Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we look at the world around us. It has highlighted existing ruptures, be it climate change, caste-based violence or racism, economic instability etc. In all this, what role does embodied creative practice perform in moments of resistance and rupture? How does the work of activism, political organizing, and social movement building require re-imaginings of theatre and performance pedagogy?
Tackling these questions and more, South African creative social activists and educators Pumelela ‘Push’ Nqelenga and Alex Sutherland engaged in a recent Unrehearsed Futures (Season 2) conversation where they looked at some of the ways in which theatre performance and political activism have interacted in the South African context.
Rupture and resistance
When Nqelenga joined the academic world as a lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, in 2015, she found herself teaching in a moment of rupture and protest during the Rhodes Must Fall movement, which had begun in March of the same year. It was originally directed at bringing down a statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town (UCT). The protests garnered international attention and led to a wider movement to decolonise education in the country. It quickly spread to other universities within South Africa and inspired the emergence of allied student movements across universities in the country and around the world.
In her experience, Nqelenga found that the theatre department at UKZN has had to engage with protest and activism. Considering herself as an activist as well, she says, “I think it is in moments of rupture where my moment of activism really starts to be performed.”
Reflecting on the moments of rupture she has tackled, Sutherland, who taught devising and performance practices in higher education contexts for 17 years before moving into political education in the social justice sector, recalls that apart from the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall protests, they had an important rape protest at Rhodes University in Grahamstown in 2016: #RUreferenceList.
The “reference list” campaign at the University had released a list of alleged rapists linked to the institution on social media, sparking a national debate about rape culture on college campuses in South Africa. Protesting students drew up a list of demands to the university management and threatened to shutdown the campus if they were not met.
“There was this massive protest against rape culture, inaction and silencing of some women’s voices about a culture of rape on campus, which is a worldwide problem, as we know,” explains Sutherland. “And there had been a systematic silencing from senior management about some of the voices. This then erupted into to a very, very angry protest that had been simmering for a long time.”
In all this, Sutherland and her colleagues had to continue teaching as though nothing was happening outside, which she found violent and unethical. But she also saw that it was a moment to gather the students together. So, she quickly designed a workshop using Augusto Boal’s techniques for students to reflect in an embodied collective way about how senior management and many other aspects of the University had responded to this protest.
“As usual, students were criminalized (during the protest). They were pathologized. They were just seen as angry black women. How do we process that in a collective embodied way?” asks Sutherland. “It was an incredibly important moment of using a collective embodied practice to process and think through in terms of the mind and the body, and to express it in a particular way. And it was a very, very powerful moment.”
However, shortly after, the University interdicted the protest and part of that interdict was for silencing academic freedom in fear of stirring students up. Describing how she felt at that time, Sutherland says, “I feel it was the first time in my teaching career that I’d been scared that I was going to be in trouble because I ran this workshop, and that maybe people are taking pictures. It became a really confusing time in this moment of rupture.”
It forced Sutherland to think back to how, under normal circumstances, her attempts of critical pedagogy and asking student to think through difficult situations were earlier lauded by the University. “But as soon as the gaze was turned back on the University itself as an institution of repressive power, there were many, many layers of silencing that went along with that. I think about how, when the body came into pedagogy, there was a particular silencing about that as well. I’m thinking about the naked protest that went within the #RUreferenceList, and how there were layers of surveillance and judgments about that as well,” she recalls.
Sutherland shares another reflection of how she understands “rupture” through creative embodied practice. Having worked with prisoners for a long time, she says she opens up the space for storytelling by telling them that they need not share the story of why they are in prison. Some of their crimes are violent but what she finds interesting is that when one doesn’t start storytelling with a particular identity, it opens up space for many other stories, beyond the crimes one may have committed.
“As soon as we do that, there is a rupture,” she explains. “So, it doesn’t matter for me whether I’m doing theatre making processes in a prison or with university students, the opening up of storying and storytelling through embodied practice is, I think, a deeply political act.”
Changing pedagogical notions of teaching during protest
By 2016, physical intimidation and violence became more visible with the arrival of police on campus at UKZN. “So, guns are pointed at you by the gate and when you’re working. We absorbed this into the body,” recalls Nqelenga. “And we often forget that there is an absorption of this violence in the classroom as well.”
One of the things she noticed at this time was that teaching during a time of rupture and resistance was a modality of activism. “As lecturers in the drama department, we had to question the complexity of our own position. In this moment, what are we doing here? How are we part of the impact?” she asks, sharing some of the questions they faced as pedagogues. “Students, who were activists, found it difficult at times to engage with the body because it was still arrested in the terror of the violence, specifically by the security.”
