(M)Phakathi: Recasting Ubuntu as an Erotic Zone

Hidden Things

Here are the things we put away. Hid. Behind. Under. Inside. We had to then. To survive. At times it was for a rainy day and other times because we feared what would happen if these things were seen. We taught ourselves to play the part. We went undercover. For years. Decades. Centuries. And now. That we claim to be free. Can we be sure exactly what it is? Have we blown our cover or have we gone too deep?

I’m tormented by what we lost in our attempts to assimilate. As a result, my work takes obscurity as a medium. I did not come to it by choice, but it is my decision to stay here. I am both comfortable and uncomfortable here. I am from here and yet I am an immigrant. Hidden yet exposed. In a tundra. A world within a world - inevitable and impossible. My work then is a masochistic manifestation of my attempt at articulation.

For how can I articulate in a world that so values one form of clarity and transparency? Is that really my tongue? Mainstream South African art is thriving on such sanitized tendencies. Expressions are universal. Straight. Respectable. This implies that the lived experiences in our country are also legible, palatable and compliant.

But I am cognizant of the pitfalls of this domain. For it remains inaccessible to me. As obscure as I am, I am here. As a subject, a citizen - whatever I am - I exist. This illegibility, invisibility even, must be reflected somehow, somewhere. Speaking of the Non-Non Collective, Donna Kukama defines invisibility as a way of being visible. She notes how even as certain types of artists lack visibility, that lack can become a part of the practice.

Perhaps instead of having hegemonic ambitions of articulation, we may be brave enough to resume and reimagine what may have been in the air all along. In her paper, The Meanings of Silence, Dr Nthabiseng Motsemme examines what could be gained if we consider the silences invoked by post-traumatic muteness as languages themselves.

One of my early leads is a story Sartre tells. I’m paraphrasing, big time: A woman in a room on a bed, touching herself. A man outside said room, spying through a keyhole, aroused. Then the sound of a moving floorboard, causing the man and the woman to experience shame upon the prospect of being exposed. In the parable, the moment is shared, but can only exist in obscurity. The shame they experience ends their arousal and thus, though simultaneous, once the moment becomes apparently interpersonal, it ceases to exist in its original form.

Speaking of Hidden Things

Maybe this is the moment I’m looking for. The slippage. Something about the worlds that exist behind closed doors. In the dark. And the worlds that might threaten to extinguish them with light. The symbiosis between these worlds. The frictions and the fictions. The potential and language that may or may not exist. And the curious cavities they can create.

When the Xhosa film Inxeba (The Wound) came out in 2017, there was considerable backlash when communities insisted that certain things should never enter the public realm. Apparently what happens on the mountain stays on the mountain. It is for the Xhosa man to know and for the rest never to find out. Even as this ritual is meant to mark the onset of manhood, the convention is for society to be content not knowing how and why this mark is made.

One of the more catastrophic failures of post-apartheid South Africa is the Mandela administration’s inability to address the urgent problems pertaining to sex and sexuality at the time. Something as simple as promoting condom use was seen as taboo and the result is that we are still facing the consequences to this day. In trying to uphold what the administration might have seen as respectable, traditional or conservative views on sex, it contributed to a pattern of denial and shame that we must now attempt to unpack.

Like many South Africans assigned female at birth by the system, I have an all too intimate understanding of the consequences of gender. Many of our communities are built on our exploitation. This is the clandestine condition of our bodies. We must sit still with our mouths and legs closed, be tested for our virginity, cook, clean, look pretty, but not slutty, smile more and aspire for male attention. Moreover, we must hide our blood and never mention the pain.

As for sex. It’s no secret that we like it - a LOT! The evidence is everywhere. In a recent work, Amahlaya Endlela (2018), I combed the streets of Makhanda in the Eastern Cape for discarded condoms and condom wrappers. There were many. I also documented the abortion and penis enlargement ads that have become a staple in most of our cities. South Africa is in the top 20 most frequent users list of the world’s largest porn site, Pornhub. And don’t get me started on our public figures and their sex scandals, polygamy and side chicks. Teenage pregnancy is by no means uncommon. Then of course, there’s AIDS. And the issue of rape. It’s difficult to look at our country and ignore the glaring sexual overtones. And yet we do.

Oh! the cognitive dissonance. The great big gap between our lived experience and our public discourse. What we share and withhold. The positive and negative space that shapes us and determines how we inhabit the world. My interest is based on the non binary potential here. Rather than public being the opposite of private, I imagine a spiral. A thing that continuously copies, crosses and feeds back into itself in order to expand. A fractal. A code. A divination.

The Erotic in Language

I see the functional potential of concealment as well as the potential sovereignty of silence. As we have freedom of speech, so too must we have freedom to silence. Perhaps an attempt at articulation is an attempted murder of private things. That said, we can explore the nature of hidden things without exposing what is hidden. But before the nature, let’s find the name.

Obscurity and privacy are terms we can use to describe what I’m talking about, but they are insufficient. Audre Lorde offers an interesting alternative. She defines the erotic as a feminine and spiritual source of power hidden within all of us, rooted in our unexpressed or unrecognized feelings. She notes how the oppressed have been taught to vilify and distrust this power because of its potential. The Erotic is derived from the Greek word Eros meaning sexual love. This begs the question of language. What is the erotic in my language? Why don’t I know this?

I asked around and there really don’t seem to be very obvious or accurate translations but here are some suggestions:

  • Inkanuko is more closely translated as ‘yearning’, ‘desire’ or ‘lust’. Ukuvusa inkanuko which is to ‘awake’ inkanuko means to provoke.

  • Emoyeni translates to ‘in the air’, ‘in the wind’ or ‘in the spirit’. It can also mean ‘emotionally’ or ‘emotionlessly’.

  • Ngasese is the closest translation and to my understanding is ‘that which is private, secret, discreet or hidden’.

None of these words offer the mimicry that we have been accustomed to when translating our languages, but we might gain something if we reconsider our expectations. These terms offer interesting insight into our understanding of the erotic. Particularly the last two. The possibility of the erotic in the air - emoyeni - is somewhat mesmerizing. There’s an implied invisible locationality here and the sameness of air, spirit and emotion is harrowing.

The the last term is also juicy. I would offer that the secrecy described in this translation is not implicit. Ngasese as a term for the erotic is a location in obscurity rather than the byproduct of obscuring. That which is unexposed - perhaps unexposable, like unfixed film or the flesh of vampires. An obligatory apartheid. An allergy to light.

A relationship between locationality and obscurity seems emergent and even triggers deja vu. For better or worse this phenomenon of spatially hidden things is not uncommon in our ontology. The way Pinky Pinky hides in girls’ toilets and blood in old battlefields or crime scenes. Dr Motsemme calls it a legacy of silence. She articulates how post traumatic South African landscapes are seen to embody the violence experienced by individuals. Muteness becomes a material memorial of pain and a viable vehicle for survival.

Erotic Moments

There are two terms for sex that I know of. The first ucansi also means reed mat or bed (n), harking back to this sense of space.  The second ubulili can be deconstructed towards umulili or abalili meaning mourner(s). Ukulila or isililo which are the source mean mourning, wailing or lamentation. I have heard people use the term ukuchitha during intercourse. They say “Ngiyichithe?!” or “Ngizoyichitha!” In English it means: ‘must I spill it?’ or ‘I’m going to spill it’. It means to cum. Orgasm.

These terms are touching and aid me on my mission. Not to expose, but to sit with that which cannot be exposed. The implicit complexity compels us to ask: What is being mourned and what is being spilled? To what end? The trauma; the violence; the blood? Could it be the omnipresent obscurity of our lived experience? The gaps between? Around? The impossibility of singularity or commonality? Our own invisibility? In spilling, perhaps - mourning, could we not be edging into that painful place in the air? The spirit. The one that we need to exist, that is not ours alone, but can never truly be shared.

That time I was very little and hurt my knee. I cried. Mama said: musuk’tetema! That time I held it in when we left the mission and I’d never been in the world. I wanted something I couldn’t have. I never got it, but by then I’d learned to hold it in. Inside tears. That time papa picked us up to visit the mission for Christmas. I sat in the backseat with one of the visitors who’d come from Holland. I was 13. He was 31. We talked about everything on that car ride. My art, my science, my sickness, mama and papa’s divorce. Later we became penpals. Then lovers. Openly. The only thing papa ever said to me about it was that I shouldn’t have shared their private business.

That time gogo died and I saw many mourning in the marquee, throwing themselves at her cold corpse. Open. Casket. And we had to sit there in a black row as they revolved their ritual. Looking into our eyes as though they’d find her spirit within. Seeking something they couldn’t have. Strangers, really. Weeping. Spilling. Outside tears.

That time. Those times. Over the years I told my mama or she found out. Even now I’m grown I still want her to hear. To see. She will not. I see now how I would be dead had I stopped. Yearning. How she herself is nearly dead. The look on her face. The fear she had. Has. Of knowing. Of seeing. She wouldn’t look at me but I hope she heard. Three times I told her. Over the years. And three times she could not.

I see these as erotic moments. Feel them rather. Somehow they cannot be clarified. But clearly, they are shared. Between parents and children. Lovers. Friends. Strangers. We may not see the intricate patterns that connect us because they are invisible, but we cannot believe the rigid dichotomy between what’s private and what’s public. In so doing we reject a spectrum of meaning and ignore the speculative potential within the silence.

Ubuntu in Language

This dichotomy is echoed throughout South African culture. A coping mechanism of sorts, which I find misguided. Ubuntu seemed to save us when it propped up the “Rainbow Nation” campaign. It was the optimistic voice of togetherness that would lead us to a peaceful coexistence. Yet here are. Did we get tricked into our post apartheid ordeal through our own ideal, or is the ideal itself the issue? Retrospectively, this assimilationist version of Ubuntu, could be perceived as a failed philosophy.

