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Saturday, 1 July 2017

Settler Amnesia in the Age of Canada 150

Will much-hyped birthday bring consequential action, or more nausea-inducing revisionism?

After almost two months, the premier of South Africa’s Western Cape finally apologized for a set of tweets alluding to positive aspects of colonialism.

These sentiments would ring familiar to many Canadians as the two nations share a common history of pass laws and legalized racial separations. Canadian policy served as a guide for the architects of apartheid. Moreover, the arrogance and narcissism demonstrated by the delayed apology is reflective of a malady that is very much alive in both countries, settler amnesia.

Sanitizing history
Premier Zille’s tweets sanitized the violence of colonial dispossession by employing a progressive or linear understanding of history. Colonialism brought innovative technology thus justifying the horrors of the colonial project. This worldview lacks imagination for the past and present. Such perspectives not only hide the shared horrors of the past but also the contributions of Indigenous and African people.
Zille’s delayed apology demonstrates an intransigence, a refusal to hear out other worldviews or experiences. In Canada, denial persists even after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. One does not have to look very far. In the reaches of high-level government power, we have a Senator who recently felt the need to highlight the “good deeds” of the residential school system, while others feel the need to defend residential schools as providing comparable or better treatment for Indigenous students than for those not in the schools.
Denialism comes in many forms
Similarly, we have all heard calls that the past is the past and so Indigenous folks ought to simply get over it — it* being the horrors of dispossession, residential schools and the ongoing violence of the settler state. All of these narratives simply accept the inevitability and permanence of the Canadian state as well as the dispossession of Indigenous communities.
This inability to accept the immoralities undergirding our nation’s very existence shields us from accepting the emotional and tangible responsibility required to build a truly inclusive society. It also enables settler society to continue to set the national agenda.
Another seemingly innocent form of denialism came to the forefront during the recent so-called appropriation prize scandal. Following criticism of Hal Niedzviecki’s proposal for a prize, and his resignation as editor of the magazine that published it, individuals from leading media outlets pledged to support the prize under the auspices of free speech. While Niedzviecki and his supporters ought to have the right to suggest (and even offer) such a prize, the rhetoric in defense of the prize wreaked of an arrogance and narcissism; complaints of racism and insensitivity were belittled by a community accustomed to being right, to setting common norms.
The lessons from this episode are two-fold. First, settler-hood conditions us to sideline competing opinions as we are used to occupying the center. Second, as Eusebius McKaiserrecently argued, complaints of racism, like sexism, ought to be acknowledged at face value. Outside of the courts, legal standards need not apply to such grievances due to the pervasive nature of racism and misogyny in our society.
This common amnesia and refusal to come to term with our nations’ colonial pasts is actually an implicit admission. Deep down, settler communities know that, to put it mildly, something is not kosher. As settlers we must come to terms with our own historical and contemporary dominance, or privilege we enjoy in society. We have two options: we can follow a path of honest engagement, introspection and consequential action guided by humility or we can further try to sweep the very-much-alive past under the carpet through nausea-inducing revisionism.
The first option is one of expanded community and dialogue, requiring patience, the valuation of the pain and experiences of others, and an understanding that not everything needs to revolve around settler-hood. Fundamentally, this is a path to maturity, to adulthood. The second route is one of stubbornness, an unwillingness to accept alternatives, an inability to pause and listen, and a fundamental aversion and incapacity to adapt to a meaningfully transformative society.
As Canada 150 approaches, it’s high-time settler society pursues a coming-of-age.

****Please note this piece first appeared in Ricochet

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Progress and Making the Native Disappear in South Africa

In the name of modernity and capital expansion, indigenous peoples across the globe have been slaughtered, dispossessed and made to be invisible. Through the writing out of history or blotting out of popular culture, indigenous people are often relegated to a state of pre-modernity or tradition; this continues to underpin policy.

We have seen this narrative countless times as manifest destiny, the empty-land myth and the like; gross human rights violations justified as the price of Progress. In this way, Progress is considered through the lens of the inevitability of capital. Some proponents of this notion of Progress may claim to lament the cultural, familial and economic attack on local communities. If taken at face value, such sentiments speak less to personal immorality but rather point to a crisis of imagination. Progress is bestowed with inevitability, simply pitted against Tradition, leaving little room for intellectual alternatives. Lacking options, proponents remedy Progress by painting it as ethical advancement while distancing it from its colonial origins. Extraction industry apologetics demonstrate this trend through buzzwords such as energy independence or exaggerated claims of job creation.

