/ 1 April 2013

‘Off with his head!’ – the case against Andile Mngxitama

Andile Mngxitama.
Andile Mngxitama.

I am totally perplexed by the sudden exposure of Andile Mngxitama's podium "thuggery" and caustic castigation of anyone who holds a different view to him. I am perplexed because this posse of "rational" public intellectual gatekeepers have never bonded over anyone else's public threats of violence before. Why now? Is it that Mngxitama has finally provided them with the fodder they so were waiting for to silence this politically unruly black fellow?

As irksome as he can be I cannot find it inside myself to join in the call to bring him down. Rather I entreat those who hold the sword over his head to let him be. We have just lost Julius Malema, who was gritty, unpretentious, blunt and vocal about issues others would not touch. He represented a constituency similar to the Mngxitma constituency, (though very much larger) and it is one that finds few media outlets for their frustrations and anger as the disenfranchised. Are these voices totally irrelevant unless filtered through white academic or organisational filters? At the rate unfiltered voices are being shut down in our public sphere one would suspect this to be the awful truth.

We simply cannot lose Mngxitama too. Not only is he indeed a much-needed dissenting voice on our media platforms – but he is also a highly entertaining narcissist who has, in my mind, self-consciously, and sometimes endearingly, adopted a carnivalesque (grotesque body) framework as the vehicle for his political delivery. It is a method designed to subvert and destabilise the dominant discourse, the liberal what-what and it relies on a forthright, rude and sometimes socially repulsive method to do just that.

At least this was the sense I got while observing, over the years, the mosaic and often-preposterous (on Facebook at least) media persona of Mngxitama. I got the feeling he studied Russian literary theorist and semiotician Mikhail Bakhtin's writings on carnival and grotesque body, and decided to operate as a hybrid Bikoist, Zizek, Malcolm X, Fanon type prophet/jester in this profound, playful and profane paradigm.

To try to understand the social media construct of Mngxitama through the grotesque body/carnivalesque framework makes it that much easier, for me at least, to fathom the modus operandi of this public intellectual and his text-based utterances. It is not so much him that I place within this framework. Rather it is his social and mainstream media work in relation to his mercurial persona within the public sphere – thus it is a textual analysis. As an alternative to the "demonised primitive in opposition to rationality", which is how he says "fascist liberals" are casting him in the media, I cast him as the contemporary version of the vexing and challenging social commentator of medieval times. The amalgam of black consciousness, theoretical hodge-podge, chaos and confusion, lucid political analysis and finally the possible crashing down of his hybrid construct all screams body grotesque to me. I use this trope merely because it is one that aptly applies to the unstable, bizarre, postmodern, anarchic play that Mngxitama's political and social media career has become.  The tower, it seems, is burning.

Grotesque body/ carnivalesque politics were in full swing between 1500 and 1800. This was an epoch when it was appropriate to ridicule the king, clergy and upper class in carnival settings – in Mngxitama's case government, civil society and liberals are dissed in a social media setting. The abhorrence of the liberal echelon is proclaimed by alternative voices within the carnivalised text that de-privileges the authoritative voice of the hegemony through the mingling of "high culture" with the profane. In this epoch it was common to use dung and urine to denigrate those who possessed power and privilege and who claimed ownership of the social narrative. Rather than dung and urine, Mngxitama makes use of profane language, scatological humour and sometimes empty veiled threats. It is the white liberal class he means to bring down. He too, does this not to just mock, but to unleash what Bakhtin referred to as the people's power, to renew and regenerate the entire social system. He does this by providing relief and a voice for the disenfranchised class of youth that he represents.

It was the privilege of the court jester/social commentator to insult and expose social ills because there was an unspoken immunity historically afforded to this role. But it was also the responsibility of the carnivalesque social commentator to never become intellectually lazy, or let his ego take over, because one slip of the tongue too many and he would be stripped of his immunity in the blink of an eye. In most cases his head would roll.

