Run for life… A member of Self Defense Unit (SDU) runs for cover as an army truck gives a chase in Thokoza township, east of Johannesburg. Thousands of people were killed in Thokoza, during the violence before the first South African Democratic Elections. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
It is true.
I’ve always loved
the daring ones
like the black young man
who tried to crash
wanted to swim
at a white beach (in Alabama)
In 2011 it is commonly accepted that South Africa is a democratic multi-racial society, with one of the most inclusive and progressive constitutions of any nation on our planet. Fresh from hosting the world’s greatest sporting event – the 2010 Soccer World Cup – and increasingly visible in regional and international politics, South Africa has captured the world’s imagination in the realm of new possibilities for social change. But during the early 90s, South Africa’s future and fate was far less certain, and the road to full “one person – one vote” democracy was perilous, strewn with violence, conflict and danger.
The April 10, 1993 assassination of the charismatic communist youth leader Chris Hani traumatized South Africa and nearly plunged the nation into an all-out race war. The tensions erupting in that single event and the appeal for calm by Nelson Mandela eventually forced the National Party and South Africa’s ruling elites to establish a date – April 27, 1994 – for all inclusive, democratic elections. But Hani’s death and Mandela’s tendency toward compromise and reconciliation created uncertainty and conflict for the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC). Foot soldiers and activists of Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK) – “the Spear of the Nation” – suddenly found themselves being asked to demobilize and turn in their weapons, when only weeks before they had been seen as protectors against the excesses of apartheid security forces and right-wing white militias. It was a particularly bitter pill to swallow, as their beloved iconic leader had been gunned down in cold blood, perhaps with the complicity of apartheid operatives. Even though many apartheid laws and practices were being repealed, the ANC and other political parties had only been unbanned three years earlier, and the level of suspicion between the opposing sides was high.
It is at times like these that history moves in quantum leaps, societies change and certain events are burned or ensconced into our collective memory and subconscious. In hindsight one remembers media images of a peaceful and joyous election, with long lines of Africans standing in the sun for many hours waiting to cast the first vote of their lifetimes. Yet it is all too easy to forget that the steps leading to the historic April 27, 1994 elections were precarious, painful and unnerving in ways that non-South Africans can hardly imagine.
Frank Wilderson – a compassionate teacher, brilliant writer and beloved friend – was one of the few African Americans who lived in apartheid South Africa during the transition period of the late 80s and the early 90s. His memoir, Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid, is a vivid and uniquely perceptive account of a time period when it was just beginning to be clear that the world’s most famous political prisoner, Nelson Mandela, would be released from prison.
What makes Wilderson’s account so remarkable are his radical communist sympathies and an extraordinary affiliation he makes with underground operatives of an MK cell in Johannesburg. In addition union activism and political organizing on the University of Witswatersrand campus, Wilderness finds himself drawn into deadly conflicts in the volatile East Rand townships of Thokoza and Katlehong, where the apartheid government has formulated a “third force” by distributing weapons to Inkatha Zulu nationalists, who routinely terrorize local African communities. Through these fascinating encounters Wilderson provides an inside view of the struggle against apartheid and some of the interpersonal strains and conflicts of activists as they cope with South Africa’s rapidly changing social and political climate.
Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid is a collection of flashbacks to this powerful turning point in South African history, interwoven with Wilderson’s memories from a growing racial consciousness rooted in his childhood experiences in the United States. The result are eloquent ruminations on race and class that connect the South African experience with the African American experience, and vice versa. In a broader context, as Wilderson’s cadres contemplate demobilizing their arms in Mandela’s pursuit of reconciliation and the issues of class conflict play out, one can glimpse competing world views among factions of the ANC power structure. Hani’s assassination and the consolidation and ascendancy of Mandela’s supporters may explain why the South Africa of today looks politically and socially more like Argentina, Chile or Costa Rica, rather than Cuba, China, Venezuela or Brazil.
Through the whole journey, Wilderson is much like the “Black man who tried to crash all barriers at once” – teaching young Africans at Vista University in Soweto; observing life from the streets and taxis used by the common poor in ‘Jo-burg’; humbly appealing for calm in a hopelessly polarized and dangerous Black ghetto township; seeking grass roots political change through the ANC and MK. Wilderson’s prose is engaging, funny, angry, hip, cerebral and sensitive; he is brutally honest and vulnerable about his personal emotions, relationships and family conditioning. Indeed, Incognegro is more than just a memoir of apartheid in transition, it is Wilderson’s life journey, told in all kinds of textures, temperatures and temperaments.
