I met Panashe (pronounced Pan-ash-chay) Chigumadzi at the Ake Festival, Nigeria, in November 2016. She’s not an SFF writer, but she speaks for a view that this series has not yet heard from. In person, she sparkles: young, laughing, erudite, and exact.
She is a young South African writer; her parents are from Zimbabwe. Her 2015 novel Sweet Medicine won the K Sello Duiker prize. It was a stylish debut, about a Zimbabwean graduate living in Harare caught out by economic downturn and finding life an economic struggle. It also chose to use chiShona words and phrases in context. Sweet Medicine deals with serious political themes while being, in the view of one Goodreads reviewer, “a great holiday read.”
She is the founder and editor of the Vanguard online magazine.
Her short story published in Transition, “Small Debts,” won the Pushcart Prize. When I interviewed her in November, that story was forming the basis of her next novel.
Panashe: “I tend to do short stories that expand into novels, because I like structure. Zadie Smith talks about the micro vs. macro planners: writers who go at it and writers who plan everything. I need to know where I’m going. I would not be able to just write. I’m not someone who writes character files or anything like that.
“The story that got me to think about ‘Small Debts’ was Margaret Jefferson’s ‘Negroland.’ It’s a memoir of growing up in middle class African American society, speaking though the lens of the icons of the time. One thing she says that struck me was that she cultivates her depression as a means of rebellion. And that was really interesting for me around the idea of strong black womanhood. We are always called upon to be strong.
“That’s something I really identified with in the South African situation. As a black woman, black people, you’re not supposed to crumble. ‘So many people have sacrificed for you to be here.’
“It’s exhausting. I see that sometimes with my parents. They come from poorer backgrounds themselves. I will sometimes come home with a shoe with a hole in it and I’m still wearing it. They get really frustrated. ‘Why are you wearing that? Why are you going around with clothes that are not OK?’
“Things that would seem to be antithetical can be liberating. Sometimes to falter, to say ‘I’m going to yield to this depression thing, I’m going to yield to the weight of our oppression.’ I admire and am in awe in the ways in which we have held ourselves. I think of colonialism as a massive exercise in the political lack of white self-esteem that you have to continually put down someone else.
“Black cool and swag, those developed out of the need to have dignity. What happens when I decide I’m not going to hold up the sky? I’m not going to be strong. Particularly as a black woman in relationship to white women as well. There is an innocence there that I am not allowed to have. I have to be strong, I have to be assertive. I have to do a number of things, because I wouldn’t get anywhere if I didn’t.”
Panashe then tells me a bit more about the next novel she is writing, but moves speedily on to South Africa’s literary industry.
Panashe: “So I’m curating a literary festival called Abantu Book Festival, which is happening in Soweto this December (2016) for black writers, black readers. The lineup is exclusively black; our aim is for black readers. Whoever else comes is fine, but our content must be addressed to black people, because our festivals have not been curated for black people to feel comfortable and enjoy the space.
“In the same week that RhodesMustFall began, my partner Thando Mgqolozana, who founded the festival, announced that he’s quitting the white literary industry. He said it again at Franschhoek.
“You know, we are tired of being anthropological subjects. Asked to explain and be ambassadors for black people. When do I get to talk about my craft? When do I get to have a question that is not ogling at me as if I’m speaking in the UK and not my own country?
“There were pretences, and there continue to be tokenistic gestures of change, around decolonising the South African literary industry. But it has polarised the industry. So at Franschhoek again, many black writers boycotted.
“One of the henchmen, one of the minions of the apartheid government who committed serious, heinous crimes, he was there. White authors are going ‘Oh my God, this is terrible! We’re going to tell him off.’ And we’re going: ‘Don’t. Stop it. Stop this performance of outrage. You’re only interested when there are opportunities to show up your bitterness, your bitter whiteness, but you’re not interested in dismantling the structures.’ And that was a lot of the critique even by black writers who were there.
“People are not getting positions (on festival boards). They have all these festivals opening up, you do the nice decorative things. It’s almost like blackface? You do the stuff where you create the front of blackness. But who remains the master? Particularly in South Africa, we should not be talking about diversity, we should be talking about decolonization. Decolonization is a worldwide thing that needs to happen. It’s a majority black country. I cannot be asking for two seats on a ten-person board of an organization. It doesn’t make sense.
“It’s frustrating that white writers in South Africa can dominate on the international stage because they have the networks. Look at the Nobel Prize winners—Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee. There’s a way in which it completely crowds out others’ work. It’s similar to what Toni Morrison says about black literature in America. Our work is not taken as serious, rigorous. It can be taught as anthropology, but it’s not taken for its merits.