However one could argue that this was merely one of several possibilities for this too tired term. While we understand it to mean a sense of community, unity and belonging, with phrases like umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, I propose a neighboring view. To think through ukuba ngumuntu. Or even examine ngabantu critically. This possibility brings us to multiple trajectories and I don’t presume to divorce the existing implications of Ubuntu, but merely suggest a meeting of the not dissimilar ideas through non binary strategies.

First let’s unpack Ubuntu. Unity. Togetherness. The term is based on the term umuntu which can simply mean: a person. But colloquially, we can understand umuntu to directly mean: a black person. The plural abantu is also racialized, which is where terms like Bantu education and Bantustans come from. While these racialisations are attributed to the apartheid regime, they could also point to an awareness and tenderness towards otherness that we have yet to fathom.

Ngumuntu can then be seen as ‘is a person’ - extending the phrase to ‘a person is a person’. Alternatively we could mine a more exclamatory meaning - ‘it’s a person’, or even - ‘I’m a person’, depending on intonation.

Ngabantu furthermore, which is generally taken to mean ‘through people’, could also mean - ‘it is people’ or ‘they are people’.

At a glance, the resulting potentials emerge:

  • A (black) person is a (black) person through (black) people

  • A (black) person, it’s a (black) person, it’s (black) people

  • A (black) person, I’m a (black) person, they’re (black) people

It may be a jump from certain logical standpoints but the potential misunderstanding is undeniable. If we translate the English word unity itself back into isiZulu, we find ourselves with a term like ukubumbana, where its tactile source ukubumba interestingly means ‘recasting’. Or moulding, kneading even. The barest state of the term - bumba means to make up or fabricate. Then there’s the term umphakathi - community, which itself can be stripped towards phakathi - which means inside.

Ubuntu and the Erotic

What emerges is a sophisticated sensitivity to the terms of subjectivity. An interplay between the internal and the external. An opening up towards elements which evade known locational devices. Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu can point towards a perpetual discovery of the multiplicity of existence. Of otherness even. Ubuntu then re-emerges, rooted in collective ideology, but based on, impacting and defining our inner lives.

In his book The Souls of Black Folk, du Bois points towards a rich resource in the collective privacies of black people, even suggesting that these realities remain necessarily inaccessible. These connected worlds are referred to across black existentialist and feminist literature.

The philosophy of Ubuntu has served us well. It has done what it needed to do at the time. But as we evolve, we must ask it to evolve with us. In its publicity, we see it as platonic, straight and benevolent. And the erotic as hidden, hysterical and somewhat heathen. But by our own literary and linguistic measures, this divide seems unnecessary and contradictory.

The violence and inequality in South Africa are clear indicators of unresolved trauma. We cannot take this toxicity for granted. The longer it stays the harder it will be to confront. What’s more trauma can be a huge cost to the already defunct healthcare and justice systems and create huge barriers for learning and interpersonal relationships. Any form of Ubuntu that exists while this is the reality for most South Africans is not Ubuntu by any means. As my favorite saying from the old skool TV show Emzini Wezinsizwa goes - injury wah, injury woh!

We need not speak, necessarily. We may be afraid. Of being heard. Not being heard. But there are ways. Better ways even. The cycles of abuse and re-traumatisation will need far more embodied approaches. Touch for example. A gentle yet masochistic and metaphorical touching of the wound. In ourselves, in each other and in the spaces that we inhabit which are traumatized too.

Then another kind of touching which I think we could be good at. A touching of hands. Lips. Bodies. An even gentler touching not after or against, but alongside the toxic touching normalized by our PTSD. I vex that this is not as urgent as it should be. None of us want or deserve this pain. But we are cramped up from its abundance. Condemned by our devotion to the privacy of the touch. We often fall to fury, because we banish our desire for tenderness. Confine it to sex. Though the erotic and the platonic are siblings, not enemies.

But then, if we cannot bear the burden of bodies, there are other ways still. Which we can find. Lay our hands on. Recast if we must - we can make them up. Conjure them. We may need to. We must be prepared to. For we do not really know what we can’t see. We needn’t know. But we can act. We could engage in an embodied activism or embodied art. Really as practitioners, we can be mechanics for the intimate amalgamation of the sum of parts. We can diminish the divide.

Although it is all we know, it would be senseless to prioritize propriety. What has it done for us lately? While we recognize the inevitability of alienation, we cannot simply be spectators of our own annihilation. Our story must be told. Our work must echo the inexplicable connectivity of our lived experience, even if it is obscure. We must mourn and we must yearn for an inclusive form of Ubuntu, that would not let some suffer while others thrive. One that activates the intangible; the invisible; the impossible.