Lwandile Fikeni’s Ruth First speech on rage in the rainbow nation is indispensable

The Ruth First fellowship is a distinguished award made by the University of Witwatersrand that enables journalists, writers, researchers, film-makers or photographers to pursue in-depth projects that can be presented in ways to influence thinking, discussion and debate in South Africa. 

For 2016, the theme is “Violence and Rage”. We live in a violent society. Physical violence is endemic and rage is being expressed in response to institutional violence against the poor and the marginalised. What are the stories to be told about violence and rage in South Africa today? What can these stories tell us about how to change our society? And how can they be told so that they intervene in the discussions that form our public debate? 

This is the speech delivered by Lwandile Fikeni, a Ruth First Fellow and an alumnus of the M&G’s 200 Young South Africans list for 2016.

Experiencing black life every day must piss you off. I can’t smile through black pain. For me rage and anger are powerful tools. We’re not going to get our land back or free education by playing nice. We need to be enraged. The unapologetic black rage I see from young people is beautiful and I think that’s what we need.” – Simamkele Dlakavu, student activist.

In this paper I will examine the salience of violence in the moment of the student social movements that began in 2015 and continues today. I’m particularly drawn to the ways in which the student movement deploys an aesthetics of rage that is new to the post-apartheid era of collective social action. In particular I want to examine how the aesthetics of rage challenges the narrative of racial harmony and reconciliation that has dominated post-apartheid south Africa. Lastly, I want to understand the implications of this attraction to rage on the prospects for building a coherent and socially-just society.

The student movement 

I view the movement as not only an attempt at subverting the dominant value system but as a beginning of a process of imagining new patterns of social, political and economic life in South Africa. 

This process of imagining takes on new meaning on the morning of March, 9th, 2015 when Chumani Maxwele throws shit at the Rhodes statue at UCT. In this singular moment UCT and other elite universities are revealed to be no more than symbols forming the constellation of the spectacle of power that reproduces and maintains the hemonic order of society. “There’s a performative beauty about that moment and doing that specifically to Rhodes and tying the institution to Rhodes and tying the university to the entire history of white supremacy and white privilege,” art critic Athi Joja says. “When Chumani throws shit there it shifts the entire context of ikaka (shit). All of a sudden when you throw shit there you’re shitting on 1994, you’re shitting on democracy, you’re shitting on all the dreams, you’re shitting on the constitution.” The performative act and the subsequent fallist discourse opens up new and interesting discursive possibilities in which the unaffordability of higher education itself is decoupled from arbitrary, ahistorical justifications; instead the problem is shown to be racial systemic exclusion. In this way the movement plays a critical role in transforming poverty from banality and into a political category that refuses the deliberate erasure of historicity implied in that post-1994 rainbowism that glibly suggests that this country is “alive with possibilities.” “Alive with possibilities” for whom? One may then ask, for historical black reality and historical white reality are implied very separate social realities that grant or refuse one access to these so called possibilities in the present. 

Having reclaimed the conversation on black poverty, and having insisted on an aesthetics of rage in so doing, by literally collecting the social reality of black life and dumping it on its cause, in the symbol of Cecil Rhodes, the movement has been able to offer a profound lense that rejects poverty as a function of history, and instead they insist that the wretched material conditions of black life owe to no more than the fact of one’s blackness just as Fanon observed that “you’re rich because you’re white and you’re white because you’re rich.” When the wretched realise this, as Terence Turner has it, the “subjective voluntarism of Sartre’s existentialism appears as a lofty pointless indulgence in the nostalgic illusions of the possibility of affecting history through individual action.” The individual is no longer isolated and unique. His body as primary material infrasture that informs his identity locates him within preexisting and pre-emanent social relations. Therefore his condition is not isolated but is a shared condition which means his freedom, also, is a collective freedom. Alone, you are invisible and, in any case, inaudible. At this realisation one then sees that the only way to improve one’s situation in the current social order is through collective action. And it is through collective action that the statue of Rhodes comes down a month after Maxwele’s performative act . 

