Revisiting identities/positionalities in a changing South African socio- and geopolitical climate

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This paper was delivered at the Race and Identity Seminar held at the University of Cape Town, African Studies Gallery
02 September 2006
Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen. Before we start off with our programme I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the Harry Crossley Foundation for being the strong financial pillar behind my fine art and new media postgraduate studies here at UCT. I would also like to thank the speakers for their positive response to my invitation – without their support we would not have been here today. I cannot forget to thank my academic supervisors, Virginia Mackenny and Johann van der Schijff, and also the Michaelis Fine Art and New Media staff members and graduate students for their constructive criticism on the subject at hand. How can I forget my organising team, Zerina Davis and Evi Francidis? Last but not least I would also like to thank every one for coming through to engage with us in this discourse. I must admit that it has not been an easy seminar to organise, considering the fact that I have to submit my dissertation at the end of this year. I hope that this seminar will act as one of the UCT archival materials from which our critics and practitioners will draw ideas that will help enable a better future for all.
Members of the diplomatic corps, academics, theorists, visual practitioners, graduate students and members of the media who are here with us today, we are gathered here at this academic colloquium as these significant societal clusters, without which our country would not have been able to move beyond the superimposed racial division to which it was subjected by the then regime. It must be remembered that it was these similar minds that had joined forces to bring down one of the most deadly regimes that has ever existed on South African soil. These are minds that changed the whole course of history. It is therefore similarly these minds that must again gather to build a truly democratic society in which all voices must be echoed.
At this critical time in our history we need a discourse that will comfort and discomfort, the one that has a potency to hurt and heal at the same time. Our discourse should encourage social and academic cohesion and shun racial schisms so that we may look at one another not as different entities but as entities deliberately brought together by the forces of history from which we cannot isolate ourselves. We all carry one another’s scars. Perhaps this observation is further explained by James Baldwin in a book entitled Out of Whiteness, edited by Vron Ware and Les Back (2002:83): 
[E]ach of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other … white in black and black in white. We are part of each other. 
It is therefore through this spirit of each otherness that we need to engage ourselves in a critical, constructive and supportive manner. We have become so complacent, comfortable and conservative in our small academic conclaves. In the comfort of our small racial cocoons we are, however, haunted day by day by the demons of racism, fear of the other, suffering from inferiority complexes, supremacy and other anomalies that have for so long clouded, crippled and paralysed our society.
Not only have we, through our complacency, allowed this paralysis, but we have also in most cases projected these catastrophes on to a society that is already allergic to the discourse of race. This is not to deny the contribution that has been made by many academics and visual practitioners with whom I share the idea of generating a continuous discourse/dialogue that will help us engage across our colour lines so that we can understand one another better. The main aim of this symposium is, therefore, to generate a discourse with the aim of revisiting our comfortable identities/positionalities in an ever-changing South African socio- and geopolitical climate, as suggested by the title of this seminar. It is within the dialect of these positionalities that we construct our sense of belonging.
Stuart Hall Argues: 
Identity is about being positioned and investing in a particular (subject) position. This process of positioning cannot be understood outside discourse and power. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they [identities] are subject to the continuous "play" of history, culture and power. Far from being grounded in mere recovery of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which, when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narrative of the past (Baaz 2001:5-6).
In a country such as ours whose past is still lingering on to tell its own tales, it has become so significantly important that one needs to revisit one's own positionality, so that we as a collective may adequately attend to the ever-existing question of the past, about which Sue Williamson (1996:52) states: 
The past is never another country, it is a terrain – a psychic, physical terrain  which must be mapped, remembered, reinscribed in the present in a constructive and imaginative way. 
In his book Diaspora and Visual Culture Nicholas Mirzoeff states that "the past continues to speak to us".
It is through this vernacular and narrative of the past that one is reminded of Zwelidumile Mgxaji Feni’s African Guernica, Willie Bester’s Dogs of War, Johannes Segogela’a elongated sculptural figures, Jane Alexander’s Butcher Boys, Sfiso Mkame’s Letters to God, Tami Mnyele’s There goes a man deep in sorrow, like river underground, Paul Stopforth’s Interrogators, Durant Sihlali’s Race Against Time, Gerald Sekoto, George Pemba, and all other visual practitioners whose visual production was, in De Jager’s term, “a product of its time”. Their art, just like any other art that matters, captured and froze aspects of our socio-political realities where one race continually and determinedly superimposed its powers and standards on to its opposite “other”. By capturing these ambiguous moments of pain and happiness, laughter and anger, love and hatred, “black” and “white”, the artists therefore made aware of their social responsibility, a discourse that has a substance of its own. Their visual production as hung on the white walls of the National Gallery helps us in our quest of finding a part of us that went down in history.