I had the pleasure of meeting Frank on bright, sunny day in May 1994, at Rumours, a trendy Yeoville café in Johannesburg, where many activists, musicians, writers and actors gathered in the heady days after the election. Although Frank and I became close friends – and I certainly knew and understood his politics – Frank never hinted or revealed any of his underground affiliations; I was completely unaware of his MK activities until I actually read his astounding memoir 15 years later. I understand now, of course, that my soft-spoken friend could not have breathed a word of any of his secretive activities, because lives and operations were at stake.
Incognegro gives readers a certain breadth of vision as Wilderson strives to touch South Africa’s outer boundaries of race, power and oppression, thereby coloring the edges of our understanding through his wild and precarious proclivities. But just as Incognegro probes the obscure, frantic and violent dimensions of South Africa’s social transformation, Wilderson explores with equal depth and eloquence his internalization of America’s battle with its own racial psyche. His memoir is a rare gem that gives us many vantage points to inform the fate of sons and daughters of Africa; beyond the shackles of apartheid, colonialism, slavery and the rugged extremes of those battles, there may be a little “incognegro” in every Black identity, and every African American who touches Africa.
Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid
Frank B. Wilderson III, ©2008. South End Pess, Cambridge.
JA: From what you can tell at this time, what kind of readers are reading Incognegro, and what has their response been?
FW: I’m very surprised – there are a wide range of readers. I will say that at the moment the readers are basically people who are interested in race relations in the United States and/or the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. As time has evolved (the first store release was August 2008) another kind of readership is coming to the book – that would be readers who are interested in literary memoirs.
Because Incognegro was published by South End press, I knew a lot of people who were involved in organizing and radical politics would be interested in it. I spent $63,000 on a Master of Fine Arts degree at Columbia University because at the time it was the number two MFA creative writing program in the country. What I wanted at the level of ego, was for this book to be acclaimed and recognized as a good piece of literature. With the issues of publishing with a small political press, I thought maybe that wouldn’t happen, because South End Press is known for books by Bell Hooks and Noam Chomsky – it’s not known as a literary press. So I’ve been really thrilled that my integrity has been satisfied by people who normally read South End press picking this up, but my ego has been satisfied by the literary people having said it’s okay. The kind of crowning glory in that was being awarded the NEA fellowship and the Kristin Wright Award as well as the American Book Award. Those three things really helped expand the readership and made me feel good.
JA: How has the response been from African American writers and intelligentsia? Have they gotten much exposure to the book and have you gotten the response you wanted to receive?
FW: I’ve done radio shows in LA and New York and DC through the Pacifica Foundation – Democracy Now is one of their big shows. In DC, there’s a show called Myndtalk –it’s a Black mental health show, and another show called Jazz and Justice was using the show as part of a fundraising gift, and those shows garnered lots of responses and e-mails. In New York City I’ve done about 5 presentations.
I did a presentation at Medgar Evans College in Brooklyn, last November. I was a bit worried because I thought that my political views would be too extreme and too anti-American for a crowd that was very excited about Barack Obama’s election. I remember that there were 70 people in that auditorium and it was very interesting because it was one of the largest crowds that I had spoken to. Now the average size is about 50 to 60, but then the book wasn’t very well known. Every single person in that room was Black and what I found was that Democrats, communists and radical trade union activists were all disagreeing on whether Obama was good, was he not good, etc. They were able to speak about their rage and antagonism towards America as a project without having to feel constrained or inhibited by other members of the audience. This kind of “no holds barred” private conversation between Black folks hadn’t happened before because all my audiences had been mixed audiences, and in those situations Black people kind of hold back their point or pull their punches. I felt that the things I was saying in the book provided a catalyst for people in the room to actually say what they felt.
At one point someone asked me something about my own feelings and I quoted Malcolm X and said, “I’m not a Democrat or a Republican and I’m not an American and I’ve got sense enough to know it.” And everyone started cheering. Afterwards a nurse came up to me when I was signing books, and she said, “What you’ve been saying I’ve been thinking all my life, I’ve just been afraid to speak like that.” I’ve actually found that people have said things to me about the book that the book has allowed them to not try to figure out how White people or other immigrants are going to respond to what we think about this country – that the book has allowed them to say what they think without worrying if other people are going to peg them as being to hateful or radical or what have you. One woman even told me that she was using parts of the book in her therapy sessions!
I think that part of what’s good about the book is it doesn’t try to solve any problem; and I’m very careful in my writing not to offer solutions to the problems that I pose. I think that the solution is bigger than we can possibly imagine, and what happens to Black people is that when we start trying to think about solutions we inhibit our ability to imagine the actual complexity and breadth of the problem. So what we try to do is we work on how do we make it through the day, which is fine on some level. But that’s not what I’m trying to do in my work. I’m trying to say that the slave trade created an ontological problem – a problem of existence – not just a political problem. So many of us go crazy when we get into our older years because one of the things that we just can’t face squarely (and when I say we, I mean the bulk of us, and me on a bad day) we cannot face the fact that the country does not discriminate against us – the country is against us in its very formulation. Part of the reason we don’t want to do that is because if we say that the country is fundamentally anti-Black, then we say, “Well shit, what do I do with my life?” I don’t have an answer to that question – I can’t answer it myself. It would be really foolish for a Jew in Nazi Germany to say, “What we have here is a problem of discrimination.” What they would have to say is “What we have here is an anti-Semitic state.” As a result I think it would be foolish for us to say “What we have here is discrimination” instead of saying, “What we have here is an anti-Black world.” I’m trying to understand that through literature. If I want to really go to the depths of that understanding I have to be willing to not be so anxious along the road so that I start offering stop-gap measures.
I don’t think that the people in the audience in Brooklyn would necessarily want to take me home with them, but I think for that brief moment on that night it was refreshing for them and me to be able to have this kind of no holds barred conversation and not have to worry about ratcheting down the problem to fit what we can think of as solutions. Some problems there aren’t solutions in your life that you can bring about in your life.
I do believe that revolution will bring about a structural change, but I don’t have an idea on how to that and I don’t think we’re at a revolutionary moment.
JA: I was very impressed with the brutal honesty and personal exposure you put into your memoir, particularly in trying to write about how you were coming to terms with growth in your marriage and relationships.
FW: Let’s say there’s two tiers here. On the lower tier there’s grassroots people and activists and there’s tremendous buzz about this book, generated by people who’ve gotten a copy and by people who have not read it but know what it’s about. However at the tier above that – the mainstream and even progressive publishing industry – they’re still kind of idling up to the book, they’re still checking it out. It was rejected by three publishers a couple of years ago in South Africa and now that it’s won all these awards, there’s been some interest. I think publishing world will do this book in South Africa, I’m not sure which one or when; I’m just speculating. I just saw Patrick Bond – a major economist in South Africa – a few weeks ago and he said to me, “You know, there’s just no critique of Nelson Mandela that is this straightforward that’s been published.” People might be treating that unabashed critique as a taboo; but the moment a publisher in South Africa breaks through their inhibitions –if that’s what it is, I’m not sure about that – that’s the moment when my publisher here and I think that it should be wise for me to return. You want to be in a room where everyone in the room is able to have a book, and right now that’s not the case.
Is it good or bad for me to go back – I think it’s good… I don’t hold out much hope for Jacob Zuma’s regime, but at the least the verb of “progressive struggle” is something that his regime espouses. That might give me more wiggle room when I get back there.
JA: Why did you use the term “Incognegro” in your title? What does “Incognegro” mean to you in general as well as in the context of your memoir?
FW: Incognegro was a word I first heard when I entered Dartmouth College in the fall of 1974. I did’nt know how common it was among Black people because I came from Minneapolis and though my high school’s Black population was 10%, Minneapolis was a pretty isolated place. So, folks would wake up in the morning and as they joked about leaving the El Haj Malik El Shabazz House, or the Malcolm X House, or the Afro Am House simply, the AM — which is how we generally referred to it — they would say, “going out to meet these White folks [I’m going to class or I’m going to the Dean’s office]. I’ll be traveling incognegro.” It came to be a catch-all phrase to describe any kind of masking activity that was necessary to negotiate our encounters with the White world — and Hanover, New Hampshire in the 1970s was a white, white world.
