An adapted version of a presentation at the 3rd Space Symposium: Decolonising Art Institutions on Friday, 25 August 2017.
Meaningless memory: imagining the self with the tongue of an other
Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker’s intentions; it is populated —over-populated—with intentions of others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one’s own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process. (Bakhtin 1981).
In 2012 whilst employed at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town I decided to embark on a study on how to transform the media and institutions like Michaelis through language. This was sparked by conversations I’d had with isiXhosa speaking students over the years; a student would express a concept in isiXhosa and the student and I would agree that it would be an excellent concept to execute as an art project. Once the work was up for examination the student would have to define and explain their work in English. Needless to say, this did not work; often they would struggle to express the originating concept behind the work, which may have relied on an understanding of traditional customs or been a play on particular customs. This would result in a low mark or even failure. I watched this student frustration play out for nearly seven years at the University of Cape Town. Some students would drop out feeling the curriculum was not designed for them and did not speak to them. The institution, in its colonial nature, was not for them.
It came as no surprise when, on 9 March 2015, student activist Chumani Maxwele threw human faeces at the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town. It also came as no surprise when the concept of decolonisation began to gain momentum in the same year. Prior to that Cape Town university and others across the country had been grappling with an indeterminate agenda of transformation. The primary focus until 2015 had been on getting more black academics into the academy, ensuring black academics would be notched up to professorship at the same rate as their white peers. There was also the agenda of admitting more black South African students and making the university environment conducive to them. So, for a very long time, transformation was fixated on race, and conversations rarely crossed over to language. At times transformation would lean towards addressing gender and equality in general. But language remained the elephant in the room.
As part of my study I decided to re-establish an isiXhosa newspaper, Isigidimi samaXhosa, which would cover current affairs, business and the arts in vernacular. Working with twenty volunteers from across the country and Fine Art students we got the publication out in August 2012 and it continued monthly until July 2014 when it was taken up by Independent Newspapers. Renamed I’solezwe lesiXhosa it became South Africa’s first daily isiXhosa newspaper from March 2015. In the same year I relocated to East London in the Eastern Cape Province and began to work very closely with rural communities. In so doing I noticed a trend of museums and community art centres being developed in rural areas like Qunu and Hamburg, others in city townships, like New Brighton in Port Elizabeth. What struck me about these centres was that after a while they become white elephants. Most of them have since then been shut down. In this paper I use the examples of the Red Location Precinct in Port Elizabeth, the Nelson Mandela Museum in Qunu and Emthonjeni Arts Centre in Hamburg to consider the reasons for this.
Imagining ourselves into existence
On the 16th of September 2016 my reporters and I headed to the rural town of Alice in the Eastern Cape where the Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, was to unveil the tombstone of Nkosi Tyali of the Imingcangathelo chiefdom. Many rural dwellers from surrounding villages attended, they were mostly elderly isiXhosa speaking people.
All speeches were conducted in English and the inscription on the tombstone itself was in English. There was no translator on site. In a rural setting, where many of those in attendance never went to school and had little grasp of English, the presiding authorities began to unpack the memory of their chief in a language “foreign” to the audience.
The inscription on the tombstone reads:
Herein lies the son of King Ngqika, Tyali of imiNgcangathelo Chiefdom. A direct descendant of King Phalo, King Rharhabe, King Mlawu and torch bearer of the grand-father’s house in his role as ixhiba [loose transl. head] of amaNgqika. Having departed on this earth on the 12th of May 1842, this gallant warrior rests in this Tyhume valley after fighting and participating in numerous anti-colonial wars ... .
How is it that we address one another in English knowing full well that the majority speak isiXhosa? When tombstones are not even written in isiXhosa what kind of memory do we seek to create for ourselves? Do we imagine ourselves in the languages of an other? It would seem so.
This is where decolonisation has to start. In language. When you fail to articulate yourself in your own language amongst your own people you have been thoroughly colonised. There has to be a conscious attempt at ridding oneself of such captivity.
The use of English has long been seen as a performance that reflects one’s level of education or ubugqobhoka as we would call it in isiXhosa. To speak English is to distance oneself from the state of being an uneducated person or iqaba. For a Xhosa artist, creating memories of the self in the English language can be seen as a performative battle between ubuqaba [state of being an iqaba] and ubugqobhoka.
