The popping sound of rubber bullets

Still from film Metalepsis in Black

The first, unsettling moment in director Aryan Kaganof’s “Metalepsis in Black” comes early as the film depicts academics and student activists strolling into an anonymous conference room to prepare for a meeting while the familiar noise of a student protest, chanting, screaming and rubber bullets, is overlain like a soundtrack.

The camera, in black and white, fixes on a dreary patch carpet.

“She shot me, for no fucking reason!” cries a woman in the audio.

The camera cuts to a man sitting, waiting for the meeting to start, breathes in and exhales. 

“You do not understand our pain! Our black pain!” a faceless man shouts.

An older woman opens a newspaper while a younger one scans her phone.

“Are you going to shoot us now!” and an answer in the popping sound of rubber bullets. 

After more than two years of media coverage these sounds are now familiar to anyone following closely the South African student movement known as Fees Must Fall. 

For the uninitiated, #FeesMustFall, also known by the hashtag #FeesMustFall, arguably began in March 2015 at the University of Cape Town as Rhodes Must Fall, a campaign to decolonize the university that was centered around a statue of Southern Africa’s apex colonialist, Cecil John Rhodes, erected in a place of honor at the top of UCT’s campus.

Still from film Metalepsis in Black

Later the same year, in October, protests against fee increases broke out at the University of Witwatersrand and other universities, culminating in a march to the Union Buildings. While fires burned and students faced off with police outside, South Africa’s government capitulated, with President Jacob Zuma promising no fee increases for the next academic year with funding from the state to make up the universities’ budget shortfall.

(As an aside, student protest has been going on in post-Apartheid South Africa since there was a “post” to the “Apartheid”, much, though not all, of this student protest has been confined in the country’s poorer, black universities. Why Fees Must Fall was different in the attention it received and its success is probably in no small part due to it’s association with historically white universities such as the UCT and Wits or “proximity to whiteness,” as the students might themselves say.)

Metalepsis in Black is a discordant film, attempting to incorporate a multiplicity of thoughts and views around one unifying idea, the decolonization of universities in particular and of South Africa in general. Like Fees Must Fall itself, it also describes itself as “intersectional” a term used, mostly in academia and progressive social movements since the late 1980s, but resurrected by Black Lives Matter to describing how different marginalized identities can intersect within one person or a group and how that can create a particular kind of discrimination.

Intersectionality has been key to Fees Must Fall from the beginning with many of the activists at Rhodes Must Fall not just identifying themselves as black students, but as black female or black queer students. Later, at Wits, female leaders began to self-identify as such by wearing doeks around their heads.

These political statements were not made without challenges from fellow activists, usually with accusations of factionalism, often from men. The result can be cacophonous, with contrary, marginalized identities butting into each other. Yet, it is difficult to imagine both Fees Must Fall, or this film, without it and hard to justify why one more marginalized identity should be sidelined for unity with another. 

There have been few protests in South Africa’s post-Apartheid history that are as documented, with videos, with articles and on social media, two books and one documentary as Fees Must Fall. In that context, it’s hard to think of how these images and ideas can bring the same visceral shock, having already played again and again.

Still from film Metalepsis in Black

However Kaganof does manage the feat in “Metalepsis in Black”, by taking the familiar and rearranging it. Those same images of police rubber bullets, nyalas, students throwing rocks, and the explosion of shock grenades are juxtaposed with another well-known setting: a meeting, utilitarian furniture, the passionate yet respectful tones of the academy and those small, cylindrical tea cups that are so ubiquitous in conference rooms. 

The film is not easy to access. Talking heads appear on screen without textual introductions or necessarily clear context. Early on, black consciousness theologian and Fees Must Fall critic Barney Pityana appears upside down, the video of him inverted. The film gives the viewer the impression of happening into a conversation half way through. The film could be accused of being insular, with the terminology used likely alienating to viewers not already versed in the language of the academy, intersectionality and activism.

The purpose of the documentary is ostensibly to discuss the role of the intellectuals in Fees Must Fall or, rather, their relative absence. This is framed in part as the charge that South Africa’s intellectuals, many linked to the country’s prominent foundations or universities, have largely either abstained from supporting Fees Must Fall or have limited their role to critique, tut-tutting about the student movement’s lack of underpinning theory.

This reminds me of an old joke about a pair of philosophers, one a British empiricist and the other a French rationalist, I think. Arguing over some point, the exasperated Frenchman half-concedes the point but asks: “Yes, yes, I agree it works in practice but what about theory?”

It was hard not to think of this when hearing the accusation that FMF lacks theoretical underpinnings. Fees Must Fall was probably the widest-scale protest in the past 20 years, it was probably the most disruptive, especially in the context of the “white spaces” of South Africa’s historically white universities and it was on the surface the most immediately successful. It’s also changed the country’s nomenclature, the relatively anodyne calls for “transformation” in public discourse have been replaced by the headier demands for “decolonialization.”

Still from film Metalepsis in Black

But two young people in the film attempt to answer the question, “Where is your theory?”, with not a little frustration. In a sort of interlude on a minibus, student journalist Julia Fish in a discussion with other students references regular meetings to create a framework about what Fees Must Fall should be about.

As part of the meeting which opens the film, writer Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh notes that the lessons learned during Fees Must Fall are now spreading to protest in Europe and the United States and students themselves are creating the theory as they go along. Fish has a related thought, arguing “in that chaos of the momentum of moving this forward is where I think the answers are. But instead of embracing that chaos we’re constantly trying to shut it down.”

Likewise, positionality plays a role in understanding why black students at elite, formerly white universities found themselves in a relatively privileged space when compared to their compatriots at formerly black universities. And it is an early way of framing the role of the intellectual and academic at universities early in the film. 

Through a recording, a speaker accuses the academy of being characterized by whites studying and “exploiting black pain” in townships for their own career advancement. There is some truth here. Whites are still heavily represented in the academy and social sciences, while the poor in South Africa and political movements studied are almost exclusively black. Angelo Fick, one of the more recognizable public intellectuals in the documentary (he is a resident political analyst on South Africa’s most popular 24-hour news channel), uses an anecdote about a multi-racial group of nurses using three languages, including African ones, to communicate, a scene that would be difficult to imagine replicated in a university department meeting where discussions are likely to be conducted in English or possibly Afrikaans.

So part of the challenge of Metalepsis in Black is whether intellectuals and academics can move beyond this and contribute something positive towards the decolonialization of not only higher education, but also South Africa as a whole. The answer appears to be mixed. In the film, individuals are treated as complicit in their privilege. This includes the filmmaker himself, who with text in the film suggests the possibility of his own potential as a perpetrator of sexual violence. Positionality itself can also suggest that intellectual’s role is flawed to begin with.

Still from film Metalepsis in Black

These issues are usually framed as students vs. intellectuals. Though some students might be surprised to learn how many of their lecturers are themselves still completing their postgraduate degrees or are poorly paid. Positionality can be useful but when as essentialist scripture, it can place persons, in this case academics and intellectuals, in a difficult position.

Do academics treat #FeesMustFall as just another a subject to be scrutinized and critiqued while whistling past the tear-gas scented graveyard? Or should they become involved in a movement where their motives will be unflaggingly, and possibly unfairly, interrogated by their own students? It’s a question much bigger than the academy itself, where some South Africans in some position of privilege are asking themselves, “How do I be good in this moment?” when the moment on some level requires them to take a back seat. 

Regardless of the answer, the note Kaganof ends on is a fitting one, with a young woman admonishing the academy and calling it to action. “It’s no longer good enough to write in the name of Fees Must Fall. It’s time to start taking bolder actions to start using our power to start using our privilege for this noble cause,” says the woman.

“Your silence has been painful. Your silence has been painful.”

Kenichi Serino

Kenichi Serino is a writer, journalist and teacher. He currently lives in New York City.

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