With this quick win struggles by students from NMMU to Wits begin to form a genuine cross-campus movement. The language of Fallism jumps across the world and is picked up at Oxford and Princeton. At the centre of the discourse is a common aesthetics – an insistence on moving beyond the boundaries of ‘civil’ discourse towards attacking the symbols of white supremacy through disruptive acts of rage.

Protest and art 

The current student movement is distinct from others in history because art is peculiar to its genesis. It is the synthesis of art and protest that which this paper terms “an aesthetics of rage”. Art enters the movement at precisely the moment when shit is thrown at the Rhodes statue and it forms the modality for the movement’s most stinging critiques of South African society and the post-apartheid order. It is important to remember that these aesthetics are loaded with the experiences of many black students and emerge from the feeling of outsiderness on campuses where students were supposed to belong. 

This is a double rejection if one takes into account that the condition itself is borne out of existing outside the political, social and economic life in a country in which one is supposed to belong. This sense of alienation is felt more acutely if one is unable assimilate to whiteness, Maxwele says of his experience at UCT. And this assimilation doesn’t begin the day you start class but is meant to have happened in high school already. It is when this program of assimilation meets the total honesty of the black student who hasn’t been trained to assimilate, that tension arises. The very physical structures such as statues and buildings form part of the institutional violence and are centered in the critique of the university as a space involved in the subjectification and disciplining of black bodies according to colonial ideals, which insist on assimilating the black subject into the simulcra of the dominant social order as its perpertual, problematic ‘other’. 

The same can be said of female bodies. For example, at UCT the women’s res’s are next to the literature and English departments, while the men’s residences are near maths and science. Certainly, this is another symbol of social ordering through the perpetuation of sterotypes to maintain the status quo. 

The gendered spaces are an indicator of what is supposed to be possible for women and men. Inspite the historic struggles of women, black women, specifically, gender questions have not had the salience and rage that seem to be reserved for race issues. Perhaps, Joja gives insight into this when he says that the radical black tradition understands its priority as race, first. “You’re black before you’re a man,” the saying goes. The reasoning behind this thinking takes blackness as the entire subhuman category and therefore any other identities such as gender or class do not in any way alleviate the fact of one’s blackness. Yet as Kimberle Crenshaw reminds us, race and gender intersect. These identities are lived simultatneously. Thus even the notion of a hierarchical relationship between blackness and gender makes no sense. One is simultatenously a man and a black person and if the category of humiliation for black men is race, then for black women it is both. What is then striking about this internal ordering of the black community itself is that it resembles that of the colonial master’s and it is through this lens that one begins to glean the total indiscretion of power. 

To reject assimilating into the simulcra of the dominant order, be it white supremacy or gender supremacy, is to begin to capture one’s discourse from those who monopolized it. While previous social movements have made strong statements and done some important work on questions of human rights and access to services, few have worked consistently with and on the question of black dignity in a manner that is so fundamentally challenging to the current social order. Even fewer have done so by invoking an aesthetics of rage that is so immediately and viscerally offensive to whiteness. The student movement has mobilized its discourse and its modus operandi of deliberate disrespect by shifting the conversation away from the discipline of the lecture hall with its attendant white rage and violent behavioural aesthetics to the realm of Mikhail Bhatin’s “carnivalesque” which involves the grotesque and the obscene as both tools for critiquing power and as representations of it. Citing Bhaktin, Achille Mbembe writes that the grotesque, after all, is the province of ordinary people as a means of resistance to the dominant culture, and as a refuge from it. In this case, grotesqueness “parodies the officialdom” of the university “by showing how arbitrary and vulnerable” its “officialese” is and thus turns it “into an object of ridicule.” 

