The 2019 South African Election: A Primer for Americans

On Wednesday, May 8th, South Africans will come out in their numbers to vote for national and provincial legislators in the country’s sixth general election since 1994. I’m a little ambivalent about writing this post, because I know I can’t really do justice to the subject in what little time I have to write (and finish this) before Wednesday, so it will be of some use.

Nevertheless, American media coverage of South African politics is, to put it mildly, abysmal. This is, I suspect, because South Africa is a complicated place that doesn’t neatly fit into any of the categories the American news uses to group the hazy collection of countries that are not America.

Essentially, we can boil the story of South Africa according to the American media down to four major nuggets of wisdom: (1) apartheid bad, (2) Nelson Mandela VERY VERY GOOD, (3) other black people probably bad, and (4) it’s Zimbabwe waiting to happen. There’s a certain awareness that apartheid was “bad,” but little understanding of why it was different than American Jim Crow. Nelson Mandela was a great man, but he’s remembered only for what he did after being released from prison (the smiling, harmless, grandfatherly Mandela), not for what got him there. He comes across as a South African version of a caricature of Martin Luther King, Jr.: acting heroically and on his own, without help from the thousands of other people of all races who fought and died for South African democracy. Despite Mandela’s brilliance, however, according to these commentators present-day South Africa is composed mainly of vengeful and incompetent black people who ignored his pleas for forgiveness and, by advocating the expropriation of land without compensation, are going to take the country down exactly the same path as Zimbabwe. It’s all very tidy.

I don’t have time to comprehensively address each of these points. Suffice it to say that each assumption contains a germ of truth: apartheid was a crime against humanity, Nelson Mandela was definitely a hero, lots of poor South Africans are unhappy with the slow pace of change post-’94, and land reform could indeed go poorly! But since Africa is very far away, and complexity is seen to be hard for many people, these ideas are often presented more or less nuance-free.

Election placards in Johannesburg

This is really a shame, however, because we could learn a lot from South Africa if we paid attention. After all, South Africa is the only place I’m aware of since the election of Donald Trump where a corrupt populist has actually been removed from power, where we can observe how the remains of a country’s democratic institutions are left to pick up the pieces. President Jacob Zuma presided over looting on a mass scale. In the thrall of the notorious Gupta family, he and his allies swept in on a wave of populist sentiment and proceeded to plunder almost everything they could get at, from the state revenue agency to the public broadcaster to the national airline. His successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, who managed to oust him after narrowly beating his preferred successor in the race for African National Congress (A.N.C.) president, was one of the chief negotiators of South Africa’s democratic constitution. He’s urbane, soft-spoken to a fault, cautious but formidable. In other words, aside from being very rich, he is the perhaps the perfect cosmic antithesis of Donald Trump. Personally, he’s popular with almost all segments of society. But Jacob Zuma’s faction didn’t vanish into thin air when their leader left office. Like Donald Trump’s hardcore supporters, they remain an energetic minority within the A.N.C.’s leadership. They would jump at the chance to regain power, if only to stay out of jail.

The dilemma for ordinary voters has to do with South Africa’s unique proportional voting system. South Africa’s houses of parliament are elected on a purely proportional basis: you vote for a political party and depending how many votes they get a certain number of people off of their parliamentary candidates list take up office. Parliament, in turn, elects the president. There are both advantages and disadvantages to this system. The main rationale for it in 1994 was that it would protect minority rights in South Africa, but it was not meant to be a permanent solution; in 2003 the Van Zyl Slabbert commission recommended introducing multiple-member constituencies, but this was never enacted. Without constituencies, MPs and provincial legislators are essentially at the mercy of their party’s leadership, which decided whether they’re on its list. Ordinary citizens, in turn, have no say over who gets to be on the list. This is a dilemma because, for example, the A.N.C. list for 2019 includes many politicians credibly suspected of corruption mixed in with the anti-corruption hawks. If the A.N.C. returns to power with a strong mandate, which faction would be empowered? Likewise, if the A.N.C. takes a beating because of the corrupt politicians on its list, it’s possible that Ramaphosa will be weakened as leader of the party, or possibly removed. It’s fundamentally unclear how voters’ preferences on the ballot will affect what is in many ways the more important fight: a factional battle within the A.N.C. over which ordinary citizens don’t have much control.

What about the opposition? The second largest political party is the Democratic Alliance, or D.A., led by a charismatic young Barack Obama-wannabe named Mmusi Maimane. He’s the first black leader of the D.A., which is the successor to the Progressive Federal Party, the most racially liberal legal (white) political party during apartheid. The party’s positions are analogous to that of a very centrist Democrat in America: capitalism with a human face, skepticism about economic redistribution, and a professed commitment to diversity. These are middle class, suburban values, and the D.A. in recent years has attracted middle class voters of all races in the country. Most whites, Indians, and “Coloured” (mixed race) South Africans vote D.A., which has resulted in notable success: the party governs in one province, the Western Cape, and in three of South Africa’s largest cities: Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Tshwane (Pretoria). But with success has come new challenges. Corruption is easy to disavow when your party doesn’t control any largesse of its own, but when there’s loot to fight over, factional battles inevitably arise. Patricia de Lille, the popular (Coloured) mayor of Cape Town, was hounded from office recently on hazy and unsubstantiated corruption allegations; she has since founded her own political party. Helen Zille, the former leader of the party and the premier (governor) of the Western Cape, was suspended from the party (but not her office) after a lengthy and unedifying fight over tweets she wrote that implied colonialism wasn’t “all bad.” Which highlights the D.A.’s persistent cultural problem: many people will never vote D.A. because they see it as an essentially white party. Mmusi Maimane is a gifted orator, but these controversies and others have contributed to a narrative that he doesn’t really run the show; that the core of the party’s leadership is still very white and quite conservative. Because of the party’s troubles in the Western Cape, they are expected to lose votes on Wednesday overall but probably hold on to the province, since the A.N.C. leadership there remains inept and unpopular. Depending on the A.N.C.’s performance in Gauteng, the largest and most urbanized province, they have a shot at governing in a coalition there with the Economic Freedom Fighters and smaller parties. They are unlikely to make much of a dent in the other provinces, winning 20-25% of the nationwide vote.

Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (E.F.F.) are poised for big gains on Wednesday, expecting 10-15% of all votes. Now, I could spent pages and pages talking about Malema and what everyone and his uncle thinks about Bra Julius, as he’s known, but suffice it to say that he’s a brilliant man. I can remember when he was the firebrand president of the A.N.C. Youth League, convicted of hate speech for singing the struggle song “Dubula iBhunu” (“Shoot the Boer”) at rallies. Now, almost a decade later, he’s matured significantly, but remains something of a political chameleon. One day he’ll make statements that seem to advocate (or at least be open to) bigotry, violent revolt, and extremism, and the next day he’ll say things that seem eminently reasonable. His signature issues have always been expropriation of land without compensation and the nationalization of key industries, and, despite leading a fairly small party, he’s the one responsible for putting the land issue at the front of everyone’s mind. People used to accuse him of being unintelligent; they know better now. His base of support consists of people who are traditionally among the hardest to get to the polls: unemployed youth, the poor, the disaffected. But even if his party underwhelms on Wednesday, he’ll likely be right where he wants to be: in the catbird seat as a political kingmaker deciding whether the A.N.C. or the D.A. governs in key areas.

The three biggest issues in the election are pretty simple: land reform, corruption, and the state of the economy, which has remained pretty dismal since the Great Recession began. The A.N.C. and E.F.F. support land expropriation without compensation, but as yet there isn’t a concrete plan to enact this policy. The overseas media likes to portray this issue as Zimbabwe-redux, with fat, sunburned white farmers squaring off against hate-filled black zealots, but the reality is much more complicated. Nearly one in five South Africans lives in an informal or shack settlement, often without electricity, plumbing, or running water. Racist laws like the 1913 Natives’ Land Act and the 1950 Group Areas Act directly contributed to this state of affairs by enshrining white ownership of about 90% of the land and moving black people from cities to far-off, hellish “bantustans” and peri-urban “native locations,” later called townships. Thus, while many rural Africans want white-owned land for subsistence or commercial farming, the desire for land inside and close to cities is even more in demand, and much of this prime real estate is owned either by corporations or the state, and left idle. Thus the battle over land in South Africa isn’t so much about taking land away from white farmers (and remember that only a small minority of white South Africans are farmers), but redesigning the inherently racist spatial configuration of South African society.

This is, as you can imagine, incredibly tough to do. The laws that would address this have yet to appear in any form that I’ve seen. Even then, it’s no secret that while South Africa has some of the best laws in the world, implementation is an entirely different matter. I don’t think there will be any violent land grabs like we saw in Zimbabwe twenty years ago; South Africa and Zimbabwe have very different histories in this regard. I suspect and hope the powers that be will figure something out; but it will take someone above my pay grade to figure it all out.

The last thing I’ll say is this: corruption is the great vexation of modern South Africa, but it has deep structural roots going back literally centuries. The economy has always been structured in a very top-down manner, with almost every industry consolidated into the hands of a few massive enterprises who are able to exploit an enormous, largely unskilled and poorly-paid workforce. This, sadly, is a recipe for corruption, regardless of the moral probity of whoever happens to be in power (very much a colorblind disease, by the way). As much as I love and admire the democratic values of this country and its constitution, I don’t have confidence that any opposition party would do a much better job than the A.N.C. of preventing graft and looting. And, of course, the poor are the worst victims of corruption. When your children die falling into pit toilets at their primary school, your business fails because the power is cut to your house four hours a day, and you lose another job in the faraway city center because the commuter rail network is unsafe and unreliable, what use is the vote? Julius Malema is right to argue that the basic economic structure of South Africa needs to be overhauled, because if not the social contract is in great danger. I’m just not sure he—and if not he, who else?—is the man for the job.

The Great S.A. Comedy Odyssey Begins: Chester Missing, Wokpo Jensma, and the Meaning of Laughter

i toss my head off
i cry with agony
that they may laugh
but they only stare

i show them my bum
they still stare
i tell them a joke they stare

ah, i get it
i must be their judge

—Wokpo Jensma

I encountered this poem in the basement of the Wits Art Museum one Saturday morning a few weeks ago, and it stopped me dead in my tracks. I had to know more about the author of these haunting lines. It turns out that the man who wrote them, Wokpo Jensma, is one of the great enigmas of South African cultural history. Born in 1939 in the Eastern Cape, he studied at two of South Africa’s leading Afrikaans universities and made a name for himself as a poet in the 1960s. He married across the color line (in Botswana, where it was legal) and suffered from schizophrenia. In 1993, according to the sources I could find, he “disappeared.”

The words are short and simple but leave us with a powerful image. What does it mean for our narrator, the victim of the poem, to be the judge of his audience? Jensma wrote this poem in 1972, at the height of the apartheid era. The South African economy was booming and white supremacy seemed invincible. If we apply this context to the poem we might observe that systems of oppression require constant performance on the part of both torturer and victim, oppressor and oppressed. But what struck me most was an image familiar to me from watching stand-up comedy: the unspoken, inarticulate urgency of risky jokes, jokes that temporarily unmask the unpleasant realities of power. Audiences in those moments want more than just a fun night out. What do they want? It can be dangerous to ask that kind of question.

A view of the stage at Blacks Only, April 6th, 2019. It was a sold-out show.

I’m thinking about this in the context of a comedy show I saw later that day. It was a Blacks Only Comedy Tour event, at the massive casino monstrosity called Emperor’s Palace, near Johannesburg’s main airport. The tickets were expensive and I didn’t like the venue at all: I was seated only a few rows from the very back of an enormous convention center ballroom. It was a sold-out show: 3,500 people in stackable plastic chairs on a flat convention floor. If it wasn’t for the six big screens hung from the ceiling I wouldn’t have seen a thing.

People often ask me what sets South African comedy apart from comedy in America or in other countries, and I never feel like I have a satisfying answer. Laughter is one of the things that unites us as a species; almost everyone, the world over, likes to laugh, even if they have different ideas and theories about what laughing means. And of course laughing never means just one thing: it usually means many different things all at once. But if I say that South African humour (or French or women’s or queer humour, for that matter), is such-and-such, I immediately pigeonhole that tradition in a way that can never stand up to scrutiny. If comedians thought like that the world would be a much less creative place.

