A spectator of my own history


A spectator of my own history

ISMAIL LAGARDIEN says he is increasingly unsuited to write seriously and authoritatively in an era of racial or ethnic essentialism.


IT’S a funny thing, when you see your history being told, in tales and fables, truth and myth, and you have no opportunity, or even a desire, to step in.

I have been intrigued by watching history, more specifically the past, present and future of coloured people, being written by South African thinkers, activists and scholars. The more I read, listen, and follow the way the history of coloured or Malay people is told, the less confident I am about my own education. Although this decline in confidence has been a consistent feature of my adult life.

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Without traducing their efforts, I often disagree or have some discomfort with much of the work on coloured identity. The fact remains, I am increasingly unsuited to writing seriously and authoritatively in the present era of racial or ethnic essentialism, an almost desperate and sometimes expedient quest for indigenity through ancestral worship. There is what seems like a wilful submerging of particular histories under more convenient rubrics to match prevailing sympathies, dominant ideologies and trends — ignoring the fact that trends come and go.

As if it gives you more authenticity and allows you to secure a place in a South Africa that is increasingly dominated by ethno-nationalism of a particular kind (more on this below), people seem to be adopting indigenous genealogies to secure belonging. Nobody can be denied their own history, and only under the worst conditions are people stripped of their histories and cultures.

As a spectator in all this I chuckle at the worst of times, and marvel and learn new things at the best of times. This means that other than journalistic or observational touches, with weak attempts at analysis, I suspect I am insufficiently qualified or informed to say anything meaningful, definitive or substantive about the coloured and Malay community that would endear me to the performance that marks public discussions.

Hell, even just calling myself coloured or recollecting the Southeast Asian heritage of my family has become anathema. “Backsliding”, it’s called. We’re expected to savour the elixir of non-racialism and just keep shtum about being reduced to second-class citizens.

I sometimes wish I had more direct and readily available evidence of my family as Khoi or San, Xhosa, Zulu, Venda or Ndebele. There is, of course, the Camissa history, of which I know little to nothing. Patric Mellet, with his revelations of “the Camissa”, may be regarded as the new great historian/discoverer (I’m not saying  there has not been misrepresentation about a precolonial terra nullius — far from it), but I remain loyal to the work and ideas of Giambattista Vico and Eric Hobsbawm. I noticed, as it goes, die manne, on Mellet's personal website and on his Facebook profile (both accessed on September 11). Maybe I am being petty, but I am not terribly comfortable with male bonding.  

All of this helplessness probably has to do with my formal education, or lack thereof. In this respect, two things are worth sharing. The first is my thoroughly Eurocentric education, something the coolest cats in town wouldn’t dare to acknowledge. Related to this, the second is  straightforward: I am insufficiently qualified to challenge or assume the positions of people more courageous, better qualified and ideologically ensconced, and thereby protected from criticism. It’s just safest to defer to them. All of this makes me prone to extended bouts of ressentiment,  bitterness, rage and anger which, if Freddie Nietzsche is to be believed, makes me a weak person. Seriously, it’s only in the act of writing that I actually say things.

Eurocentric education

One of the consistent aspects of my adulthood is that the more I learn, the less I know. These days, the more out of place I feel, and I resort, almost without fail, to keeping my mouth shut. Just earlier this month I turned down an invitation to discuss colouredness and coloured politics, identity and culture.

The first problem is that the three or four periods of my formal education, spread over five decades (1960s to 2008), did not include topics about (specifically) blackness, whiteness, and concepts such as “the disembodied self” — which I cannot wrap my head around. Nor did I care for the posties: post-structuralists, post-modernists, post-colonialists etc.

It may have been because of my experience as a journalist that I responded, during the interview for admission to start work on a PhD, with a wish. At the end of an extensive, verbose and pretentiously formal presentation (on the reproduction of inequality under liberal global capitalism) to the selection committee, one of the professors asked if I could express my thesis in simple terms. I asked if I could do it in basic and crude terms. Given the nod, I said: “We’re fucked.” Everybody laughed.

All of the above does not mean I never learned about justice and injustice, oppression, inequality, dominance and dependence, empires and imperialism, slavery, racism, misogyny and patriarchy, society, gender, ethics or morality. I have not done a qualitative study, but have to admit that the overwhelming body of scholarship that influenced my education came from the proverbial dead white men — Edward Said, Walter Rodney and CLR James aside (were they then not inspired by dead white men?), with very few women (Simone de Beauvoir, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Gayatri Spivak and Martha Nussbaum, and because of my interest in physics, Marie Curie and Émilie du Châtelet) standing out, illustrating the male dominance. This predicament places me well outside acceptable discussions among public intellectuals, scholars and activists. Hell, even my favourite piece of music was written by a Russian in the 19th century.

The wrong person at the right time

A few years ago, perhaps in 2018, I spoke at a conference. I opened with, “good afternoon everyone” and delivered what was reduced to a very brief contribution. The speaker after me started her presentation with something like this: good afternoon, non-binary, gender fluid, agender, bigender persons. I was immediately struck by how out of touch I was, although the substance of my contribution was highly appropriate. I was the wrong person delivering the right message (at the right time), but did not have the lexicon. I realised that the politics, economics and philosophy that shaped my education was what it was, Eurocentric, and that it would be disingenuous to suddenly make like a bandit and claim “street cred”. It may be fashionable, but its such performative nonsense anyway. My old buddy Karl Marx referred, somewhere in Kapital, to “murderous, meaningless caprices of fashion”.

I should not bang on about this (I have expressed these things in various ways in this space). I am not an historian, and notwithstanding my writing on coloured or Malay people, I don’t care for the identity politics that precede exclusion, injustice, violence and erasure. All genocidal activities start with identifying a group of people who are different, or lesser beings. I don’t feel the urge to discuss this again.

It is appropriate, and “the right time”, to begin to delve into the complex tangle of South African history, but I am clearly unable to do so. I have no intention of telling people what they ought to say or do about their own histories; all voices must be heard. Though I have to say, not all voices carry the same weight. Mine, for instance, has insufficient cachet.

I will venture to say, also, that it would be terribly retrogressive to create a one-tier history of a country as diverse and disrupted as South Africa. History, oral and textual, is, after all, the philosophical examination of all the aspects of our descriptions, beliefs and knowledge about the past. Vast swathes of that past have been ignored, obscured and rendered irrelevant. No single group of people, at least not those that have dominated world history for centuries, should obscure or foreground their own history at the expense of others, nor should a future historical record be dissociated from the totality of history. In other words, readers and learners 50 years from now should be made aware of all the material and non-material conditions that brought us to where we are today, and over the next several decades.

History does not follow a set path

We can, of course, learn from the past, but the future of history is unscripted. The best thing I can say about the way today’s lessons and positions are presented is that it is too narrow, and terribly facile. That is a strong opinion, I know, but much of it is inspired by activists who lend themselves to personal pecuniary gain, which makes it difficult to take it all seriously. The 14th-century north African Arab historian, Ibn Khaldun, provided a reflection of the complexity of history. I have kept the gender-specific reference for the sake of accurately presenting his ideas.

“History is the record of human society, or world civilisation; of the changes that take place in the nature of that society, such as savagery, sociability and group solidarity; of revolutions and uprisings by one set of people against another with the resulting kingdoms and states, with their various ranks; of the different activities and occupations of men, whether for gaining their livelihood or in the various sciences and crafts; and, in general, of all the transformations that society undergoes by its very nature.”

In my own understanding, Eurocentric as it may be, I consider history to be the outcome of the collective actions and efforts of multitudes over prolonged periods “within the framework of the powers of production they have received and extended and the modes of production they have created, built up and revolutionised”. History does not belong to, nor is it the domain of, elites, old or new, especially not of people riding the crest of waves that will inevitably come crashing down. Ordinary people have kept history in place and up to date, pushing and pulling in different directions through and beyond turning points.

This is the best I can do with my Eurocentric education, while I watch my history being relayed orally and in the written word, and I have to accept that I don’t have skin in the game. That’s all, I guess. This essay is probably as confusing as I am.

A postscript on ethno-nationalism of a particular kind is appropriate. There has been a drive, for most of the past two or three decades, to search for and celebrate ethnic or racial purity. From the Punjab to neo-Nazis in the US, Britain or eastern Europe, groups of people have aspired to return to their all-white or religious “greatness”. This drive is captured in the literature on rising ethno-nationalism. In South Africa, “ethno” is assumed to be “pure” African with “non-Africans” or people with “origins” in Europe or Asia being outsiders and, therefore, “impure”. This ethno-nationalism is at the centre of the ANC’s African nationalism, and is explicit in the EFF’s nativist populism.  

As for the searches for purity, let’s leave the last word to Mohsin Hamid in his address to PEN International Free the Word! at Winternachten in 2018.

“Once purity becomes what determines the rights a human being is afforded, indeed whether they are entitled to live or not, then there is a ferocious contest to establish hierarchies of purity, and in that contest no one can win. No one can ever be sufficiently pure to be lastingly safe. In the land of the pure, no one is pure enough.”

♦ VWB ♦

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