Perhaps nothing says more about this relationship of the grotesque between the university and the unassimilated black student than the collection of faeces from Khayelitsha and borrowing a drum and a whistle from one of the university’s faculties in order to make a statement about the obscenity of the university itself. The beauty of that absurdity is that it is deliberately disruptive. It both uses and mocks art, drawing its critique from the language of relational aesthetics and consequently subverting it by inserting it with terrifying revolutionary political meanings. The movement has done this in many ways over the past two years, drawing art away from the traditional practices found in the gallery and the behavioural aesthetics implied therein; the chin up, the glass of wine, the mingling. The aesthetics of rage, as employed by the student movement, reject the idea of looking at the object and the way the object interacts with the people and how the people react and relate to the object as an aesthetic practice within a realm of mimetic signs and gestures. Social reality does not permit this. Things are what you see. The object or the act doesn’t necessarily mirror something that is not itself, whereas in art, an object gestures to something other than itself. 

In the social world aesthetics is not something you go out and see. Aesthetics are present in the lived social experience – in the senses, the feelings, the emotions. These are the nerve centres of the aesthetics of rage and it is from here that this culture of protest is built. 

Read more: Tertiary institutions must initiate change, not pacify donors

Using the obscene to capture discourse appears again at Wits University in the large spray painting of the words ‘fuck white people’ on the walls of the university and in the t-shirt that Zama Mthunzi painted and wore around Wits campus earlier this year. “Fuck white people is a perfect articulation of how we feel,” says writer and graffiti artist Mbe Mbhele. “Frank Wilderson says there’s no vocabulary, no language to articulate black suffering. That means white people have screwed us to a point that is beyond discourse, that’s beyond political language, that’s beyond respectful, understandable, engagement; so fuck you.” ‘Fuck white people’ also formulates itself at the intersection of art, rage and performance. ‘Fuck white people’ is way of speaking of one’s experience of institutional, structural, and everyday racism. ‘Fuck white people’ is a highly aestheticised form of critiquing South Africa’s social ordering. “Fuck white people was clear,” says student activist Simakele Dlakavu. “Fuck whiteness; but fuck white people also. Why am I not allowed to say fuck you when you fuck me over every day? So fuck you.” The question of who is permitted to speak and who isn’t further elaborates the question of inclusion and exclusion in both discursive and real terms. Joja argues that:

Civil society – legal, education, everything that is part of the civil space – is in its essence anti-black. That space of civil society – the police, education – is space that white people own. Practically NGOs are white people; universities are white people; police are white people in the sense that even those guys wearing blue are here to guard that we don’t disrupt white people; security, same thing; law, same thing; constitution, property rights. We are given all sorts of rights but these rights don’t matter in social reality in any way. Even if you might have a right not to be poor but you’re not going to get an education, in any case. These rights are not for us. So civil society in essence is an aesthetic of white supremacy as a democratic possibility.

‘Fuck white people,’ then, becomes an articulation of the rejection of white supremacy as that democratic possibility.“ The statement reveals the tensions between the dominant and the dominated, where the one feels constantly “fucked” by the other whether directly, through active forms of racism, or indirectly through institutional practices. In reality the relationship is more nuanced, of course, but what the statement attests to is that the effect is always the same. 

What this means is that although both groups occupy the same patch of land in the general sense, and within the embrace of the same constitution, their social realities hardly makes them contemporaries. The former is forever outside of humanity in its modern form for his condition is perpetually wretched and the latter is forever the primary protagonist of modernity for even in the post-democratic South Africa – what the students call ‘postapartheid apartheid’ South Africa – he is the main beneficiary of its democratic freedoms. 

When Wanelisa Xaba’s writes ‘Yhu abelungu’ she speaks directly to this historic injustice. While the statement itself is hardly a piece of art in the classical sense I include it in this paper for its aesthetic form which evokes the banality of systemic racism in South Africa. “Yhu abelungu is a collection of memories, it’s a collection of frustrations,” Xaba says. “Anyone who says ‘yhu abelungu’ connects to the entire history of oppression because your mom has said it, your grandmother has said it , your aunts have said it, the lady in the taxi has said it; it’s like you’re calling upon a very collective experience of violence and the expression is a response to that violence.” “Yhu abelungu!” reclaims power for the dominated by mocking the dominant and reducing it to its banality. 

