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OPINION: The complexity of revolution

When I was younger, I used to think that we should pack everyone into the then recently-erected World Cup stadiums and get them to converse with each other about their lives, at regular intervals. To talk about the seemingly mundane daily aspects to the different challenges they faced, and even the spectacular elements of human life. I used to think that these intense conversation spaces could offer an entry-point for us to begin to understand how differently we all live in and experience the world.

I knew, even when I jokingly suggested it to friends, that the idea was riddled with problems, incredibly idealistic, grossly naïve and a weak premise and foundation for beginning to answer the incredibly difficult question: how do we begin to live together, and achieve justice in all senses: social, political and economic?

In many ways marginalised people are endlessly explaining their experience, and the middle-class voices are incredibly loud. Those most affected by injustice, a poor black majority, are silenced in many visible and invisible ways - or perpetually spoken on behalf of. I wish it was as simple as talking in stadiums, but we face rather a challenging complexity in figuring out how to deal with our vastly different realities in South Africa, and beyond it.

Ever since her Ruth First lecture, Sisonke Msimang's words have been running through my head. She argued that in dealing with the challenges that we face - whether in terms of race, gender, class, sexuality and other sites of questioning - we should 'live in complexity', and wrestle with the fact that the answers we seek will often go in multiple directions, and are incredibly layered and demand action.

The provocative lectures by her and Panashe Chigumadzi have resulted in a range of responses from writers, thinkers and social commentators. From exploring black middle-class complicity, to articulating the 'model C' experience, considering the line between articulations of anger and hatred, exploring how white people need to 'get to work', and problematically deciding how Ruth First would have responded to the lectures and viewing them as 'inherently racist', they have responded in different and connected ways to the statements and challenges that occurred in the Wits Hall last week.

Msimang's lecture, titled 'with friends like these', deals with the possibilities of interracial friendship in a post-apartheid South Africa that remain underscored by injustice. "Can we be friends across racial boundaries?" she asks. "Yes we can, and no we absolutely cannot. It's that simple and that complex," she answers, pointing to the fact that hard work is required to make this possible in an atmosphere so permeated by injustice, particularly from white people who would have to perform 'privilege-busting acts' that realise the idea that their dignity, humanity and destinies are bound up in that of their black counterparts.

The way we frame the importance of talking within this often has us endlessly spinning on the initial challenge: getting people to take seriously our distinct experiences, and understand that it is possible to live in the same country, but have our lives take on such different colour, texture and shape. We can be in the same space, but our experiences are often both galaxies apart and simultaneously connected. "It's that simple, and that complex."

Quoted in Msimang's lecture, Zama Ndlovu's succinctly expresses how this operated in racial terms. She writes: "Over time I have had to constantly remind myself that my white friends and I occupy the same spaces but live in different worlds." This is relevant for all the identity fault-lines that connect and divide us.

To use Msimang's phrase, we are often stuck in the language and way of "our country's first iterations of reconciliation. Reconciliation 1.0". Because of this, we ask rhetorical questions: "Is race important?", "does race still matter?", "Is [insert event, institution, space, place, or person] racist?", or speak about race and class and other intersections of identity as if they are distinct and not fundamentally enmeshed, given our history and present realities.

We are, it seems, constantly mapping the terrain of the conversation - which is necessary - but seems to have us endlessly retracing our steps, not as a means of improving the questions we ask, but instead endlessly rehearsing the same conversations, with a pre-written script and clear roles to be played. A strange deja vu that often seems to take on Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot absurdity.

Too often, talking about things, which is crucial, is presented as the solution, and not the entry-point. Considered the whole answer, and not just part of the work, a way to make possible asking the right kinds of questions.

A few years ago, at the Steve Biko memorial lecture, Ben Okri stated "freedom was just the overture… real story begins with what they did with that freedom", pointing to the fact that hard work will need to be done to make that freedom real and tangible, beyond the 1994 ballot box. To rephrase it, the possibility of complete freedom was just the overture, it is what we do to realise the promise of that freedom that counts.

