Meme-orializing Madiba

Where were you during Nelson Mandela’s Memorial?

Umbrellas for MadibaIt was an unusually hideous summer day in Johannesburg on Tuesday December 10th, the day of Nelson Mandela’s memorial at the FNB Stadium in Soweto. Cold, wet, and grey, the weather certainly defeated any stereotypes or expectations of perpetually sunny “African skies” for the international media broadcasting. The weather was so terrible, in fact, that it became a theme that heads of state played on in their speeches. Master of Ceremonies, Cyril Ramaphosa, apologised for the weather, saying that they could unfortunately not make it stop, but then spoke of the significance of rain in the context of death – that it symbolizes a life well lived, and the opening of the heavens. But, the conditions did not prevent hundreds of thousands of people from attending the memorial in the open stadium. Some of those interviewed on the news said that they were proud to be there, suffering in the rain and cold to honour the former President and struggle hero who had suffered so much for their freedom. I only live about 45 minutes away from the Stadium, but I did not attend for various reasons. I preferred to rather watch from my apartment and try to get some work done as I watched the memorial. However, as the memorial coverage began, and the social media began to roll, I became completely engrossed in the social media commentary on the event. Work tossed aside – just for the day.

A  discursive explosion occurred when the death of Madiba was announced on December 5th, and predictably, it was one of sadness and loss, swathed in respect and honour, and completely focussed on Nelson Mandela. A few more critical memes did grace the scene, such as this one, which refers to Mandela’s neoliberal shift to GEAR (Growth Employment and Redistribution), and away from the more socialist RDP (Reconsturuction & Development Programme) after coming into office. RDP Madiba

The occasion of the internationally broadcasted memorial sprouted new discourses – the world was watching the memorial, and people from different parts of the world are participating in the building of these discourses together. Twitter, unsurprisingly, was an important cyber space where these discourses took shape with trends like #MadibaMemorial, and #FNBStadium. The world did not participate evenly of course, given that  an enormous percentage of the world does not have access to social media technologies. Nevertheless,  participatation in the discursive event of Nelson Mandela’s memorialisation took place at the international level. This post is dedicated to the creative social media that has blossomed out of the worlds mourning of Madiba, an individual who has in life and memory brought together people from opposing political views and different walks of life.

I feel like if you are reading this post, you have access to the internet and forms of media, meaning that I do not need to tell you what happened at the Soweto memorial. But, for posterity, and clarity, I will provide a selective re-telling of the events.

The “Rain-Boo-Nation”: Jacob Zuma on the big screen and the “boo” heard round the world

The  entrance of international heads of state, dignitaries, and occasional celebrity, into the stadium was broadcast on the big screen in the stadium. Sometimes, this image matched the one we were watching at home, and sometimes it did not. So, in telling what happened, I am also relying on accounts provided by people inside the stadium. Of course, Charlese Theron, Bono, and Thabo Mbeki received enormous applause as they entered the stadium. Then, as Jacob Zuma entered,  the began to  curdle and froth. Boos erupted and spread like a wave across the stadium, cameras showing members of the crowd making a rolling hands motion, indicating the need for change. Instantly, social media went wild. While some people thought that the booing was hilarious and/or well deserved, most others reacted with disapproval, saying that the booing was an embarrassment for the country, and simply not appropriate to the occasion. The crowd was later placated by the entrance of the Clintons and Barack and Michelle Obama, who were met with an outpouring of adoration. Bush was certainly able to benefit from their popularity as he walked in with them. Watch it all go down here:

This photo, supposedly taken while Zuma was being booed, is apt (Mbeki and Mugabe were both greeted with warm welcomes from the crowd):

LOLZ!And, not only did the crowd boo when Zuma entered the stadium, they booed every time his image appeared on the big screen. Ramaphosa had to discipline the crowd before Zuma came to the podium to make his closing speech, ordering them to save their grievances for later, and to show to the world that they could be “disciplined”. I saw one tweet saying that Cyril would make a great kindergarden teacher with that look of his, spectacles in his waving hand. A praise singer came on afterwards to work up the crowd, and it seemed like he was trying to make everyone remember why they supposedly like Zuma, the dancing and singing president. After the praise singer, Zuma began to approach the podium. Again, the previous cheering from the crowd melted once again into a low booooooooo. Quickly, the Soweto Gospel Choir began to sing, and from where I was sitting, it seemed like a well crafted attempt to drown out the booos. While the crowd listened respectfully to Zuma’s speech, the long running satirical cartoon Southpark, re-created the scene in an elementary school classroom, infusing the scene with new meanings.

