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Sat Aug 27 10:20:16 SAST 2016

The Big Read: Your wisdom sucks, old people

Panashe Chigumadzi | 24 February, 2016 00:37
YOUTHQUAKE: Students protest outside parliament. Their struggle, says the writer, is compromised by the older generation clinging to 'respectability politics'
Image by: DAVID HARRISON

The one thing that I have taken away from observing and participating in debates on decolonisation in South Africa is that we have not yet understood or modelled "inter-generational dialogue".

Discussions quickly become polarising and each "side" or "generation" loses important perspectives and insights from the other.

Recently I was in an audience of more than 100 mostly young black people who sat fidgeting in UCT's Hiddingh Hall as they watched a screening of Khalo Matabane's documentary Nelson Mandela: The Myth and Me .

By the time the screening was over most of the audience members were visibly agitated and upset.

When I was given the opportunity to express my thoughts, I shared my negative experience of the ways in which the Mandela name is evoked in the post-apartheid era. In particular, I spoke about how, for many of us "born-frees", there is a sense that Mandela was used as a silencing tool for black pain and dissension.

Very quickly an older black member of the audience dismissed my reflection, saying that I was a racist and did not understand blackness. He and a number of his counterparts continued in this vein as other black students shared similar sentiments of resentment and frustration with the compromises of 1994.

If you have paid close attention to South African politics and conversations lately, you will know that, if you want to have a sense of the "great inter-generational divide", then initiate a discussion about Mandela and the negotiated settlement that brought about the Rainbow Nation.

Less than a week later, I had a similar experience at the University of Johannesburg with an older member of the audience, who began by invoking the moral authority given to her as "our parent". The young audience members all knew what was coming because this was part of a predictable trend of older black people, particularly those who are intellectual and political leaders, blackmailing young black people by positioning themselves as "wise parents" to "misbehaving kids".

Young black people have learnt that, when a statement begins with "When we were" or "In 1976", we are not going to be presented with a genuine opportunity for engagement and learning but instead an opportunity for our "youthful" perspectives to be delegitimised and dismissed.

After being scolded and condescended to for not being able to "see beyond race and gender", I politely responded that "As a daughter I think that the problem lies not with us but with our parents, who are not willing to listen to us, and that is why we are in the mess that we are in. We all want to live in a nonracial, nonsexist and nonclassist society, but we can't take 'colour-blind' short-cuts to get there."

Cue Rhodes Must Fall's #Shackville and the subsequent burning of colonial art, we saw a barrage of tweets and statements from our "parents" reprimanding students for their actions, demanding that they should seek "other avenues". Students wondered where these voices of reason were when the public first learned of the housing crisis weeks before.

Not a week later, "misbehaving kids" were left to wonder where their "parents" were when they were faced with violence from white students and their parents both at the University of Pretoria, over the language policy, and at University of the Free State, over the End Outsourcing protest. The parents were silent.

Their silence, of course, says a lot about their stance on how black people should respond to violence from white people and institutions. This stance reminds me of another instance at a play about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. During the question-and-answer session, the young audience members voiced their anger at the TRC and all its concepts, and the older audience members responded that these youths "did not have any wisdom".

"The youth" responded by saying "F*** wisdom!"

This is, of course, understandable.

Is this not the very wisdom that has seen "our parents", such as Jonathan Jansen, fail to ask white students to show the moral high ground, patience and forgiveness that he has so often asked of black students and workers?

Is it not this very wisdom that has seen "our parents" roundly condemn the damage of white property in protest and yet remain silent when black bodies were injured and black lives threatened by armed security guards?

This "wisdom" is part of "race transcendence" and "respectability politics". Young black people seem to want none of it, while older black people seem beholden to it.

In trying to understand why this might be the case, I think that it comes down to an issue of self-preservation that manifests itself in two ways.

In the first, it is self-preservation in the material sense wherein older black people cannot risk their livelihood by making bold statements on race. Most young black people are yet to face the realities of a white-dominated corporate South Africa and so they can be more bold in their proclamations.

The second and more complex manifestation is that it is an emotional and psychological self-preservation strategy for a generation that lived under the dehumanising conditions of apartheid.

Being able to maintain a self-image as "the better people", who chose the moral high ground, is an effective way to reclaim a sense of humanness. This might be something missed by young black people who have never had to carry a dompas or encounter a Slegs blankes sign when wanting to drink water from a tap.

In many ways this is not new. If they were really willing to engage in meaningful dialogue, we would have the generation of 1976 tell us more of their own experiences of tensions with their parents. Nonetheless, for a while I have been interested in the ways in which we can more constructively model solidarity and disagreement between generations, not because I needed us to sing Kumbaya and have consensus on issues and approach, but because I felt that the tension was important to spur actions that would decisively dismantle our post-apartheid apartheid.

However, as things stand, where "our parents", the generation of black intellectual and political leaders, continue to fail us by choosing respectability politics and race transcendence over the pressing demands of decolonisation, that interest is no longer as keen.

They are losing the little moral authority they had. Very soon we will not be willing to listen to them any more.

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