2016 Ruth First Memorial Lecture: On Revolution and the Rainbow Nation

01 Sep 2016
2016 Ruth First Memorial Lecture: On Revolution and the Rainbow Nation

Photograph: Ruth First in Jack Gold’s film on her imprisonment. Courtesy of Wits Journalism and the Ruth First Papers Projects.

The 2016 Ruth First Lecture was held on Wednesday 17 August at the University of the Witwatersrand. This year’s keynote speaker was Wits lecturer and activist Leigh-Ann Naidoo who spoke on the topic of “Violence and Rage” along with Ruth First Fellows Lwandile Fikeni and Nolwazi Tusini. Watch the 2016 Ruth First Memorial Lecture on eNCA, listen to it on the Wits University website or read the speakers’ presentations:

Journalists from The Daily Vox wrote about the three lectures – “Our reflections on rage and violence“, while both Ivo Vegter and Claire L Bell responded to Fikeni’s lecture in particular in their respective pieces “Idolising violence at the Ruth First Memorial Lecture” and “‘Fuck white people’? No – My response to Lwandile Fikeni“.

PEN SA Advocacy and Projects Manager Oratile Mashazi has written about Naidoo’s keynote address:

The annual Ruth First Memorial lecture is a staple in Johannesburg’s socio-political calender. The lecture was founded in honour of the late activist and writer Ruth First. In this, its 15th year, the Ruth First Fellowship was awarded to Nolwazi Tusini and Lwandile Fikeni who join an esteemed list of Fellows including Pumla Dineo Gqola, Panashe Chigumadzi and Sisonke Msimang who chaired this year’s discussion. The lecture is an occasion for South Africans to engage in critical conversations about post-Apartheid politics and power. An opportunity for those who think and dream about what South Africa can be to congregate, listen and share their knowledge and experience. The lecture is held every year on August the 17th, the anniversary of First’s murder by the Apartheid state, so it is fitting that the theme for 2016 was ‘Violence and Rage’. This year speakers Leigh-Ann Naidoo, Fikeni and Tusini took the stage at The Great Hall at Wits University and each of them illustrated South Africa as a deeply unequal society, run by a government unable to take it into a more equal future.

“The specter of revolution, of radical change, is in young peoples’ minds and politics, and it is almost nowhere in the politics of the anti-apartheid generation. In fact, even as they criticised young people just five years earlier for being apathetic and depoliticized, they have now thought student activists misguided, uninformed, and mad” – Naidoo.

Naidoo gave an excellent keynote address; her description of the student movement resonated with the audience, who clapped and cheered when she closed. Naidoo identifies the Fallists as time travellers, arrested by the present and fighting, raging for a future where things are different. She posits on the Fallists vision on the future: “The first task in this hallucination has been to kill the fallacies of the present: to disavow, no to annihilate, the fantasy of the rainbow, the non-racial, the Commission (from the Truth and Reconciliation, to Marikana, and Heher…), even of liberation.”

Naidoo highlighted the contrast between the old guard of anti-Apartheid activists and the Fallists. The former characterised by an investment in maintaining South Africa as a neo-liberal, capitalist democracy, the latter committed to decolonisation, redistribution and revolution. The Fallists and progressive workers have brought the conversation around decolonial thought and revolution back into South African politics and the university has been the site of struggle for the cause. It is a struggle marked by 2015’s victory of no increase on fees and many universities ending outsourcing, but with fees set to rise again this year and the policing and surveillance of students on campus, the struggle continues.

The role of the university was critically questioned by Naidoo, who admonished the use of a 1959 trespassing law being re-enforced at Wits in 2016: “In the name of ‘protecting the university’ they have closed down not only the university’s most important avant-garde, but also the very actors who could force the state to better fund our universities. They have miscast the student movement as an enemy to the university, when in fact it is one of its most valuable gifts.”

Naidoo ended her speech to unanimous and impassioned applause. The evening’s chair, Msimang, opened the Q&A session and asked the fellows, Tusini and Fikeni, to consider the following: “In light of the fact that white supremacy is the enemy and underpins the economy but the country is run by people who look like us and yield a not insignificant amount of power, is an analysis of white supremacy a sufficient enough tool to help us imagine forward?”

“The structure of this country has not changed, and to have black bodies maintaining that structure is something that my brain struggles to comprehend…they are wallowing in their victory, while the rest of us cannot breathe,” Tusini replied.

A few minutes later, in response to a question from an audience member who asked how effective the Fallists’ damaging of university property was, Fikeni said, “Until we are able to quantify the cost of poverty and black deaths, your question is irrelevant and quite silly.”

Tusini added to this, asking, “Why must they have it and we cannot? It would be a better use of our time to think about how to make these institutions more inclusive, not how to protect them when they keep the majority out.”

Msimang closed the evening with a recognition of the importance of the lecture, saying that “this space is important and rich with meaning and power and energy”. Acknowledging that the voices that were heard are often dismissed as too loud or “uncivil” she continued to say that those voices “go into the discourse of what makes South Africa an exciting and interesting country”.

It is surely an interesting and difficult time to be South African, when student movements are reviving black consciousness and indicting the rainbow nation in favour of radical change and representation while the government attempts to maintain the status quo and the universities remain out of reach for many of South Africa’s youth.

In conversations where challenging and difficult views are discussed, the primacy of freedom of expression as a tenet of an inclusive, humane and free society becomes clear. And while South Africa does not have free education and suffers from some of the world’s high economic inequality and systemic racial prejudice, we do have the right to say and do something about those issues. This lecture provided an accommodating and engaging space for a diverse range of South Africans to discuss and consider the state of the revolution in honour of First who gave her life for it.