This further exemplifies a rejection of self and begs the question “in what language do you see yourself as a person”. The authentic self has been eroded and the people of the colonised culture find themselves immersed in colonial structures and practice. The problem begins when these colonial structures work against such people.
Ukuqhuqha inkwethu yobukoloniyali
A loose translation of the above subheading would be “getting rid of the thick layer of colonial dandruff on our heads”. The problem with language being one of the most brutal forms of colonisation is how natural, innocuous and fluid it seems. It is common to hear rural parents say that the English language opens opportunities for their children. English is seen as an enabler and therefore it becomes very hard to problematise it. Yet, as Michael Bakhtin asserts, language is not that simple:
Ulwimi aluyonto icangcatha ihamb' ihlala apha naphaya, esuke yosuleleke nakomnye umntu. Ayonto isuke ibe yeyomnye umntu. Ingakumbi olungengolwakhe. Ulwimi lugcwele qhu ziinjongo zabanye abantu. Ukufundisa omnye ulwimi lwakho ukuze afane nawe, athethe njengawe, akusokuze kumenze wena. Leyo yinto enzima kakhulu. (Holquist, 1992, isiXhosa translation by Unathi Kondile).
Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker’s intentions; it is populated—over-populated—with intentions of others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one’s own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process (Holquist, 1992).
One of the Michaelis School of Fine Art Master’s students I encountered at the time of writing this paper was Mawande Ka Zenzile. Our interaction began in 2012, during his undergraduate years towards a BA Fine Art. In 2016 he embarked on his MFA studies, battling to find a supervisor who could fully grasp what he was working on. Ka Zenzile’s research was on Decolonising Visualisation: Freeing Ourselves from Western-centric Culture. Only in 2017, in his last year, after battling away for x years, did he find a suitable supervisor in Dr Nomusa Makhuba who guided him until completion. In this student’s earlier years and whilst I was still at Michaelis he would come up with deep isiXhosa titles for his work.
I recall him trying to explain the term Igoqo (a space for matriarchy) in English, it did not make sense. His work, titled Ukubeka Inqawe, also had to be explained at length. Yet, if these were presented to an isiXhosa speaking audience, they would make sense and reflect the intelligent play on these words. It becomes cumbersome to have to go through university or art school expressing yourself in an other’s language for your work to be understood and for you to attain a pass.
Dominance over “an other” is easily transmitted via language. You can hand back land, give back buildings and businesses, but if the language of operation is still that of the previous owner you will find it very hard to progress. And that is where we find ourselves. We inhabit spaces that were not created for us and we expect these to adapt to our expectations.
Appropriation of existing colonial structures is a futile exercise. What we should be working towards is the establishment of new spaces. Spaces that can be customised to our own needs. This requires a lot of work and patience. We further need to develop more literature in our languages, begin to conceptualise in our languages, write dissertations in our languages and submit these as such. That is when genuine transformation begins.
To bring in more black academics and to increase the black student body does nothing to change the institutional culture if the language remains English in these places. In the next sections I will give examples of how language and “foreign” culture fails when placed in the wrong context.
Port Elizabeth: Red Location Precinct
In 2005 the Red Location Precinct, comprised of a library, art gallery and museum, was opened in Port Elizabeth’s New Brighton township. The total cost to build the precinct was estimated at 2.1 billion ZAR. The materials used to construct the three buildings were corrugated iron, concrete and wood, which mimicked the style of the corrugated iron shacks surrounding the precinct.
Imagine the sprawling gigantic eyesore of a 2.1 billion structure that houses books, historical artefacts and expensive artworks in the midst of dire poverty.
The residents would not have it. In October 2013 residents of the Red Location area of New Brighton shut the precinct down. They were protesting for houses. They wanted better houses. Bigger houses. The sight of the expensive precinct was an insult to their woes. Windows were broken, tyres burnt until the precinct was completely closed. Today it remains closed with no hope of ever re-opening.
Debates raged in numerous letters to the editor of Port Elizabeth’s The Herald newspaper, with the blame for this closure rightly assigned to the protestors. What was wrong in these debates was the assumption that the protestors lacked an appreciation of the Red Location Museum’s presence. Terms like “boosting the local economy”, “attracting tourists” and so forth were bandied about in an attempt to make those involved in the museum’s destruction feel guilty.
In reality, nothing about that museum spoke to any of the local community’s needs. It was a project brought about by a “foreign couple” that wanted to share their personal encounter of Port Elizabeth. In other words this was a foreign memorial site brought into a space that could not possibly appreciate it. How can people implant their own memorial in a space belonging to others? In a space ridden with poverty, how can one imagine an appreciation of art, memory and libraries? It is Amilcar Cabral who stated: “Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward.”
The primary concern for Red Location residents was housing, not a cultural institution towering in their midst. To them it was a meaningless sight
Qunu: Nelson Mandela Museum
Twenty seven kilometres outside of Mthatha in the Eastern Cape there is a left turn that leads into Qunu village. On top of a mountain sits a beautiful modern structure with an art gallery, museum, library, lecture theatre, conference venues and offices. The museum was opened to the public on the 10th of February 2000.
This museum in Qunu has been closed since December 2015: there was initially a large sign saying it would reopen in April 2016— which was later changed to April 2019. This has since been amended to 2021. The closure was related to pay disputes and undisclosed internal squabbles.
The first time I entered this museum was in October 2012, while distributing copies of Isigidimi SamaXhosa newspaper. There were school buses outside and many eager learners queuing inside. The security guards mentioned that it was also frequented by tourists. In the year of Nelson Mandela’s death the place was buzzing with tourists all wanting to soak up the life of Mandela.
Inside the museum you will find that all the exhibits are labelled in English and signage around the buildings is in English. Who was this site built for? It was certainly not built for the surrounding Qunu community. A rural Qunu dweller does not one day suddenly think to take a stroll to their local museum. To them it is yet another expensive structure intruded into their midst.
The usual “boost the local economy” rhetoric is bandied about, but then one has to pause and wonder why it is now closed. Surely, if a structure of that sort has a steady income and stream of visitors it cannot just close. Does the community share a sense of ownership over it? Can they too be protective of that space?
The idea of an entire space dedicated to one man is surely an act of deifying someone. Are museums the way in which Xhosa people usually remember someone? If not, then what are the ways in which we Xhosas create memories of our deceased heroes? Who and how is the ancestor, now known as Nelson Mandela, recognised by his people? Do they speak to Mandela through these buildings or through the traditional means of slaughtering a goat and brewing traditional beer? Is there such a thing as a public ancestor? And traditionally how do we collectively remember an ancestor, if indeed such an ancestor exists?
Our ancestors do not inhabit large constructed spaces, but are recognised through customary practices. The erection of museums is therefore a foreign concept that does not speak to the majority Africans who live around these structures. Such structures begin to take the form of meaningless memorial sites. Their closure evokes no protests or clamouring to see them reopen.
The 21st of February is recognised worldwide as International Mother Tongue Day. This year, on the 28th of February 2018, the Pan South African Languages Board (PanSALB) visited the Nelson Mandela Museum in Mthatha.
The intention of the visit was to request that the museum include isiXhosa or at the very least provide isiXhosa translations below each picture or Mandela artefact. The Eastern Cape PanSALB manager, Xolisa Tshongolo, said: “We have come across a terrible sight of this museum that is in a Xhosa speaking region but has no isiXhosa translations on its walls.”
The spokesperson of that museum in Mthatha, Siyanda Silinga, promised that they would do all they could to include isiXhosa. It is now expected that all works in the museum will carry an isiXhosa translation as well. A report detailing this was carried on the I’solezwe lesiXhosa website.
The fact that a language board has to personally visit a museum and request that they include their mother tongue in their establishment is worrying. How can your own language be an oversight? It is this persistent need to accommodate others prior to getting your own house in order that will see us not progressing. At present, it is common to hear isiXhosa speaking people saying that isiXhosa is a difficult language to read. Some go as far as saying they prefer English. Upon closer inspection you find that they are inept with English. But still prefer English.
Hamburg: Emthonjeni Arts Centre
Driving towards East London from the small coastal town of Port Alfred one comes across a sign that says Hamburg: this is a small village that was founded by German settlers in the 1800s. The turn-off leads one into ten kilometres of very bumpy gravel road after which mud huts appear and then the sprawling cream-coloured Emthonjeni Arts Centre appears on the mountain.
The structure was built at an estimated 40 million ZAR and includes twenty-two bedrooms for artist residencies, plus a theatre, gallery, shop, restaurant and craft centre. It was run by Nomsa Mazwai, who, when asked about the reason behind opening an artist residency in middle of a rural area responded: “A lot of people who live here were very talented and their work would not sell and so the idea was to expose their work to international markets.”
Out of the three examples used in this paper Emthonjeni Arts was by far the most community inclusive. Artists and the elderly people from Hamburg were regularly on site, producing arts and crafts, including bead work. It was often said that there were more staff members than visitors at the centre, which was true.
When last I was there, in December 2012, I was the only guest, and I ate alone in a restaurant that did not have many of the items listed on their menu. I wondered how long the centre would last and why such a structure had been built in such a small village with a small population and a terrible road leading to it.
On the 24th of October 2014 the following notice was posted on the Emthonjeni Art Facebook page:
As some of you know, we had to close our doors as the government withheld /didn’t send our remaining start-up funding. Emthonjeni Arts had to dissolve and is in the process of liquidating. We no longer operate the facility in Hamburg. This is what we managed to create in under 18 months. Sustainable rural development.
One thing about rural areas is that they have no real central area, everything is spread out and there are many villages within villages. You travel long distances and the roads are gravel. One has to wonder how one even begins to establish an artists’ residency in the middle of far-off rural village.
Emthongeni sadly stands as another Eastern Cape white elephant.
Having gone through the above three examples one is left with one question: Why did they fail?
The simple answer is that they were not built for the people. Self-aggrandising models of memory and popular culture do not work in a predominantly rural province like the Eastern Cape. We have to begin to conceptualise cultural centres that include the local people. Emthonjeni Arts was a good idea but built in the wrong area. It would have been best placed in a big township like Mdantsane in East London; here it could have employed people to create craft work on a large scale for export to international markets. Rather than being located in Hamburg and waiting for a handful of visitors to make the long journey the centre, theatre and performing spaces could have been built in Mdantsane and used to train some of the local youth in that populated area.
As for the Nelson Mandela Museum in the small village of Qunu, it has simply been a case of appropriating forms of memory that are foreign to the local people and placing them in the midst of those not attuned to such customs. This is exacerbated by the fact that everything is then done in English in a predominantly Xhosa region. A museum of this nature would work abroad or in a big city like Cape Town.
The Red Location Museum is another example of an intrusive outsider gift. You cannot erect a symbol of wealth in the midst of poverty. Each day the locals wake up in their shacks to be greeted by a 2.1 billion structure right outside their door. It is to spit on the faces of the poor. It should have been placed in Port Elizabeth’s central business district.
Lastly, as someone who runs an isiXhosa newspaper and regularly interacts with rural dwellers, I have seen the confidence and intellectual rigour of isiXhosa speakers engaged in discussions. I have equally seen the same people reduced to invisibility or not being listened to when, in different settings, they articulate their ideas in broken English. While I have used isiXhosa as an example for decolonisation, it is simply because it is the language I am working with. I could just as well have used any other vernacular language.
We need decolonised institutions that operate in our local languages. It cannot be that twenty-four years into this democracy there are still millions of people who cannot have a voice that is equal to others because they do not know or have strong command of English. Decolonisation will not come from the appropriation of colonial spaces; it will come from self-reflecting and acknowledging the authentic self-first. The fastest and easiest starting point is language. The temptation to be understood by the world first, without being understood in your own home, will forever undermine the self. Let us imagine ourselves in our own languages.
Unathi Kondile holds an MA in Media Studies from UCT and is the current Editor of South Africa’s first daily isiXhosa newspaper, published in the Eastern Cape and Western Cape provinces under Independent Newspapers (Pty) Ltd. Prior to being an editor he worked as Senior Technical Officer at the Michaelis School of Fine Art. He is a recipient of the British Council’s Young Creative Entrepreneur Award (2014) for his work around transforming South Africa’s media via vernacular languages. His current area of research interest is around Language as a tool towards decolonisation of the media, particularly in a South African context.
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