Whether the booing was “appropriate” or not is irrelevant now. The fact is that it happened, and it has now punctuated the world’s memory of the Madiba memorial.

The Crowd

While the crowd was the backdrop from the vantage point of a home television from where most of the world watched, it was obvious that the crowd played an enormous role in the memorial. The booing for Zuma, contrasted with the loud cheering for other public figures – even Robert Mugabe –  provides the soundscape to the memorial. Images of recognisable VIP members of the crowd, like heads of state, especially those from the US, became prominent characters in the discourse that proliferated during and the days following the memorial. This image, when I saw it on television, also struck me as a memorable one. It was taken during Obama’s speech, and shows the Clinton’s listening thoughtfully, while George W. sits back in his chair, red faced, and with a somewhat perplexed look on his face. I suspected he was thinking about his next cat painting. His wife, Laura, the political mouse she is, watches merrily:


Later, this image of Bush showing off his cat paintings on Air Force One was released. He really seems to be pleased with himself, and wanting the approval and praise from the fellow states-wo/men.

W shows off his cats

The coming together of otherwise oppositional world leaders at the memorial was remarkable. This image of Obama shaking the hand of Cuban President, Raul Castro was a huge deal in US and global media:

Obama and Castro

And Obama’s selfie with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and British Prime Minister David Cameron, has been dubbed the “Obama Selfie-Face-Gate“, with the expression on Michelle’s face being a major point of interest amongst social media commentators. The photographer who took the photo confirms that she caught Michelle’s debatably ‘mournful’, ‘angry’, and/or ‘irritated’ expression purely by chance.

Selfie of the year

So scandalous, were the Raul Castro handshake and the Obama selfie-face gate, that they made the opening skit on Saturday Night Live on Saturday. You can decide if it is funny or not by watching it here:

Where were we again? Oh yes, a memorial for Nelson Mandela. The social media that has accompanied the memorial and continues to generate discourse about the event does seem to take our attention away from the task at hand at times… So yes, the crowd was full of energy, refusing to be tamed, despite the best efforts of the MC and former Arch Bishop, Desmond Tutu. Tutu’s demand that he wanted to hear “a pin drop” was a disaster, and he completely set himself up for failure. His cries, “YEAHHH!!”  at the crowd when they refused to cooperate with his orders made for another memorable, memeable, moment:

The moment on the left sparked the meme on the right…

South Africa Mandela Memorial.JPEG-03462


The “fake” Interpreter

In the days following the memorial, debate over the legitimacy of sign language interpreter, Thamsanqa Jangtjie Dyantyi, at the Soweto memorial has become a pretty big deal, and the dude is seriously getting ripped apart from all sides – there are even stories of him being a murderer coming out of the woodwork. International viewers and members of the South African public have complained publicly and vocally about Dyantyi’s interpretation, arguing that he was “a fake”. Subsequently, the interpreter has said that he is schitzophrenic and was suffering from the stress of interpreting for such a length of time and under such stressful circumstances. However, regardless of whether he is a “fake” or not, the interpreter has inspired a range of memes, some more clever and critical than others. This vine is a personal favourite that I can’t stop watching.

However, one of the most poignant memes about the interpreter is directed at Obama’s hypocritical speech. Before I show you that though, have a look at this meme which captures the contradictions so sincerely communicated by Obama with his infamously seductive rhetorical skills. While the crowd was oozing with love for Obama, it was easy to forget about what was being omitted from his eloquent speech:

But then, someone  made this brilliant intervention in the interpreter saga, because it is just plain ridiculous to hear Obama condemning intolerance for dissent and to NOT call it out….drones…Manning…Snowden…Guantanamo…the list of contradictions goes on…


And this .gif By Zapped, ZAnews makes a similar interpretation of what the interpreter was interpreting (click image to watch .gif).
Even Žižek weighed in on the interpreter, providing a prosaic version of the critique made by the two images above. Although, with words he is able to take the point to this radical conclusion:
“All the crocodile tears of the dignitaries were a self-congratulatory exercise, and Jangtjie translated them into what they effectively were: nonsense. What the world leaders were celebrating was the successful postponement of the true crisis which will explode when poor, black South Africans effectively become a collective political agent. They were the Absent One to whom Jantjie was signalling, and his message was: the dignitaries really don’t care about you. Through his fake translation, Jantjie rendered palpable the fake of the entire ceremony”.

What is the point of this?

The memorialization of Nelson Mandela is an international affair – so is the meme-orialization of his death because of social media. There are few such occasions where the world experiences something together in the way it has after the death of former President, Nelson Mandela. I have focused on the meme-orialization of Madiba’s death here to provide a more extensive discussion of social media on the topic – usually, we just consume memes as they come, clicking happily along from one image or website to the next, rarely discussing them as texts themselves.
On this blog, I have a page, “Memes: Fruits of the Internet” and that is exactly what I think memes are. They speak to the creative and spontaneous genius of people who are able to capture complex issues and ideas in a simple compilations of words and images. The circulation of the images, and the “viral” status they sometimes achieve, is the matter of memes as virtual texts. They give us something we can share across borders, freely on the interwebs. In approaching memes from a critical discourse perspective, it is important to recognise the dominance of Western, and male, figures in the memes which have gone most viral since the memorial. It is also important to consider the messages that are being communicated about Mandela and South Africa through these memes. Before December 5th, the day Madiba died, the biggest trending story about his death was the white racist fear mongering about some sort of black massacre of whites that would happen afterwards. If one Googled “What will happen when…” the first automated option was “…when Mandela dies”. It was a serious white fear, one which arguably grew out of the history of white fears of Mandela inspiring violence against whites in South Africa. There is now an opening in the discourse since that has obviously not happened and was never going to, and I wonder what the next white racist apocalyptic myth will be. I am sure that the FF+ and the rest of the conservative right is holding auditions as we speak. The meme-orialization of Madiba’s death and memorial in Soweto has shown the relevance of other, more complex issues, such as the  nations dissatisfaction with the current leadership, contestations over “legitimate voices”, and the role of imperialism in post-aparthied South Africa and our world.
Rest in Peace & Hamba Kahle, Madiba

Any memes I have forgotten? Share them in the comments!

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People’s Pride March 2013 – Queering South Africa’s Social Movements

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Wow! The Johannesburg People’s Pride march was amazing.  As I sit down to write this post, I am still sizzling from the energy and blazing sunshine, skin beginning to glow red. Joburg People’s Pride  brings something truly unique, powerful, and beautiful to the fight for social justice. Not only did it feel momentous to be a part of the march itself as it moved through the streets of downtown Johannesburg, but it also gave me a sense of what it can feel like to bring together struggles against racism, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism in real terms, on the ground.

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It was the first ever JHB People’s Pride march, and I feel so privileged to have been a part of it. A queering of the ways in which issues of sexuality, race, gender, landlessness, education, health care, xenophobia, and HIV/AIDS are usually articulated (in isolation from one another), People’s Pride can build bridges of solidarity between these issues. I was given a placard to carry that read, “We demand universal and quality education”.  My favorite was “We demand an erotic justice”. And, in my mind, I was demanding a public culture of sex. A culture where sexual knowledge is accessible and circulated. Joburg People’s Pride contributes to the public elaboration of a social world where less alienated relations can be made possible.

This mode of action speaks back to the de-politicization of gay rights movements, here and elsewhere, which have been hijacked by capitalist consumption and white, middle class interests.

Last year’s Johannesburg Pride march, which has become an indisputably apolitical movement, can be said to have catalyzed the formation of People’s Pride. The main pride organiser’s statement that “we are not political animals” when responding to her and other’s engagement with the deliberately politicized 1 in 9 disruption-intervention (if you have no idea what I am talking about, watch the video), illustrates how pinkwashing and homonationalism have normalized LGBTIAQ movements.

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It was when I read That’s Revolting: Queer strategies for resisting assimilation that I began to realise the ways in which the issues of gay-marraige, gays in the military, and gay adoption have co-opted a movement that had radical and revolutionary origins. A movement which probably felt a lot like the JPP march.

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Rather than pursuing a struggle for erotic justice, public sexual culture, and the dismantling of heteropatriarchy, the mainstream gay rights movement has embarked on a normalizing mission to align itself with heterosexual, white, and middle class values and interests (See The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life). This, of course, has the effect of further alienating queers who are marginalised along additional axes of oppression such as class, race, nationality, and HIV/AIDS status.

The march concluded with a very powerful and respectful honour to those who have lost their lives because of the violence through which heterosexuality and patriarchy are policed in our society.

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Two rows of marchers standing with simple placards showing the smiling faces of people whose lives have brutally ended because of homo- and trans-phobia, intolerance, hate, and violence.

A drummer played a marching rhythm. Faces appeared one by one. People who once had life, like us marchers, at one time. It is important to keep our history with us as we  work towards the building of an equitable future. The silent walk of honour was a powerful way to achieve this, and to actively invoke these lost friends and allies into the present.

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The phrase “They cannot kill us all” was painted in black on a white sheet, greeting the marchers as we arrived at the final turn of the procession.

Ending with a gathering at Constitution HIll, the march concluded with the high energy with which it began. Thank you Joburg People’s Pride for this day and for creating a space where we can create something new. A space for creativity, and a space where we can find new paths towards justice together.

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The Man from Nowhere: Adventures in Drag Kingdom

The Man from Nowhere: Adventures in the Drag Kingdom

A few weekends ago, I participated in a Drag King Workshop called Wo(Man) Up! that was part of the 2013 Wits Pride events and facilitated by Claire Jaynes. This is a picture of me after I got home, and had peeled off the meters of sticky bandage tape that had bound my breasts (miraculously) to near invisibility. I wanted to capture an image of myself in the liminal space between manhood and womanhood.

It was a Saturday morning, a time which I usually reserve for mundane chores like laundry or grocery shopping. But not that day!

After hours of wrapping, packing, cutting, gluing, and shading, our group of 6 female-identified participants had transformed ourselves into men. Not men that we would necessarily want anything to do with, or who we would find attractive, or who are like us, or who would even like us. But, just men that we created for ourselves from clothes, hair, makeup, socks, and bandages, and ego.

After we had become “manly” enough to be ‘read as’ (i.e. “pass” as men), we emerged from the workshop room and entered the semi-public space of the university campus. We started with a photo shoot by some suitably “masculine” objects – interestingly, objects of the built environment are those which we gravitated towards. A staircase and a large piece of machinery. Our choice in objects to pose next to that would reflect or even enhance our “masculinity” is revealing. The dominance of men in Engineering around the world and here, at Wits where we were standing, holds the relevance of the age old saying – “It’s a mans world”.IMG_3329

After a dozen or so pics of us doing “manly” things like smoking, showing our physical strength, sitting with our legs wide open, and looking “serious”, we took a stroll around the campus, practicing our masculine walks. At one point on our walk, it occurred to me that I had started feeling aggressive, and like I just wanted to “fuck someone up”, as I said to the King next to me.

“I feel like I want to fuck someone” (s)he replied.

And so we walked across campus. We entered Senate House, the grandest of buildings on campus. There was quite a crowd there for a Saturday – mainly middle class looking white people, young and old. We walked inside. There were girls everywhere. Girly girls. Girls wearing bedazzled and blinged spandex costumes in a rainbow of bright colors. It was a beauty pageant or dance competition of some sort.

The horror!

In an instant, we were juxtaposed to the Western patriarchal ideal of femininity. Glittery, playful, and ornamental. While I have the utmost respect for people who hone their crafts and participate in the arts, this was a startling encounter. Suddenly, someone said (maybe it was me!) that everyone there probably thought we were a bunch of perverts – why would we be there? After deciding to give the opportunity of social intervention a miss (it was suggested that we go and inquire if we could join the competition) we left.

As we continued to walk, it suddenly struck me that not was I just any man. I was a white man. Privilege was my middle name and it oozed out of me – my careless yet assured gate, posture, grungy 90’s “class-blind” look, and sense of ownership of the space as a man. The sense that my body was carrying centuries of injury, violence, exploitation, and death when presented as a man washed into my consciousness. I started to feel quite disgusted with myself and I was frustrated. While I had found a temporary escape from femininity into a masculine fantasy world, I had become a white man. And even if I were to be read as a white gender-queer person, my whiteness is always there, shaping my view of the world and everyone else’s view of me.

Gender is a performance. In presenting myself as a man, I realised that it was a matter of techniques and accessories. I wear makeup everyday in performing my femininity. In preparing to perform as a man that day, I applied the same makeup, although to different places on my face. While I usually trim hair off as a women, I was merely adding it as a man. And, while I wear socks on many days, on that day, they were simply not on my feet. If the performances of masculinity and femininity vary in such superficial ways, perhaps this is why people go to such extremes to project these gender identities.

When I told people that I was going to participate in this Drag King workshop, they doubted my abilities to “pull off” masculinity. I learned that it didn’t really take much other than a few techniques and accessories to project manliness. Realizing that the difference between being read as a man or as a woman is a matter of sock, hair, and makeup placement, I had a kind of gender-identity vertigo or disorientation.

It takes a lot of courage to defy the gender binary. That Saturday, I had merely a whiff of what it takes to do this on a daily basis. Because our society is so heavily invested in the gender binary, projecting a gender identity that does not conform to social expectations can be dangerous and fatal.

The Man from Nowhere showed me even more why the gender binary has ruined all of our lives.

I left the experience wishing that society was more open to diversity, difference, and surprise. Why should it be that our sexed and gendered bodies are read strictly through the frame of “Moralism” in Western society? Why is The Man From Nowhere effectively banished from society? I have a feeling he has more lessons in store…

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Undomesticating the American same-sex marriage debate

This blog post continues the discussion from my previous post, “Let me get this straight”, where I verbally doodle my opinion of the recent SCOTUS decisions on DOMA and Voting Rights Act in light of US imperial intentions. It should come as no surprise that the decision that DOMA is unconstitutional has instigated conservative ‘backlash’. As this article on Alternet reports, “On July 1 of next year, same-sex couples applying for a marriage license in Indiana will have committed a felony punishable by 18 months in prison an a $10,000 fine. “

So, tension in the lands over same-sex marriage rages on, having implications for American abilities to claim moral and cultural superiority on the international stage. The domestic tug-of-war over same-sex marriage and women’s bodies between “Conservatives” and “Progressives” has a direct relationship to American foreign policy and power internationally. While “progressives” promote same-sex marriage equality through foreign policy, “conservatives” are also mobilising in Latin America and Africa to promote “Family Values”.

The ideology of Family Values has direct historical links to colonial era ideologies which constructed non-Christian and non-white kinship structures as “uncivilized” and “barbaric” in order to justify and legitimate Western imperial domination and rule. In is therefore a sad irony when African leaders like Robert Mugabe, who have otherwise stood up to Western bullying, take up these ideas and promote colonial beliefs about “proper” or “normal” family structures and gender relations which are inherently racist. In taking up views promoted by people like Pat Robertson, Mugabe lives into the more  mainstream Western idea that African leaders and politicians are “backwards” and not capable of governance as he spews vitriolic discourses about homosexuality which Western progressives generally consider to be archaic. While it is admirable that Mugabe has been so consistent on saying “Fuck You” to the West on many fronts,  in this case he ends up serving far more dangerous white supremacist values and ideologies.

