After African-Americans, Nigerians are perhaps the most visible black people in the world —Panashe Chigumadzi
Panashe Chigumadzi is a Zimbabwe-born, South African-raised writer. A Harvard University doctoral student of African studies and Founder of Vanguard magazine, her debut novel ‘Sweet Medicine’ won the 2016 K. Sello Duiker Literary Award. In this interview by Kingsley Alumona, she speaks about her Zimbabwean-South African experience, racism and colonialism, and the xenophobic assaults of Nigerians in South Africa.
At what age did you relocate from Zimbabwe to South Africa with your parents? How was life for you living and schooling in post-Apartheid South Africa?
I have lived in South Africa for as long as it has been a democracy—since I was three. I now claim South Africa as (one of) my home(s). But it has not, and does not, always claim me. I grew up being called a ‘lekwerekwere’, a pejorative term for foreigners. I also grew up as part of the generation of so-called ‘born-frees’ (supposedly free of the legacies of apartheid and colonialism) who now reject the reconciliatory tenets of 1994’s negotiated settlement through movements such as Rhodes Must Fall.
In your 2015 Ruth First Lecture delivered at the University of the Witwatersrand you named Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ as one of the most influential books in your life. Why is that?
‘Things Fall Apart’ was the first set work by a black African we read. This was in our final year of high school. So, you can imagine what a revelation it was. We had been taught some of the history of colonialism and apartheid, but this was really the first time I really began to think about history not as occurring outside my family, but rather within and through them. Much of my work since then deals with history and its effects on us. Then, for the first time, I thought not just of the grand sweeps of change that would have enveloped them, but also the complex interpersonal, intra-communal conflicts and challenges that would have occurred for my family as a result of the colonial encounter. Who were the Nwoyes? The Okwonkwos? The Ikemefunas? Who would I have been?
In the same lecture, you asked, “What would I have been like had it not being for colonialism?” Do you have any answer for that?
I don’t have an answer as to who or what I would have been had it not been for colonialism. However, that is the lifelong work of decolonialisation—to actively reimagine ourselves through and outside of its chokehold. I will only ever get asymptotically close to the answer. The work never ends.
In one of your TEDx talks titled ‘A New Self-identity for Africans: Storytelling for a Change’, you noted that black women are not part of the target market, stressing the need for black-owned media space. How have you personally contributed to this crusade?
The most notable is my founding of Vanguard magazine, a digital platform for young black women coming of age in South Africa. I was also the curator of Soweto’s inaugural Abantu Book Festival, the first and largest of its kind for (historically marginalised) black readers and writers in South Africa. A large part of my focus was ensuring the centring of black-women writers and ensuring it was as free as possible of patriarchy and homophobia.
Your books ‘Sweet Medicine’ and ‘These Bones Will Rise Again’ are resplendent in Zimbabwe’s most prominent issues—patriarchal and socio-political dominance. If you were the president of Zimbabwe, what would you do to address these challenges?
We only have this short space! In short, I addressed much of that in ‘These Bones Will Rise Again’, which is really concerned with undoing what the Caribbean scholar Horace Campbell calls the ‘exhaustion of the patriarchal mode of liberation’, through a moving-away from phallo- and often gun-centric Big Men politics and re-centring the least powerful in society, who are often African women like my grandmother, a central figure in TBWRA and Tsitsi—the central figure of ‘Sweet Medicine.’
In your recent Africa Is A Country article titled ‘Why I’m no longer Talking to Nigerians about Race: on Writers, Empathy and (Black) Solidarity Politics’, you argued, “Sometimes it is only Nigerian arrogance that can successfully stare down white racial arrogance.” What is your rationale beyond this assertion?
Long before I first visited Nigeria for the 2016 Ake Festival, I first encountered Nigeria in Nollywood films, in literature and in fashion. No doubt, Nigeria’s pervasive culture influences Southern Africans. This speaks to the thing I admire most about Nigeria: its pride in its rich cultural heritage. When I first visited the historic town of Abeokuta, I had the strong sense of a people who walk tall, firmly rooted in who they are. After African-Americans, Nigerians are perhaps the most visible black people in the world. It is incredibly important for all black people, and indeed the world, to see this kind of pride and confidence that those of us who grew up under the yoke of the crudest forms of racism may not always have.
That said, the essay you referred to, began with the 2016 Ake Festival panel titled ‘On the Irony of Black Lives Matter in Africa’. It was an entry-point into an exploration of historic and current debates on race and black struggle in which several members of Nigeria’s intellectual elite have at times been fairly dismissive of the experiences of those us of who have suffered the crudest forms of racial discrimination because they have not experienced it themselves. (This is juxtaposed against Nigeria’s long history of support of Southern Africa’s struggle against white settler rule.) The essay is a call for Nigerians, as ‘Giants of Africa’, to be empathetic to the struggles of other black peoples, and in so doing honour their country’s legacy of using their relative privileged position in support of the pan-Africanist and black internationalist cause.
As an activist, what do you think could be done to stop the xenophobic assaults of Nigerians in South Africa?
As a Zimbabwean-born South African, I can attest to the fact that the problem is not specific to Nigerians. It is specific to Africans born outside of the colonial border we know as South Africa. The xenophobia experienced by Africans in South Africa must be understood as anti-black violence deeply rooted in South Africa’s long colonial history beginning in 1652 and current unresolved socio-economic issues that mar our country. This context is important. Otherwise, we’ll only be dealing with the symptoms and not the root.
Now, to answer what must be done. First and foremost, the South African state and its leaders must be held responsible (both by concerned South African citizens and other African states) for fomenting xenophobic sentiment (for example, the recent comments by the President and the Deputy Minister of Police), for failing to hold perpetrators of violence to account, and, most importantly, for failing to address post-apartheid South Africa’s socio-economic divisions that continue to ensure that the value of black life in the country is so cheap that we think nothing of killing our sisters when we feel our livelihoods are being threatened.
This said, I’ve less hope in the state than I do in the possibilities held in ordinary citizens’ organised actions and capacity to inculcate a spirit of pan-Africanism amongst each other. We must take responsibility. I believe that beyond the state, cross-cultural exchange is where we begin to build empathy for each other. I saw this in Soweto, South Africa’s largest black township, at the 2018 Abantu Book Festival which had a heavy continental presence, particularly from Nigerian audience who were hungry to learn from their African sisters.
What is the one unique thing you love each about Zimbabwe, South Africa and the United States?
South Africa and Zimbabwe are both home to me, in a way that the U.S. is not yet, and I’m not sure will ever be. I love these two places, with all the good and bad that come with them because they are the places that grew me up. As with anything at home, it’s too hard to name any one aspect.
What are your intentions after your doctoral studies at Harvard University?
I am not sure. The future will have to tell!