The 4th Narrative Enquiry for Social Transformation Conference
In March 2018 APC MA student, Ayanda Mahlaba attended the 4th Narrative Enquiry for Social Transformation Conference, held at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.
Day one of the conference began with the welcoming of delegates and keynote speakers by one of the NEST cluster leaders, Professor Bhekizizwe Peterson, who contextualized the beginning of NEST and how it has evolved over the years. Professor Tawana Kupe, the Acting Vice-Chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand, then officially welcomed delegates to Wits University and highlighted how narratives are key for what it means to be human and how that has shaped the Wits Faculty of Humanities’ critical tradition.
The keynote speaker for the day, Professor Molly Andrews, presented her talk titled, The Narrative Architecture of Political Forgiveness, where she looked at the importance of stories in community building and transformation and how using narrative as a tool reveals the multi-layered nature of forgiveness. Questions of who should forgive whom and who is a perpetrator were asked as well as the relationship between forgiveness and social spaces and the troubling bifurcation between the private and public spheres. This was a thought-provoking talk, which laid the foundation for the complex parallel panels and presentations that took place.
I attended the session on ‘vulnerabilities’ where Dina Ligaga presented the paper titled, Un/reading the trafficked body: Vulnerability in Sanusi’s Eyo where she offered provocations around reading the Black womxn’s body as subject rather object and deploying feminist epistemology that refuses to essentialize the body. Ligaga was followed by Sharlene Khan who presented a multi-disciplinary paper/presentation in which she made use of scenes from James Bond films, read and acted out some aspects in an offering titled, Statistics of a Citizen. This offering was disruptive in the sense that it was not a conventional academic paper delivery, but made use of various texts in grappling with what constitutes citizenship in a neoliberal-white supremacist-capitalist-cis-heterosexual world.
The second session on ‘vulnerabilties’ had presentations by Grace Musila titled, Comic calibrations of violence in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa – an exploration of laughter during difficult moments, laughter as agency, the ambiguity of comic texts and how ordinary people process vulnerability and trauma by using humour. This was followed by Lynda Gichanda Spencer’s paper on Vulnerable Subjectivities that were shaped by the limits of the official history of Apartheid and on how womxn deal with trauma in the aftermath of violence and nationalist vulnerabilities. Danai Mupotsa closed off this session by reading from her forthcoming poetry collection, Feeling and Ugly.
The last session for the day was on Grandparents’ Narratives, which was looking at the NEST researchers’ own grandparents’ stories and the methodological issues that arise in the process. I then ended the session by presenting a draft chapter on my grandmother from my MA thesis tentatively titled, To the Black Women We All Know Who Didn’t Die: Ordinary Black Women as Narrators of History. I highlighted the stories she told me before I formally started doing the research for my MA and after. It was a productive session where I touched on the limitations of the category ‘Zulu’ and how my grandmother’s narratives challenge this. The delegates and discussant were very welcoming of my research and I was able to borrow from some of the approaches that the panellists before me on this session had used.
Numerous books were launched in the late afternoon and thereafter we left for the Dance Factory to watch Dada Masilo’s Giselle show. Jilly Bradbury and Lindelwa Dalamba facilitated the discussion between Dada, the cast and the audience.
Day two of the conference saw Professor Akosua Adomako Ampofu deliver the keynote titled, Foretelling our futures: deleting silences and restoring our stories – an exploration of how western education has disrupted indigenous knowledge systems; how it matters what we privilege, the questions we ask and don’t; the academy privileging eurocentricism; the inextricable link between language and identity; hierarchies of knowledge production and the need for folk knowledge to be included in the mainstream. The next session I attended was on Intergenerational Memory and papers on Black subjectivities in Post-Apartheid South Africa, Black Radical Imagination from an oral history project and madness, psychiatry and the places in between in selected African fiction were presented mostly by a Black young generation of thinkers, which is what resonated with me.
The last session on Intergenerational Memory was an all-Black womxn panel that saw panellists present papers ranging from Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia, the film Tsotsi, Zoe Wicomb’s novel October, Wanjiru Kinyanjui’s The Battle of The Sacred Tree and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. After this session, we then departed for a tour of Dr A.B Xuma’s house in Sophiatown and thereafter enjoyed performances on Todd Matshikiza’s King Kong: an Opera of African Jazz and a paper by musicologist, Lindelwa Dalamba on King Kong. We ended the night by indulging in some sumptuous Ethiopian food.
The last day of the conference kicked off with Professor Gabeba Baderoon’s keynote titled, Lyric, Pause, Turn: How Radical Texts Narrate, which was inspired by a collection of activist uses of writing and texts that tend not to be visible. She highlighted that the focus in South African writing tends to be on elite Black South Africans and that is why she has been interested in autobiographical writing by the non-elites since Black South Africans have been producing autobiographical writing dating back to the 19th century. The other sessions I attended were on Gendered Narratives, Narratives for Healing and Narrative Pedagogies & Practices, which provided nuances to deconstructing and privileging the centrality of narratives in multiple aspects of human life and society.