Lovelyn Nwadeyi’s empowering message: the onus is on us to disrupt the status quo

When I was thinking about this evening and doing this address to the top 200 young South Africans selected by Mail & Guardian, I had to think really deeply about what this platform and this opportunity actually means. 

What does it mean to be placed on this pedestal nationally and acknowledged as an individual whose contribution is considered worthy of celebration? What does it mean to be differentiated and distinguished into this elite group and on what basis does this selection begin to have meaning? 

Besides being an obvious nice addition to the honours and awards section of your LinkedIn profile, I think there is potentially a great social good to be derived from this. When we are acknowledged for the things we do by a reputable paper such as the Mail & Guardian, there is a level of street credibility that is attached to that, and essentially it is what you are able to leverage off in order to further your endeavours and extend your networks. Beyond that though, given our history – South Africans tend to place sacred value on media publications that have a healthy track record of honourable journalism and thought leadership. 

So when the Mail & Guardian puts out its list of the top 200 young South Africans, the rest of South Africa actually listens. 

Such moments and such events for me are extremely valuable and extremely important for the showcasing of some of the talent that we have in this country. But it goes beyond that. It extends to my very firm belief that in this time where the nation-building project is being contested every day, it is imperative that we use every opportunity and every platform afforded to us to take this country and ultimately our continent closer and closer to where we want to be. In practice, that means that we recognise important things about this moment. 

Firstly, we must acknowledge the privilege we have to gather on a Thursday night at a nice conference venue with nice food and wine while we are surrounded by a sea of poverty. We must acknowledge that our being here speaks to our power as a collective of individuals to curate our moments of success in such a way that they can be removed from the places and people to whom we perhaps owe these successes. While we are here, several students have been suspended from their university campuses for calling for a free, decolonised education (which was promised in 1994 by the way) and these students have few options available to them. While we are here, there are still three bodies trapped underground in Lily Mine, Barberton, while the mine’s management goes about trying to find money to continue operations again. 

While we are here, Tshwane continues to burn and our own state media casually and confidently states that nothing is burning. 

I do not say this to take away from the importance of this moment, but part of this decolonial agenda that myself and others of similar conviction have come to appreciate is the inherent contradiction in every moment that elevates an individual or individuals above others. This might not necessarily be a bad thing, but I believe it is wise for us to be aware of the unsung heroes of this country who will never get the airtime or the platform to receive this same kind of recognition by virtue of the lottery ticket they pulled in this game of life. 

But in celebrating this moment though, and in celebrating you this evening, perhaps I can suggest that we do this against the backdrop of what is happening in South Africa. Economically we are in very difficult times, socially we need to undo the “reconciliation is an event” paradigm and acknowledge that reconciliation is a process. When it comes to matters of political governance, we lack courageous leaders that share a commitment to truth and integrity; and if we are to look at justice I am sure that we can all agree that South Africans have different definitions of the term. 

Essentially as a nation, we are not on the same page about the kind of South Africa we want and ultimately the kind of Africa we are interested in. Over the last year, our social consciousness has been shaken and we are slowly starting to look ourselves in the mirror. The place of catharsis that was conveniently bypassed when we entered the democratic dispensation is now forcing its way into our most intimate spaces. South Africans, young and old, are now being forced to deal with the ghosts of our very present past and we are having to do this publicly in rather unpalatable and unpretty ways. 

As a young person, I have been subject to this process as well. I have a mixed background. Being born Nigerian, raised in South Africa as a black woman, adopting Xhosa and Afrikaans as languages I love and speak with pride, and having gone to an ex-Model C school and from there into my university days, I have learned the ways of assimilating into white spaces, and learning to navigate male-dominated spaces in order to access the things I wanted. 

There is hard work that goes into this process of learning and unlearning the things you were taught as a matter of survival. I have found myself on a journey to re-read and re-interpret the one-sided histories that had been shoved down my throat throughout my academic career. As I alluded to a few weeks ago at a different event, the challenge of being young in South Africa perhaps, is having a past that you can never know enough about and having a future that was prescribed for you by those who themselves weren’t sure of what that future would look like. We are however embarking on that journey to learn more, to find out more and make our own conclusions about the kind of institutions and society we want to build. 