Maybe my stance will change by the end of my travels here, but for now all I feel I can say is that South African comedy is special because it’s from South Africa. First and foremost, that means an overwhelming concern with diversity. Diversity of race, diversity of language, diversity of culture—diversity of truths, even in an era of fake news. South Africa’s incredible diversity lends itself easily to the absurd. After all, this is a country where so many unreconcilable things somehow manage to coexist. It’s a country where some of the most crushing poverty in the world exists cheek-by-jowl with some of the most ostentatious wealth. It’s a country where the ruling party officially espouses socialist rhetoric while bolstering one of the most monopolistic and influential corporate regimes in the world. By laughing about it, South Africans name that absurdity and make it less powerful, less intimidating.

Comedian Sne Dladla performs at the Protea Hotel Fire and Ice, Johannesburg, April 27th, 2019

When people are laughing, their guard is down, after all, and they’re prepared to listen to things they would avoid hearing about otherwise. Yet humor also has limits. To quote Chester Missing, speaking to a hushed auditorium after goading Koch, his ventriloquist (the only white comic in the line-up) to apologise for apartheid on the spot, “You see that? Absolutely fokol has changed.” Naming absurdity disarms it for a while, but resolves nothing.

Conrad Koch holds a master’s in sociology and received a raucous reception that night (David Kau, the host, opened by taking a racial census of the audience, asking each of the four apartheid-era racial groups in the audience to cheer and be counted—probably 95% of the audience was black). Koch is almost certainly the most politically relevant ventriloquist in the world—Chester Missing is a household name with a prime-time network TV show and almost 400,000 Twitter followers. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that South Africans have an appetite for ventriloquism. After all, as anyone will tell you, the place is full of “ventriloquists”: “white monopoly capital,” “Gupta puppets,” “tenderpreneurs,” and “Stratcom spies” are just a few of the terms used in everyday language to describe people who are not acting straightforwardly, but on behalf of more sinister forces. Years ago, Chester Missing himself used to be visibly black or Coloured, creating an explicitly racialized puppet/puppeteer dynamic. Eventually Koch decided to turn Chester white, to avoid the charge that he was indulging in blackface. Judging by the audience’s laughter at Emperor’s Palace, his fanbase seems to have accepted this.

Koch uses his “whitened” puppet to call attention to the inadequacy of his work. He leans in to the fact that his satirical attacks on South African injustice do not negate his privilege as a white performer, any more than his audience’s laughter can assuage their pain over continuing injustices or alter their position in the society. The depth and rawness of South Africa’s historical wounds makes for an intensely existential comedy. The louder the laughter, the sharper the pain; pain which is no less necessary for being futile.

We find the same paradox in Jensma’s poem. His narrator wants to please the people watching, perhaps hoping that doing so will cause his abasement to end. Yet their desires are mismatched; the crowd wants a judge. And this is, in many ways, the dilemma of comedy: the audience usually wants both a judge and a jester. A judge to pass judgement, and a jester to reassure it that there are no consequences; comedy demands recognition, but not repentance. Like moths to a porchlight, the dance continues. Living in a country where so much seems unresolved, it seems fitting that South Africans would be more comfortable than most with loose ends.

What to know before you write a syllabus: Some loving advice.

In my second semester of graduate school, I learned that syllabus writing is hard. I’d signed up for a class (technically an independent study, though there were four or five of us who would meet weekly, usually without a professor present) that was well outside my comfort zone.  It was a class on Islam in Africa, and all the other students were historians of either East or West Africa in the advanced stages of preparing for comps.  Still, I’d taken a few classes on Islam in undergrad, and I was a religious studies major—I didn’t feel totally out of my depth. Our final assignment for the course was to design a syllabus.  It was a great experience—I’m really glad to have done it so early in my graduate career—but it was definitely rough going.

Syllabus writing is hard for many reasons.  To put it bluntly, a syllabus is an exercise is branding.  It’s a venue for your values as a scholar, and a way to actually do something about all the stuff you’ve been complaining about in seminars.  Which, by the way…let’s just say that it’s never too early to get some perspective on the graduate seminar phenomenon.  They’re not useless; they can  be fantastic under the right circumstances, but the nervous energy of a gaggle of impostor syndrome-addled graduate students should never be underestimated.  If you aren’t careful you might find that instead of learning how to be a historian (or a practitioner of whatever it is you study), you’ve spent two years learning to absolutely crush seminar discussions—which is not the same thing.  The latter generally entails a lot of complaining about what the author omitted, about citations, about methodology, et cetera.  But do you have a better idea?  Without having your own published monograph, a syllabus is where you put your money where your mouth is, as it were.

Are the canonical sources too uncritical of [blank]?  Cut ‘em.  Is it a problem that the vast majority of Africanist historians cited in the West are white non-Africanists?  Screw ‘em, assign some African voices, some primary sources, some queer scholars.  It’s your call.  It’s your time to shine.  It’s all wonderfully open-ended too—are you pissed that your undergrad Africa survey never mentioned Madagascar?  Do a unit on Madagascar.  You can make it work.

But making bold choices like that invites second guessing.  Fifteen weeks seems like a long time when the syllabus is blank, but it fills up quickly.  I used to think it was a cop-out in undergrad when professors admitted up-front that their survey wasn’t going to be “comprehensive” and some worthy topics were going to get the shaft; now, from the other side of the desk, I realize I was wrong to be so critical.  There really are limitations on what you can get to in a single semester, and the more you value getting students to really grapple with the past and think about cases in more depth, the more limited you’ll feel.  Some topics and sources won’t make the final cut, and not only will you be pissed, but you’ll also have to take responsibility for it.

You have serious limitations too. Unless you’re able to design a course exclusively around your research interests (something I don’t think many people would recommend, even if it were possible), you’re going to have to spend a good chunk of the course covering material you’re not really an expert in.  Islam in Africa was a case-in-point for me: I know a heck of a lot more about it than the average undergrad, but much less than someone who studies precolonial Senegal or Zanzibar.  When you’re gathering sources it can seem overwhelming, because you probably won’t know many names beyond the blockbusters, let alone the way their work has been received and debated.  And if you worry about your expertise when it comes to your own dissertation topic, how much more phoney is your command of the Trans-Saharan slave trade in the fifteenth century?