JA: Your first encounters were pretty violent and you laugh at them now. How much of that was you being on edge and not wanting to back down, and how much was just the pervasive atmosphere of repression and racism?
FW: It was probably a bit of both. I don’t know – that’s an interesting question. That’s an impossible question to answer… One shouldn’t have to negotiate to get into a bed and breakfast place or a restaurant or for a taxi. It’s true that I’m not someone who will accommodate himself to those types of things, but I wouldn’t put the blame on me.
JA: Well I guess the question is getting into how much of that sort of thing has changed since that time?
FW: Those attitudes didn’t change, but the access changed. By the time I left many of places that wouldn’t let me in had become, you know, almost all Black – the cafes in Hillbrow, for example. So that was a kind of a concrete change. On the other hand, you could say that what happened was more of the same. Yeoville was a place of White flight at one time, and the White flight just went further north, giving up that base in Yeoville to the Blacks. Yes, concretely, those places changed, but on the other hand, it wasn’t an overall improvement to Black life that we had fought for, just because Black people got access to a few social services and restaurants that they hadn’t had access to before. The structure of oppression unfortunately hasn’t changed with a Black government, but we thought it had changed.
JA: What about just overt levels of blatant racism?
FW: Well yes, that left, for the city, anyway. You know, it’s hard to say, James. You can’t be accosted by the police just for being Black anymore. On the other hand, there’s not a tremendously large White population that’s impoverished, so in a sense the blatant racism on the individuated level has shifted over into something else. It’s intensified in poverty and structural oppression.
JA: What do you think South Africa might be like today if Chris Hani were still alive? How do you think South Africa’s history might have unfolded?
FW: Right now there are really only two camps in the ANC. There are the Western-oriented moderates who are really now no more than sheepdogs for the global neoliberal consensus; people who are remnants from the Thabo Mbeki regime. Then you have the fiery, but ultimately empty, populists: the Jacob Zuma folks who are now in power. They have captured the imagination of many lumpens and working class people but only in a superficial way. They have not been able or even willing to facilitate a dialogue among the people about how to change – much less socialize – the economy. Chris Hani was not a god; and he wasn’t tested as a statesman. But he would have allowed two things to develop: the first would have been a healthy spirit of antagonism toward the US and Europe. This would have scared large scale and small foreign investors away from the county and allowed local people to struggle to make economic connections between neighboring African states instead of pandering to the trade needs of Western countries.
Concretely, this would have meant that the South African farming economy would shift from cash crops (like grapes) to subsistence farming that pays attention to the food consumption needs of the people in South Africa and in the region. Such a farming practice is much better for the soil because it is based on crop rotation, as opposed to the cash crop system which plants the same high value export crop year after year and erodes the soil. The next thing Chris Hani would have facilitated would have been a sense of pride in the revolutionary history of Black South Africans: concretely, he would not have continued with Mandela’s project of reconciliation and he would not have allowed the higher ups from the old apartheid regime to go unpunished. Finally, if amnesty was given it would have been linked to a radical reparation program that involved real economic transfers to Black victims, a program that would work in tandem with the radical redistribution of wealth across the board.
JA: Let me ask you about Etienne Murenick. I don’t know if you remember the day that it came out in the papers that he committed suicide. We were doing something that day, and I said to you, “Hey did you see this thing in the paper about this law professor who committed suicide?” And we sort of gave each other five. It was sort of because we have this understanding of complex levels of racism within liberal whites that is very dangerous and sometimes it’s more problematic because it is less conscious and less able to be identified. I figured at some point the whole thing had gotten too much for him and he committed suicide.
FW: The long and the short of it is that we were involved in what could be called psychological warfare. There’s a large context in which our ultimate goal was to take power and we were going to give that power to a new board constituted of representatives from various organs of peoples power like the civics and student organizations, Self-Defense Units of the ANC and the Communist Party. If we think about the large dream, globally, there is capitalism of an entire sector inside of the economy – not to cooperate with it, but to rob it of the university industrial complex. Once we did that, we would be able to turn the university into a machine and an organism that would use its knowledge and resources for the fomenting of socialism. This is based on various models – one model is what I saw in Cuba after I went there. People were writing different things and all kinds of ideas. For what we needed to do – the liberals at Witswatersrand were our strongest collective nemesis.
