Ain’t I a [hu]man?
In ‘social contract theory’, society is organized by a series of contracts between individuals and governing entities, most particularly in the way of politics and morality. The foundations of this philosophical school of thought are credited to Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Expressions of this theory in the contemporary era are devices such as the law and the relationship between citizens and the state. The state provides the infrastructure within which citizens can live and citizens in return pay taxes to the state. The philosophical underpinnings of social contract theory in its preliminary iterations is the shared commonality of humans and was used to theorize why, as Rousseau put it, "Man is born free; and [yet] everywhere he is in chains." (1762 trans. 1782). However, contemporary criticisms of social contract theory posit that the philosophical underpinnings of the theory do not conceive of systems of oppression wherein the category of “human” and the resultant claims (to rights, to liberty, to life) that the human category allows is effectively reserved for particular people of a particular identity. In response to the limitations of contract theory, Carole Pateman, author of The Sexual Contract, rebutts,
“In contract theory universal freedom is always a hypothesis, a story, a political fiction. Contract always generates political right in the forms of domination and subordination.” (1988: 8)
In The Racial Contract, Charles Mills writes, “White supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today” (1999: 1). Mills further explicates that in the historical construction of systems of order and governance— from aristocracy to libertarianism; democracy to absolutism— white supremacy receives little serious inquiry as providing the philosophical underpinnings for the advent of the systems of governance that, in myriad manifestations, typify the age of modernity, namely: colonialism and capitalism. Mills argues that where mainstream (read: white) philosophical thought is concerned with issues of justice and injustice in the abstract, the vast majority of black and indigenous political thought the world over is concerned with these self-same issues through the lenses of the concrete realities and consequences brought about by imperialism, colonialism, white settlement, apartheid, slavery, etc. By extension, systems of governance constructed from the perspective of white political thought necessarily exclude the lived realities of black and indigenous people. An example of this would be the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the response from the United Nations General Assembly after the atrocities of World War II. The declaration is a non-legally binding document of thirty articles that expounds on the various rights and fundamental liberties that should be available to “men and women” the world over without discrimination. The Declaration can be understood as an attempt at configuring a recalibrated social contract after the mass violence against humanity conducted during the second World War and was thus adopted on the 10th of December 1948. 1948 also represents a seminal moment in the history of South Africa as this was the year Apartheid became officially recognised as legal doctrine. It may (or may not) then come as a surprise to find that South Africa, then the Union of South Africa, was a signatory on the Declaration, forming part of the 51 original member states of the United Nations (Un.org, 2018). It may also be worth clarifying here who drafted the Declaration: Dr Charles Malik of Lebanon, Alexandre Bogomolov of the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Dr Peng-chun Chang of China, René Cassin of France, Eleanor Roosevelt of the United States of America, Charles Dukes of the United Kingdom, William Hodgson of Australia, Hernan Santa Cruz of Chile and John P. Humphrey of Canada (Un.org, 2018). Here we are afforded some incisive pieces of information: not only was the Declaration majoritively penned by representatives of some of the most successful colonial nations on the planet at that juncture in history but there is not a single representative from the African continent on the drafting committee. And this is not to say that the presence of a member from the Union of South Africa (then the singular African state represented in the United Nations) would have been a curative measure but it is to say that the ideological foundations for the category of “human” become somewhat more clarified in their historic and legal formulations from this vantage point. That is to say, it would appear that Africans were not present in the conception of the universal reference point for the “human” category (as it pertains to international law) and, thus, it would suggest that Africans were not even theoretically considered “human”. The presence of the Union of South Africa as one of the members of the United Nations whilst instituting what would later be officially ratified as a crime against humanity by the United Nations itself in 1973 (in the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid [Legal.un.org, 2018]) serves to further concretise who was and was not considered “human” by law at this particular juncture in history.
The academic and creative Zukolwenkosi Zikalala in their paper Black Queers Must Play reflects on the South African legal culture as follows:
Reflecting on the moment of transition, Pumla Dineo Gqola views the Constitution as an aspirational document [2015: 57 - 58], it allowed for us ‘to project an image of our society as it would be if we were our best selves.’ [ibid] She situates this aspirational text alongside Bishop Tutu’s naming of us as ‘the rainbow people of God’[ibid.]; the texts, she argues, are aspirational because of the hope that they gave.[ibid.] It is the naming of subjects in post-1994 South Africa, as existing within a rainbow nation: that all-inclusive term which seeks to transcend race, class, and creed differences, that is of interest to me. In its bid toward building and creating a new nation, it is important to consider what a rainbow nation means for black queer subjects who continue to seek representation outside of the edifice of violence.
