OPINION: In transforming society, we must not simply become new elites

There is a critical question that must be asked. In light of campus wide student protests, talk and action around transformation and decolonisation in many spaces, and references to an intricate system of oppression that structures life within and beyond our borders, we have to ask ourselves: "Do we want to become the elite in the existing system or do we want to reinvent the system?" This question, asked by someone on my social media timeline last week, requires continuous reflection and introspection.

Out of its original context, feminist, poet and author Audre Lorde provides us with an important reference point when thinking about the society that we would like to build and our own position within it. She maintains:

"We have been nurtured in a sick, abnormal society and we should be in the process of reclaiming ourselves, not the terms of that society. This is complex. I speak not about condemnation, but about recognising what is happening and questioning what it means…"

The terms and conditions of society need to shift, not simply the names, faces and elites that leaves the same kinds of power relations intact and does not address current hierarchies. As Fanon argued in The Wretched of the Earth, it is not enough to be 'under new management', where our society, institutions and spaces are not made anew. As he continues, "in actual fact, everything has to be started over from scratch, everything has to be rethought".

What is needed is more than a 'changing of the guard', which will see us replicating old ways of doing things - and faced with moments like seeing women written out of history, or the same patterns of inclusion and exclusion replicate themselves.

Over the course of the weekend, our social media timelines abounded with images of the women leading the Wits fees protests under the hashtag #MbokodoLeadUs. As history was happening in real-time, young women like Anele Nzimande, Karabo Marutha and Shaeera Kalla were already at risk of being written out of the narrative - even while occupying key leadership positions. Young women like Simamkele Dlakavu, Fasiha Hassan and Nompendulo Mkatshwa, among many others on the frontlines, are in danger of being erased. The powerful patriarchal narrative of only men, like Mcebo Dlamini, as leaders punctuated perceptions of who steered student protests.

The terms and conditions of our society permeate even those spaces, ideas, movements that try to resist them. To say that something is 'structural' is to argue that it forms the architecture that everything is built on: our lives, jobs, university educations, ways of understanding ourselves, our society and each other. So much so that we can maintain the very thing that we rage against, re-inscribing and re-entrenching it.

As Guguluthu Mhlungu argued in relation to Dookoom's new video in this week's City Press, using Lorde's quote: "even when we exercise what little agency we have, we can and often choose to partake in the power systems that oppress us". This is because this system, a racist, sexist, classist one that favours able bodies and heterosexual identities, is so pervasive that it's inescapable. It seeps in, even when we claim to be resisting its terms and conditions. We have to be vigilant about "reclaiming ourselves, and not the terms of that society".

Rethinking and rebuilding the architecture of our society is not easy work, because there is no roadmap to follow, and we are products of that same society we critique. We have built ourselves and our understanding of society through its narratives and ways of seeing.

However, in trying to question 'what is happening and why', no site is insulated against this critical questioning. Black patriarchy will not be exempt from questioning the impact of a world structured in a way that privileges men and masculinity, while white feminists will have to consider how their race impacts the framing of their politics, the kind of women centred and the issues they address. Black middle-class feminists will also have to question our own positioning and how it affects our work, understandings of ourselves, society and the spaces we create. That kind of questioning is not damaging or distracting, but is a necessary practise in exercising our politics - beyond paying it lip service.

In his masterful essay, The Portrait of the Artist as an Ungrateful Black Writer, poet, writer and author Saeed Jones cautions against simply being 'grateful' to be in successful circles - particularly when you claim a set of politics that is acutely aware of those locked out. Those left outside velvet ropes. Those 'Waiting to be let in, one person at a time'. Barely audible and barely heard.

To not do this work, would be to engage in a constant game of transformation Jenga: repeatedly building on the old, moving pieces around and holding our collective breath for the inevitable collapse that must come. That will come, because we question how things are made, how we are made. We did not interrogate the building blocks of our society.

We have to address the questions that the idea of new elites and Lorde pose, lest we find ourselves continually here, spinning on the same question, endlessly. Because, as Lorde states: "The subject of revolution is ourselves, is our lives."

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

Images courtesy of Tarryn Hatchett.