Tackling the art of resistance - and the resistance of art

The work of activists like Eddie Ndopu shows how resistance itself can be an art form, but the writer warns against romanticising the opposition to oppression. (Photo: Lutendo Malatji)

The work of activists like Eddie Ndopu shows how resistance itself can be an art form, but the writer warns against romanticising the opposition to oppression. (Photo: Lutendo Malatji)

South Africa, our land, is in a lot of ways experiencing a post-colonial moment. The myths that we have continued to tell and believe about ourselves are finally being proven to be false, and are making us realise that there is a lot of work that we still have to do. This moment has us agitating for change and a new reality that accommodates us in all our complexity, instead of having us subscribe to a social lie that we did not sign up for.
This means South Africans are dissecting their identities along the same faultlines that have had us sacrifice ourselves on the altar of silence and acquiescence. The 2015 #FeesMustFall movement, for instance, revealed the fallacy of the born free narrative because it exposed how the past continues to impact the present in violent and insidious ways that we have taken for granted for far too long.

Born frees — the supposed upshot of Nelson Mandela’s dream of a non-racial and non-sexist South Africa where all could flourish freely — were the very ones rejecting this myth. The violence of assimilation and a performative existence in spaces such as former Model C Schools and universities was proving too onerous, and by extension, pointless to them. Despite how hard they might have tried to adapt to their parents’ sacrifices and dreams, which often felt like burdens, they were constantly reminded that they do not belong, that they will forever be imposters in these spaces that do not have academic curricula designed and taught by people who look like them.

And so, they resisted. They resisted in socially acceptable ways, and then in not-so socially acceptable ways. In addition to being a protest against the everyday exclusion that permeates spaces such as universities, the students also took to the streets in criticism of an education system that is supposed to free them, but instead arrests their development, a system that is inclusive only to those with money, a system that implores them to continuously turn miracles into routine. This is because we live in a world that produces myths such as “education is a privilege and not a right,” myths that effortlessly entrench and validate the inequalities that exist. In a lot of ways, the indignity of inequality has become commonplace in South Africa, because many of us are desensitised to the indignities that we will never suffer. The stories of those who are subordinated by lack of access to opportunity are not stories that keep us awake at night.

In the tug-of-war of resistance, the #FeesMustFall movement was met with incredulity by various sectors of our society, where the spirit and the motives of the protests was lauded while their choice of scatological protest methods was criticised and derided. It’s interesting to note that anger is oftentimes expected to be sanitised in order to be considered acceptable, as if social and economic exclusion functions in sanitary ways.

Resistance is born out of dissatisfaction with an apolitical approach to life that makes us irredeemably apathetic. It grows out of conditions that make it hard to breathe, out of spaces that are heavy, exclusive and inequitable.

Activists and resisters are spurred by the unshakeable belief that we deserve better as a society or as a community, and that something must change if there is going to be hope, and a hope of wholeness. Despite having the capacity to degenerate into hatred and anger, the art of resistance is fundamentally driven by love. It was after reading Paulo Freire’s work that anti-apartheid stalwart Solomon Mahlangu realised that revolution is an act of love. He loved his people and he loved his country and he wanted them to be free, and so the revolution was born.

However, the dismantling of oppressive systems can often be romanticised, without reflection on how resistance is hard work, taxing to both the body and the soul. Also, it must be asked what the limits and the possibilities of resistance are in the digital age, where we can so easily lament the securitisation of the state on social media, while being suspicious of a nationwide protest against this very trend. In practising the art of resistance, there will always be losses to contend with, sacrifices to be made and consequences that we need to mentally prepare for.

Resistance in the personal space comes with its own sets of challenges, because we often do not have the buffers of community support when we resist normative systems of power that, upon closer inspection, do not actually serve us as society.

Eddie Ndopu’s voice against the erasure of disabled people is a didactic lesson in the art of resistance. This disability activist who was born with a degenerative muscular disease has dedicated his life to spreading awareness about how a world that caters only to able-bodied people is limiting, and he is committed to creating space and access for people with disabilities, people who are not always top of mind when town planners and engineers win bids to build our structures.

In Ndopu’s non-ableist future, disabled people are not erased as they are now. It is a world where access in the form of a ramp is the start, but where happiness, intimacy, love and all the things that make us human are also prioritised for disabled people. One cannot encounter Ndopu without being awakened to the need not to take things for granted — and realising how much more work we need to do. The world needs to resist against ableist ontology and activists call on us to be the type of people who notice when people who don’t look like us are not present in the room.

Despite many challenges, the resilience of the human spirit continues to make resistance into an art form. Resistance starts, perhaps, with not taking ourselves lightly — historically and in the present — and in understanding before we seek to explain, because here there is so much we don’t yet understand. Now more than ever the world needs a society that is willing to introspect on what is wrong and what can be changed.  It can then resist the hegemonic structures that are so commonplace that we presume they are not constructions of reality that are up for negotiation, or better yet, dismantling. Activism is important because it implores us to make diversity a norm in the same way that we have been socialised into and reproduce systems such as capitalism, heteronormativity and ableism.

Until we create a world where a Ndopu can go into space, where a lesbian does not have to worry about the imminent threat of corrective rape, a world where homosexual love in a Disney cartoon is not a cause for concern, where education is not a commodity that is only available to children with the situational privilege of self-sufficient parents, resistance will always be a necessity. We will continue to need #RememberKhwezi protesters to exist, so that they can remind us of the things we have forgotten. History and the present will break our hearts, and so the only thing we can do is to create and tell stories, so that we do not die. That is how we resist. 

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