The biggest problem of all, though, is the literature itself.  As you seek out readings to fill your blank syllabus, you’ll probably have some faves in mind that were always going to make the cut.  As you continue, though, your well-honed grad seminar senses will be tingling like crazy as the shortcomings of the books and articles you find become manifest.  You’ll find that many of the sources you wish were out there just don’t exist, and that the ones that do are deeply flawed.  Worse, you’ll find that a lot of the sources you might use are totally inappropriate for undergraduate students, which is a special kind of disappointment.  You might push back on this, thinking you can hold your students to a higher standard—and you might be able to!  It depends heavily on your ability and the nature of the class you’re designing, but obviously the definitive test is whether students actually read what you assign.  If they have a low threshold for abstruse scholarly prose, they might just be apathetic. 

Of course, it also might be true that said prose is simply bad.  We academics put up with a lot of bad writing.  When we write, most of us spend our time thinking about our colleagues rather than the public, which is fine except when you have to convince the public (your students) that the material is worthwhile.

So how does one do it? There’s no magic bullet, but I would start by setting a series of goals for the course: what do you want students to get out of it? Some of the goals should relate to specific content (i.e., colonialism was bad) and some should relate more generally to the discipline. Why is history so important? Why is it necessary to approach sources critically? How do historical narratives get pressed into the service of oppression and resistance? The case studies you choose can then illustrate these broader ideas. To expand on George Orwell’s famous axiom from 1984, all debates over the future are really struggles for control of the past. If my students take nothing else away from my class, that’s the message I would want them to take away. Syllabus writing teaches you how that sausage might be made.

I haven’t even gotten to discussing ways students can demonstrate their learning to you through exams and projects. Designing assignments isn’t as laborious as populating your syllabus with readings and lectures, but it’s every bit as important. Again, your process here should be shaped by your overall goals. I’m a big believer in mixing small items like reading quizzes in among bigger essay style assignments, because as important as the big takeaway lessons are, it’s impossible to learn meaningfully about History writ-large without mastering the nuts and bolts of particular cases. I think group projects can be valuable, but their burden tends to fall disproportionately on stronger students, and I don’t think I would ever design a syllabus with a group component of more than 30% of the final grade (I also totally reject self and group evaluation assignments; in my experience they are basically useless and place students in an inherently uncomfortable position).

So there you have it: perhaps this advice isn’t quite as “targeted” as it might be, but this is the kind of thing I wish I had read before embarking on my first syllabus writing journey. Set goals, be realistic, and don’t underestimate the difficulty. As always, drop a comment if you found this post helpful, or to suggest a topic for another post! I’m currently in South Africa starting in on my dissertation research, but I’ll still be posting content as often as I can.

“Should I go to grad school?”: Some advice to folks figuring it out.

Dumelang, folks! My efforts to devote more time to this site in the new year have so far come to naught, but January isn’t quite over yet. I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few months about my experience in graduate school with a view to what advice I have for others who might be considering a similar path. While this article draws heavily from my own personal experience pursuing a history Ph. D., I think it a lot of it might apply more broadly. So, without further ado, here are five tips that I think would have helped me discern and prepare back in 2014 and 2015 when I was wrestling with the prospect of a grad degree.

Tip No. 1: Take some time to think about what you want to do (1 year +). This is my number one regret. The semester I graduated from William and Mary, I was thrilled to line up a service year position through my church in Winston-Salem, N.C. That job, working mostly in the toddler classroom of a school serving kids with a variety of developmental needs, remains to this day the best job I ever had. Sure, I was paid only a tiny stipend and had a lot of trouble in my life that year (totally unrelated to the job), but every day coming into work I was absolutely sure that I was doing something unambiguously good and unambiguously necessary. It wasn’t specialized work (not the stuff I was doing; I wasn’t a teacher) and it had nothing to do with history, but it was intellectually stimulating. It demanded both compassion and the best of my problem-solving ability.

Part of the reason I elected to go that route had to do with discernment. I knew graduating was a big step and like a lot of people I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I was interested in deepening my faith and hoped that in the context of a religious community I would make better decisions. I was considering seminary too.

I didn’t give myself nearly enough time. My job in North Carolina ended in June of 2015, and by August I was in East Lansing. Those milestones on my C.V. are misleading if taken on their own, however. I had to make the decision to apply to graduate schools a lot earlier: it was in October 2014, just five months after graduating, that I started narrowing down my list of potential Ph. D. programs, in December that I finished all my applications, in February when I got accepted to Michigan State. The deadline to commit to M.S.U. came around on Tax Day, April 15th, 2015. In other words, my year of discernment wasn’t actually a year of discernment; it was almost entirely occupied with the Ph. D. admissions process.

While I would still say my service year taught me many important lessons, it was hard to process them when I was already so firmly down the conveyor belt to graduate school. If I were to do it over, I would have found a way to stick around in Winston-Salem for another year, to test my resolve to re-enter the academic fray. I don’t think one year is enough time even if you are of a truly scholarly temperament.

The first public talk I ever gave in South Africa!

Tip No. 2: Consider your values. Let’s get this out of the way while it’s still pretty early: grad school sucks. My suspicion is that this is true no matter what field you choose, and no matter where you go, to some extent. This isn’t to say that it’s going to be non-stop misery (if it is, you really shouldn’t stick it out; see tip no. 5), but as with any intensive training program, the good memories are going to be the parts that least feel like grad school. You’ll remember things like your first conference paper that went really well, your first time doing research in the field, or the first time you got accepted to a peer-reviewed journal. In other words, the times when you were taken seriously and affirmed as a practitioner of whatever it is you’re going to school for.

Grad school can enable some wonderful things, but pretty much any way you slice it you’re talking about a lot of work. Work means reading books about things you love, true, but it also means navigating the potentially byzantine requirements of your program, or, if you have an assistantship, having to grave seventy-five borderline incoherent undergraduate essays in the course of a weekend. It’s not attractive stuff. Add to that the fact that you’re at the bottom of a very complex and stress-inducing academic pecking order. You’ll constantly be confronted with your own ignorance even about things you thought you knew well, which is exciting sometimes and sometimes very, very, stressful.