Mngxitama emulates and postulates the grotesque body theoretical framework rather perfectly, in my mind, in that he has become a tragic comic figure of profound ambivalence: his public persona plays both sides of this dichotomous archetype. On the one hand his voice holds much promise in the rise of the dissenting black narrative. This is birth and renewal and is exactly what this country needs. On the other hand is the negative aspect of death and decay that is reflected in what can be read as the homicidal fantasy contained within his projection on to liberal whites.

His use of expletives and vulgar imagery is a constant source of mirth, to me at least, and is a technique I too employ, having a special love for anything that has been sent outside of the church, court or state and deemed profane. It is valid to re-appropriate language so that it is used to overturn and destabilise authority, hegemony and assumed gatekeeping. Nothing is more destabilising to this bunch of mostly pale males than the use of language or tone that they deem beneath them.

Mngxitama has also dabbled in what could be described as the power of the people's political carnival in his effort to turn the official spectacle inside-out and upside down – such as in his "From Hell to Heaven Alex to Sandton" march – hoping, it would seem, to make an impression on the participating official and funding stratum. But this carnival has amounted to nought for the people and one can go as far as to say that the premise for his People's Manifesto, though genuine, has turned out to be as empty as any of the liberal-headed people's campaigns that Mngxitma harshly critiques. Like hell the government elite are going to use the same services as the people when they have access to the coffers and can afford gold plated toilet flushers in consumer heaven.

Mngxitama, as the carnivalesque social commentator and agitator, has as many erudite moments and flashes of genius as he does self-destructive moments. He has written a series of articles in his Frank Talk, which have stood up to academic scrutiny. He is a well-known and harsh critic of white hegemony and liberalism. None of this can be faulted. Unfortunately, he has also often displayed the potential for megalomania, which, it seems, has proliferated and finally exploded in his face. He is most certainly a diabolical high-horse tyrant, as many have testified. I have heard stories about strong women who have been run out of Johannesburg, and even out of the country because they dared to stand up to and challenge his views. Whether black or white, he allegedly called them ANC and CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) agents, liberal troublemakers and a string of other insults. He has also intimidated them into fearing for their lives. So too has he called many a black activist a "nigger" or "kitchen negro" when they have not genuflected at the alter of his version of black consciousness and he consistently mocks whites, liberal or not, as mam Sahibs, madams, neoliberals and fascist liberals.

So while I'm not in favour of public admonishing I'm also not sure that he did not bring this on to himself in the public sphere. He has displayed truly non-revolutionary misogyny on his social sites for one. He has insisted that those deconstructing liberalism are themselves liberals. He spreads chaos and makes enemies of potential allies. He is full of contradictions, lacking the focus and maturity of Steve Biko, Che Guevara, Robert Sobukwe and other revolutionary greats that he claims to emulate.

Because of his contradictions and ambivalence it is hard to know how to come at Mngxitama. His public position has created a binary oppositional that invites critique, yet when critiqued can easily be construed as white liberals muzzling a black voice. In this way Mngxitama can play the "equal" and "oppressed" card simultaneously, depending on the situation. And there are even times his voice seems reminiscent of the agent provocateurs who are schooled by the very people they pretend to hate while used to spread chaos and confusion in order to distract the people from real human rights transgression by state and corporates. In fact some have implied that this is indeed the case.

He is also quite comfortable in the brotherhood of "conservative, sometimes even right-wing" thinkers. In moments like this he, David Bullard, Dan Roodt and other unlikely partners form a united front to take on whom they deem to be 'the liberals' together. For me though, the symbiosis in this outrageous bonding is evident. He provides them with their brand of racist empirical evidence that black folk are anti-intellectual, irrational and self hating – and they ultimately prove to him that white people will never tolerate blackness… and they all display lack of regard for feminism. Somehow this creates a mutual admiration masturbation club.

Mngxitama once told me that he is called the Žižek of South Africa. Well yes, he does have a similar propensity to recycle old ideas which were relevant years ago and he does spew forth "a stream of non-consecutive units arranged in arbitrary sequences that solicit a sporadic and discontinuous attention", as writer Geoffrey Galt Harpham has said of Žižek.