In an act of colonial continuity, the government of South Africa is incessantly trying to put forward the Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Bill. Amongst other issues, the Bill would increase the authority of Traditional Leadership in the nation's former Bantustans including the ability to unilaterally enter their communities into agreements with third parties. This would sanction an existing reality in many communities wherein Traditional Leadership personally benefits from extorting or at least preventing community resistance against the arrival of extraction or tourism industries. As I have covered before,Traditional Leadership has sold land that is not theirs to sell, while others have acquiesced to the intimidation of their community members. In this way, the Bill would further institutionalize Traditional Leadership and rural patronage as a fulcrum for capitalist exploitation.

The proposed legislation is the next descendent in a long line of rural patronage used to manage and exploit the nation's black majority. The Bill would directly affect roughly 18 million people . While it would be unfair to paint every Traditional Leader with the same brush, we must question their histories and relationship to the title. Many contemporary Traditional Leaders do not fit into the great lineage of anti-colonial resistance embodied by Chief Albert Luthuli or King Langalibelele but rather fall into a line of collaboration. For instance, Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini legitimized Mangosuthu Buthelezi and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), armed by the regime, the IFP engaged in a ravenous civil war with the African National Congress across today's KwaZulu-Natal and the townships of Gauteng. It should be noted that Zwelithini also faces accusations of stoking the xenophobic violence plaguing the nation.

During the transition process, the IFP harnessed its ability to withhold peace by threatening to boycott the 1994 election. In exchange for their participation, the IFP was awarded a major concession and pre-cursor to the TKLB, the Ingonyama Trust Act. Passed days before the historic election, the Act stipulates that much of the land belonging to the former KwaZulu homeland is to be administered by the Zulu King. As I have argued before, the nature of the relationship between the national state and citizens on this land has remained largely unchanged since the colonial era. The Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Bill would further reify these borders and this relationship.

Considering the magnitude in terms of those directly affected by the Bill, there has been relatively little coverage of it. This falls into a long pattern of externalizing the experiences as well as plight of rural communities. Further, as I have noted before, much of the popular discourse surrounding rural people taking place outside of rural areas often frames these folks and by extension their communities within two stereotypes. The first label is stupid or lazy while the second is rural people as the proverbial gate-keepers of tradition, seemingly left-behind by modernity. A consultation process mired in inadequacies speaks to the first perception as rural people are to be spoken to, never heard, to be led rather than to lead. The relative silence in major English language media speaks to the perceived irrelevance of rural matters.

Much like its colonial forbearers, the Traditional Khoisan Leadership Bill is a tool to overlook the experiences, ambitions, opinions and indeed, dignity, of rural black South Africans. If enacted, this Bill will further empower corrupted Traditional Leadership while capital freely exploits the local soil. Progress is often understood as innovation, the easing of life. For capital this Bill effectively solves the problem or removes the barrier of rural people and their ability to politically participate, resist exploitation and direct their own destiny.

Please note this piece was first published by the Hampton Institute

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Rural Patronage, Dehumanisation and the Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Bill

