Q&A with Qondiswa James and Nsovo Shandlale, students involved in the disruptive art demonstration

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Jarita Kassen sits down with protesting students to discuss the motivation behind their protest as
observed on Thursday, 2 November on Baxter Road pedestrian crossing.

Images by Thapelo Masebe

Q: Name and degree programme

QJ: Qondiswa James, 4th year Theatre and Performance.

N: Nsovo Ivan Shandlale, BBusSci majoring in Actuarial Science.

Q: Have you been involved in protests at UCT in the past?

QJ: Yes. Also using art as protest, even in 2015 we were doing performance art to disrupt the apathetic daze of the UCT student body.

N: Yes, I’ve been involved in protest action since 2015, RMF, PMF, FMF, Shackville and Shackille TRC. All the
major protests since 2015.

Q: What was your thought process in deciding to create a disruption in the form a “naked protest”? 

QJ: Sparked by the nude protest at the School Assembly, ‘The Crude Criminalisation of the Black Body’ is an attempt to perform the vulnerability of the marginalised body. Presenting the stripped and violated femme body which knows always that violence will come. Exposing UCT and the Public University as a weapon of White Colonialism still beating blacks into submission. Exposing the police as an agent of the State put in place by the White Supremacist System to do violence on the silent, silenced Other on the margins.

N: Intrinsically frustration and anger but the most pertinent one being a sense of community and ‘cadreship’. I felt it wasn’t okay that Qondiswa, a black queer womxn, had to lie there alone and someone had to do something. Hence, I had to ask for Qondiswa’s consent to lay with them first because I didn’t know if they wanted to do it alone or if they would have wanted someone to join them. I was not going to let this person do it alone if they don’t want to, I will do it and subscribe to their leadership because the symbolism behind it and the impact it had was too profound.

Q: What do you think is the intrinsic value of a “naked protest”? Specifically with regards to the current political climate at UCT

QJ: At the Lekgotla on FKA Hiddingh we have been engaged in figuring out new and creative ways to do shutdowns. So besides the student led Counter-Curriculum, our Decolonial Program has also included art interventions and disruptions. When tasked to think around barricading towards shutting down and consequent altercations with private security and the police, Comrade Scholar Puleng Stewart suggested what she called ‘defensive installations’. Essentially I see ‘The Crude Criminalisation of the Black Body’ as an example of a defensive installation. This performance art piece was made even more complex by the improvised collaboration of Nsovo Shandlale. At UCT it is these black bodies which are marginalised, violenced, and silenced. So, when one cannot speak (read: be heard) it is left to the body to present its struggle. For me, the image of those 2 bodies – naked and soft and holding each other gently through the onslaught of violence – is exactly what is happening to POC (in UCT, South Africa, and the world) trying to navigate and negotiate hegemonic White Capitalism.

N: Inherently it is a fight, which was championed by the Trans Collective from when trans capture happened and what that protest did. It gave content to militancy and what militancy means in the context of different bodies. It was a tender but impactful statement, which said that we are not going anywhere and you are going to arrest us because we are lying together, when you could put cones around us and drive around us but you are going to choose to arrest us for bogus charges. One of the biggest symbolisms of “naked protest” specifically of black bodies goes back to the fact that as black people all we own is our bodies, therefore it speaks to ownership and the bigger narrative of the socio-economic circumstances that all of these protests go back to. Further it speaks to the frustration at the incompetence of the law and the police, I mean students were dispersed for walking on a pedestrian crossing, if you’re going to arrest me for walking on a pedestrian street, actually arrest me now while I’m laying here covered, Qondiswa’a boobs were covered by my back and our genetalia was covered but you’re still going to charge us with public indecency?

Q: What did you ideally want people to take away from observing your disruption?

QJ: The state is waging a war against black and brown bodies mediated by the prison system. All arms of the machine Must Fall. We sat, Black Womxn, in a cage on the margins criminalised by the state. The Prison System is a colonial joke, and the whites are still laughing.

“We reject the lack of empathy showcased by Max Price and the university authority regarding Queer, Trans and Black Death.
We reject the 8-10% fee increment due to be announced by Max Price and Council.
We reject the wrongful criminilisation by the State of our fellow comrade scholars across the country.
We reject the Western Epistemological Framework.
We reject the persistence of White Settler Colonialism.
We reject the presence of private security on university campuses.
We reject the presence of police on university campuses.
We reject Public Violence done on our bodies by the university, the state, the white supremacist system.
After the arrest of 7 UCT students, 2 of which are FKA Hiddingh students, we are more determined than ever that the Decolonial Programme must continue.”
We continue forward with the generational mandate. What is the role of the arts in social movements?
Art will mediate between this body’s knowing and the truth of its presentation.”

N: The first and most important one is, and I quote Qondiswa from the day of the Assembly where they said, “we are visible” and for me that statement is so powerful and layered. And because we are visible, we are saying that we will not move and we will not back down, we will never back down and will not start now. We will fight with everything that we have and as black people we don’t have much, the only thins that we do have is our bodies and if we have to use that to fight, we will. We are going all the way. We will not move until everything that we say needs to be fixed, is fixed.

Q: Police brutality is unfortunately a common occurrence in student protests, how do you feel about the manner in which you were arrested?

