by controversial artist Ayanda Mabulu, although these two paintings escaped notice by the press, which focused instead on his larger canvas, a provocative image of current South African president Jacob Zuma rimming businessman Atul Gupta. The two less remarked upon paintings each depicted a space-suited figure carrying the naked body of a horned black figure, “BLAK LIVES MATTER” scrawled across the bottom of each canvas, capital black letters on a yellow strip, echoing the look of crime scene tape. Just as the phrase #BlackLivesMatter travels and transforms as it does so, so too must past and present artistic expressions and political movements in South Africa travel: they have much to teach us about how to survive, thrive, and resist in troubling times.
In my classes, I have often screened the 2002 film Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony. Amandla is isiZulu and isiXhosa for “power”; the chant is completed with Awethu! (“to us”). The film is moving, and it effectively condenses a number of significant aspects of apartheid and the struggle to end it. Interviews with musicians, punctuated with song, carry the viewer from the daily injustices of racial and economic inequality like the policy of Bantu education that aimed to disempower black South Africans by limiting their education and the pass system that monitored and criminalized black movement particularly in urban spaces, to punctuated events like the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, where police fired live ammunition into a group of 5000 protestors, killing 69 people, and the 1976 Soweto Uprising in which thousands of school children protesters were met with police, again with live ammunition, killing dozens. Selections from Steve Biko’s posthumously published book I Write What I Like productively complement Amandla! in another register. Biko, an outspoken, brilliant black writer and leader, was beaten to death by police in 1977. Biko was a founder (in 1968) of the South African Students’ Organization (SASO) and the black consciousness movement, which advocated solidarity and pride as Black people among all those oppressed by apartheid laws, including those who were legally designated Indian or Coloured. Consider Mabulu’s “BLAK LIVES MATTER” paintings alongside the film Amandla! and Biko’s writings. Links among creative expression through music, art and writing, access to education, and the multiple roles of policing could not be more clear. These links also reverberate in the current South African student movement that advocates fee-free and decolonized higher education. Known as #FeesMustFall, the movement has shut down universities throughout the country and has been met with the occupation of campus spaces by police and private security companies.
In her keynote address “Hallucinations” at the 13th annual Ruth First Memorial Lecture, Leigh-Ann Naidoo talks about the #FeesMustFall movement through the metaphor of time travel. Noting a generational disconnect between those who came of age as anti-apartheid activists and those now active in South Africa’s #FeesMustFall student movement, she calls the latter time travelers. “Their particular, beautiful madness,” she notes, “is to have recognized and exploited the ambivalence of our historical moment to push it into the future.” She continues:
They have been working on the project of historical dissonance, of clarifying the untenable status quo of the present by forcing an awareness of a time when things are not this way. They have seen things many have yet to see. They have been experimenting with hallucinating a new time…We are in the midst of an intense politics of time. It is not easy to accept the burden of a living, prefigurative politics. Immanence is difficult. The fear is intense, and the threat of failure is everywhere. How do we sit, collectively, in the middle of that discomfort, prepared to not know where we are going, but be convinced that we have to move?
My goal in bringing these disparate texts together is twofold. First, it is to remember that ideas travel and that attention to various elsewheres, in all of their geographic and temporal specificity, can be thought-provoking, instructive, and inspiring. Second, it is to affirm the transformative power of art, music, and writing: resistance is multivalent.
In thinking through how anthropology might help to make sense of these texts and the worlds that they respond to and create, I find myself returning to the 1988 book South African Keywords: The Uses & Abuses of Political Concepts. Edited by South African anthropologists Emile Boonzaier and John Sharp, the book used anthropological analytic tools to demonstrate how concepts like culture, tradition, tribe, ethnicity, race, population, and gender were redefined and deployed under apartheid policies to justify and naturalize oppression. As anthropologists, they and we attend to specificity. What then are the keywords that animate a present in which it must continually be asserted that #BlackLivesMatter? How are they differently articulated in the U.S., in South Africa, and elsewhere?
Naidoo, Leigh-Ann. “Hallucinations: 13th Annual Ruth First Memorial Lecture Keynote Address.” Published as “Leigh-Ann Naidoo: The anti-apartheid generation has become afraid of the future.” Johannesburg, South Africa: Mail & Guardian, 17 August 2016.
 The exhibit was curated by University of California Davis anthropology PhD candidate Matthew Nesvet and art director/University of Witwatersrand social sciences tutor Asanda Madosi. See also: http://www.culture-review.co.za/post-its
 For an excellent take on the theological elements of Black Consciousness, see Daniel R. Magaziner’s The Law and the Prophets: Black Consciousness in South Africa, 1968-1977 (Magaziner 2010).
 Alongside Amandla! and Biko’s writing, it is useful to read more about South African history. The South African Reader is an excellent collection of primary sources edited and with commentary by Clifton Crais and Thomas V. McClendon that was published in 2014. Here is another online resource with detailed and accessible entries on the events and people mentioned here as well as many others.
Noah Tamarkin is an assistant professor in the department of Comparative Studies at the Ohio State University. He also holds a position as research associate at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research. Trained as a cultural anthropologist, his ethnographic research in South Africa examines the social circulations and cultural meanings of DNA in relation to postcolonial and indigenous citizenship and the racial and religious politics of belonging. He is currently writing a book manuscript “Genetic Afterlives: Evidencing Black Jewish Indigeneity in South Africa,” which examines how Lemba South Africans have repositioned their liminal status in relation to Jewish diaspora, African indigeneity, and South African citizenship both before and after their participation in Jewish genetic ancestry studies. He is also currently working on an ethnographic project that examines the introduction and implementation of legislation to expand South Africa’s national criminal DNA database. This project considers the social, cultural, and political implications of genomics as it emerges as a global technology of governance and as a form of postcolonial development. His research has appeared in Cultural Anthropology, Annals of the American Academy of Social and Political Science, The Routledge Handbook of Global Citizenship Studies, and Oxford Bibliographies in Jewish Studies.