Decolonising our spaces as a matter of urgency

I’m a strong believer in constructing the kind of world we want while deconstructing elements of the world that we no longer want and need. As such, my support of student rebellion and associated movements is total in its nuanced nature. History is messy and discomforting to watch in motion, but I want it to know which side I was on when we look back.

That said, in what form is my support most useful to the movements, I wonder? Am I of much help with my retweets, likes and shares?

Would I be of any help if I went to the University of the Witwatersrand, or the University of KwaZulu-Natal, or Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, with my physical body and held up a placard bearing my support? What happens when the human shield gets hungry or has to go home to bathe its children or return to work? What about if I deposited some money? Would that trickle down into somewhere useful?

A lot of us feel frustrated when watching these events unfold from a distance, through screens we tend to minimise and walk away from, the frustration emerging from helplessness and powerlessness.

“What do we do?’’ This is a question I’ve been hearing a lot in the newsroom and in conversations with my friends.

As a working person who did what I could to give practical support to the students in 2015, I’ve come to learn that my going to a student protest is like a suburban white person donating their clothes or food to a charity in a township. It’s well intentioned but it’s not really the thing that is needed; it’s not the kind of action that is going to create fundamental change.

There is enough momentum there, which is why it is so attractive. It is easy to drop off a bag of clothes in Philippi or to park your car and become another body in a march that has little to do with your everyday experience.

But what is the difficult thing to do instead? I’m starting to understand that we nonstudents have the responsibility, from our diverse positions, to create the kind of world that a decolonised student can graduate into. In other words, we need to question our small little universes until they meet this movement halfway, seeing as it’s not going anywhere.

Those in positions of changing policy, what of our signatures? Bookworms, who are we reading and why? How does a teacher further distance her curriculum from its Eurocentric bondage? Shop owners, what magazines do you peddle and what do they say of your female customers? What does a socially conscious Buddhist meditation class look like? Can a black person enter it and leave her defences next to her shoes there by the door?

How can monks and priests teach from a position of a thorough understanding of racism as an economic system and the lifeblood of South African society? How Africanised is your approach to yoga? How can you protect your adopted black child from institutionalised racism at his playschool and in his home? Does your Kundalini teaching take into account the inherited trauma of apartheid on the bodies of all your students?

And then there’s us, the media. Journalists are comfortable with shocking and incapacitating readers with grief or fear by heralding the facts as informative.

We are good at appealing to people’s curiosities but do little to provide scaffolding to build counternarratives so that citizens may feel closer to one other, closer to themselves. How do we challenge our laziness to think deeper about the work we do?

Preaching is unbecoming but “studio touching” is at an all-time high right now. There has been an outbreak of Facebook ignorance in which reasonable people are making scenes about their aversion to knowledge and learning on other children’s timelines. And it’s hard to watch, online and in real-life conversations, meetings and texts. I don’t like to write in this tone any more because it limits the reader’s imagination and my creativity. But liberties are saying ‘’sorry to distract you but abeg, please take us’’.

Nobody in our country was left unscathed by apartheid and its slave and colonial ancestors. We have all been cooked in some pretty grim soup and the work of recalibrating our society is something we should not and cannot leave only to the students.

But since I’m not going to round up some troops to march because I’m too bujwa, I need to ask myself: What little can I do each day to educate myself about this situation? How can I dislocate the paralysed human nature in my home and workplace in small ways every day?

Every morning, a friend of mine greets everybody in her white workspace in isiXhosa. Over the past few months, she has watched discomfort turn into normality, with some of her Afrikaans colleagues greeting in Afrikaans. It’s a small thing, that decolonised greeting, but she’s lit a match of a different kind.

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Milisuthando Bongela
Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardians arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project.

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