As the government continues to march forward with the Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Bill, we must consider the nature of power it wishes to further instill. In my last piece I wrote about the nexus between corrupt traditional leadership, the tourism industry and rural dispossession. Here, the moral and historical thread lacing the Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Bill will be examined.
Presently the government continues its efforts to pass the Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Bill, a piece of legislation riddled with continuities from apartheid and further tainted by (among other issues) an inadequate consultation process. Perhaps we should consider how the communities directly affected are conceived of as well as the institutions involved. 
Recently I wrote about the destruction of rural livelihoods and homes in an attempt to dispossess and remove rural persons. Traditional leadership was complicit in the burning of the homes of two men on land which they administered. Meanwhile the local tourism industry expanded. In that case, as in many others, capital framed indigenous rural people simply as problems or obstructions to industrial or commercial development. This led to steps being taken to try to remove these communities from the land. This is not a new phenomenon. 
Dating back to the initial stages of colonialism we see this line of thought at work. In North America, manifest destiny was utilised as the ideological tool for the westward expansion of a seemingly inevitable progress at the time framed primarily in white, agrarian terms. Inherent in this thinking was a notion “… that the natives could be made to simply disappear.” In South Africa, San people were legally hunted until 1927. 
In considering rural indigenous persons as problems, this ethic of problematisation transforms rural persons from subjects into objects; to be spoken for and to, but never to be heard. 
Let us consider how such ideas lend themselves to further abuse through the potential enacting of the Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Bill. In his recent piece, Thiyane Duda noted that the Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Bill would empower traditional leadership to act unilaterallyin entering communities into agreements with third parties. Rather than decolonisation, this Bill wreaks of a continuation of rural patronage guided by the ethic elaborated. This is not a naive or misguided step but a very intentional move to continue a consolidation of political power while lining the pockets of the powerful. 
During the transition to the new dispensation, many of the state’s institutions were carried forward. This includes the system of rural patronage long used to control much of the black majority. The continuation of such a system may be best signified by the Ingonyama Trust Act, passed just days before the 1994 election. This was designed to install an ally of the old regime in the new dispensation while appeasing the Inkatha Freedom Party, guaranteeing their participation in the election.
The Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Bill is the next generation in the lineage of rural patronage. If passed, it will further entrench the power of the often corrupt traditional leadership installed by the colonial and apartheid regimes. Such figures will be able to continue to undemocratically make life-altering decisions for communities, however if passed, the Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Bill will make such abuses legal. This will negatively affect roughly 18-million people. Unsurprisingly, many of those who will be directly affected have been inadequately consulted. 
Moving forward, we must seek to decolonise our institutions. Further empowering traditional leadership without meaningful reconsideration of the institution’s operations would not only be harmful but also tarnish the legacies of Inkosi Albert Luthuli, King Langalibalele and other traditional leaders reflective of a history of resistance rather than collaboration.
While it can be challenging to make sense of often senseless times, the worst we can do is retrench ourselves in ideas and institutions that are simply stable. The Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Bill reflects the continuation of capital expansion at the expense of the humanity of the most marginalised while utilising a colonial system of rural patronage. Let us expand our imaginations and craft an alternative system of rural uplift and decolonised governance.

*Please note this piece first appeared in Daily Maverick

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Self-Sufficient Communities are Being Forced into Becoming Capital-Dependent

Commercial interests in South Africa continue to view rural people as problems to be removed to the peripheries while their plight remains invisible in the public eye.
Near the South African borders with Swaziland and Mozambique rests gorgeous, pristine land. Communities here often find themselves residing inside of nature reserves – with or without consent and consultation. The plethora of nature reserves in the region is testament to the environmental stewardship of local communities. 
One community organiser relayed to me that, while growing up, “we would swim in the rivers and grandmothers would warn us that if we killed snails, frogs or snakes, we would switch genders”. Such fables continue to be passed along to instil an ethic of connectivity and respect for the environment; to damage the environment is to permanently alter one’s self. 
In this context of natural beauty, cultural and economic devastation is ever-present – continued attempts are being made to dispossess rural people of their ancestral lands and livelihoods. Here I spoke to two men, one 44, the other 35. Both recall growing up and coming of age in vibrant, autonomous communities. Living on lands formally administered by Ingonyama Trust – an institutional vestige of apartheid – these men were told by the local traditional leadership that they could do what they pleased with their homes. However, as these leaders became entrenched in dealings of local reserves-- some even sit on their boards – this changed. 
In 2010 between these two men, 11 homes as well as an external shower and toilet facility were burned and bulldozed. Accordingly, these two suspect that this was out of fear of competition by the local tourism industry; one of them hosted an American couple annually for a few weeks at a time. Moreover, the local reserve took them to the local magistrate, and while the traditional leadership was present at the hearing, they remained neutral rather than explaining that individuals had been permitted to do what they pleased with allocated land. One of these men was fined R2,000 for “refusing” to state who built those homes but the judge refused to believe his capabilities in this regard. 
Following this, local rangers arrived, supplied an English language document (which neither could read) and proceeded to burn and bulldoze their homes. They did not even have time to gather their belongings. Presently, the home of one of them is rotting and he fears retribution if he were to build a new one. 
These two men were also told that the homes they had built were on a hill too close to the ocean; meanwhile a luxury lodge sits metres from the shore that the hill overlooks. After demolition of the homes, these two men have very few economic prospects. The reserve has offered them sporadic work cleaning beaches. Evidently, attempts are being made to transform self-sufficient communities into becoming capital-dependent. The outcome of this inevitably would be migrancy and departure from ancestral lands, leading to dispossession. These folks are clearly viewed as a blot on the canvass of commercial tourism development.
This phenomenon is not unique to deep, remote rural areas. Recently a widow in her 60s was evicted from her home resting on Ingonyama Trust Land a stone’s throw north of Durban. Without anywhere to go, this woman has lost her right to a home as suburban development encroaches further and further north. Once again, the process in which she, like many others, came to live on land under this legal structure must be reiterated; lands presently administered by Ingonyama Trust constitute part of the former KwaZulu homeland; the Bill initiating the Trust was passed days before the 1994 election. This continued the colonial capture of traditional governance and land allocation. We must ask, what is the constitutionality of this institutionalised apartheid-era structure? 
Such questions need to be investigated as the government incessantly continues to promote and attempt to push through the Traditional and Khoi-San Leadership Bill – a piece of legislation that not only infringes on the right of freedom of association, while reifying apartheid borders, but perhaps most important, strengthens an often unproductive and corrupted governance system. Last, this legislation fits into a narrative of further marginalisation insofar as both media and national government are concerned; concerns over human and constitutional rights are decentred and reduced to simply static, rural, traditional matters.