QJ: What else could we have expected from the police? They gave their warning sign and did their violence they are sanctioned by law to do this. What then became important was to expose this state violence; to expose the law also as a tool of coloniality predicated on anti-blackness; and to expose UCT as a racist institution which is ambivalent to Black Death.

N: I am disgusted. But I’m also not shocked. I’m hurt, humiliated and angry. Angry because that entire act was a token, a token by white management, Max Price and white supremacy to show us how evil, harsh and vile they can be. And because violence towards black people, towards black femme and towards black queer people is so normalized, it was just another day in ‘black-ville’. Just another day in the dispossession of black people.

Q: The video of your arrest has been shared by many on social media, how do you feel about the manner in which your disruption has been framed by media sources?

QJ: I don’t really interact through social media and don’t pay much attention to ‘the media’, as such I don’t know what the reception of the work has been. But in my performance practice I give room for the audience to grapple with the work, to hate or to love it, to attempt to understand it even if the result is to recreate it completely. As soon as the performance begins, I the performer let go… the audience have their own story, dressing it with their own meanings.
N: Obviously there is mixed reactions. Those that didn’t get it, sadly, didn’t get it for the wrong reasons. For the most part it was framed as us being unruly and bratty vandals that just decided to take their clothes off because they didn’t get their way. We were made to look like we just “strip jou moer”. We were bastardized for no reason. People cared more about the fact that we lied on that road than the fact that a black womxn was brutalized in front of everyone, than the fact that I was dragged into a police van. People cared so much about us lying there that they didn’t even think about why we were lying there. They never once choose to reflect on what brings a student to the point of frustration and disempowerment and disenfranchisement to the point where they decide to lay on a road naked.  People did not interrogate our narrative and the politic behind the protest. That is reflective of the way the media has dealt with student activism at large. It shows that this is a function of race as well because, we must be honest, if it were two white bodies lying on that road, would the treatment have been the same? No because violence has been normalized towards black people. It goes back to the notion of, you will react to what I do but not why I do it. The media is not diagnosing the problem properly; it is not serving its corporate and citizenship role.

Q: What do you think is the most effective form of protest, specifically at UCT?

QJ: All protest forms have their place I think, all equally important as each other. I think it is good to attack the Colonial Hydra from all its angles. We must keep finding more and innovative ways to do protest, especially utilising arts practice to message to the masses. I think it is important to never sleep on the System because the System is not sleeping on you.

N: Any form of protest where people are able to declare visibility. “You may not like what they had to say but for the first time you heard it”. To me, that speaks to what effective protest is. Any form of protest that gets you heard, that shows that you are here and you’re not moving is effective at UCT. Within the realms of the law, of course.  Because UCT does not listen or take us seriously. It is one of the most non-pragmatic institutions because it has so many structures and sub-structures but nothing ever happens.

Q:  Why is disruption needed at UCT?

QJ: “Those who lead the struggle must break through this apathy and fear. They must give active expression to the universal longing to be free. They must strengthen the people’s faith in themselves and encourage them to take part in the freedom struggle. Above all, they must declare their aims openly and unmistakabley, and organise the people towards the achievement of their goal of self-governance.” – Dr Kwame Nkrumah

N: The same reason why disruption is needed in South Africa and the rest of the world. UCT is not for all of us, it is for rich, white , cis-het males. It is a frat house and not representative of the students that it houses.  UCT is not pragmatic in addressing issues that students bring to them. UCT negotiates and operates on bad faith. UCT does not take anyone who disagrees with them seriously, these individuals are victimized. In an institution which is so toxic, disruption is the only response. Disruption becomes a necessity and the only response when the institution essentially purports evil.

A question for Qondiswa, as a student at FKA Hiddingh Campus do you feel that protest action is often isolated to Upper campus and is this harmful to the movement?

QJ: I think what happens on Upper is important and necessary. That work cannot stop or be derailed because Upper Campus is the location of the Authority run through the bureaucracy of Bremner.  I think it would be reductionist to say that protest action is limited to Upper Campus when the Faculty of Health Science and FKA Hiddingh stay lit. What I think can be done better by the various arms of movement erupting across the UCT (and even other universities) is to connect across the void of apathy. To collaborate from different strengths to hopefully, eventually even bring about a true social revolution.

Q: Any closing thoughts?

QJ: On Wednesday the 22nd of November I will be collaborating with the Comrade Scholar from the School Assembly Installation on black suicides at UCT to recreate a nude intervention at Parliament exposing the complicity of the State in Femicide, Rape and Black Death. We call for the greater public to come and witness ‘Exhuming the Silent Dead: The Violent Dying of the Violated Femme Body’.

N: I want to make it clear that if UCT thinks that it is going to continue victimizing us and being negligent with our mental health, we will also continue. We will not back down. We are here, we are visible and we are saying that the institution must take us seriously. You can put us in jail, you can send us passive-aggressive emails which threaten us with bureaucratic processes; you can victimize us, you can kill the revolutionary but you will never kill the revolution of a time that has come. My body and Qondiswa’s body is not a token for a white man to show how heartless and violent he can be. Our bodies are not a token to be ridiculed for public consumption and public satire. Our bodies belong to us, that this is the only thing that we as black people own. We will keep on using our bodes to show that enough is enough. I’d like to quote leadership Bonang Matheba “give the people what they want”. Each and every day UCT re tla ho fa!

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