Decolonising Wits is a documentary that was filmed last year at Wits by independent filmmaker Aryan Kaganof. In the documentary he follows Wits EFF students as they navigate their way through student politics and questions of black alienation at the university. 

THE REVOLUTION WILL BE TELEVISED: Decolonising Wits follows a group of students who raise a number of concerns regarding matters of racial transformation at Wits.                                          Photo: Aryan Kaganof/Kagablog

A year has passed since the filming of the documentary, Decolonising Wits by South African filmmaker Aryan Kaganof. It was filmed around the time of the SRC elections at Wits, and the hot debate at the time was the residence admissions policy.

One of the first scenes is of a passionate Wits Economic Freedom Fighter’s (EFF) Chairperson Vuyani Pambo surrounded by a group of students, speaking in an almost preacher-like tone, “But it is not only about us, we are creating an epoch here!” This sets the tone for the film.

In the documentary, Kaganof follows a group of Wits (EFF) members as they navigate through the messy conundrum of student politics and questions of black alienation at historically white institutions. We see students from different political parties – EFF, Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA) and Project W, fighting amongst each other, and then working together to “fight” management.

Next we see students discussing the prioritisation of white students at Wits. We see Wits EFF members sombrely singing the well-known struggle song – Senzeni Na? while one of the members says, “Comrades, we must never celebrate being at Wits, and think that you are a better Black. You must never celebrate assimilation comrades.”

Later Pambo says, “I’m saying for the mere fact that there is no consequence for messing around or playing with a black body, racism is perpetuated… I want to be able to speak my mind without having to reference or align myself to whiteness.”

A prominent theme in the documentary is the plight of black service workers at Wits. The students speak about the poor treatment of workers, highlighting the segregation of service worker toilets as a signal of Wits’ disinterest in creating a holistically fair environment.

“The explosion will not happen today. It is too soon”

Extracts from Frantz Fanon’s influential books The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks, are generously sprinkled throughout the documentary. The most quoted chapter though is, Concerning Violence, a chapter from The Wretched of the Earth which has caused much contention and debate around academic circles about what Fanon meant by “revolutionary violence.”

The lines “The explosion will not happen today. It is too soon… ” from the introduction of Black Skin, White Masks are repeated throughout the film, Kaganof seems to be alluding to the nascent anger  bubbling under in South Africa. An anger that is infused with militant and revolutionary rhetoric.

A short appearance by former EFF MP Andile Mngxitama brings home the message of black assimilation in white institutions.

Mngxitama speaks to a point also raised by Panashe Chigumadzi at the Ruth First Memorial Lecture last Monday. He says, “Over the years black people have come to understand that to be civil, to be acceptable, to make progress within the system you cannot raise the black question. We are policing ourselves very well.”

Decolonising Wits should not be viewed as a formulaic documentary with a beginning, middle and an end. It should rather be viewed as an important piece of history. A living archive.

The film cannot be explained, but should rather be experienced. It documents a moment when students of the radical tradition are at the forefront of racial discussions around the country. At the forefront of what others would call ‘transformation’.

Kaganof, a white male, moves as if wearing an invisible cloak between the majority black students. The same Black students that have centred their experiences of blackness at the core of their political discourse. It begs the question, who can document the black struggle?