JA: In the book at one point you’re talking with Kanye about relationships, and Kanye says something like, “Those people? Are you kidding me? You think they can possibly have decent relationships with what they’re doing?” What do you think about their capacity to be in a relationship or a marriage?
FW: I’m hearing what you’re saying and I would say that capacity varies from person to person but there’s probably a general kind of similar difficulty that everyone has with everyone else who has had to live a double life in fear of the state’s violent reaction for so long. That activity is going to something other than what we might think of as a positive effect. It’s going to vary from person to person. It’s a hard one to answer. I would look for ways to blame the context that made it such that people had to choose armed struggle more than blaming the people with those sets of choices.
There’s a kind of silent pride with this sort of thing that I don’t agree with. Perhaps if someone didn’t do that kind of work and was Black they would be able to have constructive, loving relationships. What I try to explain in my book is that’s not necessarily true. The hydraulics of abuse and the day-to-day existence of living as an ordinary person in what Lorraine Hansberry called ‘the funny house of the Negro” makes everyone of us a bit strange in some ways. It’s really difficult to say. I didn’t know the people except Trevor – most of them I didn’t know very well – and I wouldn’t comment on his life or his wife. There’s a very big difference (for someone who is white). He chose it; he could have left at any moment. But whether you fight against apartheid or not, whether you fight with the South African Council of Churches or with a secret cell with MK you’re confronted with the same dynamic, which is, ‘you don’t belong in the world’. And I think that there’s something to what you’re saying – perhaps if you didn’t become a part of a small group of highly secretive people who were going to make the entire system pay – and if you step back and were simply part of something else or nothing else – then you would have time and the ability to generate more psychic energy towards a family and perhaps in a more holistic way than if you were living a bifurcated, secret life. I can see that. I wouldn’t say that that’s absolutely true, because there are a lot of people who respond to anti-Blackness without fighting against it and are just as fucked up in their private lives.
This thing that you do in a struggle like this – it’s not like changing jobs, it becomes who you are. I used to be a stock broker and now I’m a professor; that seems like a radical transition to a lot of people in the United States. I used to be a stock broker and then I became a radical insurgent – that’s a very different change – that changed my life forever. One changed my life forever; I’m not qualified to comment on how, but I can see that if you go into something like that and you come out the other side and the people who were running sell you out. You go into with dreams of marching past the Vortrekker Monument and changing the world, and they say “Oh no, wait a minute we just got elected, go home now.”
JA: I know what you mean. They might as well have said “We’ve got our bourgeoisie in place now so you’re not necessary; in fact you’re getting in the way…”
FW: Mandela went to MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe, the paramilitary wing of the ANC) in those years after Chris Hani’s death and said, “Everybody cease and desist. I don’t care what Chris Hani said. Yesterday was ancient history. Today is April 11.” He said the people who don’t tow the line are not going to be in the intelligence services or the military, right? The people I worked with gave him the middle finger, metaphorically speaking. Why? Because they were all earning BA’s and graduate degrees. “Don’t tell us – we don’t need to go into the army. We’re college students.” Elected officials were mainly educated people but MK was made up of educated people but MK was made up of the non-college graduates and most of them were non-high school graduates. And those people were not in a position to just say, “Go to hell, I’m not doing this.” All they could do was be a soldier or a spy – what else could they do?
JA: Well, some of those guys actually went and became bank robbers, using their military training.
FW: One thing I learned in South Africa – not that I learned it well or that easy – it was partly from coming up as a bourgeois negro growing up in all white neighborhoods, I had never really thought of intensely. People around you die and they get killed and they hate you the day after they love you and they leave you forever. It’s a radical break in relationships in life that seem to be the kind of standard there in South Africa.
JA: I’m not sure I follow you.
FW: Susan Sontag went to Sarajevo during the Sarajevo war, and she wrote back in one of her essays, “Two weeks in Sarajevo is like a month in New York.” Shit just happens with such intensity and such velocity that the dynamic encounters between people are much more traumatic and often earth-shattering than she could imagine they could be living in the States. And that’s how I thought about South Africa. People were damaged in ways and things happen – you could be riding in a combi, and having an argument with the driver and all of sudden he pulls out an automatic weapon on you.