The difference between Mngxitama and Žižek though is seen in this quote from another critic, Edward R O'Neill in The Last Analysis of Slavoj Žižek, who speaks of "a dizzying array of wildly entertaining and often quite maddening rhetorical strategies deployed in order to beguile, browbeat, dumbfound, dazzle, confuse, mislead, overwhelm and generally subdue the reader into acceptance".

Mngxitama insults and denigrates to subdue the reader into acceptance or he tells them to fuck off. He harangues and sullies and when that does not work he will sometimes go as far as to obliquely "threaten" violence. He rallies his minions to intimidate writers such as me on public platforms and create an atmosphere of uncertainty for one's safety. This is not much different to those white right-wingers who sent me pictures of women hung and tortured, in an attempt to silence me, or wrote on public platforms how I should be shot, drowned or hung – and even "raped by 1 000 dirty kaffirs". (The silence from fellow commentators around these threats to me was resounding.)

But I still say – let those with grievances against him not call to shut him up. Already so many sanctimonious voices are using the binary of "rational vs irrational" to undo Mngxitama and quite possibly get him fired from his often questioned employment with a Human Rights Organisation. No matter how vindicated one may feel that Mngxitama is finally being publicly rebuked – when it becomes a free for all witch-hunt with every liberal spokesperson jumping onto the bandwagon, baying for his blood and demanding his voice be silenced – it is no longer a rebuke – it is war on yet another renegade black voice. The worst of these reproaches being the smug diatribe from Kameel Premhid and Thorne Godinho on Thoughtleader in which the authors conclude.

"We are happy that Mngxitama has been exposed for what he is. He is an intellectual charlatan using a complicit media to drive his agenda of hate. He must be banished from public discourse and the publications that allowed him to start his rise must be sure that he never comes back."

Now that kind of undemocratic, sanctimonious and snotty demand to me is way more irksome and intolerable than Mngxitama's rants and insults. This is the new wave of young privileged gatekeepers asserting their dominion on public platforms. Please!

There must be space for Mngxitama's style of soapbox blitz and political haranguing in our society. It is precisely that profuse onslaught of pompous liberal gatekeeping and refusal to let go of the pale male hegemony over public intellectualism that necessitates it. Actually let's just get it out there. Pale Male, Biracial Male, Indian Male – any male as long as it is not the renegade Black African Male it would seem.

Furthermore Mngxitama's brand of hybrid, carnival, ribald, grotesque, profane, pro-poor, rights orientated, Black Consciousness body politicking is both pertinent and compelling in a society that has not shifted much for the majority since so-called independence was declared – and is fast becoming a neoliberal (yes, neoliberal) dispensation. In this atmosphere the seer/court jester, chaos theory method works to shift consciousness – it is postmodern in a literary sense – where dominant narratives seek to silence alternative narratives. And how does one make sense of the continuous white liberal hold over our public discourse except to harangue it? Endless analysis has not gotten rid of the blight of white male intellectual or corporate hegemony. For fuck's sake man – someone has got to shake the gilded cage of white dominion and the platinum cage of political and corporate power. Carnivalesque or not, Mngxitama does just that.

He treads into the territory of forbidden language, behaviour and laughter even, and in my opinion, his approach, which allows for rowdy affront and the parody of authority, offers the oppressed lower classes relief from the rigidity of government system and white supremacy in public discourse. Mngxitama's intellectualism and social media rantings become an opportunity for oppressed youth to express their own nonconformist and rebellious views.

Just as Bakhtin saw in carnivalesque humour, a social force that allowed a text to enter a sociopolitical discourse, while enjoying impunity, and thus bring about cultural transformation – so to does Mngxitama's soapboxing allow an entire echelon of oppressed society to enter the sociopolitical terrain and express their frustrations, pain, aspirations and ideas. If you silence Mngxitama you silence his followers too.

Mngxitama must refrain from threatening violence, no matter how carnivalesque or empty these threats may be, else he cuts out his own tongue and does his followers a disservice. He must also be exposed for being misogynistic and for allegedly attempting to destabilise people's movements just because he does not agree with their organisational ideology.

But to make a call for his head to roll smacks of the same tyranny dissenters are accusing Mngxitama of.