“Taking it back to the festivals, this year’s Time of the Writer festival had the theme Decolonizing the Book. It was a majority of black writers. It was really great to see black writers just get to be. Not having to be explaining blackness to other people. Not having to be all-knowing Sages of Blackness.
“I have pulled out of festivals. You have called me to be an angry black woman on tap. I will do outrage. But there is almost a masochistic way with white liberals, sometimes they want to be shouted at and not do anything about changing things: ‘Oh my God, wasn’t I great for listening to that and sitting through that.’
“There definitely are some of us who have decided to pull out completely and say, ‘We’re tired of this game. Let’s create our own.’ Why I am suspicious of collaborating is that you have the resources I don’t have; you have the networks I don’t have, so it’s very easy for this to become your project, for you to take over the narrative.
“You see this even in activist spaces. We’ll have a protest; it’s majority black; the black students have decided to do XYZ. The picture in the newspaper the next day is of a white ally, and you’re saying, ‘How are they now the face of our struggle?’
“We have moved away from multiracial political activity. Our struggle needs to be led by black people. We need to define where we are going and if you want to come into this space, you need to take direction. For a long time in South Africa you had to argue why you want a blacks-only thing. Whereas now we are saying, we need to sort out the deep-seated pain.
“Someone yesterday was saying, ‘You look really tired.’ And I was saying, ‘Yeah that’s because this is not intellectual exercise alone. This is deeply emotional, deeply painful work.’
“Sometimes we need to have it out amongst ourselves, and define ourselves before we can begin to open doors to anybody else. You’ll see people say, ‘Right, well, white people need to get out right now, we’re having a conversation about this thing. We need to talk about XYZ without the presence of white bodies.’ And sometimes even black women will say, ‘Right, we need men to get out right now. We need to talk amongst ourselves.’
“There’s a lot going in South Africa right now and it can be very polarising. From the university space to the political space, it is very polarised; the literary space is increasingly polarised. People feel they have to choose sides.
“I do think that sometimes we do have to be very dichotomous about it. There’s a slippery slope sometimes that allows us to slip back into complacency. Sometimes the withdrawal is to force people to reckon with themselves and sit with the discomfort. Sometimes there is a rush to do something without real introspection about what it means to actually change.
“It’s not as clean as older and younger, but generally the split looks generational. It will take time. That’s where the massive rupture is. The young people are tired of waiting. It’s Revolution Now. That’s why the clashes have become what they are.”
I wonder out loud about the effect of this happening under the ANC. If it was a white government, wouldn’t there have been more violence?
Panashe: “A student was killed by a live ammunition. To bring some more nuance to this, since 1994 the ANC’s project has almost been an integrationist project. If we just incorporate black people into the system, it remains an unequal system. We’re not going to fundamentally change it. Decolonization says we need to fundamentally change the way things work. The ANC are a conservative political party, not a decolonialist movement.
“The project of modernity as we know it, as the mainstream, is a white supremacist project. This is while understanding that race is a construct. In America now some people who are now white couldn’t have been a couple of generations ago. Within that context though, the rise of the West is based on the rise of the West and the Other. ‘The West and the Rest,’ as Stuart Hall writes. The premise of Enlightenment is that there are some of us who are enlightened and others are not. The Enlightened and the Unenlightened.
“We need a new way of doing things, completely. Even I would disagree with some black nationalist, patriarchal notions of decolonization. You are not saying I don’t want some people to be oppressed. You are saying we want to participate in the structures of oppression.
“The ANC comes from those Africans who had begun to be educated by the missionaries, had taken on Christianity and begun to assimilate as far as you were allowed to do into modernity as we know it. It is from those educated ... always very few ... African men, saying we are going to start our own political formation. In 1902 they wrote to the Crown. They did not say we don’t want white rule. They said allow us to be recognized as subjects under your rule. ‘Us,’ meaning, us the educated African—not meaning all Africans, us. The French had a similar-ish system. You could become French if you were educated enough. You are essentially a French citizen. They had a different way of doing their colonial system.
“I would say that is the fundamental break between more radical black politics and the more conservative view. It takes on a form of mass politics over time because you cannot be the few advocating for yourself, or your untenable You. There is something called the Freedom Charter. It speaks about the vision for South Africa. One of the things is this land shall belong to all who live in it. Pan-Africans disagree, saying Africa is for Africans.
“There are those who thought the ANC have sold out because they continued with this land belongs to all, and they haven’t demanded a redistribution of the wealth, particularly the land issue. Right? And they’ve allowed and negotiated settlements that continue to protect white property rights at the expense of black people.
“A lot of us thought that project would be OK, if you just would allow us into it. ‘Add blacks and stir.’ You don’t have to change the structure. If you allow a few black people onto company boards and give them shares, that will be OK. And that was our strategy.