This is another form of the performance of rage, which uses humour to subvert and to conscientise all at once. This is the classic definition of satire – a field that in South Africa is known to belong only to white men like Zapiro, in spite of the rich African vein of satire that has always existed. “White people have stripped us of everything,” says Dlavaku.” And I’m so enraged by that. Every day I have to say, ‘yhu abelungu.’ Importantly, adopting rage as a totem, has made the student movement highly visible. In a terrain that was dominated by the imagery of constitutionalism, reconciliation, and unity, the aesthetics of rage offers a completely alternative visual. It is compelling in part because it is so fundamentally unique. 

Now, protest, as a field, is as vast as it is potentially boundless and any irreverent form of anti-establishmentism, even quasi-anti-establishmentism such as that of the likes of the commercial graffiti artist, Banksy, fits the category. So I’ve elected to disentangle ‘protest art’ from these other forms of protest by locating the word ‘protest’ itself within the distinction of Joseph Gusfield’s social movements. These are actions or protest against a general pattern of supposed injustice directed at the general social order and not specific areas of contention such as wages, housing, transportation etc., although these areas may be articulated in its demands. This is what gives it it’s special character, by being an explicit rejection of dominant practices and beliefs. However Gusfield’s conception of a legitimate social movement is limited for he conceives legitimate social action as only that which is a peaceful demand for social change, while in my definition I make room for a Fanonian conception of violence as being a necessary element of such protest in so far as inducing terror in the status quo.

Rage and the rainbow 

I am aware that in the Rhodes moment was implied a terror that might have kept white South Africa up at night in perfectly lit suburban homes, thinking, where the shit might hit next. However, I’m careful to emphasise the symbolic nature of the violence that has emerged from the social movement against the university, for it didn’t have the same corporeal effects as that which emerged from State and the university in the form of rubber bullets and physical harassment. This is not to say there’s good violence and bad violence in the neat fashion Mamhood Mamdani cautions against. 

The violence of the movement is contextualised in so far as the violence of the dominant social order is, itself, the context. The violence from the students, if one dares to call it that, is by no means remotely congruent to the violence of the state and institution although it is itself located within the cycle of violence in which the State and institution have more stake than the students themselves. The violence of dominance is corporeal and repressive, based on pleasure, punishment and discipline in order to maintain the order of things. 

Whereas the violence from the students in this case, while pleasurable, is aimed at opening discursive possibilities about the post-democratic nation state by drawing the aesthetics of rage out of the practice of representations in the art world and into the present social reality. It is worth noting that violence as the regime of the dominant order was the violence not given light when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded its business. Mamdani, writing on the transition period in South Africa and the TRC, specifically, notes that:

To introduce a discussion on violence and society, the TRC needed to go beyond the liberal focus on bodily integrity and acknowledge the violence that deprived the vast majority of South Africans of their means of livelihood. Had the TRC acknowledged pass laws and forced removals as constituting the core social violence of apartheid… it would have been in a position to imagine a socio-economic order beyond a liberalized post-apartheid society. It would have been able to highlight the question of justice in its fullness, as not only as criminal and political but also as social.

In line with Mamdani’s argument, then, ‘rainbowism’ as the collorary of theTRC becomes the legitimation of the social violence left unattended by the TRC. This is why the rainbow nation is the first site of crisis and critique for the student movement. “The rainbow nation was a silencing project,” says Mbhele. “It was the project that aimed to make black people un-remember all that had happened to them. Basically, black south Africa built white South Africa and the rainbow nation is a project that wants us to forget that.” This silencing becomes the main relational aesthetic practice between citizens, between citizens and state, between citizen and institution. The rainbow nation is not only an aesthetic treatment that hides the “real” structural problems of South Africa. The rainbow itself is the structural problem. It is the silencing problem, with its attendant cultural violence that black South African have had to endure for more than 20 years. It is, in Mbembe’s vocabulary, the commandment, which seeks to institutionalise itself, in order to achieve legitimation. The rainbow seeks to erase all experience of domination, of racism, of systemic exclusion, of social violence through gestures and slogans of racial harmony.