While both sides of the debate may seem to be at odds with one another, they both have the same ambition at the end of the day – maintaining US cultural and political power internationally. Whether or not American interventions promote same sex marriage or “Family Values”, they are reproducing colonial-era relations between North and South in that they both reinforce the idea that West has the moral authority to dictate to the global South. From this view, one can begin to see that ‘both sides’ of the gay-rights abroad debate, as it stands now, are problematic in terms of their broader global ambitions. We need an alternative!

So, let me get this “straight”

Conservatives, are you really going to use the “states rights” argument to defend your anti-gay arguments?Most people who know half a cent about Slavery and the fight against it, remembers that confederate states used that very same argument to defend the enslavement of black people. But, I am not worried as much about conservatives as I am about the Western neoliberal agenda that has appropriated the discourse of Gay Rights in order to gain, and protect, power. In this post, I am exploring this argument alongside last weeks Supreme Court decisions, which invoked the history of the Civil Rights and Gay Rights movements. A loss for the former, a victory for the later. Image

In using the “states rights” argument, and thereby invoking a discourse which was used to defend the Confederate position that the legal status of Slavery should be determined by each state (and so should the legality of same-sex marriage today, they argue), conservatives remind us of the shared ideological substance that gives racism and heterosexism the same rancid taste, and same effects of creating centres and margins that privilege white people. Yet, as conservatives rail against homosexuality and gay rights as they did against the end of slavery and Civil Rights, it is becoming increasingly evident that at the same time, Western nations like the US are using the gay-rights movement to recreate old structures of colonial oppression. In order to join the club of empire, America MUST legalise same-sex marriage, lest they become an unwitting member of the so-called “uncivilised”.

The irony of the legislative moment last week, in which the Voters Rights Act of 1965 was gutted and the Defence of Marriage Act was voted unconstitutional in the Supreme Court is tragic for social justice.  “Colorblindness” as a new take on an old system of institutional racism has prevailed, legislating the ignore-ant belief that racism is dead – the black president, Hello!

Alongside this development, which will essentially allow voting districts to make voting more difficult for poor blacks and hispanics, has been the Constitutionalisation of same-sex marriage, making it illegal to restrict marriage to heterosexual unions. What does this mean, for social justice globally? For black Americans? for queer Americans? And for black queer Americans?

Recently, I read Roderick Ferguson and Grace Hong’s The Sexual and Racial Contradictions of Neoliberalism (2012) in which it is argued that the West has appropriated the gay rights agenda, using it as a new claim to moral superiority internationally. “How you treat your gays” has become the new prodding tool of Western cultural imperialism. One certainly grows suspicious when leaders of powerful Western nations begin to motivate for a cause previously considered “radical”. The use of the gay-rights agenda in this way by Western nations, according to Ferguson and Hong, has the effect of cutting through, and ignoring, post-colonial anti-racist struggles by instituting a new moral yardstick which will reposition the West as culturally and politically superior. This is a major point of interest in my PhD research  – I am currently registered in the Sociology department at the University of the Witwatersrand, and will be presenting my proposal in two weeks, so wish me luck!

This leads me back to my question, what does this mean for queer American black people? Especially those who struggle economically, and have been further marginalised within education and employment? The blackness of a black queer positionality and experience is further denied by the argument that America is “post-race” now (black president, again!), and polling practices which can make voting more difficult for black and latino communities as demonstrated and made possible by the Supreme Court ruling on the Voters Rights Act. So, now that gay people can marry, what does this mean for black queers who have been suffered anti-black racism, an ideology and system founded on heteropatriarchy? Now, a new side of a black queer experience and identity is recognised while the other is denied. If there are any black American queers out there who can tell me, I would love to know what you think and how you feel about this. And meanwhile, back at The Ranch, Paula Deene hopes that the Gay Marriage ruling “will somehow save her racist ass”!Image

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