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Radical black perspectives are often excluded from mainstream media and the political journal of essays New Frank Talk is an attempt at popularizing a black perspective through critical essays on the black condition in post-94 South Africa.
This quarterly is published by Andile Mngxitama who is currently preoccupied with contributing towards a revolutionary Black Consciousness in the 21st Century. He has authored three of the four editions out so far which include From Mbeki to Zuma: What is the Difference? and the popular, Blacks can’t be Racist. NFT issues in 2010, will include an essay by Heinrich Böhmke in which he argues that white revolutionaries are essentially missionaries; another piece on the 2010 Fifa World Cup and also one on the meaning of US President Barack Obama.
NFT will be featured at this year’s Time of the Writer Festival in Durban. For more information send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Beware of the nice whites
The polite whites
They’re just waiting for you
To put your balls in their mouths….
…then their teeth suddenly sharpen
…just as hard
as their granddaddies used to
a white man’s mouth
is not a safe place for a black man
to keep his balls
Reading Heinrich Böhmke is like de-quailing a porcupine. To feast one must invariably suffer the pain of bloodied fingers first. This edition of New Frank Talk (NFT) presents us with numerous difficulties. Firstly, this is no easy read, it requires patience but infinite rewards await those who stay the course to the end. Secondly, this is an essay by a white writer; we make no bones about the fact that NFT is about black people and for black people, white voices already saturate and pollute the public space. Frankly we don’t give a shit what whites do or say. Lastly, and this is important, Böhmke is an active player in the scene that he invites us to critically survey.
So this essay is not some innocent, beautiful literary foray for its own sake; this is part of an ongoing battle amongst latter day white missionaries who go by such endearing titles as human rights activists, internationalists, researchers and resource persons.
The challenge for NFT is simply this: are we, by publishing this essay, not entering an internecine battle between whites whose sole aim is to capture the souls of black folk? From this point of view, whichever side wins, the black stands to lose. In some twisted ways this is the central point made by this essay – white help invariably serves white interests in the final analysis. This may come as a surprise to readers who are familiar with the history of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa because we remember as if it were yesterday the great white warriors for liberation such as Joe Slovo, Ronnie Kasrils, Judge Albie Sachs, Jeremy Cronin and Ruth First amongst others. They all suffered in the fight against white supremacy. Really? Read on.
This essay is essentially about the place, motivation and role of white people in black struggles. This is a painful and difficult subject which has plagued all attempts at transforming the anti-black world we inhabit. Böhmke’s conclusion is disturbing in its lucidity – white revolutionaries are essentially missionaries! The journey to this discovery is long; it eats up all of 185 years! To understand this conclusion the writer takes us through an inviting review of a book published in 1834 by a missionary named Stephen Kay with a long title: “Travels and Researches in Caffraria, describing the character, customs and moral condition of the tribes inhabiting that portion of Southern Africa.” Caffraria is real, it’s the region of South Africa we call the Eastern Cape today, the land of the Xhosa-speaking people and their “Bushmen” cousins. Böhmke infuses life into an ancient book that could have been left to rot and never come to public attention, but it’s as if he walked into an amazing piece of artillery just when he needed it most in the ongoing missionary battles of our day. He discovered a perfect brick to hurl at the glass edifice of white radicalism. You can almost hear the shattering glass as it comes down. Damn!
One can imagine Böhmke turning the pages of the book rapidly as he read, baffled by the shocking discoveries and startling parallels between the original missionaries in service of civilisation and today’s activist. He must have been floored by the similarities between contemporary white actors in black affairs separated from their colonial predecessors by almost 200 years; these brethrens in the service of a humanity that dehumanises share the same impulses, strategies, discourses and concerns. Their overriding interest, just like Stephen Kay two centuries ago, is to “urge upon the Christian world the loud and affecting calls of the perishing African”. The treasure of this discovery couldn’t have escaped a seasoned warrior of Böhmke’s calibre. His advantage is that he got there first; the charge sheet he presents to white radicals indicts him no less. But he doesn’t care to defend himself, he pleads guilty with a smile. What will the rest of the accused plead? Smart, wicked move.
The first section of the essay which contains the historical material makes for fascinating reading. We get to see the strategies of how the “affecting calls for the perishing African” are carried out by missionary Stephen Kay. We get to see how Kay places himself as the true friend of the “Kaffers” against the marauding Boere, against the rapacious competing missionaries and other colonialists. Böhmke randomly chooses some themes from Kay’s book for fairly elaborate treatment. The parallels between the missionary of yesterday and the white activist of today yielded from these themes are shocking, yet we are shocked despite the writer’s council that we shouldn’t be. We discover powerfully how today’s white activist is no different from the colonial missionary. They have identical concerns and designs for the lost soul of the native. Of course unlike the bible- pushing colonial missionaries today’s white activists’ time is expired in service of human rights, justice, participatory democracy or any other such battle. Their bible is the constitution.
From Kay’s forays into Caffraria we can see that when it comes down to it, both the colonial missionary and the contemporary human rights counterpart are dealing with the same evils confronting the blacks: deprivation, homelessness, landlessness, evictions, state repression and inadequate protection by the law, or more specifically lack of implementation of existing laws to defend the helpless native. The missionary of yore stood between the Boere hordes and the helpless natives with his hands to the heavens and the bible under his armpit. Today the white activist stands between the poor, the squatter, the landless, the HIV positive and an indifferent black government with the constitution under the armpit driven by the same impulse to civilise.
Reading the essay, look out for rouge colonialists like Stout and Lochenberg. I smile thinking what these and other missionaries thought of the self righteous Kay. Then beware of the “predatory natives” who were “uncontainable and unpredictable”, the “sneaky” Bushmen who despised civilisation. They lived outside of civilisation and were therefore available for harsh colonial disciplinary measures. Kay, the righteous, approved of such treatment against these hordes who refused to live within the rhythm and discipline of work and God. Here I was reminded of how a few years ago white activists in a social movement refused to give any legal assistance to black members of the same movement who were accused of murder because of their involvement in a collective community crime prevention measure which left one of the tormentors of the community dead. Basically, a squatter settlement in the south of Johannesburg was terrorised by a gang of thugs who raped, killed and mugged community members. The police refused to act each time. The community then decided or rather spontaneously took matters into their hands. But because they acted outside the law, they were branded vigilantes by their white comrades and were therefore left to face the full punishment of the law. They were abandoned to harsh measures just like the “predatory natives” of Kay’s time.
Dear reader I must warn you, take no word of the writer at face value and don’t be seduced into a lowering your guards because of the beauty of this essay. Remember this is a white battle for the soul of the contemporary native who otherwise goes by the name of “the poor”. For instance, where Böhmke in a single throwaway line writes, “How wonderful to be first to write about a place!” don’t be mistaken, he is not making an innocent statement. He is talking to the many white researchers who make it their business to research and write about black struggles. They come from Canada, the USA and Europe. And then of course there is our very own home-grown settler stock. They work for NGOs and volunteer their time for a good cause. All of them are the Stephen Kays of our day. As they research about or administer to the natives, they denounce and approve accordingly, in the process saving souls and converting heathens. The success of the preaching is the changed behaviour of the poor; all of a sudden tyre burners become articulate preachers of human rights and the constitution. They learn process and patience. They stop demanding the impossible and acting illegally. They become perfect victims failed by the law and state.
The key point is simply this; the missionary of yesteryear was in it for colonisation and civilisation through spreading the gospel of God. Today the white activist is in it to be “saved from the native”. Are the barbarians still coming? Truth is even those who fought against apartheid did it to serve and save white civilisation. They are “helpers who destroy”. The role of today’s white activist is in the main to channel black anger into the castrating chambers of the constitutional court where if they lose they must go home and accept their fate as a turkey would on Christmas Day. If they win, and they rarely ever win anything useful, they must party all night long and be thankful to their white saviours – the lawyers, researchers and other NGO types in service of human rights and the constitution. This process actually serves to shape the desires of black people and lowers their expectations of what it means to be free. Like animals they listen as judges and white lawyers argue about how many kilolitres of water are enough to keep them clean and quench their thirst; they hear arguments on their behalf about how many communal toilets can take their shit and the number of flood lights needed to keep them from smothering each other to death at night. It doesn’t stop there, there are court cases led by human rights lawyers to determine how the poor must be forcibly removed, they plead for a just process before the removals but removed the natives must be, it must just be done according to due process! You’d think these masses of helpless blacks are not a majority in their own country. Black people have lost all self-respect in the name of the constitution and democracy. Now both the ANC and the DA are able to build wall-less toilets for blacks!