Each and every one of you deserve to relish in this moment, and you deserve to be flourishing and living your best life. In discussions with many of my friends, the phrase “living my best life” and “flourishing” tends to be thrown around quite often. 

So as random as it sounds, I started to think about this statement – “Living my best life”. It is a phrase that my friends and I somehow suddenly adopted and it has become this catch phrase that we use for significant junctures in our lives. 

I started to ask myself, what makes this phrase so pertinent, so relatable and so true for my friends and me? What about living our best lives was so centrally important to us that it would receive airtime in our conversations? Was it really a catchphrase or did it mean something more and something deeper. Upon further digging, I came to the conclusion that this was a phrase of self-affirmation and self-validation that we had adopted. Especially as young black women, our successes are always categorised as exceptional, as being out of the ordinary, as being sponsored by a tender or a blesser, but never expected to be the default. Our successes also tend to come at such a personal and psychological cost that they cancel each other out. 

And so for me, to live my best life, has come to mean to live a life that is unapologetic inasmuch as it pertains to the way in which I see myself and the things I have achieved or still want to achieve. So while I am extremely excited for all of you that have been selected for this award, please allow me to channel my attention to those in this room who identify as women. 

This year, as in every other year, we have heard horror stories of victimisation and abuse against women in different locations across the country. With the naked protests at campuses across the country, still in 2016 women’s bodies (and the bodies of non-binary and queer individuals) are being policed in terms of what we may and may not wear, where we may go and not go. And so it is important for me to consistently emphasise that even if we were to walk down the streets naked in all our glory, with our breasts dancing in the noonday sun and our bottoms demanding to be honoured as they led the way to our freedom as women, we would still be the only owners of these sacred carriers of life. At no point do we ever cede the authority or ownership that we have over our bodies to any other individual by virtue of the clothes we wear or don’t wear or by virtue of the places we go to or don’t go to. 

That a woman’s lived experiences and access to humanity is to be censored by a world dominated by male-privilege and the toxic expressions of masculinity attached to it is unjust. We cannot live our lives in fear of rapists neither should we live our lives in the kind of reductionism that forces us to make ourselves smaller whether physically, intellectually and spatially. 

We cannot and we should not reduce our ability to claim space in the boardrooms and the government houses of South Africa because we dread the disrespect of male colleagues or because our intellectual contributions are not considered as valid as theirs. 

To make ourselves smaller would be to relegate ourselves to the footnotes of history books and forego our place as the authors and the custodians of history as it starts, continues and ends as we know it. 

They tried to make footnotes of the stories of women like Winnie Mandela by practically erasing and one-dimensionally representing her life in our social collective memory, this is what they did to the contributions of Rahima Moosa, Sophia Williams de Bruyn, Motlalepula Chabaku and Lilian Ngoyi by conveniently minimising them into short excerpts in the corners of our history textbooks. So today, young women in South Africa, we must revive their history as well, demanding that honour is given where honour is due. 

As women, we owe it to ourselves to rise and break down every barrier and every limitation that is placed on us by the spaces that we occupy simply because we carry a womb. 

To the women of this nation, we are not our vaginas, we are not our wombs, and we are not our breasts, we are not our clitorises. We are human and we have a right to be. Even when we have been raped, even when we have been violated, even when we have been abused, we are still not our vaginas. We are still not our wombs or our breasts. Our honour is not tied to our biological attributes. We are human and we have a right to be, to live and to flourish. 

Ours as women is not to call for equality, so that we can treated the same way as men. Such a call is dangerous as it still makes men and manhood the standard for accessing dignified, respectful humane interaction. 

Please do not underestimate the weight that your presence as women adds to this space and to this event. This in itself is political. To establish your presence here and accept your place among the top 200 young South Africans is to lay claim to a dimension of power that will assist in cementing your agency and allow you to make way for other women after you that will look to your examples and your experiences. 

Next, please allow me to address the people of colour in this room. 

In our quest to flourish and live our best lives, the only admonition I have for you, is that we cannot afford to be anything less. We must understand, that for the sake of those that came before us, we have no choice other than to be great, live our best lives and flourish. Our ancestors did not cross the largest seas, they did not build empires for others under yokes of oppression, they did not fight for our freedoms and rights, they did not bear the indignity attached to blackness and brownness for over 400 years, only for us to arrive and live lives less than worthy of their legacy. 

We owe it to them and to ourselves to be great, to live exemplary lives. We owe it to the unborn, to design and create a world that normalises black excellence; that normalises African excellence; that normalises our own belief and value systems such that our children never feel like strangers in their own land. For the sake of those coming after us, we must build up a track record of excellence so that psychologically, our children can easily associate competence, merit and success with people that look like and sound like them. May our unborn sons and daughters never be in want of role models. We cannot afford to bring forth another generation who still see themselves as inferior and thus strip themselves of their melanin magic because they are aspiring to a false higher standard. 

For every person of colour in this room, in your quest to flourish and live your best life, you must not hesitate to demand that your name be pronounced fully with dignity and respect, because your name carries the weight of generations before you. For people of colour to flourish in arenas such as the arts, the sciences, government and business etc that were used to silence and exclude your parents and grandparents before you is extremely remarkable is as much a decolonial act as anything and no one can take away from that. Colonialism, apartheid and other vehicles for entrenching white supremacy did not only affect political rights or economic freedoms. It affected everything, and so to undo that damage, we must succeed even in fields that we think are the most objective and non-normative. 

Our excellence as people of colour can serve as a tool to invalidate and render irrelevant the systems that seek to oppress us. 

We should be unapologetic about claiming space for ourselves in our various industries and subsequently claim space for our unique narratives and experiences which are inherently valuable. 

As people of colour, we are very good at raising the issues that concern us and being able to voice these matters is a valuable initial part of political freedom. The next dimension however is taking that seriously into a matter of agency where we realise that we are the only ones that can change the state of affairs. It is simply a matter of the choices we make. If we want to see and experience good governance, those in power must make the choice to deliver a good service to the people that elected them. If we want to have less schools under administration in our department of basic education, then we must decide the kind of education we want to offer our children and we must spare no costs in facilitating the best outcomes. If we want black men and women to experience dignified living, we cannot support companies or universities that outsource their services and pay our mothers and fathers R2000 a month. 

Where we have the agency, we absolutely MUST use that to the advantage and the upliftment of our people. This is the noble and the just thing to do. 

At this stage, I recognise that there is a whole portion of this audience that I have not addressed this evening. This was intentional. I wanted to start my speech tonight by centring those who identify as women in the room as a means of disturbing the default power dynamic that exists in such gatherings. It was important for me to centre women and black people in this presentation just because I can. And while this may not solve all the problems attached to the treatment of these two groups, it was a simple act that was necessary for me to do. 

So now let me address the men in this room, and perhaps more directly the white men in this room. The last two years in South Africa has been full of disruptions. Not simple protests, disruptions. Rhodes Must Fall was disruptive. Fees Must Fall was disruptive. End Outsourcing was disruptive. The RU Reference List was disruptive. End Rape Culture was disruptive. These disruptions left people uncomfortable because they legitimately threatened the power of white South African capital and the black political actors that are its gatekeepers. They were the kind of disruptions that threatened to invalidate the systems of oppression left comfortably in place even after 1994. 

As I read through the commentary on different articles in the last while, illogical seems to be the word that shows up quite often. Illogical is a powerful word. Illogical implies there is no logic. Illogical implies that there is no sense. Illogical implies that there is no thought, no real answer to the problem. “Protests however,” as Ashraf Jamal wrote in a recent article, “are never quite logical. They are expressions of a toxic and gnawing grief. A grief that only an individual whose body has always been a sight for violation will ever be able to understand.” 

Logically speaking however, power, whether held by patriarchs or racists, power is never conceded without a struggle and without a shock. Real power is never given, it is taken. 