I have never worked harder than the year I was dealing with my comprehensive exams. I didn’t give up, and I ended up passing and getting the dissertation research fellowship of my dreams—eventually—but it came at the cost of my mental and physical health. I had panic attacks regularly. I kept a horrendous diet and gained weight. I put off getting medical care for a minor but very painful complaint for fear of falling behind on my comps lists, even though I had quality health insurance through my school (not a guarantee everywhere, by the way!). So yeah, I won the victory. But it came at a steep cost.

The upshot here is this: if you don’t dominate grad school, it will dominate you. Go in knowing what you value, what kind of lifestyle you want to have and aware of the lines you don’t want to cross in pursuit of a degree. If you forget who you are and why you’re there, it’s easy to slip into the gaping maw of burnout. Keep grad school and your own self worth as far away from each other as you possibly can. Don’t concede an inch. If you hate the kind of person it’s turning you into, step back: assess what you value. Breaking into academia is like trying to be an actor in L.A.: if you define yourself by your tally of successes and failures, you’re not going to last long.

Tip No. 3: Don’t pay for it.  I realize this isn’t an option for everybody, but within my field, reputable Ph. D. programs fully fund the people they admit for a period of years. I was doubly lucky in that I got accepted directly into a Ph. D. program without needing to obtain (and pay for) an M.A. first. Granted, I did get my B.A. in history, and I wrote a thesis in undergrad; I’m not sure M.S.U. would have accepted me if I had majored in something else.

I will say this though: I’m not sure how I would have coped over the past four years if I’d had the additional stress of taking out loans on my mind. With the academic job market as difficult as it is, I chose M.S.U. in part because I didn’t want to end up in debt for a degree that might not result in a career.

Definitely explore your options for getting the degree you want while spending as little money as possible. When you get accepted to schools, really do your homework on the funding packages they’re offering you. Also, remember to factor in cost of living. Anyone who reads my poetry knows I have a love-hate relationship with the state of Michigan, but one thing that’s really great about going to school in East Lansing is the low, low, low cost of living, particularly for housing. If I had entered a Ph. D. program in a big East or West Coast city, I wouldn’t have to deal with the angst of being stuck in the Midwest, and probably would have been offered more money. But the extra thousand dollars or so would not have offset the astronomical expense of living in those cities. I don’t feel nearly as squeezed at M.S.U. as I would at other schools, and that’s a non-trivial thing.

Me on my first day of graduate school: bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and hopelessly naive.

Tip No. 4: Cultivate your village. This goes back to tip no. 2, and it’s crucial to keeping yourself sane. It’s almost impossible to succeed in grad school without a set of people to fall back on and encourage you through the gauntlet. I am blessed with a wonderful network of people from high school, college, and beyond (in addition to my family) who have provided this support consistently and with aplomb. I am eternally, eternally grateful to them and often think that the part of my dissertation I look most forward to writing is the acknowledgements. They remind you (and you’ll need the reminding quite a bit, if you’re like me) that the stakes aren’t as high as you think they are, that there’s life beyond campus. That you are valuable, regardless of anything you might do or fail to do in pursuit of a graduate degree.

While it’s definitely beneficial to have people in your immediate grad cohort you can vent with, who understand exactly what you’re going through, it’s just as important to keep in contact with people who don’t have anything to do with your chosen field. It can be hard to maintain relationships like that, of course, especially as the golden years of college fade further and further into the distance, but it’s worth the effort. Not only is it important to get away from the tunnel vision school stress tends to induce, but talking to people far removed from your situation can also grant you an important sense of perspective.

If this account of grad school sounds overly negative, remember that all paths you might choose to take have their own trials and tribulations. No, grad school isn’t fun, but if you want to be a historian, being a historian is great fun, and that’s where the road ends up. You might get jealous of some of your friends on the outside, but you might also realize how much you would hate their career path. Grad school entails a lot of uncertainty, for sure, but would you trade that uncertainty in for consistent boredom? I can complain about Michigan until the sun falls into the sea, but grad school lets me go to South Africa too, which more than makes up for it in my book. Not everyone has that. Which is a great segue into tip no. 5:

Tip No. 5: Remember that life is long. Speaking as someone who’s reached the ripe old age of twenty-six, the thread that’s bedevilled me through the first three years of graduate school was a lack of perspective. Take the question that started this: should I go to grad school? A logical but problematic reading of that question would presume that graduate school is either a “good thing” or a “bad thing” for every person: is grad school “right for me”? I’m here to tell you that you can’t work out in advance what your experience is going to be like. It’s for the long haul—if you do an M.A./Ph. D. combo, you’ll be in for almost a decade—and you’re guaranteed to have some of the greatest ups and downs you’ve ever experienced.

At the same time, if you’re in your twenties like me, you’re probably in for a wild ride no matter what you do. It’s hard for me sometimes to figure out how much of the crap I’ve gone through in grad school has actually been because of grad school and how much of it’s just part of growing up.

Again, if you go, don’t let grad school define you. Even when you’re feeling most stressed, there’s always room for grace: get lost in the woods, strike up a random conversation, get involved in a community organization. Take it one step at a time, one week at a time, one day at a time, and you’ll be surprised how far you can get. If you pay attention to how much you’re learning in life rather than just in school, even if you end up working in a totally unrelated field, those years won’t go to waste. They haven’t for me.

Not everybody should go to graduate school; I’m a firm believer in that. If you can see a clear path to a career you love right now, without a graduate degree, don’t waste any time thinking about it. But if, when your soul is at its most calm, you find yourself longing for something that requires a degree, it’s unlikely that anything else you might do can scratch that particular itch. That’s when you realize it’s not just a desire but a vocation; it calls out to you in the middle of the night, even when you wish it would shut up.

Thanks for coming to my TED talk. Leave a comment if you’re considering graduate school and have additional questions, or if you’ve taken the plunge and have a different perspective to share

but too many times we skip over
the things we really don’t much enjoy.
i would rather be anywhere else, yes,
but life is happening in this library
even this late at night—comedies and
tragedies are being written, maybe
even my own—the sweet and sad thing
is that professors don’t really do their
writing in places like this.

i will—inshallah, inshallah, inshallah—
as i was saying—what i’m trying
to say is i will graduate from this.
i don’t know what it will be like,
but it won’t be like this. 

NEW ARTICLE: “Oh, how specific!”: Explaining your (obscure?) topic this holiday season

Howdy everyone!  It’s been a while since you’ve heard from me on this side of the blog, but I’m happy to announce that I have a new article up in The Activist History Review. It’s a short piece about the perils graduate students face in answering questions from friends, family, and acquaintances about what exactly they’re working on.  

I hope to publish more stuff about graduate life in the future.  As I move further towards the dissertation phase of my career, the distance allows me to be more fair and even-handed in my representations.  Later this spring I’m planning on writing something about comprehensive exams.

If you have a topic you’d like to see me address on here, I’d love to hear about it.  What’s your favorite elevator speech encounter.  How do you think graduate students with highly, er, “specialized” topics should navigate the holidays?  Let me know in a comment; your feedback is really helpful!

Have a wonderful festive season!

“Five Fingers for Marseilles”: A Bold, Violent Film Explores South Africa’s Recent Past

Last weekend, for the first time in a few years, I found myself in New York City, a place I really love spending time.  I got to hang out with friends both old and new, and see a particularly interesting performance of Hamlet in a wonderfully “only in New York” kind of venue: an empty room in an apartment with maybe fifteen folding chairs set up for the audience.  On Saturday, though, I had the privilege of seeing a South African film I have been hoping to see for a long time: the gritty Western Five Fingers for Marseilles.  I remember first seeing the trailer last August, and ever since then I wondered whether I would ever get the chance to see the complete film.  With an all-star South African cast, an intriguing (if vague, going by the trailer) storyline, and the stunning backdrop of the Free State-Lesotho borderlands, I fell for this movie and its bizarre title (the Marseilles of the movie, it turns out, is a small Free State dorpie instead of a French seaport), uncertain of what it would actually be like.

“There are no good men” is a fitting tagline for this bleak reflection on the legacy of resistance.

Anyway, I had the opportunity to see it last weekend as part of the New York African Film Festival at the Lincoln Center’s cinema, even though the movie isn’t slated to have an actual American theatrical run until September.  I saw it with some wonderful friends of mine living in New York City (not Africanists or historians) and a film buff friend of theirs, whom I had never met before.  The film, we all agreed, has its flaws: it’s much more of an aesthetic exercise than a character-driven story (owing to the nature of the script rather than the excellent cast).  Nevertheless, particularly for anyone interested in the dynamics of post-apartheid South Africa, it’s a beautiful and, I would say, provocative through its engagement with the Western genre.  I’m very happy I saw it.

Directed by Michael Matthews and written by Sean Drummond (originally in English and translated by Mamokuena Makhema into Southern Sotho), the film centers around Tau (Vuyo Dabula, who also plays Gadaffi in the SABC1 soapie Generations: The Legacy) and his four childhood friends living in Railway, a tiny township on a hill overlooking Marseilles in the early 1980s.  There, under the leadership of the charismatic Zulu, Tau and the other “Five Fingers” do battle with apartheid police and protect their homes.  Armed with little more than bicycles and slingshots, Tau goes on the lam while still a child after a skirmish with the police turns deadly.  Decades later, in the present, Tau finds himself out of prison and returns to Marseilles to see what has become of it post-apartheid.  The picture is complicated:  Railway is nearly emptied out, but Tau’s old friend Bongani (also known as Pockets, played by Kenneth Nkosi) has become mayor and is vigorously promoting the government’s new housing scheme in “New Marseilles,” down the hill.  Another of the five fingers has become a pastor, another is the chief of police, while their leader Zulu is long-dead.  What’s worse, the town is in the thrall of a mysterious gangster figure named Sepoko (“Ghost,” played by Hamilton Dhlamini), who, according to classic Western conventions, menaces the town with nihilistic violence and cruelty.  To defeat Sepoko, Tau must assemble a new group of Five Fingers: Wei (Kenneth Fok), a Chinese shopkeeper whose family is being menaced by the police, Honest John (Dean Fourie), Railway’s white town drunk, Sizwe (Lizwi Vilakazi), Zulu’s son with his beloved Lerato (Zethu Dlomo), and two gangsters from Tau’s more recent past (Brendon Daniels and Anthony Oseyemi).  With the aid of his ghoulish sidekick, the wonderfully vile Thuto (Warren Masemola), Sepoko ensures that the tale of Marseilles’s ambiguous redemption is soaked in as much blood as possible.

Warren Masemola’s Thuto is at his most evil as Sepoko’s depraved henchman.

The film is violent.  So violent, in fact, that one of my friends had to leave the screening midway through the film.  Another one of my friends found the violence egregious and unjustified.  This is, I think, a fair observation: the mood of the movie is brooding and bleak, the sparse dialogue in the film, which is almost entirely in Southern Sotho, is delivered with an impressive gravity by the veterans of stage and screen portraying Marseilles’s heroes and villains.  Five Fingers takes itself very seriously, but its characters are little more than the familiar stock characters from famous Westerns of yore, South Africanized for their immediate setting.  Sepoko, for example, is a wonderful villain in speech and gesture but not in motivation: why exactly is he so evil and what does he want?  As one of my friends commented, the fact that the movie fails to answer this question is particularly frustrating.  Short of dying, in fact, none of the characters leave the film changed in any fundamental way, and so I can certainly understand criticizing Five Fingers as a needless spectacle (or worse, as my film buff acquaintance suggested, a mere imitation of a well-established genre).  Through gorgeous cinematography and able performances, Five Fingers succeeds in delivering the suspenseful Western romp South Africans might not have known they needed, but does it succeed in saying anything new?

I thought about this as my friends and I waited patiently through the post-show talkback session.  Michael Matthews was unable to attend the screening, but three people associated with the film were there to chat, and, since they were all white men, elicited a number of fair questions about the underrepresentation of black people at all levels of southern African cinema and the difficulties of working on a film in a language the white director and lead writer do not speak.  The three men did a good job of fielding these questions, but through it all I couldn’t help wishing I was watching the talkback before a South African audience, which would have hopefully navigated the discussion towards greater specificity.

Eventually I asked my own question about the film’s engagement with post-apartheid South Africa.  The answer I received bolstered a certain line of thought that I was still developing as the audience emptied out of the building.

Now, if you’re reading this from South Africa, you may have already seen Five Fingers, but if you’re in the United States you may not have another chance until the fall.  I want to be careful about spoilers (the ending, which I’m not crazy about, is nevertheless something of a twist).

For me, Five Fingers for Marseilles really does succeed in saying something beyond mere imitation.  This is a film about violence and its poisonous legacy; if the violence in the film appears egregious and spectacular, that is only because violence in South Africa often appears egregious and spectacular, from government corruption to cash-in-transit heists to astonishing rates of domestic abuse.  The film, following many other great Westerns before it, never lets us forget that violence is corrosive, whether in the name of good or evil.  Even in fighting against an unjust regime in the 1980s, it suggests that the Five Fingers were unable to transcend the trauma they experienced as children, and therefore to a certain extent are condemned to revisit it on the town they love.  The inscrutable Sepoko, (whose name, interestingly, is the Sotho-ized version of the Afrikaans for ghost, spook) can perhaps be read as the incarnate manifestation of this legacy of trauma and violence on the land, from the early trekboer incursions up to the present.  His “invasion” of New Marseilles from the dying old township of Railway, the event that sets up the movie’s climactic final battle, might therefore evoke the sabotage of post-apartheid attempts to transcend the past by history’s poisonous legacy.

Sizwe (Lizwi Vilakazi), Marseilles’s only hope.

The stance Five Fingers seems to take is that the freedom fighters of the past must step aside to allow a younger generation to break such cycles of violence.  The character of Zulu’s son Sizwe (which means “nation”, in case the message were not clear enough), fills the classic role of the overeager youngster eager to take on the mantle of this late father, whom he never knew.  Known to be an excellent shot, I kept expecting him to swoop in at the last moment and save the day at the film’s climax.  Yet when his big moment comes, he is the only armed character to go through the whole film without using violence.  In fact, according to the movie, Sizwe is perhaps the only character in whose hands the future of Marseilles is safe.

Even as I continue to be fascinated by South African cinema, I’m still working my head around the complexity of films as sources.  Not only is a film like this open to a wide range of critiques and interpretations, not only can they be seen as the work of a multitude of different people, films from South Africa made in the hope of export are also subject to several additional layers of manipulation and mediation.  Surely the positive reception Five Fingers seems to be receiving counts for something, but it’s difficult to conceptualize exactly how authorial intent works for something that’s clearly subject to review from so many quarters (when I say things like “the film implies,” what do I mean beyond my own interpretation?).  Surely it also matters that the chief writer and director of the film were both white men: does their reading of the conflicts and silences of post-apartheid South Africa ring true for others?

At the same time, in a country where Mandela-era narratives about the success of reconciliation and the democratic transition are increasingly subject to challenge, films like Five Fingers that confront the messiness of the anti-apartheid “heroic age” and its legacy are surely welcome.  I applaud the perseverance of the filmmakers in striving to market something so unique and quintessentially South African internationally: it bodes well for the future of South African film.  Ultimately, if you like Westerns and are fascinated by the chilly emptiness of the South African interior, you will probably have a fine time at Five Fingers for Marseilles.  If, in addition, you are curious about the intricacies of twenty-first century South Africa, and want some food for thought, I think there’s a fair amount to chew on as well.


NEW ARTICLE: “No Laughing Matter? Humour and the Performance of South Africa”

Hello all,

The “African History” part of this website’s brief has been sorely neglected this year owing to my comprehensive exams, but I hope to change all that this summer, having more time on my hands.  I’m particularly excited to share the link below, the first peer-reviewed article of my graduate career.  It’s been a long time coming, and it focuses on themes I’ve already written a bit about on this site: the early 20th century satirist Stephen Black, and his work’s parallels with Leon Schuster’s post-apartheid films.  The link to a free PDF will expire when enough people click on it, but if you have access to the South African Theatre Journal through a university library it should not be difficult to access it that way.

Let me know in the comments if you have any questions or observations on the paper; any and all opinions are welcome!  Thanks once again to everyone who helped make this a reality.

Essays on!

Hello everyone!  // Sanibona nonke!  // Welkom almal!

I feel very bad because I haven’t posted anything here since August.  It’s been a bit hectic lately between drafting grant proposals and studying for my comprehensive exams.  I’ve been writing poetry consistently, but have been too lazy to go the extra mile and post it here, for which I’m very sorry.

This semester, because I’m actually done with coursework, I’m only taking one seminar.  I’ve been posting the reaction papers on my page, and if you’re interested in gender in Africa, which is the topic of the seminar, I encourage you to check them out.  It’s much easier to post academic papers as PDFs over there instead of converting them to blog posts here.  I encourage your comments and hectoring.

Here’s a paper on Nwando Achebe’s book The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe.

Here’s one on Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí’s classic text The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses.

Here’s a paper on John Colman Wood’s book When Men Are Women: Manhood Among Gabra Nomads of East Africa.

And finally, here’s a paper on Lynn Schler’s recently published monograph Nation On Board: Becoming Nigerian At Sea.

Stay tuned for another paper this week!   And more poetry, I promise.   I really do.

On Jacob Zuma and the End of History: A Review of Paige Nick’s “Unpresidented”

Satire is a curious word in my line of work. When I talk to people about what I do I often find myself trying to use the word in my response, thinking it’ll give my study of mere “humor” an air of respectability and significance it wouldn’t otherwise have. Satire is the humor even serious people can appreciate, because they recognize that it’s not really humor at all—not mere jokes, anyway. Satire goes all the way back to ancient Rome: to Horace, to Juvenal. Fart jokes go back just as far, of course—think of Aristophanes’ The Clouds—but it’s never the fart jokes that bring down the mighty and powerful, is it? So we are told. The more I’ve thought about it, though, the more I’ve concluded that the line dividing “satire” from mere plebeian “comedy” is mostly a fiction. Jokes that tackle aspects of social reality are inherently satirical whether or not they are dressed in the trappings of high culture. Likewise, what do we do with instances of “satire” that seem to be aimed less at rousing an audience than at consoling them?

