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Trouble With T-shirts: Mkhize and the art of Manoeuvring

By Michael Smith on 16 November

One of the tshirts by unnamed Westville Boys High art pupils

One of the tshirts by unnamed Westville Boys High art pupils, 2013.

Is it even worth talking about KwaZulu-Natal’s ANC Provincial spokesperson Senzo Mkhize’s idiotic pronouncements on the occasion of Westville Boys’ High art students exhibiting satirical, culture-jamming-style t-shirts at a market in the KwaZulu-Natal town a fortnight ago? Unfortunately, yes.

It’s Mkhize’s particular take on government education, you see, that needs some attention. His notion of freedom of speech – and its limits – is worrying enough, but  the idea that poking fun at leadership is, as he stated on Talk Radio 702 on Thursday 7 November, against the project of nation building and the achievement of social cohesion, is really troubling for a now not-so-young democracy. The idea that state schools need to be breeding grounds of consensus, is even more so.

The immediate context of this is, as I have said elsewhere, an increasingly paranoid administration with a hair-trigger for litigious reaction. But this time there is something deeper going on.

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ANC KZN spokesperson Senzo Mkhize

ANC KZN spokesperson Senzo Mkhize

Image courtesy The New Age

Post-Polokwane and post-Mangaung (the ANC’s 52nd and 53rd National Conferences  were held in these towns in 2007 and 2012), the landscape of power within the ruling party started to shift, subtly but crucially. The locus of power, as political reporting in South Africa has it, is now no longer the Eastern Cape, traditionally a stronghold of the party’s power and producer of numerous party leaders and presidents. The election of Jacob Zuma to head of the party and later to President of the country marked a shift in culturally-determined politics that was nothing short of seismic. By draining power away from the Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), Zuma swung the balance of power within the ANC towards his home province, and after Mangaung almost 50% of the National Executive Council (NEC) members now hail from there (arguably a disproportionate number, given that the province’s population is only about 20% of the country’s total). Rumours even abound within the party that certain factions want KZN to dominate the party ‘for 20 years’, and that the same factions want to block Soweto-born Cyril Ramaphosa’s ascendency to power ‘for tribal reasons’.

It is surely against this backdrop that Mkhize’s potshots at freedom of speech need to be viewed. But what exactly did Mkhize say that got me and other art teachers (and artists) so riled up?

He is quoted on the SABC’s news website as saying, ‘If you look at the T-shirts and analyse the way they are designed, indeed, they end up undermining the leadership of the ANC. But at the same time undermining the work that has since been done since 1994 of changing this country, the nation building in this country and also ensuring that there's social cohesion’.

The City Press quoted him thus: ‘We view this as an attack on the ANC and on the country since the South African flag featured in the background… It is unacceptable for a school’s management to allow individuals with their own agendas to ridicule and insult the leadership of the country in this manner... We strongly believe that the people involved in this despicable deed, which borders on racism, have a personal vendetta against the ANC and are now using innocent pupils to further their narrow venomous interests.’ Politicsweb added in a bit from later in that press release, in which Mkhize hits his stride and really begins to rattle the war chains: ‘The ANC is concerned about the growing trend in certain sections of our society which seek to undermine the good work that has been done so far in building social cohesion. We therefore cannot allow people who are hell-bent on employing underhand tactics to fuel hatred that reminds us of the dark days of apartheid… The ANC is encouraged by the actions of a responsible citizen who brought these T-shirts to our attention. It is against this background that we commit ourselves to mobilising our society to isolate and reject all racist tendencies in our midst. We hope the school will work with the ANC to get to the bottom of this matter and ultimately expose the perpetrators behind this anarchy.’ And finally, Africa Review rounds off its report on the story with, ‘The ANC was happy that the works had been removed, said Mkhize’.