The signs, vocabulary and narratives that it produces are not meant merely to be symbols; they are officially invested with a surplus of meanings which are not negotiable and which one is officially forbidden to depart from or challenge. The basic goal is not just to bring a specific political consciousness into being but to make it effective.

Since the birth of the South African democracy until the present, the ‘rainbow’ has thus become the social order’s regiment of truth. This is why when you challenge the rainbow you are, in fact, challenging the entire order of things, for the rainbow has permeated all social life. Therefore, in order to be successful at speaking to its violence one must deploy rage and vulgarity. “It’s this rainbow nation thing this thing of trying to appeal to white people and not seeming like a bad black,” Dlakavu says. “People don’t like bad blacks. Also, young black people at university know the social costs of saying fuck white people. 

The social costs of that is that you might not get that scholarship, you might not get that job.” ‘Rainbowism’ becomes a way of disallowing black people the space to speak about their pain and opression. And it is this silencing which comes in the form the commandment which gives the rainbow an aesthetics of racial harmony, which is, in fact, a way of policing of black rage. When this fails we see the state applying pain in order to quell dissent. Perhaps the most vivid example of this fact was when live ammunition was used to quieten miners at Marikana. It is the racial selectiveness of the application of state violence itself, which clears any confusion as to whom the rainbow nation benefits. And it is precisely in the way in which State violence is exclusively applied onto black bodies that Joja’s assertion that post-apartheid South Africa is nothing more than “white supremacy as a democratic possibility” finds sharp relief.


In this late phase of the rainbow as its rhetoric is beginning to fade, State violence, denuded of all pretense as to whom it is directed and for what reasons, has been shown to be a means of organising and maintaining South Africa’s social hegemonic order but also, due to its excessiveness, as an end in itself. The violence is reasoned according to all manner of assumptions. When the blacks speak up about the violence that overwhelms their lives the police must be called in to deal with them. 

It doesn’t matter much whether it is students or workers just as long as they fall back in line with the ‘rainbow’ commandment which tells them that their oppression is somewhat imagined for there is no racism in South Africa and the violence and the terror which surrounds their lives is but a figment of their imagination. Because of this, author and activist Panashe Chigumadzi observes that, “It’s as if black people have no reason to say fuck white people. You oppress me and what do you expect in return? To me the most logical thing is to be able to say I hate white people. I hate people who oppress me.” This anger articulates the failure of the rainbow project in so far as abstracting the crisis of socio-politico-economic inequality in South Africa and the silencing of those at the receiving end of that inequality.

Future prospects or coherent and socially just society 

This finally brings us to the question of the possibility of social solidarity beyond the student movement, which I propose is possible through the deployment of the aesthetics of rage in order to realise a socially-just society. In this respect Emile Durkheim’s theory of the collective consciousness is particularly instructive. Durkheim identifies two states of social solidarity. One is determined by law and its repressive rules in which the deviant person is pulled back into the fabric of a just society through the use of repressive law. The repressive law seeks to undo or repair the threat to the conscience of society by punishing the wrongdoer. The sense of social justice resultant from its application yields what Durkheim terms ‘mechanical solidarity’ in which society – individuals and groups – feel safer. 

However, as this paper has discussed the selective manner in which discipline and punishment is administered by the state and the social imagining of the black subject as the problematic other, such a solidarity does little to instil confidence in the justice thus metted out. Thus, the second solidarity – the division of labour – speaks to the ways in which each member and group in society works toward a collective sense of justice through individual agency. 

The collective then is embodied in the individual and the individual is forever present in the collective. This sense of the collectivised individual is precisely the genesis of justice in that what one conceives as unjust to the self is, by extention, unjust to the collective. As for the dominant order, which has in its possession the entire monopoly of violence the only way to incorporate into the fold of the collective is by attending to it through acts of rage and subversion until structural patterns of social ordering begin to shift. The use of aesthetics of rage, as discussed through looking at art in the social movement, points to a universal possibility of not only exhibiting black pain for consumption but for wielding in such a way as to force change.

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