In 2016, the violence accelerated with the arrival of the police on campus, who began to terrorize students. Nqelenga and her colleagues would hear about situation reports in the morning saying there was a slight unrest at 2 am. But when they listened to voice notes from terrified students, they learned that students were being shot at. “This was terror, not a ‘little bit of unrest’,” she says, adding that UKZN officials were manipulating language and not telling the truth.
The way forward for the department was to engage with this violence (both physical and silent) creatively. “We were finding ways of interpreting life experience for the students and ourselves, so that you hold this complexity in this violent moment. It’s hard to make sense of this context. However, narrative storytelling, song-dance etc. began to use the imaginary as a critical space to make meaning for ourselves and for the students. We opened the complexity through an embodied creative practice. We couldn’t ignore it, in other words. The embodied engagement seemed to hold this difficult space,” she describes.
All of a sudden, the protests began to inform the curriculum and vice versa. Nqelenga says, “We started to see this beautiful dance between the two. We expanded our pedagogical notions of how we can teach during times of protest and rupture. And it also then draws to that question of the decolonial moment that we’re always trying to talk about in academia in South Africa: How are we decolonizing the curriculum?”
Using moments of rupture as opportunities to publish
It fascinates Sutherland that theatre practitioners and educators often talk about – issues of representation, who is telling the story, whose body is on the stage, what it means. They ask these critical questions while making work yet there is a strange juxtaposition from certain academics who then write about a moment of rupture.
“They will write about performances during Rhodes Must Fall, never having even attended a protest, put their bodies on the line or spoken up against anything. Those performance activists become an object of their own research,” she describes. There is very little said about it and critique on it, she adds.
“I found that really disturbing within the academic project, that when you are writing about something, it’s open season, apparently. But when you are in the classroom, as an artist, educator, practitioner, you’re thinking about notions of representation and story, what does it mean, and who we are putting on the stage and who’s witnessing issues of power,” Sutherland says.
During the Fees Must Fall movement, Nqelenga realised that who narrates what’s happening is as important as who takes part in the protests. She recalls instances where there were conference panels for students about Fees Must Fall but not a single panellist had been a part of a protest.
In another instance, a group of academics came together to write an article on “professors of protest” alleging that professors who supported these agitations were instigating students to burn buildings etc. Nqelenga and her colleagues decided to reclaim the term “protest professors” and began calling themselves that. During the student-led protests, UKZN wanted Nqelenga and her colleagues to do a conference. It felt like it was done to serve an agenda of the institution. The lecturers wrote back extensively and said they couldn’t do a conference when students were being shot at. In their response, the institution threatened them by email, insisting they go to the conference.
“I remember feeling extremely, extremely angry at the institution, and how it was violently ignoring the fact that we were in protest, and that we were in a violent situation,” she recalls. “I remember going into this conference on decolonizing Shakespeare, and feeling a sense of defeat, and a sense of, what are we doing as, as academics, in our practice? What are we here to do, really, if we are not engaging with the context, if we’re not engaging with what’s happening outside?” In that moment, she says, she realized that the neoliberal institution itself was as violent as the police at the time.
Bodies on the line
“The bodies that are on the line are usually the bodies that are often targeted, that are most often hyper visible,” comments Nqelenga. When she first arrived at UKZN, she strongly felt the black body was a target. It had guns pointing at it from classroom to classroom. The articulations of protest began to embody the violence. She vividly remembers being in a meeting with the deputy vice chancellor of UKZN during the Fees Must Fall protest and asking why security officers were present in the room. At first, the officials said they were present to protect the professors. Upon being asked from whom, officials didn’t answer as the Human Resources department had forbidden them from saying that the security officers were there to protect professors from students. Technically, campus security is meant to protect the students as well. Eventually, after a moment of anger, says Nqelenga, the deputy vice chancellor said the security officers were there to protect the buildings more than anything else.
“That spoke volumes to how these bodies were not cared for. The bodies were coming from rural areas. They were black bodies. They were poor bodies. It will take about three to four weeks for the media to pick up a protest at UKZN. And that spoke volumes to who cared about that type of body. In society, we just didn’t. And so therefore, they were disposable. And the only way to be visible and to be recognized in this violence, was to meet the violence with violence,” she elaborates further.
As conversation winds down, Nqelenga talks about how they had to find alternative ways to articulate protest and subvert the neoliberal institution and its agenda at play.
Compiled and written by Phalguni Vittal Rao
Access the entire session on our YouTube channel: