Pithouse’s best still to come
As far as public intellectuals go, Richard Pithouse is probably South Africa’s most eloquent.
It is an eloquence that stems from his staunchly held position as a Fanonist (he is completing a book on Frantz Fanon’s meaning in post-apartheid South Africa, and aspects of reason and revolt in his ideology).
His eminence as both activist and wordsmith are in ample supply in Writing the Decline (Jacana), a collection of writings spanning 2008 to 2015, a period one could refer to as “the Jacob Zuma years”.
The pieces are culled mostly from his contributions to the South African Civil Society Information Service, a syndicated online portal that recently ceased publishing because of no funding.
His columns would often appear in other mainstream outlets after they had been published on the website.
If you have already been reading the author’s writings, the pieces in the book will be familiar.
A politics lecturer at Rhodes University, Pithouse played a role in the discourse around the transformation of universities even prior to the emergence of the #RhodesMustFall movement, which he has both championed and criticised.
The book, however, largely documents Pithouse’s writings on Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Durban-based shack dwellers’ organisation he has been linked to since its beginnings in 2005. He also links South Africa’s “decline” to a global slide into neoliberalism and the people’s pushback.
He has been referred to as Abahlali’s tallest and most visible “tree” by embittered former member Bandile Mdlalose. This term refers to white intellectuals who were said to have exerted such influence over the organisation that they stripped it of its agency. Pithouse rejects this view.
In the book, Pithouse charts periods in the political repression of the movement, which soared in 2009 and has taken a turn for the deadly since 2013.
Explaining the sweep of the book, particularly its recounting of the political pressure that Abahlali baseMjondolo found itself under, Pithouse says: “This is a record of things that I had written before about repression that nobody took seriously. However, in something like the assassination of a grass-roots activist, there’d be very little interest [when these articles were first published]. Because this [book was published] for a commercial press, there had to be that stuff and other stuff that appealed to a wider audience.”
It is interesting but disconcerting to observe the change in Pithouse’s tone as he moves from the trenches, as it were, to a writer that has to consider market forces in the curation of his work.
Among the “stuff that appealed to a wider audience”, for example, is his essay after the death of Nelson Mandela. Pithouse says: “Some [critiques around Mandela] are important, some are infused with little but the cheap wisdom of hindsight, and some are just empty bluster – the radicalism of those for whom engagement does not move beyond the adoption of a posture and the manipulation of words.”
For Pithouse, the piece was infused with all the weight of Mandela’s demise as a physical being and was written more as a tribute than a critique of his statesmanship and legacy. For the latter, he says, we may have to wait for his other tomes: the Fanon book for Jacana and Out of Order: Race, Space and the Rationality of Revolt in Durban (out on international imprint Antipode in 2017).
“One can be critical of the [political] deal that was done and my upcoming book [Out of Order] does do that. But I’m not a fan of glib dismissals of Mandela,” he says.
“Students say things like Mandela was a sellout, as if it was possible for MK [Umkhonto weSizwe] to defeat the apartheid military. I’m 45 – I was there, peripherally. MK didn’t have that kind of strength.
“There was a mass movement in the country, which they made a huge tactical error in demobilising, but I think [commentator] Raymond Suttner is right in calling it ‘a situation of reciprocal siege’.”
Reading episodically, and written for the Civil Society Information Service’s largely middle-class audience, there is something of a neutered tone to Writing the Decline that suggests a trajectory towards moderatism.
If these pieces function as specific interventions, perhaps their palette is too scattered and the author is doing the reader a disservice by, for example, writing about Abahlali from an entrenched position while not delving into that position’s fraught and controversial nature.
In this sense, Writing the Decline is perhaps simply an archiving project that hopefully foreshadows a more substantial engagement with Pithouse’s scholarship, which his two upcoming projects promise.
By not publicly examining his positionality, the book risks misleading by omission and preaches to the choir. The Zuma years, with their localised pockets of brutality and nationally symbolic repression such as the Marikana massacre, have been unravelling at a breakneck speed that renders a collection of this nature quickly redundant.
More importantly, as a white intellectual who has offered his services to a range of causes, most prominently Abahlali, Pithouse has to write reflectively on topical issues such as negotiating his own privilege in spaces that have historically been the terrain of a white left looking for legitimacy. “I suppose I have been writing in dialogue with not only those people [the shrinking white left], but also a broader left,” he says.
While Pithouse has professed a disassociation from this white left and, as he says, sought to “work with real people and real struggles in a respectful way”, he has yet to outline this position in detail.
Public discourse at this juncture in post-apartheid South Africa has meant that race dynamics have come in for particular scrutiny.
What has the advent of the Economic Freedom Fighters, the rise of a new black left and the #RhodesMustFall movement meant for white leftists? It is here where Fanon’s writings keep coming up for renewed dissection and contestation.
As a white activist, how does Pithouse position himself in this rereading of Fanon? Just how much currency does it hold for him as a public figure and for the advancement of Fanon’s politics?
While Pithouse explains that Fanon has been subjected to a “racist misreading” that the current crop of students are “just inverting”, it is not Fanon and his changing position in academia that is in question. It is how a new generation of black activists are engaging with his writings and what that means for purported sympathisers like Pithouse.
While Writing the Decline is an important marker in Pithouse’s life as a published author, the books that will illuminate his views as a thinker and commentator on the intricacies of South Africa’s traumatic landscape are hopefully on their way.