With these historical lenses and provocations of the human category, what does this leave us with by way of thinking about blackness and indigeneity and for, as the theorist and creative Mbongeni Mtshali puts it, “thinking through the world queerly”.
Modes of Disidentification
The fiction of identity is one that is accessed with relative ease by most majoritarian subjects. Minoritarian subjects need to interface with different subcultural fields to activate their own senses of self...[Disidentification] is meant to offer a lens to elucidate minoritarian politics that is not monocausal or monothematic, one that is calibrated to discern a multiplicity of interlocking identity components and the ways in which they affect the social. (Muñoz, 1999: 5 and 8)
The theory of intersectionality, theorised by critical legal theorist Kimberlé e Williams Crenshaw, has given us a framework through which to think about the plurality of identity. In Crenshaw’s theorizations, much as in Muñoz’, she argues that the convergence of a myriad of identities on the site of a singular body (in Crenshaw’s theorization the body of black women) requires a politic that is multimodal in its formulations to conceive of the plural ways in which oppression can be experienced. From these theoretical underpinnings Muñoz offers perspectives of how intersectionality is performed by queer artists of colour.
Here, I would like to offer examples of South African artists who display this self-same disidentification in performance practice from the perspectives of queerness and femininity.
Athi-Patra Ruga 
Black, queer aesthetics, in my opinion, have always been seminal in mass contemporary cultural production. However, the faces of that cultural production have not always shared the same identities of its genesis. Examples of the appropriation and distillation of black queer aesthetics are rife throughout history, with examples such as Madonna’s hit track Vogue serving quite an incisive example of the white-washing and exploitation of black queer aesthetics and cultural production. In the present moment, however, there seems to be a shift in the visibility of who are being crowned as the vassals of black queer public culture. From RuPaul of RuPaul’s Drag Race to South African musical duo FAKA, the canon of black queer creative energy is proliferating mass media at an (arguably) unprecedented rate and level of visibility. Most exciting about this moment is the plurality in the kinds of representations of black queerness that are being celebrated. The plurality of the lives that black queer folks lead is being engaged with in ways that do not fall into tropes of trauma porn or aesthetic fetishization and minimisation of the humanity that forms part and parcel of the black queer experience.
Amongst these vassals, artist Athi-Patra Ruga finds easy company, adding to the black queer canon a singular mythos imbued with high femme, South African-centric, political rigour. In Ruga’s latest offering Queens in Exile the artist cultivates a psychosphere of concentrated black queer energy that harkens to a kind of nostalgia for something that never was: a dynasty for the forgotten footnotes of our national history. The fabled gods that time forgot and the history of whiteness erased.
In the video component of the exhibition, Ruga is depicted adopting the persona of black queer avatar embodying and channeling various black and queer historical figures of South Africa’s past. Bedecked in luscious gold fabric and bejeweled for the gods (a face beat for the ancestors), Ruga pays homage to figures as wide and as varied as Brenda Fassie to Steve Biko; Nonqawuse to Winnie Mandela. Matriarchs, militants, mavericks, mothers and martyrs. They are all invoked with reverence and deference as if to form a modern-day black and queer pantheon. And Ruga stands as high priestess conducting the ceremony. The sense of ritual is palpable; the stakes are high. Every bead and sequence in its place. Every cylindrical gesture of the arms intently rendered. A kind of practical magic for summoning the exiled queens of a bygone era.
Not only does Ruga bedeck his exhibition with representations of historic and imagined black and queer mavericks, but Queens in Exile features the communal creative abilities of a much wider, young, black and queer creative community. All pushing the envelope in their respective disciplines, the exhibition features the creative inputs of Jody Brand, Unathi Mkonto, Angelo Valerio and Elijah Ndoumbé (among others). The importance of collecting the energy, creative eyes, and multiple aesthetic sensibilities of the local black and queer community is both ingenious and a testament to Ruga’s politics of ensuring that this content is handled by the community who it is generated from, about and (in my opinion), for.
The beauty and potency of the exhibition lies, for me, in the environment and psychosphere that it managed to generate. It’s no secret that the Cape Town visual arts scene is one dominated by white folk. The night of Ruga’s opening (though still heavily attended by white folk) also managed to create an environment welcoming to many black and queer folk in the creative community. To walk into a room full of familiar black and queer chosen family is not an occurrence that happens often in the Cape colony and to be brought together around such stimulating and layered content that speaks to our collective herstory in such incisive and non-reductive ways is a gift. And, I suppose, if I believe art is good for anything it is that: to bring us together in ways that we never expected.
The first time I came across the work of the multi-award-winning artist and performer Sethembile Msezane, it was through the recounting of a friend who had observed part of her Public Holiday series, that re-historicises, problematises, critiques and re-remembers the concealed violence upon which South Africa’s days of commemoration and holidaying are built. The particular work my friend had seen was Msezane’s Untitled (Heritage Day), performed in 2013. For those of us who have fallen victim to the collective amnesia that is our post-1994 Rainbow Nation inheritance, it would be understandable if the history of ‘Heritage Day’ (also affectionately and unironically nicknamed ‘Braai Day’) is unknown. Admittedly, my own knowledge of the history of September 24 was also lacking beyond the fodder of the Rainbow Nation PR machine.
In pre-1995 KwaZulu Natal, 24 September was commemorated as Shaka Day, in remembrance of the Zulu king, Shaka kaSenzangakhona. In 1995, the Public Holidays Bill was presented to Parliament, with 24 September absent from the list. This was contended by the Inkhata Freedom Party (IFP), a party with a majority Zulu partisanship/constituency. Parliament and the IFP came to a resolution that the day would be commemorated as ‘Heritage Day’. A legacy of the legal erasure of black South Africans from the legal framework of their homeland.
Untitled (Heritage Day) was the first in Msezane’s Public Holiday series, initiating a body of performative work that spanned two years. In these works, Msezane re-contextualises and re-remembers the physical geography of the Cape Town CBD and its monuments. Not only does Msezane’s work operate at the level of race, contesting the concrete representation and ionisation of whiteness and the legacy of black subjugation in the form of monuments in the Cape Town architecture scape but the work counterposes this layer of critique by gendering the lens.
In the series, Msezane performs her gendered body as inextricably linked to her racialised body. Heritage Day sees her in the traditional, celebratory garb and adornments of Umemulo (the coming-of-age ceremony for women in Zulu tradition). The performance of these signifiers operates as a critique not only of the white/rainbow-washing of September 24 but also as a critique of the valorisation of historic, masculine figures (such as Shaka kaSenzangakhona) and the implicit invisibilisation of female figures. This counterposition then becomes an intersection, the crossing of which is the body of Msezane. The lens is not only racial, but also cultural; not only cultural, but also gendered; not only contemporary but also a recapitulation of a history of erased black femininities.
The layered didacticism of Msezane’s work is, for me, one of the pivotal axes of her work. For a people (here, I speak specifically of black South Africans and black womxn and femmes) that have had their history effectively erased under the rhetoric of non-racialism, it is a necessary and urgent kind of activism to be part of the project of unearthing these erased histories. Furthermore, not only to unearth them but to critically engage with them. To re-remember ourselves and our bodies into the canon of history. It is through the concerted projection of the image of ourselves into these spaces (the public and the imaginary) that we can begin to have a more complete, self-curated image of ourselves outside the lens and dictates of whiteness.
Arjun Appadurai, a contemporary socio-cultural anthropologist, wrote in ‘Modernity at Large’ that:
the imagination has become an organized field of social practices, a form of work (in the sense of both labor and culturally organised practice), and a form of negotiation between sites of agency (individuals) and globally defined fields of possibility. (1998)
This offers us a way of understanding the work of art in the present moment as an active form of labour that operates to achieve a myriad of divergent functions. Through the processes of constructing images, there is a particular kind of imagined world that is being represented. If we understand ‘the imagined’ to be no less real than ‘the observable’ then it follows, existentially, that that which goes unimagined and is unobservable does not exist. Herein lies the importance of work such as Msezane’s. Work that projects images of the observable and imagined worlds of a particular iteration of blackness. Representations of the known and the speculated; the remembered and the re-remembered.
In Kwasuka Sukela, Msezane interrogates representations and erasures of black femininity in the observable public and private domain. Revisiting contested sites of memory in South Africa, Senegal and Great Zimbabwe, Msezane performs the re-remembering of the canon of black history on the African continent. In So Long a Letter, performed alongside the African Renaissance Monument, Msezane recreates the now famous and contentious image of the monument with the male (supposedly, father/husband figure) role removed. This reads as a critique of normative representations of the nuclear family. Particularly, in the context of the monument where the representation of the black, nuclear family; father/husband, mother/wife and child; is presented as aspirational. Msezane stands, defiantly, alongside the statue, with child held up high. An homage to single motherhood; to black mothers raising black children in a world that would have them erased. Here, the convergence of the public and private in relation to representation is a forefront theme.