The vocabulary and grammar of Reconciliation 1.0 pervades and frames many of the difficult, complex conversations that we are attempting to have, while itself presenting us with a vision of things that is deceptively simple: "Apartheid happened. We are now here. We have to move on. We have to live together. Alive with possibility".

But exactly how we make this living together possible, without erasing people's experiences, knowing the cataclysmically divisive events and actions that occurred, and are STILL occurring; knowing that the ballot box was both a seismic shift, and also simply one step in a journey towards fully realised freedom, is rarely enquired at with the kinds of gestures towards complexity and action that Msimang demands.

We rarely seriously ask: "what does it mean to be here, to live right now, for different people, across experiences that are punctured by the sites of our identity?" and "how am I an obstacle to achieving the just world I seek?" And we absolutely have to, if we are going to make any kind of just living here and living together, possible.

Msimang's complexity is about a two-sided perspective where we need to have honest conversations with ourselves about our personal obstacles, to enable honest and just conversations, actions, experiences and connections with others. Because she focuses on action, it makes the "What do I need to do? What do I need to change? What action is both required and possible, and what prevents it?" incredibly fundamental and necessary.

Reflecting on my stadium idea, I now know that whether you shout your experience from rooftops, express it quietly in clear and 'dignified' terms, or go through it with the patience and clear evidence of your experience, sometimes you just can't get anyone to 'Luister'. We "occupy the same spaces but live in different worlds", and the privileged perspective those worlds create are often blinding.

We are in an age of #RhodesMustFall. We are in an age of Luister. We are in an age of Marikana. We are in an age of Nkandla. We are in an age that demands so much of us and from us, to venture deep into the innermost parts of ourselves and wrestle with the things that a just world or just body cannot house.

It demands that we look in the mirror, and explore every inch of ourselves - and simultaneously look past ourselves, outwards to that which is more than us, beyond our own concerns and lives, considering those acutely affected by the effect of an unjust world. That we check our blind-spots and put our lives, dignity and humanity in a deep conversation with that of those around us, exploring both the personal and the greater landscape of the problems we face.

In many ways, parts of all of us must fall, but some of us will fall much further and harder than others, and many will resist this falling, the uncomfortable and painful cracking and rebuilding of the facades of either our 'consciousness' or the very foundations of the 'reality' that we've constructed, at all costs. Many of us would prefer the solace of our lives and the reality we have constructed.

Knee-deep in the Matrix, we would rather choose the blue pill, and "believe whatever we want to believe". But we have to take the red pill, and see just "how deep the rabbit-hole goes". It's the hard choice, but it's the only option. Comfort and ignorant bliss will no longer suffice.

We will have to give up parts of ourselves, and many of the things that we enjoy, the privileges that we bask in, that underscore the rhythm of our days: that determine the houses we live in, jobs we value, restaurants we frequent, items we fill our shopping carts and cupboards with, or the way we are perceived, who is permitted in boardrooms and sidewalks, who gets to speak and who is taken seriously. It is remarkably less painful than living with the injustices that enables the privileges some get to enjoy.

Sometimes it feels that in many ways we are all orbiting each other's realities, like satellites, with vastly different experiences. The way we talk about and make sense of our lives in public conversations often takes on a strangely rehearsed call and response that we keep on playing out, like a scene that needs to be constantly reshot, and revisited, and not reconsidered or restructured. Simple rehearsals in visibility and invisibility. Strange snapshots of the same space with different filters. Some narratives become the way things are, while others are relegated to footnotes, distorted or even thought of as delusional and impossible.

But 'The revolution', or whatever you want to call the change that needs to take place, will not be a talk shop staged in stadiums, nor will it allow us to stay safely coddled by our own perspectives and world. It will require revolutionary, hard, uncomfortable acts, across realities. In many ways it will require leaving all that we know behind, towards a future we will need to shape in real time. It's that 'simple, and that complex'.

Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She is currently an assistant researcher at Mistra and a member of Feminist Stokvel. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which often includes making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler