Book review: Breaking A Rainbow, Building A Nation

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‘Breaking A Rainbow, Building A Nation’ is a first-hand account of the university protests known as #FeesMustFall that gripped South Africa between 2015 and 2017. The book tries to achieve several aims. The first one is to heed the timeless warning of the distinguished African author, Chinua Achebe who once contended that “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” 

Indeed, Rekgotsofetse Chikane (known as Kgotsi for those who are tongue tied), a ‘fallist’ himself, deemed it necessary to archive the intricate details and events that led to, and sustained this important student-led uprising. It is my submission that the author of the book is suitably positioned to write this book because he was one of the foremost leaders of the #FeesMustFall movement.  Secondly, contrary to popular perception about the #FeesMustFall movement, the author wanted to prove that #FeesMustFall was not a thumb-sucked, uncoordinated action of “angry students”- but there was a lot of planning and strategizing that went to the actions of the movement. Thirdly, and importantly, the author positions youth politics to the broader politics of the country.

As his point of departure, the author shares his frustrations with the idea of a rainbow nation. He argues that “rainbowism is the search for unity between people without the recognition of people” (pg. 27). He further argues that in fact, rainbow nation is the best way to describe how the country integrates. When you look at the rainbow, it has colours running parallel to each other- forever, and they never meet. Between the colours are ‘white layers’. The ‘white layers are the spaces where we can integrate as South Africans- this might be a shopping mall; a stadium and places of work, etc.

While I understand the author’s frustration with the idea of a rainbow, I think he underestimates the socio-political circumstances and conditions that gave birth to the idea of ‘a rainbow nation’. South Africa was at the brink of civil war, and accordingly, the primary concern of any leadership in a similar situation would have been to change the psyche and soul of the nation, and foster unity in a divided country.

The word ‘coconut’ has a derogatory and disparaging connotation which refers to ‘someone who is black on the outside and white in the inside’, however, the author uses the term to highlight a group of young, black (all inclusive) youth in society with political and social influence to navigate certain spaces, and they are allowed in those spaces. Since they can navigate these spaces, what do ‘coconuts’ do in these spaces? Kgotsi argues that most of the time they just assimilate and make sure that they ‘don’t ruffle many feathers’.

Even after clarifying the context under which the term coconut is used in this book, I still find the term disparaging, perhaps the only thing that makes its usage palatable in the book, is the fact that he mentions that he is himself referred to as a ‘coconut’- and this has been his reality for many years. Otherwise, a crass usage of this term without context, would have made the book an uncomfortable read.  On the other end, I agree with the author in his analysis that “coconuts should not be trusted in a revolution”. This is because if a revolution is brought to its natural, logic conclusion, at some point they will jump-off the wagon because they will lose their privilege.

The author justifies the point that “#FeesMustFall did not thumb-suck their actions but they planned meticulously, however, amid implementation, something random will happen”. When the news broke that the protesting Wits students who had blocked Empire Road in Braamfontein overturned a car, they lost many allies in the country. While I agree that probably there is no one who went to the march with the aim of over-turning a car, I think they should have worked harder in assuring the public that this incident is an isolated one and was not part of the plans of the movement. The reality is that once elements of criminality creeps in the movement, the movement runs a risk of losing credibility and key allies in society.

While the book is fascinating, it was not very easy to read, and at some point, it reads like an academic text. I think while the author was hoping to keep it as simple as he possibly can, an Oxford cum-laude graduate came out- an academic style of writing is a feature of the book. Still, I find the book very informative and fascinating.

 

Sifiso Ndaba is a public servant in Gauteng Office of the Premier, and a Masters of Management in Governance (Development and Economics) candidate at Wits School of Governance.