When it comes down to it, the white radical is actually worse than the colonial missionary. Without Joe Slovo it would have been possible to attempt an entry into a register of black suffering which didn’t defer to whiteness at all. Blacks would have been able to simply say, “Look, this is our fucken country and we are going to fight for it by any means necessary”! The very presence of whites in the zone of black resistance crowds out other possibilities. In fact certain acts become outlawed. Certain demands unimaginable. Imagine the oppressed seeking agreeable means to fighting their oppression from their oppressors? Absurd!
Böhmke comes to a similar conclusion as Frank Wilderson even if they arrive there from totally different routes. Böhmke takes Sigmund Freud while Wilderson uses Frantz Fanon. For Böhmke, to understand the unbroken chain of the white radical’s postionality as a missionary, one has to search in the “pre-political”, a zone crafted upon the infantile traumas of the first encounters between black and white signified by violence and betrayals. These have now become “fixed, binding and canonical”, thereby a priori governing all future interactions. In other words, a template of behaviour is now set in stone. The nasty encounters between black and white, where white seeks to civilise are fated to be “perpetually re-enacted” in all black and white encounters. From here a devastating conclusion is inevitable; there is no relationship between blacks and whites which is not already trapped in the Manichean poles of civiliser and the heathen soul. The writer points at himself and admits quite candidly that, “The impulse to freedom I thought I had, was an impulse to civilise”. In the final analysis, the Kaffir Boetie and terrorist finds that this impulse was actually to “better the precarious prospect of the white settler in South Africa”. This is significant, what we are being told here is that if we want to understand how post 1994 South Africa delivered a liberation that re-enacted and sustained white supremacy, we may find the white radical as a key player in ensuring this raw deal for the celebrating and voting native.
Be careful, when Böhmke points to himself, he in not delivering a confessional. What Böhmke has done with this confession is to take away the agency of the white radical, at least as revolutionary subjects. All white sacrifice in the struggle for black liberation stands at once as illegitimate. However, Böhmke does more than just dispossess the white radical of his most potent weapon and claims to be allowed into the black war room. Through this act of dispossession, Böhmke has simultaneously orphaned blacks of their white radical father figure who makes their travails understandable to the media, the government the donor and the world. Without the white radical, there is no way the “affecting calls of the perishing African” can be heard. Without a white radical to calibrate their voices, the poor are tongue-less and nameless. Without a guiding white father, the orphaned black is likely to explode into a flame that consumes all! Terrified, the black gropes for his lost white father, mouthing mumbo jumbo about non-racialism, ubuntu, and also making claims like, “we are all humans”. The black community leader is by and large a native convert who will kill for his missionary spiritual guide. He now wants the missionaries to say what is good for him. He wants to be in the constitution! He wants human rights. Yes, occasionally the convert is a she.
From Fanon Frank Wilderson observes the multiple disadvantages presented by the presence of a white radical in black struggles. He writes; ‘White political thought and action is necessarily inadequate to, and parasitic on, the black body and black liberation”. Referring to the experience of black fighters in the USA and the place of white radicals in that fight, Wilderson makes the point that:
“White radicalism works through the same ensemble of questions, and the same structure of feeling, as does White supremacy. Which is to say that while the men (and women) in blue, with guns and jailers’ keys appear to be White supremacy’s front line of violence against Blacks, they are merely its reserves, called upon only when needed to augment White radicalism’s always already ongoing patrol: a patrol of a zone more sacred than the streets: the zone of White ethical dilemmas: the zone of civil society. ”
Here we must remember Stephen Kays’ “predatory natives” and the civilisation despising “Bushmen”, but more remember the name Quetu!
It’s disturbing but unfortunately true, that in the final analysis the leading Communist Jeremy Cronin occupies the same structure of feelings as the brutal enforcer of apartheid, the much hated Eugene De Kock. Ultimately, they are both about preserving “the zone of civil society”.
Here is the fifth edition of New Frank Talk.