*Please note this piece was first published by Daily Maverick

Friday, 3 March 2017

Global Connectivity to Personal Disconnect: The Collapse of Public Discourse in the Digital Era

People you may know. Pages you may like. Our online lives may be more insular than we recognise, while negatively affecting our civic life.

The great amount of attention given to issues such as fake news reflects a larger problem - the collapse of public discourse. We lack a common platform as well as understanding of what constitutes meaningful public discussion, making the public itself rest on shaky ground. 
Our current predicament is often framed as a function of the neoliberal age as increasingly we are individuated; loneliness is up while the emotional connections underpinning collectivist politics is down. Facilitating our increasing isolation from each other is rapid technological advancement. The amorality of technology demands that instruments both reflect and further the user’s values – this is embodied by the rise of the so-called bubble filter and its creation by neoliberal subjects such as Amazon or Facebook. 
The bubble filter is the effect created from tools used by most major websites and social media platforms to personalise the cyber experience insofar as advertisements and suggested links are concerned. The effect is demonstrated by users finding recommended resources and google results tailored to their previous activity. 
The barrage of personalised advertisements reflects capitalism’s tightening of the noose around the internet’s emancipatory potential; in a space where all information should be accessible, resources not deemed to match a user’s profile or previous activity are placed at the back of the proverbial line. The bubble filter both explains and creates a climate conducive to the rise of fake news. For the user, fake news is deemed trustworthy as it is compatible with narratives and information previously presented to them within their insular online experience. 
In showing us products or services that logarithmically match our listed preferences in terms of consumption as well as ideology, bubble filters sift through ideas that are determined to be incompatible with our desires or worldviews. In doing so, not only do bubble filters adhere to the neoliberal dictates of customer satisfaction but conveniently provide an informational escape from the contradictions of modern, capitalist life - Amazon tells us what to buy, Facebook tells us who to friend. Without exposure to competing ideas and values, neoliberal denizens lack a platform for debate while remaining in the shelters of their own personalised intellectual comfort zones. 
The bubble filter is the logical extension of capitalism’s shaping of the internet. Just as capital has created zones of comfort for consumption reflected by malls or urban policies that relocate the homeless, the unpleasant or discomforting is made absent from the daily experience online as well. Accordingly, just as homeless people (as opposed to homelessness) have become conceived of as a solvable problem, so to have narratives that differ from our own understandings of the world. Material that is not personally tailored for us is pushed to the peripheries.
The bubble filter demonstrates the internet as shifting from a tool of global connectivity to individual disconnect; personal opinion becomes fossilised while public discourse withers away. Without meaningful public discourse, the internet simply exposes us to competing opinions only insofar as (often anonymous) trolls are concerned. This is dangerous. With little to no space for productive debate, ideological conflicts are carried out institutionally as evinced by the onslaught of fake news accusations that characterised the final American presidential debate. 
As a product of the neoliberal project, the bubble filter caters to our perceived demands for constant personalised stimulation as well as the commodification of the digital experience. We find ourselves further removed from our neighbours who occupy distant ideological worlds; we do not understand each other as we increasingly lack basic exposure to each other. When we live in bubbles, we forget how to engage and disagree in a civil manner. 
This situation has the potential to normalise extreme polarity and reactionary populism as well as for ideological conflicts to increasingly be articulated in the streets. Left without public fora to negotiate competing worldviews and engage with each other, we should not be surprised if ideological conflicts escalate physically and violently.

***Please note this piece was originally featured by Daily Maverick and is coauthored with Francesco Fanti Rovetta