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31 Jul 2014 15:50
What do you get when you put 60 intellectuals from all over the world on a bus for 47 hours on a mission to think and unthink history?
JohannesburgEverything seemed worked out. We had a timely theme, The
Archives of the Non-Racial; generative enough to keep 60 intellectuals busy
for two weeks.
A 60-seat tour bus, in ship-shape condition, was parked in front
of our bed and breakfast in Melville.
Participants arrived from all over: Brazil, Mexico,
Argentina, the US, Italy, France, the UK, and many other places. Some were
artists, others were doctoral students. We had the American political thinker
and activist, Angela Davis, and her colleague Gina Dent, with us. Françoise
Vergès is a renowned cultural studies professor from France. Neo Muyanga is a
Cape Town-based composer and experimental jazz musician. Roberta Estrela D’Alva
is a Brazilian hip hop artist. Federico Navarrete is a historian and a
Such was the staggering diversity of the group; a lovely
thing, certainly but also slightly worrying. What if they didn’t get along?
That would amount, roughly, to 47 hours of bus time with 60 people who do not
care for each other. Disastrous!
But, as it turned out, there wasn’t any cause for worry.
Friendships were made instantly. Everyone arrived brimming with love and
generosity. All that was left was simply to get through the two days of
lectures in Johannesburg and then hit the highway to Swaziland, our first stop.
Mbabane, SwazilandThe last bit of the six-hour ride to our Swaziland lodge was
a bit trying. The bus trundled along narrow dirt roads for what seemed like
But there was hot food and a bonfire waiting for us, sounds
of crickets and a crackling fire. We felt the calming effect of a pitch-black
starry night. Warthogs slept right at our feet and deer walked among us. Hot
tea and whisky made their rounds as we huddled around the fire. Our cute little
African huts with warm downy beds were a stone’s throw away, a tourist’s
Only we were not tourists. There was hardly any time to
revel in the commodified beauty and comfort of our surroundings. Early the next
morning we made our way to House on Fire, where all the events for that day
were to take place.
The first of four sessions that day was a reading of Wopko
Jensma’s poems. Jensma was a South African avant garde poet writing in the 1950s and 1960s. His eventual disappearance deepened the enigma around his life and work.
A white South African married to a black woman, Jensma saw Swaziland as a
refuge of sorts. He wrote so evocatively against apartheid that many black
South African writers thought he was black. Jensma’s poems are beautiful beyond
words, but there is a brutality about them that cuts deeply.
After two hours of Jensma’s poetry, an emotional and heated
debate on race, writing, and identity, a lecture on the racist history of a
commodity as innocuous as the banana, and a four-hour testimony by men and
women who lived through the ripples of apartheid in Swaziland, we were emotionally
and intellectually strung out.
But one thing was clear: this was no vacation. We were on a
mission to confront a history of violence and attempt to think and unthink this
DurbanWe’ll remember Durban for Ashwin Desai’s passionate lecture
on what it means to be Indian in Durban. He asked us to historicise race and
class in Durban, especially how it played out in the apartheid struggle. He
said that we must repeatedly go back to the earlier moments of struggle to
understand what went wrong, because racial structures still exist post-apartheid.
Perhaps it should be mentioned at this point that the
journey was not solely intellectual work. It took its toll on our bodies too.
On day seven, we hit a record 16-hour work day. We were up and running to the
bus at 8am and didn’t turn in for the nihgt until about 12:30am, thanks to the
isicathamiya competition at the Durban YMCA.
Travelling, at least the kind we signed up for, was hard
work. No part of it was meant to be romantic. We knew this going into it.
But what was truly amazing was how the physical exertion we
experienced affected our intellectual practice. All the usual academic
posturing and performance was cut down to a minimum. Participants asked more
heartfelt questions, questions sharpened by genuine investment, questions that
truly mattered. And this had everything to do with the fact that our bodies had
become implicated in our thinking.
But Durban was not all work. There were a few stolen moments
for walks on the beach and an afternoon of good food, music, and dance at the
historic Rainbow Restaurant.
King William’s TownIt was only a matter of time before our visits to these
spaces – Swaziland, Durban, Qunu and the Steve Biko Centre in King William’s Town – began to seem like pilgrimages, acts of political devotion to the history
of the struggle against apartheid.
The Steve Biko Centre was not simply a venue where we
assembled to engage in academic debate. Ginsberg is saturated with a history of
violence and struggle, to which we had come to bear witness.
Kelly Gillespie led us in an intellectual communion offered
to Biko. She shared Biko’s quotes and speeches, stopping from time to time to
reflect on what Biko’s legacy was for contemporary anti-racist struggles.
The sun had all but set when we made our way to Biko’s
graveside. Gathered around the grave, we set aside all academic posturing and
simply prayed and offered communion to a man who gave us so much.
Cape TownBy the time we crossed Sir Lowry’s Pass and entered into the
city, we were all but dead from exhaustion.
Cape Town is a beautiful city. The landscape and
architecture are stunning.
But Gillespie, who had previously cautioned us to guard against
the gaze of the tourist, reminded us that Cape Town, for all its beauty and
allure, is also a Fanonian nightmare. The city continues the legacy of its
apartheid past in a spatial configuration that has poor, mostly black townships
tucked away on the peripheries of the city.
How fitting, then, that Angela Davis should speak to a
packed hall at the Centre for the Book about systemic forms of racism and how
to resist this enduring but often invisible form of racism through
On the July 12 2014, after 13 days, five cities, and about
30 hours of road time, the fellowship of 60 scholars, activists, artists, and
students disbanded. Some did the 18-hour bus ride back to Johannesburg. Others
went by air. Some of us stayed behind.
If we had stayed back in Johannesburg in our lovely Wiser
seminar room at Wits University, we would have said many smart and significant
things about the archives of the non-racial. But traveling brought us close to
these spaces, which are still saturated to bursting point with the violence
that took place there.
What made our journey both beautiful and brave was
attempting to think through race, racism and the revolutionary possibilities of
the non-racial from these spaces.
The 2014 JWTC mobile conference was not just about generating
big ideas, which we did, but about accumulating a set of lived experiences
that will continue to inspire and critique our intellectual and political
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