The student protests that have rocked Cape Town and other parts of the country are rooted in the lived experience of inequality, but the movement has also been propelled by undergraduates and graduates drawing on the works of authors espousing the ideals of black consciousness and anti-colonialism.
The is reflected at city book stores, where owners, managers and booksellers have noted an upsurge in the demand for such literature, including the histories of the Xhosa and Zulu, nations which are being studied and seen in a new light.
Tarryn de Kock, of the Centre for International Teacher Education at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s Mowbray Campus, believes there has always been an interest in these works in the South African academy, but “more particularly on the left”.
“They certainly aren’t new to the South African literary consciousness, in that many of these texts have been around and in use for decades, even in the liberation movement, and young people raised in political environments were often exposed to these before reaching university. So I do think we are only noticing it now, and, that said, I do also think there has been a growth in interest in these texts in the last few years as the student movement has developed,” she said.
Ms De Kock said the students identified with the views of authors such as Frantz Fanon, Sylvia Winter, Bell Hooks, Audre Lorde, Walter Rodney, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, as well as South Africans Xolela Mangcu, Vashna Jagarnath, Richard Pithouse, Niren Tolsi, Panashe Chigumadzi, Raymond Suttner and Nomboniso Gasa.
“You have to understand that in South Africa, many young people are never exposed to the writings of black people from here, the rest of Africa or elsewhere in the world – and this is a broad definition of ‘black’ that includes, for example, writers from India and Latin America who are also from marginalised and historically underdeveloped groups in their own societies.
“So part of it is recognising oneself in the stories and anecdotes shared by these writers, but also taking on a political message that calls for the dismantling of the power structures that hold white supremacy in place through white control of the economy, the embedded whiteness in our popular media and culture, and so on. But that the structural dismantling of whiteness must be accompanied by a dismantling of the ‘mental slavery’ that holds that black people are inferior, weak, and incapable of making a contribution to the intellectual, creative and material facets of life in this world.
“We know this isn’t true – people copy black hair styles, music and fashion all the time, and never give credit for it. We speak about mathematics as a European invention and deny the contribution of Arab scholars and scientists. And so on, and so forth – it’s about realigning the way we think of history and saying that the modern world is actually built not only with black labour, but often on the basis of black thought, and that this needs to be recognised and afforded its due value.”
Ms De Kock said it was not only literary texts that were being read by the students, but also online bloggers and writers who provided “inspiration, support and critical insight, and they are not necessarily published on paper”.
“There is an entire virtual network of writers and thinkers circulating the world right now and contributing to these debates, and that is of massive value. I know many of my friends look to writers like Yrsa Daley-Ward, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nayyira Waheed and Rupi Kaur for inspiration and comfort, as well as Baldwin, Morrison and Hughes.”
She said for students, discovering a world of literature and academic writing that described what it felt like to be written out of history was empowering.
“It enables us to uncover our own agency, and it allows for debates around decolonisation to say, ‘Look, we actually have literature, we actually have knowledge to contribute, we don’t need to centre Europe in a society that is not European, that is not white, and, in fact, we can make things work just as well with our own knowledge.’
“It isn’t about discarding European knowledge just so, but about removing it from its unchallenged position of power and saying that there is more than one acceptable way to be in the world, and to think about the world, and that in fact it is better when this thinking and knowing doesn’t rely on rendering a group of people inferior or lesser in order for it to work.”
Professor Imraan Coovadia, of UCT’s Department of English Literature, acknowledged there had been a revival of black consciousness themes. However, he believes that to date this has been “pretty empty”.
“Its canon is microscopic: a few pages of Biko and Fanon are supposed to balance out ‘Western’ science, history, philosophy and so on. And it’s being used as a cover for a plainly violent campaign.
“Invoking black consciousness and racial pride seems to work for a small group of middle class students and faculty, but so far it’s mostly helped move them to victimising black cleaners and secretaries, security guards and other students who may not want to join. So, in my view, worse than useless – actively destructive,” Professor Coovadia said.
Asked whether he thought it might be difficult to expose students to contrary views in literary texts in the future, Professor Coovadia, who is also an award-winning author, said that it “seemed likely”.
“I don’t think it’s even a question of opposing views. It’s a question of appreciating that there are many questions and possible political programmes. The black consciousness canon shrinks the entire world to one characteristic: black skin or white skin.”
He also noted that a practice of “thinking by tweet” had become a common place among students who tended towards literature that was in keeping with their own world view.
“The electronic world is so consuming now that it makes it harder to pick up a book and follow an argument or case at length.”
A bookseller from Bargain Books Cavendish in Claremont said Moeletsi Mbeki and Nobantu Mbeki’s Manifesto for Social Change was proving very popular, particularly with UCT students. The book, the third in a series, looks at the causes of South Africa’s and the continent’s development obstacles.
“There has always been an interest in African literature among UCT students. They are very socially aware, and are very interested in subjects like feminism. But I think the protests have put the spotlight on this kind of literature and its significance,” she said.
Popular Long Street book shop Select Books, which specialises in out-of-print southern African literature, has also experienced interest in South Africa’s social and economic dynamic in the wake of the protests.
“Interestingly, we have seen a lot of interest in books about Cecil John Rhodes,” said store owner David McLennan.
“There are some books written at the time that suggest Rhodes was the finest person on earth, while others place him in a negative light. What we are finding is that people from across the spectrum are wanting to learn more about him. I know that a lot of the students are reading Fanon, and we do have readers looking for books on Biko, but we also have interest in the history of the Xhosa and Zulu nations.
“The problem with our South African history has been the way it has been interpreted. Yes, there are readers wanting to read about Che Guevara, but they are also interested in looking again at our history. For example they are looking to interpret Shaka’s rise to power, and get a more sophisticated understanding of our history.”