For us to understand rape culture (as a case in point) and the fight against it, we must also understand the psychology of patriarchal society. It is the kind or psychology in which a woman’s body cannot exist outside of its functionality: outside of its use for penetration, conception and exploitation. And this I mean in all the literal and figurative understandings that come with it. “These damaging psychological underpinnings of patriarchy and more so colonial patriarchy allows us to attempt to make sense of the ruthless subjection and evisceration of our bodies, minds, souls and even our imagination of self.” 

The naked protests have been a platform through which women could make themselves vulnerable without a reductionism that limits us to a set of functions. The reactions of South African men especially in the last while have been at the very least a negation of our humanity and by stepping out and stepping forward, victims of this rape culture nationally are “refusing to have any history of oppression performed on, through or against them.” 

We can, however, not talk about patriarchy without talking about colonialism and racism and the interconnection between the two. For no matter how much we want to deny it, they are different sides of the same coin. 

My admonition to the white people and the men that are counted among South Africa’s top 200 individuals, is to recognise how invasive and corrosive the exploitation of others can become, even when you are not voluntarily participating in it but are associated to it by virtue of historical and institutionalised benefits. For black men, Biko’s warning becomes pertinent as one no longer merely represents the oppressed, but one internalises the very psychic wiring of oppression itself. Biko wrote that “the first step … is to make the black man come to himself; to pump back life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity; to remind him of his complicity in the crime of allowing himself to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of his birth.” 

If we are going to move forward, every one of us must recognise our complicity in the maintenance of an oppressive system. Cis-het men who claim to be allies in the decolonisation struggle but cannot even try to engage in the politics of gender and non-binary sexuality must acknowledge their complicity. White women whose tears matter more than anyone else’s life globally must acknowledge this complicity. You must acknowledge that your tears as Dr Robin di Angelo beautifully explains, come with the terrorising history of centuries of torture and murder meted out against black men because of a white women’s distress. White men, who have never been convicted and who have never atoned for centuries for raping black women must acknowledge their complicity in their own historical narcissism and self-indulgence. 

I recognise that these are harsh things to say, and they aren’t the kind of words one would prefer to hear at an Awards Gala event, but I believe it is this type of introspection that we need from individuals whose biological anatomy allows them access to certain types of social capital. What we lack significantly up until this point in South Africa, is the kind of passion that drives men and white South Africans especially to go over and above the call of duty. Imagine if all men put as much energy into dismantling patriarchy as they did into watching and commenting on the Saturday rugby Test matches? Imagine if all white South Africans put as much effort into dismantling institutionalised white supremacy as they did into the Justice for Cecil the Lion campaign? 

In the meantime, white people feeling guilty and crying about apartheid or colonialism helps no one. Men feeling guilty about patriarchy solves nothing. When a person in a position of structural or historical power performs their fragility in the form of guilt, it only adds to their oppressive repertoire and remains an excuse for inaction. While I understand the need to address heartfelt emotions of the injustices associated with racism or sexism as cases in point, what is of greater value is that white people who want to interrupt the system of racism (as I assume those of you in this room are), and men who want to interrupt patriarchy (as I assume those of you in this room are), must allow themselves to get uncomfortable and be willing to examine the effects of the racial and sexual engagements. 

So until you get to the point where you are consciously disrupting the status quo (whatever that might practically translate into in your context), you will remain frustrated with the politics of respectability that you so badly try to keep performing. For white South Africans especially, I suppose dealing with the kinds of disruptions that this decolonial moment presents might be where their own true liberation lies. In accepting disruption, you allow yourself a bit more proximity to the real lived experiences of those around you. 

Please do not misunderstand me – I recognise that every single person here in their own right, by virtue of being here, you are already doing a great deal for the greater project of nation-building and I do not intend to, neither can I, take away from that. What I want to encourage, however, is that in all our activities we remain aware of the dimensions of privilege we have access to, and we leverage on those for the good of others. 

Where we have agency, we must use it. 

Where we have agency, we must use it. 

Where we have agency, we must use it.

Thank you

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