As I stand in front of you I speak as an end product of these pioneers, whose names are enshrined, archived and embedded into the psyche of the country I am part of. Some died In the Diaspora so that I may no longer live as an object of rejection in my own land, but as a dignified citizen whose destiny can no longer be determined by those of lighter complexion, namely the so-called “Kings, Queens, Guardians, Lords and Leaders” of humankind. Some lived on so that from their essence I may draw my own essence.
In our academic venture of trying to define and problematise who and what we have been positioned to be we are again finding ourselves travelling backwards and forwards in time, playing and manoeuvring the clichés of the past, hoping to find meaning of what we have become. This meaning comes as we begin with a dialogue, perhaps a discourse, of what we could have been if it had not been for the politics of the skin. It must be remembered that it was through the politics of the skin that history was forcefully penetrated into by the imperialists and Calvinists whose ideology was based on the Manichaean division of “black” and “white”, “good” and “evil”, “self” and “other”, “civilised” and “uncivilised”. It was through this Manichaean division that the “black” body suffered the scrutiny of its “white” “other”.
Those who are historically and politically conscious will understand that it all started with a gaze which was classificatory, corrosive and segregative in nature. It then developed into an obsession of the “white” supremacy and then there was the terrorisation and oppression of the “black” body by its “white” other. This is the sequence and proximity in which it all happened, at least in all geographies where “black” and “white” have had an opportunity to encounter each other. And history has proven to us that South Africa has not been an exception to this.
It must be remembered that it was through this corrosive gaze that Sarah Baartman (The Hottentots' Venus) fell victim to the white and Western gaze down on the Tip of the Southern plains. In the name of this gaze and science Baartman was taken to Great Britain as the subject of white scrutiny. Having been displayed in British museums she died and after many decades her remains were brought back and buried with dignity in the land of her birth. To Ingrid Winterbach, in a catalogue entitled “Out Post II”, curated by Virginia Mackenny and Storm van Rensberg (2002:23–5), the rabbit hole goes deeper than my short summary. (Apologies for a long quote)  
She arrives in London in March 1810. Some black ladies she finds in frills at the opera house, and some black ladies in various positions (attitudes, inviting postures) of servitude. But she is the first exhibit … she is the first specimen from the banks of the Gamtoos River. At two shillings a head, from one to five in the afternoon, topless and on plinth, but wearing a little traditional apron, she is all the rage in Piccadilly … 
The story continues:  
She emerges in France in 1814 … sold to an animal trainer. She is painted by Marie Guillemine Beniost as an individual, not a picturesquely exotic type. Stones. Bones. Animals. Plants. People. The need to classify is urgent … After the dinner parties she returns at night to stay with the animals … She crawls in to sleep close to the warm flanks of the trained bear and the stripped giraffe. The talking hyena and the singing slug. We are all freaks here. Her obscure clicks becomes subdued, the sound become modified. She speaks less and less, she has less need for language. After the dinner party circuit she serves the purpose of science. She stands on a revolving podium and a stick is pointed at her. In the cold spring of 1815 she is made available for scientific observation. For three days she is observed by comparative anatomists. She refuses to lift her apron. They offer her money but she will not reveal the secret of her pathology. When she dies her refusals are silenced. Cuvier presents the findings of the autopsy to the academy. He explains that the genital organs have been prepared in a way so as to allow his learned colleagues to see the nature of the labia … News of his findings spreads to the courts of Europe. King Ferninand Bourbon buys the bottled organs – or has them abducted at a price – for the amusement of his menopausal queen. After a time the bottle is displaced from the Sicilian summer palace (its lovely Venetian shutters closed at noon) and it is never traced again. She died in exile …  
With Baartman’s melancholic story and the rest of the African Diaspora it seems as if it could not have happened any other way, but it happened just the way it happened so that we in the present may know that it all started with a gaze.
This is not to insinuate that all white bodies benefited from “white” supremacy, because there were those individual “white” bodies who throughout the unravelling of history died alongside their then fellow “black” oppressed and by so doing they denied their own “whiteness” and the privileges attached to it. Twelve years into democracy, what do we make of these fallen compatriots who were brutally slaughtered by their fellow white system simple because of their association with “black” bodies and their “blackness”?
Inasmuch as history has been about robbing “blackness” of its dignity, one major question among other questions that seem to haunt our “post-apartheid” discourse is the question of the invisibility, apparent neutrality and normalisation of “whiteness”; as Nirmal Puwar stated in her book Space Invaders (2004:135):  
… whiteness is defined as the norm and the standard neutral space…it is still not legitimate to talk of whiteness … the notion of whiteness is still on the margins of academic and public discussions …  
She further states (2004:58):  
White however has a strange property of directing our attention to colour while in the very same movement it exnominates itself as a colour …  
According to Melissa Steyn in the book Whiteness isn’t what it used to be
Whiteness was a modernist construction, central to the colonization project and achieved through exorcism of everything “black” particularly African, from whiter identity (Steyn 2001:150).      
