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.