Jacob Zuma has often been the target of satire in recent years; the T.V. show “Puppet Nation Z.A.” does a Zuma impression of note

That seems to be the chief concern of the South African novelist and newspaper columnist Paige Nick in her newly published book Unpresidented: A Comedy of Errors, described on its back cover as a “blistering contemporary South African satire.” If so, I reasoned, it would be right up my alley, and so I picked up a copy at the Van Schaik bookshop in Grahamstown the week before last. Set in the year 2020, I was curious to learn how Nick would represent South Africa in a future beyond the morass of contemporary politics. Is the country headed for collapse or rejuvenation in the wake of President Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, or will it only deepen in its virtues and vices, becoming more like itself? These questions are more relevant than ever before, as the A.N.C. struggles to maintain even a slight semblance of unity going into its December elective conference, with the South African Communist Party all but admitting last week that it would leave the Tripartite Alliance if Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was elected party president.
Alas, Nick’s book says almost nothing about the career of South African politics after Zuma goes (or, as he is called in her book, “Jeremiah Gejeyishwebisa Muza”) Instead, the story is narrowly focused on the bumbling ex-president (released from prison on medical parole for an infected ingrown toenail) and a disgraced journalist named Matthew Stone, whose agent has netted him a job ghost-writing the ex-President’s memoirs. Set at the rapidly decayed “Homestead” in Nkandla, Stone has just a month to write the ex-president’s book amid the constant frustration of being fed “alternative facts,” as Nick calls them. Stone wants to tell the story of the “real” ex-President Muza, while Muza, a pathological liar, remains focused on schemes to win back power.

The central joke running through the book is that Jeremiah Muza is a deluded incompetent, abandoned by his erstwhile friends the Gupta…er…“Guppie” brothers and three of his wives (the remaining two, Refilwe and Bonang, are both successful businesswomen who leave Muza near the end of the story). Yet nothing seems to ever crack the façade of bravado and confidence for which Muza/Zuma is so well known. As Muza confides to Vuyokazi Ngcobo, his parole officer, “I suppose I would put there on my CV that I’m the Most Important Person In The Country Of South Africa For Over A Decade, and that I am also the Future Most Important Person In The Country, too.” As the story proceeds, he cultivates a relationship with Stone’s cocaine dealer, a Malawian named Elijah who, we are told, once married into a Jewish family and fancies himself Jewish, peppering his dialogue with Yiddishisms (including such scintillating dialogue as “Listen, Mr. Stone, you’re in luck, I’m a mensch…I’m going to give you time to write your vershtunkende book”). He is just the kind of enigmatic con-man Muza has been looking for, and so they conspire to go into the showerhead business together (a reference, if you didn’t catch it, to the infamous episode over a decade ago whereby then-Deputy President Zuma was accused of raping an H.I.V.-positive woman without using protection and showering afterwards to reduce the risk of contracting the disease). It’s not necessary to divulge precisely how far this plan gets, but it suffices to say that the plot never really leaves greater Nkandla.

Number One is far more complex than Paige Nick reckons with…

Unpresidented is built on a firm foundation—what will Zuma’s life be like when someone finally gets the better of him?—but disappointed me in its failure to come to grips with the totality of Zuma as a man. In this Nick is not unique—the standard mass media caricature of Jacob Zuma is that he is a giggling, uneducated incompetent and not much more—but that’s reflective to me of a middle class and disproportionately white experience of Zuma that fails to account for the complexity of who he is. I don’t say that as someone who claims any kind of insight into his inner life—far from it—but the details of his biography alone say quite a bit. He is a man from very humble beginnings, with little to no formal schooling, who spent ten years as a political prisoner on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela. On Robben Island he showed a keen interest in sport and was deeply involved with the administration of soccer among the prisoners. He is also took a strong interest in chess, which, it would seem, has served him well in subsequent political battles. He is a Zulu traditionalist whose lavish Nkandla homestead reflects, among other things, a commitment to his role as a Zulu patriarch—at his happiest with his cattle. Whatever his vices—and I don’t mean at all to minimize them—he contains multitudes. Indeed, much of his political success in recent years can be attributed to his opponents’ persistent tendency to underestimate him.

I realize I am writing this critique as someone who doesn’t necessarily have a better idea. A novel about the future Jacob Zuma, stripped of his powers, is justified in taking some liberties to ensure that it’s appropriately funny, and I’m not certain that I personally could do a better job than Nick. But I what interests me most about reading Unpresidented is that, contrary to a lot of satire which, at least ostensibly, is focused on consciousness-raising and “afflicting the powerful,” Nick has written a book that reassures its (disproportionately white, middle class) readers in a remarkably ahistorical way that everything will be okay. We don’t get to know who is president in 2020 because once Zuma goes to jail, it won’t matter. Once he’s out, we won’t have to worry about political personalities; the rules will matter again. The good, sensible people shaking their heads in disgust at the present moment will quietly resume control of the things that matter. The many tensions that the Zuma era brought to the surface—land reform, #FeesMustFall, xenophobia, structural racism—these will have been put back in their box and life will continue as normal. It’s a fantasy with which I can sympathize—as an American, how nice would it be to imagine that once Donald Trump goes Americans will be able to transcend the forces that have paralyzed their own politics for the past decade? But such a vision, at its core, is nothing more than a fantasy. If Nick’s satire is “blistering,” it is blistering only in the darkest, most ironic sense. If it is blistering it is because of the tension between what she writes and reality—the fact that the Zuma presidency is not a dream from which the country will soon waken en masse, but, rather, an further chapter in the messy narrative of South African history. Like all historical eras, it will leave ghosts and unfinished business. While laughter may ease the pain, providing avenues for creative thinking and resistance, satire is a poor vehicle for consolation alone. To the extent that Nick’s satire seeks to console, it tells us something valuable about the present moment, but is unlikely to be remembered far beyond its own time.