The problem now as displayed by Puwar and Steyn is the neutrality and normalisation of “whiteness” as that which cannot be touched or problematised. Though according to Natasha Distiller and Steyn the academic autopsy is shifting slightly but surely from interrogating the black body to making visible the (in)visible “white” body and therefore putting “whiteness” as the subject of the contemporary scrutiny. From the book entitled Under Construction I quote Distiller and Steyn as having said: 
An important but still embryonic development has been the emergence of work which shifts the academic gaze from the problems that come with being “black” and “raced” to the processes of racialisation into “whiteness” and the social location of racial privilege (Distiller & Steyn 2004:2).  
Distiller and Steyn pose a major challenge to all of us in our different areas of specialisation to reason consciously as to why is there a lack of scrutiny on “whiteness”. Is it because “whiteness” is still perceived as the standard by which other bodies are measured? Why is the subject of “whiteness” still on the margins of our collegial discourses? Is there perhaps a conspiracy? Why is the black subject always an easy target of scrutiny when there is a problematic “white” subject that has not been widely exposed? This is not to deny the contributions made by many people I know and the few others who have published and produced works aimed at problematising “whiteness”.
My concern is in the slow speed at which this critique is moving, particularly in a country that is still trying to come to terms with its own self. As we reason about and digest these questions, the aim should not be to formulate any stricture or discourse against “white” bodies but to problematise what has for many centuries been regarded as the norm and standard, if you will. It is this standard associated with “whiteness” that is a problem in our post-apartheid environment.
When mentioning “whiteness” two things must be separated: white skin pigmentation and “whiteness” as an attitude to distance yourself from the same or different racial “other”. “Whiteness”, just like “blackness”, goes beyond one’s skin pigmentation; it has become more like a colour of one’s consciousness. This is not to deny that skin pigmentation does make one behave in either a “black” or a “white” way. In the book Out of Whiteness Ware and Back (2002) ask:  
What happens when people in societies stratified by race refuse to accept the privileges inherent in whiteness? What difference does it make when whites act in manner that contradicts their designated racial identity?  
Ware and Back create a paradigm through which “whiteness”, like “blackness”, can actually be viewed as a construct. They distinguish between white as a skin colour and “whiteness” as an attitude or a choice to distance oneself from the other. And through their paradigm we are therefore challenged to reason as to whether it is possible for one to be white and yet still to harbour “blackness” and vice versa. If this possibility is viable, that one can now become this destabilising entity that can vacillate between “blackness” and “whiteness”, at what point can one now draw the line between these two phenomena?
What I am trying to reason is the fact that these phenomena have been fundamental in the making of the South African mores and politics. They mirror each other both negatively and positively. It is in them that we have been positioned and continue to position ourselves within the discourse that history has superimposed on us in the present. It is therefore within this discourse that we continually need to engage with one another in a form of a dialogue so that through this dialogue we may establish a link between the centre and the periphery.
This symposium, just like other symposiums, is a golden opportunity given to us by history to critique ourselves in an aim to open a space of engagement where the hitherto “outside” may become part of the “inside” and that the old “inside” may learn to coexist with its fellow new inside. As we delve ourselves into the “black” and “white” discourse, Mario Pissarra reminds us as to whether power today is about “black” and “white”. Maybe it is at this point that we need to take a pause and also consider in our practice the ambiguous, or rather “grey”, spaces that exist in between, so that nothing can be left unattended to.
In a nutshell, I must state that this seminar is aimed at creating that feasible space of engagement for people to argue across their own territorial, spatial and racial limitations, an aspect which our history has dismally failed to achieve. Whether now this seminar will, at the end of the day, have achieved its initial purpose, I suppose only time will tell. What is important at this stage of our history is a creation of that feasible space of engagement.
Lastly, I hope that the University of Cape Town will take this initiative forward and begin to engage and mobilise its academy and intelligentsia from within and outside the Diaspora of this institution.
As your academic servant I have brought you distinguished guests, critical thinkers, writers, world-renowned speakers and patriots who have worked quite extensively on the subjects that we will be engaging with in the next few hours.
As a driving force behind this seminar I express the wish that in our quest of revisiting our positionalities we would all utilise this moment as an opportunity to critically engage ourselves in an aim to understand and embrace one another. Without wasting your time, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to welcome all of you to this seminar.
Thank you.
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