“For the majority black South Africans, poor black South Africans, the new South Africa’s never worked. Yes houses and whatnot have been built for you, but there hasn’t been a change in your circumstances.”
In her view the current focus on student activism risks erasing the long history of protests in South Africa.
Panashe: “For example, in the Eastern Cape, the Khoisan fought colonisation for about 150 years. Bambatta was a massive rebellion against taxes, hut taxes, that kind of thing. There were those kinds of resistances.
“There have been protests since 1994. Protesting financial exclusion, protesting the inferiority of institutions. A number of these protests have been happening more recently, and very violent protests, burning of libraries, the academic year being suspended.
“But protest has been happening since 1994. In townships, for example. What we call service delivery protests, about water, sanitation. These are the sort of services that should be delivered to us by government and municipalities. Those kinds of protests have been happening increasingly, council houses being burnt. South Africa has not been working for a long time.
“Those of us who had access however tenuous are now saying, ‘Oh my God, this is not working.’ And because we were supposed to be the buffer between the masses of black people and the white capital, that’s how the focus is now, ‘Whoa! That is happening at Wits (university), this is what is happening at UCT.’ I think this is problematic, because it erases what has been happening in historically black areas for a very long time.
“Whites have increasingly divested from using public goods for a very long time. The university space, outside of roads and national highways, is one of the very few public goods and services that whites actually use.
“I am maybe two years older than South Africa. Many of us ... we bought into this idea that if we just work hard, if we just get our degree, we will get there. The dream was that now we will be the same. But when we get out of universities you realize no, actually, you don’t have the same opportunities, particularly when you get into the work force. That is now the rupture that you are starting to see by these Born Frees (the first generation after apartheid).
“The vast majority of black people have never had illusions about being the same as white people. Race and class intersect. People have been criticising the idea of black middle class. Black middle class means you qualify for debt.
“My boyfriend was part of this scholarship programme where they wanted young black people to become entrepreneurs, ‘we’re going to fund you, there will be all these opportunities.’ And the hope was that once you leave varsity you will be high-impact entrepreneurs.
“These are brilliant people doing extremely well, most of them over the years have become consultants, bankers or whatever. High-paying jobs, but very few of them except for the few white kids actually became entrepreneurs. The reason is that most people are like, ‘Listen, I’m going to pay for my siblings, I’m supporting my family at home. I have a whole lot of concerns, I can’t afford the risk of a new venture.’ And it’s those ways in which many people woke up to the difference. It was easy when we were all classmates and even that’s debateable.”
We talk about current reading and in particular Ta-Nehisi Coates and his memoir-essay Between the World and Me.
Panashe: “It’s really funny reading white liberals’ responses: ‘Oh my God it’s not hopeful.’ All he’s saying is that he’s not hopeful, I’m not going to kill myself, I’m going to have my kids, I’m going to do what I need to do, but I don’t have faith in America to change. For me, yes, it would be nice if they include me a bit more, but they’re not going to fundamentally change. Ta-Nehisi Coates goes through about what it’s like to be reduced to a body. You can shoot me because I’m an object. I’m not a subject, I’m not. He simply said, this is what it is. I am telling my son what he needs to know about a world that does not recognize he’s human.
“I might have not have had the conversation about being shot, but it’s not that different from the conversation my parents had with me. ‘Understand that you are still a black person.’ Many of our parents will remind you. ‘It’s OK, don’t worry about this but there are ways the world will rub up against you and remind you that you are black.’
“What you might be struggling with is that Afro-pessimism does not seek to be an ideology of liberation, not like Black Consciousness, for example, or Pan-Africanism—‘let us rise up,’ that kind of thing where there is a call to action. This is purely an analytical tool. Some people can use it to be liberational.
“Afro-pessimists can be actively involved, some of the most radical people. I ask myself when things weigh me down. I ask myself why am I doing this, why I am here? But there is a lot of living to do, many people I know who are interested in the process of living use Afro-pessimism to understand some of these things. Like people talk about intersectionality, another discussion, as an analytical tool, but it might not be something you use to organize. I find it liberating. I don’t want the oppressiveness of optimism. I don’t underestimate the ability of white supremacy or white capital to mutate itself, and continue to find ways to oppress whether in the more visible forms of backlashes or during the times of what look like progress.
“The pathology of whiteness is really interesting to see. Toni Morrison wrote an essay in The New Yorker, about the cowardice of this and what whiteness will do, even subvert its humanity to maintain its sense of superiority. The amount of investment by whiteness in proving the inferiority of others is really insane. The extent to which you can be threatened by the progress of others.”
Update: since the interview was recorded, the Abantu Festival happened and was a success, and the 2017 edition is being planned. Check out the Abantu Festival website and some of the radical voices available from it.
Read a fascinating article about a speech by Panashe in the UK Guardian newspaper.