Taking issue with most of Mkhize’s statements is easy; my knee-jerk response is to want to remind him that ‘nation building’ and ‘social cohesion’ are really just rally-cries that an already victorious political party invokes when something momentarily threatens its hegemony. To build a nation is not to achieve unanimity: far from it. It is to allow space for divergence, blah blah: at this point I begin to bore even myself.

As for social cohesion, I wonder if Mkhize et al have ever read Orwell? Or Huxley? I wonder if he’s glanced over the Constitution which, in Section 16, guarantees the protection of academic freedom. Academic freedom, in turn, is defined internationally as the right to study and express within academia ideas of a challenging and controversial nature, even when this is inconvenient to external political powers.

Struggle era t shirts as shown in Sue Williamsons Resistance Art in South Africa

Struggle era t shirts as shown in Sue Williamsons Resistance Art in South Africa

Image courtesy Sue Williamson

The notion of social cohesion is an organising principle more than a democratic one, a sleight-of-hand conducted by those who already have a very clear idea of what sort of people should be cohering. This week, it’s apparently not the ‘Boers’ who are included.

Social cohesion is, in fact, far more dangerous than it is desirable, in its implication that tetchiness and dystopia (of which I’m an ardent fan), the impulse to ridicule and question as a societal ballast, represent some sort of ‘anarchy’, as Mkhize would have us believe.

But again, this is easily-reached righteous indignation; what’s possibly more interesting is to look at Mkhize himself, and how power currently operates within the ANC. The prior example of Fikile Mbalula is a relevant one here: the former ANC Youth League leader managed to manoeuvre brilliantly at the party’s 2007 conference in Polokwane, Limpopo. Mbalula’s support of Jacob Zuma in the battle for party presidency with then-President Thabo Mbeki is widely credited with helping Zuma swing the ballot. At the conference he was elected to the NEC in coveted 15th place; since then his rise has been nothing short of meteoric, moving from the ANCYL to becoming deputy minister of police. From there a spot on the cabinet as Minister of Sports and Recreation beckoned in 2010: this position is commonly believed to be a reward for his often fierce support of Zuma, not an unreasonable assumption given that he wasn’t yet 40 at the time of his appointment.

The ferocity of Mbalula’s support is worth dwelling on for a moment. While still (only) leader of the ANCYL, Mbalula sent a scathing letter to the venerable Trevor Manuel, then Minister of Finance and undoubtedly a key member of the Mbeki cabinet: in the letter, Mbalula called Manuel ‘an attention-seeking drama queen’. The next year, in response to rector of UNISA Barney Pityana criticizing Jacob Zuma, Mbalula said he’d ‘made a clown of himself by his overzealous confusion and comical postulations’.

Jump back to Westville in 2013, and maybe Mkhize is trying to take a leaf out of Mbalula’s book. Cabinet posts or cushy promotions seem to come at the price of craven, vociferous and unwavering support for the big man. (It’s fair to speculate that Mkhize would have a real chance, given the increasing market-share of KZN politicians). The way you prove your worth as a party man is to defend the image and person of the country’s leader against any and all; meanwhile, the rights to expression and artistic freedom of some Grade 12 learners get trampled: collateral damage, I guess. It’s a far cry from the youth movement that lead the charge against oppression for three decades: pages 93 to 98 of Sue Williamson’s Resistance Art in South Africa refer.

Finally, on this last point, it’s worth going back to 2005, when Zuma supporters outside the courthouse where his rape trial was going on theatrically burned t-shirts with then-president Mbeki’s face printed on them. At the time, only Jessie Duarte came out publically in denouncement of the burning. Few, if any, from the Zuma faction had anything to say: not Gwede Mantashe, not Fikile Mbalula, and certainly no-one from KZN. So the rabid defence of Zuma’s image and person on the basis that he is the president of the country rings rather hollow now. It is interesting, though, to note how often the t-shirt is a leitmotif in post-struggle politics…

An Mbkei t-shirt like the ones burned in 2005 by ANC factions opposing his presidency

An Mbkei t-shirt like the ones burned in 2005 by ANC factions opposing his presidency