THE POLITICS OF PERSONAL AGENCY

By Sabelo Nkosi

At the end of a lengthy, heated and emotive debate with my roommate yesterday, I made it my personal responsibility to bring to everyones’s attention the importance of understanding the concept of “personal agency”, and explain the value that comes with appreciating, recognizing and respecting the personal agency of individuals.

Personal agency, as per my understanding, refers to the power an individual has to initiate and execute action, on the basis of their views, beliefs, and freedoms in the pursuit of a personally beneficial end goal. Emirbayer and Mische (1998) argue that the the concept of personal agency, as a philosophical notion, has been the subject of critique and debate. They, furthermore, posit that this concept has been “defended, attacked, buried and resuscitated […] in often contradictory and overlapping ways”. This is to say that “personal agency” both at a conceptual and practical level is subject to a differing reception, especially taking into account that every individual is entitled to their own opinion, interpretation and analysis.

It also dawns on me that some people may, in their quest to understand personal agency, confuse it with selfishness. It is, therefore, very important that I compare and contrast the characteristics of personal agency and those of selfishness with the aim to clarify both these concepts. Emirbayer and Mische (1998) explain that personal agency is characterized by “self-hood, motivation, will, purposiveness, intentionality, choice, initiative, freedom, and creativity”, and as opposed to personal agency, selfishness, I can argue, is inextricably linked but not limited to vanity, narcissism, self-adulation, and obsessive self-centredness. The activity of comparing personal agency with selfishness has led me to the conclusion that, not even by a long short, may there be a similarity between these two concepts, moreover, neither of the two may be invoked as arguments to justify the other.

The public discourse in South Africa is a site of contention, many people have an opinion about a number of a issues. The nature of our public discourse, like in most societies, is such that there is never unanimous agreement about how a particular question must be dealt with, consequently giving space to intensely opinionated voices to propagate their views. From Steve Hofmeyr, an Afrikaner nationalist who believes black South Africans were “the architects of Apartheid”, to Naledi Chirwa, a staunch believer of Black Radical Feminism and former #FeesMustFall leader who is by her own confession an unapologetic and fearless advocate for the emancipation of black people, black students and black women in particular. All these voices that shape our daily debates as a nation are, as per my own understanding, shaped by either the personal agencies of these individuals or their selfish tendencies.

Earlier this month (March, 2019), a former University of South Africa (UNISA) employee, Gugu Ncube, staged a “half-naked” protest (half being the operative word) at the sit of official state power, the office of the President, the Union Buildings in South Africa’s administrative capital Tshwane. Ncube, who was later arrested and released on warning, faced criticism and backlash from a number of people on social media on the basis of the nature of her protest rather than engaging the substantive details of her protest, which were the allegations of sexual assault by her former boss. This is indicative of the response of society wide “normal responses” to issues of women and black women in particular.

One tweet read as follows: “Which normal human being goes to the Union Buildings naked and shouts I want the President” , this according to my analysis means that people were not willing to entertain the actions influenced by Gugu’s personal agency because the nature of her protest suggests that, as some may argue, she is mentally unstable, committing public indecency, or that it is grossly unAfrican. Moreover, the meaning of the backlash Gugu faced, is that women may not be naked in public out of their personal agency but it should always be for the gratification, satisfaction and entertainment of sexual desire.

Gugu’s incident is just one in a plethora of many incidents that amount to the assault of personal agency. The victims of this assault are usually black people when they attribute their sufferings to the structural legacies of Apartheid (being accused of playing the race card, being told to forget about Apartheid it has ended), women when they lament patriarchy and toxic masculinity (it’s not abuse it’s a cultural thing), black students who protest the unjust nature of tertiary education (a bunch of hooligans who don’t wan’t to study), last but not least when queer individuals protest queerphobia (it is immoral, religion is against it, it is unnatural, it is unAfrican).

The rejection of personal agency when used by certain components of society serves a political function, the one of protecting the status quo. It serves the purpose of maintaining the unbalanced power distribution in society. It insults the intellect of those who stand up against injustices. This rejection must be crushed, it must be rejected with double or triple the contempt it rejects personal agency with.

I would like to appreciate the article coauthored by Mustapha Emirbayer and Ann Mische in helping me provide a structured argument. If you are interested in engaging it here is the link: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/8927/615e80bbcd46c04cfeccfb9f10ec9b8b4de1.pdf

Reference: What Is Agency? Author(s): Mustafa Emirbayer and Ann Mische Source: American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 103, No. 4 (January 1998), pp. 962-1023

Sabelo Nkosi is currently a second year Political Sciences and International Relations major at the University of Johannesburg. For further engagement, comment.

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Tolerating Racism is Racism!

This essay was first submitted as my entry to the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation Youth Essay Writing Competition in 2018.

TOLERATING RACISM IS RACISM!

  1. Introduction
    The dictionary definition of racism fails to capture the nature and spirit of racism because racism is not only an act of mere racial discrimination, it is rather an act of relegating the humanness of its subjects and, as a point of departure, a nation built on the foundation of more than three hundred and fifty years of systematic and institutionally legitimatized racism cannot be a nation that tolerates any insensitive action premised on racial grounds. It is needless to say that it surely will take a long time to completely eradicate this scourge of racial hatred in South Africa, because it is a hefty task to reverse a process of three centuries in a period of two decades, however, accommodating and tolerating racism should not and will never be a solution, it will destroy the moral fabric of our society and further reverse the hard-earned gains of our constitutional democracy. This paper shall then justify the assertion that Tolerating Racism Is Racism; it shall demonstrate the manners, in which racism is tolerated, by society and all that exists as a result of human interaction and relation. In the essay there shall be attempts to illustrate the means in which it has continued to thrive and never face any form of challenge. There shall also be an attempt to unpack the undebatable existence of systemic racism with the aim to explain why such amounts to the toleration of racism, and finally an account on the necessity but insufficiency of dialogue shall be rendered, this shall be accompanied by an alternative to dialogue as a way of addressing and fighting racism.
  2. Characterization of Racism
    Characterizing the nature and spirit of racism is important to determine whether tolerating racism should be equated to racism, it also assists those who study racism to understand the complexities and dynamics of racism, for some it is a struggle premised on the grounds of power relations, for others it is a byproduct of negative socialization, however, racism has a common effect irrespective of where it emanates. Racism is in its nature a violent system to which injustices such as death, disease and poverty can be attributed. The premise from which racism operates is that its object is dehumanized and stripped of all their human rights and privileges, thus, it cannot be in a country like South Africa that boasts of a twenty four year old constitutional democracy racism is condoned and goes without being properly addressed, therefore, anyone who tolerates racism is complicit in the dehumanization of the victims of the social ill, this then means that anyone who makes room no matter how small, for the tolerance of racism should be condemned with equal conviction as racists themselves be-cause tolerance perpetuates the spread of racism rather than combat it. South Africa’s historical experience demonstrates that there have been individuals who were not in support of the system through which black bodies were platforms of performing atrocities, however, none of them acted on their condemnation of this system. A classic example is illustrated in Steve Biko’s analogy of white liberals who embraced the ideals of “non-racialism” but never acted in any manner that suggested inclusivity.
  3. Resistance to Racism
    Racism has throughout its existence met fierce resistance, irrespective of whether it was passive or active. The genesis of this response, up to this day, is the unpalatability of racism. The subjects of racism develop an intuitive response towards their dehumanization. However, this reaction at most times bears no significance; this is a result of dehumanisation, the lack of a solid voice and the inability to initiate action that will terminate completely the existence of racism, consequently granting racism a space to thrive, which bears a disastrous implication to the existential circumstances of racially oppressed peoples, in the sense that it silently entrenches their relegated quality and standard of living.
  4. Racism and Socialization
    Socialization, understood as a lifelong process of accumulating competencies for one’s successful absorption into society and therefore the status quo and all its defects, may be located amongst a variety of means for the propagation and tolerance of racism. This process refashions and reinvents racism through its agents such as (mis)education, mass communication platforms and the family amongst lot others. This reinvention of racism rests on a particular state of mind, one which asserts that the constant absorption of formerly oppressed peoples, into an already existing social environment which was not designed to serve them, will improve their living conditions and therefore grant them the franchise to be seen and recognized as human beings with an equal status in the eyes of their creator. This demonstration of socialization can in this context be equated to an ac-count of the systematization of racism, which leads to its normalization and therefore tolerance.
  5. Dialogue: A Means To Combat Racism, Necessities and Insufficiencies

    Dialogue is a necessary tool to influence the direction and level taken by the anti-racism discourse in South Africa, it elevates the standard of debate and crystalises all about racism which has not been brought to people’s attention. It has, however, proven to be insufficient in the sense that while it can get us practical solutions to dealing with racism, it will not get us to a situation where racism no longer exists. A common characteristic of dialogue across all discourses is that it bears ideas and vision but it is starved of implementation. South Africa is obsessed with debating racism, and that obsession feeds the existence of racism, it fuels the intensity of racial polarities. Bearing in mind that no one intervention to racism is enough, the anti-racial discourse should take a direction that will lead the nation to a legal framework that deals with addressing and eradicating racism by channeling resources into restitutional equity, to get closer towards a commonly shared vision of a non-racial South Africa. Restitutional equity, in this context, is the practical undoing of the leg-acies of our racist past, the elimination of the barriers to property ownership, easing access to higher education and training, balancing the field of play in the basic education sector and early childhood development, equalizing remuneration for equal work, creating a policy environment that compels massive beneficiation in programs of affirmative action and ensuring that racist be-haviour bears consequences and punishable by law. Feeding action with talk and starving it of implementation has proven to stagnate the status quo.
  6. Conclusion
    A thorough, clear and cogent justification of the assertion that TOLERATING RACISM IS RACISM has been provided throughout the essay, and the essay has attempted to demonstrate the means and channels through which racism continues, without challenge, to rear its ugly head in a society that under “normal circumstances” should be the epitome of a society that cherishes the ideals of a non-racial society. There is also an objective attempt to lay down the reasoning for this “unchallenged” existence of racism, bearing in mind that it is a phenomenon that is systematised. Both the necessity and insufficiency of dialogue as a mechanism used to address racism are ex-plained, and an alternative is offered to remediate this situation of racial intolerance our country finds itself in. Indeed, tolerating racism perpetuates it, rather than combat it.
Sabelo Nkosi, at the time of publishing this blogpost, is a second year student of Political Sciences and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg. Follow me on all my social media platforms for more engagement: Twitter (@SabeloNkosi20), Instagram (@sabelonkosi_20)