The epidemic of thinkfluencers

For this group, politics is often framed as a series of never-ending discussions about social justice: The experience from South Africa.

Still from The People vs. The People.

Director Lebogang Rasethaba has now made at least three social justice documentary films capturing the political sentiments of young South Africans. The first film, The People vs The Rainbow Nation, tackled the disillusionment of young South Africans with the “rainbow nation” project in the context of the student protests of the mid-2010s. The second tackled patriarchy and gender-based violence. His most recent film, “The People vs The People” takes much of its style and structure from the previous two installments, but concerns itself with the interpersonal relations and behaviors of Black communities.

Rasethaba crafts his documentaries by presenting his arguments through representations of “the People.” Different fragments and snippets are taken from a series of filmed conversations and individual interviews that he turns into a feature length documentary. Rejecting the presence of Whiteness, as the film makes a point of declaring in its opening montage, the film centers on the interior lives of Black people in relation and objection to White supremacy. [Regarding the use of terminology: Both Rasethaba and interlocutors mean black people collectively, so as to include people deemed African, coloured and Indian in South Africa – Editor.]

Rasethaba is never present within these conversations or as the authorial voice linking them together. As a result, his documentaries want for authorial self-reflection. We never learn why he picked this specific group of people or their class positions, what informs his participants’ opinions and worldviews. The result is an echo chamber that reflects a much wider issue in current Black political discourse, what I’d like to term “the epidemic of thinkfluencers.”

Thinkfluencers represent a class of people who view public activism as primarily operating in the form of public speeches, lectures, panel discussions and books or editorials as tools for liberation. It offers the individual the ability to simultaneously present a radical political persona while having fundamentally normative objectives of capital accumulation and social mobility. The population of thinkfluencers arises amongst a new middle-class of young South Africans, some who base the core of their politics under the broader umbrella of “Fallist” discourse. Forged amongst university students during the country-wide Fees Must Fall protests of 2015-2016, their political project drew ideas from Black-consciousness, post-modernism and post-coloniality, where identity became the base of all political action and thought. With identity as the center of one’s philosophical and political intuition, political insight is thus derived from the lived experiences of a specific identity or intersections of multiple marginalized identities. This provided ground for those who were now able to gain social standing from their ability to become spokespersons for their respective identities and as a result, gave birth to the thinkfluencer.

While Fallist ideology doesn’t have itself to blame for its proliferation in Black politic discourse, it is grounded by an afro-pessimism. It begins by being suspicious of any meaningful, structural transformations that could effect change in the conditions of black people, which protects the role of discourse since at most what we can hope for is a change at the level of the individual, one audience member at a time. It offers no meaningful challenge to the greater systems of exploitation that create economic and class inequality for the majority of South Africans.

The film series promotes the idea of politics as a series of never-ending discussions about social justice; crucially, the audience believes they’re there too and that it is imperative to have these discussions. It follows that for as long as there exists discussions about discussions that we ought to be having, we need the funding of NGO’s to sponsor these and we need the presence of thinkfluencers. More importantly, is the implicit premise that on the other side of this metaphorical seminar room, lies an unwoke and miseducated “other” in need of education or preaching. While the miseducated subject is never explicitly named within panel discussions, the visual medium of documentary leaves little space to keep the elephant in the room out of frame, and it’s in Rasethaba’s documentary that the hidden class antagonism of contemporary Black political discussion is revealed. We see it especially in the discussion and presentation of “Black Love.”

“Black Love” presents itself in the documentary as a revolutionary practice necessary for the progress of Black people. It’s a form of Black ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ uplift which finds its roots in respectability politics. It’s a rhetoric traditionally promoted by conservative Black public intellectuals who have no stake in changing the fundamental material conditions of the majority of Black people. So we see again concerns about absentee fathers, financial responsibility and the consumption habits of Black communities. The explanations behind them remain cultural; what was “hip hop culture” then, is “toxic masculinity” now. But chastising a group of people for their habits, without understanding the external economic and other conditions that shape their lives, is an old tactic that breeds antagonism.

The veiled class resentment in this reformed Black uplift is most evident in the discussion around the so-called “Black Tax” in the documentary. Black Tax is described as an auxiliary “tax” a Black person pays to their family members once they earn a salary or manage to financially ascend from poverty. The prevailing sentiment surrounding Black tax within Black political discourse is that it’s an ankle weight, obstructing the Black middle class from upward financial mobility. Most of the participants in “The People vs The People” view Black tax as a burden and manipulation of Ubuntu.

What the documentary, and various discussions around Black tax fail to account for, however, is that in a country mired by economic inequality, where earning above R25,000 per month (about US$1,740) puts one in the top 8.1% of wage earners in the country, it’s impossible to imagine how the stark contrast in wealth inequality doesn’t create the necessity for sharing wealth within families and broader communities.

In a disturbing sequence from the film, the conversation in the suburbs of the burden of Black tax and the resentment towards a family member’s manipulative practices in negotiating Black tax is intercut with scenes from working class Black townships, where we’re shown the voiceless and nameless subjects of their discussion. The intention of this edit is to point to the audience that it’s those poor and working Black people in the townships who are the subject of the wider discussion being held around Black tax, but these township establishing shots only exist as b-roll in the film to punctuate and hastily contextualize the “other” always talked about in middle or upper class conversations.

“The People vs The People” sets a larger expectation for itself than its predecessors by casting it’s net too wide without expanding the limited scope and form of the previous documentaries. His previous documentaries around the Fees Must Fall protests and patriarchy had the privilege of being able to focus on people directly affected by higher education and by patriarchy. However, the all-encompassing project of The “People vs The People” would require Rasethaba to broach topics outside of his niche circle of thinkfluencers and address the issues facing the majority of South Africans. Sadly, he didn’t.

Further Reading