With Kwasuka Sukela, Msezane counterposes representations of black femininity in the observable realm (in the form of monuments and geographic locales) with imaginings of representation in the non-observable world, the world of memory and speculative reimagining. A dialectic between the public and private; the empirically known and the speculated/intuited. By positioning representations of herself in locatable geographies alongside representations of herself in imagined and ephemeral realms (as in Abaphansi-Amawele akwaMsezane), Msezane offers an interrogation into the nature of memory. Who is allowed to be remembered and memorialised? What happens to those who go unremembered? How do we remember those who have passed and have not been memorialised? How do we name our faceless ancestors? The work of honouring and memorialising our ancestors is sacred work. Not only for the purposes of laying them to rest but so that we can become recognisable to ourselves.
Msezane’s work operates as an invocational, devotional ancestral nexus. Her work creates a psychosphere of ancestral energy that is reflected in those who attend her exhibitions. At every exhibition of hers and the collective of which she forms a part, iQhiya, there has been a majority of young black attendees. This is no accident. The audience for whom this work is intended is very clear. And though no one is denied entry it is clear for whom and of whom the work is representational. Upon speaking to a friend of mine (a young, black womxn working in Cape Town at the time) whom I attended the iQhiya exhibition with at the AVA Gallery in Cape Town in April 2016, she recounted how the energy that the space had cultivated was so recognisably black and feminine. “It’s the first and last time I’ve felt safe in the CBD in Cape Town” she recounted.
At Msezane’s Master’s exhibition Kwasuka Sukela at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, I had a similar experience when observing her works Signal Her Return I, Signal Her Return II and Abaphansi Amawele akwaMsezane. They were presented in a separate room from the rest of the exhibition; upstairs, in low lighting with candles burning and a soundscape of whispering voices. The invocational, spiritual energy cultivated in that room was palpable. This forms another important axes of Msezane’s work: ancestral memory. Once again, for a people that have historically had their spiritual beliefs denounced and relegated to ‘folk’ medicine, the necessity for a safe space to understand communion with one’s ancestors is dire. Though by no means the only avenue to accessing this realm Msezane presents an image of what ancestral, devotional work looks like thereby not only paying homage to this practice but offering onlookers an opportunity to question their own beliefs and connections to their ancestors and the ancestral plane.
The Afromexicana poet Ariana Brown from North America, says the following:
… it is okay not to know the name of your ancestors/ to have lost the specifics/ The Western world would have you believe that only what is written is true. (2016)
Msezane’s work operates as a mechanism of re-remembering both our named and unnamed ancestors. Those whom history refused to document but have lived on in the psychosomatics of their descendants. Msezane’s work operates as a vindication of intergenerational memory and a love letter to all those young, black South Africans who have been dispossessed of their history; an offering of return.
For me, right now, I am trying to think of ways of disidentifying with cultural modes that would have us be represented linearly, statically and monothematically. What the above artists represent are modes of choosing differently insofar as the politics of representation are concerned. Whether through the use of avatars (as in Ruga’s work) or through the re-appropriation of statuery and memorialisation (as in Msezane’s work). There are myriad ways to conceive of ourselves outside of the rainbow and maybe, in this way, we can begin to formulate rhizomatic modes of understanding ourselves that circumvent the linear and hierarchical formulations we have been thought into.
Kopano Maroga is a black and queer performance artist, writer and cultural worker striving towards liberation in its myriad forms. They are the cofounder of the dance, movement and embodied politics publication and performance platform ANY BODY ZINE (anybodyzine.org.za). They are currently pursuing their Masters in Live, Interdisciplinary and Public Art through the Institute of Creative Arts at the University of Cape Town. They are a recipient of the Kanna, Fiesta and Woordtrofees awards for best supporting actor in Neil Coppen’s “Buiteland”. Their writing can be found in the publications ArtThrob, adjective and Prufrock. They very much believe in the power of love as a weapon of mass construction.
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 I put “men and women” here in quotations as this binarised gender classification begins to elucidate what the Declaration holds categorically as “human”. There are those of us here on Earth who are neither.
 From an oral seminar presentation on translation at the University of Cape Town in July 2018.
 The following is a reappropriation of an article I wrote for the art publication ArtThrob in 2017: https://artthrob.co.za/2017/12/21/the-crown-aint-worth-much-but-i-got-it-from-my-momma-athi-patra-rugas-queens-in-exile/
 The following is a reappropriation of an article I wrote for the art publication ArtThrob in 2017: https://artthrob.co.za/2017/02/27/the-poetics-of-remembrance-as-resistance-the-work-of-sethembile-msezane/