When musicians burn books then their role in society as intellects, messengers and heroes must be scrutinized. Apathy is implausible in a world where intellect and concentrated creativity are assets for innovation, development and culture making. Where more people have access to both information and connectivity than ever before, and knowledge and ideas can be shared at scale there’s barely an excuse for individuals with qualifications and without. Moreover, there’s much greater need for critique, study and depth given the state of SA lately. Social media is not a source of deeply crafted and well researched multidimensional debate on important themes. But it is a place where the most influential become heroes that a younger, more mailable demographic assemble their interpretation of the world and our country.
When one musician in SA symbolically burnt books in the middle of a heated tension in higher education, university students were caught between reforming education and burning buildings, fighting police and preparing for assessments. Historically the cult behind burning books, I recall reminds me of Nazi Germany, in which books which revealed a counter narrative against the dominant philosophy were torched. It’s unsurprisingly common to recollect this type of behavior throughout history. Bantu education was aimed at teaching Native Africans to specifically serve as labour inputs in the then industrial concentration camps, not to generate wealth. Some did generate wealth, many unspoken families built their wealth against the grain, studied and progressed, but they were a minority. Education was at the time an oppressive instrument taming intellects, containing creatives and stirring furry. Today, it’s not a dispossession, but an opportunity to nurture a once burnt, chopped, tortured tree at it’s roots– while it reorganizes memories of heroes thrown out of buildings after being electrocuted. What of the Mississippi stories in which reading as a slave was simply unacceptable and equivalent to a grave ticket into an alley of scars down a bloodline of swollen lashes. Much of the institutions we associate with apartheid have been transformed into symbolic politics, over a time to till our soil and nurture forbidden routes. Today, education is associated with sweeping streets because no one told the graduate that passing through university is only half the journey. Climbing towers of knowledge, conflicting views and techniques in addition to the prescribed material will not garner extra marks, but nurture the much needed soil no advertisements tell anyone to till.
A national disorder behind humor as a coping mechanism lures much of the political narrative toward the funniest angle. It is forbidden to have a different or pragmatic view without the tormenting ridicule hidden behind a national flag of humor. There’s more talk about “jobs”, “land” and “corruption” than there is talk about improving wellbeing, municipal systems and advancing the development of public and private sector relations. Much less of industrialization, and African development– all of which require advanced talent and work ethic over simply “educating”. When Hendrick Verwoerd formulated the psychological infrastructure behind the legacy of apartheid, he and his team knew the multigenerational impact of the black label stamped into the now popular rhetoric. Without books, the historical role of heroes in showing us a better, more noble and mostly difficult path will fade like hidden evidence. It is the same voice behind the campaign to discredit Nelson Mandela’s approach to the dispensation without an in depth view of the human soul, its contradictions and anomalies. To a lesser extent do we condone Adolf Hitler in the face of his humanity and individual characteristics which built up to make him who he was. Yet, the Doek is a profound political statement today for black women, while historically it was an appropriation of hiding kinky afro hair as it weaved through the domestic chores in contrast with the competence they described. It is only through navigating through books that these arguments and narratives are reconstructed. Who cares about Ann Frank’s story hidden behind the pages of her diary, or the Gulag floating from memory to concentrated reflection, or Chabani’s reflections on the black psyche in the same spirit as Fanon. Yes, there are more book reading movements than ever now, which doesn’t make superstars or culture icons beyond fiction. One day, the books they burn will speak of them, celebrating their legacies until they burn again.