Forerunners: The Black Middle-Classby Kavish Chetty / 19.03.2012
First wave of nausea: this black dame on a golfing green in argyle and khaki shorts. She’s musing on the philosophical complexities of the game, saying “every hole represents a new possibility” (oh they do, baby, especially when we be making lurve). She sidles up to about ten inches from the hole, takes a courageous swing at the ball and misses the target altogether – kind of like this documentary (Forerunners) does for fifty minutes. It’s at the site of contact, all the action seething in the background, all the banality brought into focus.
Marx’s vocabulary is returning to us with a revitalised sense of clairvoyance in the 21st century. This documentary takes as its subject matter the fraught and complex question of class in South Africa: the rapid black embourgeoisement made possible in the aftermath of Apartheid. But like the golfing scene above suggests – with a “go-getter” black dame accruing to herself all the lavish affectations of the higher echelons – race is starting to step aside for class. As to whether its lackey is black or white, capitalism gives neither a shit, nor one eighth thereof; it doesn’t give a French girl’s polite and coquettish toot. The four black middle-class subjects who form the centerpiece of this documentary are in thrall to libertarian dogma. In the opening scenes, as they cruise through the lit arteries of the Johannesburg night in their Mercedes Benzes, they continue to drop the words “ambition” and “hard-work”. One guy says unhandsomely that a “desire to achieve” is in his blood, another claims that her peers (one imagines those still living in conditions of poverty) view her as a snob, but if that’s their attitude then “tough”.
All these equations of ambition and dedication add up to equal one ridiculous sum: that they got to where they are because they worked hard, and their disadvantaged brethren are slum-stuck because of some behavioural pathology. When one dude cruises through the community streets he remarks on “how easy it is to blend in and just be forgotten”, or stated differently, how you can become a victim of inertia and poverty unless you commit to exercising your god-given talents. Later, he parks his opulent C-Class at a rural petrol station to get it filled up. The petrol attendant, he tells us, used to be in his class; she was the top female student. But “something went wrong”, he remarks – although as to what we are not told – and he sighs that when he looks at “these folk” (the designation made with sly condescension) he sees “so much wasted capacity”. But that remark that “something went wrong” is exactly what’s wrong with this documentary: what is that “something” supposed to be? That “something” is left untouched. Another subject says “I guess fate has a huge role in me being here”. What a monumental cop-out of an insight. The structural dynamics which allow new migrations between classes for black and white alike are elided altogether.
We know that all four interviewees came from impoverished backgrounds and now enjoy the predictable luxuries of bourgeois-dom. But the film architects almost zero continuity between past and present – how exactly did they get there? What were their socio-economic configurations? What did their parents do? What sort of domestic background so they come from? Where did they study? The film operates in all these dimensions as socio-politically decontextualised. Hence, it becomes a kind of uninteresting study into the private lives of four uninteresting people. As almost none of their colleagues or peers are interviewed, there is no perspective against which to measure their successes. They just come to us in a vacuum of newfound privilege.
The other theme this film attempts to grapple with is that of the tradition/modernity split that a new black middle-class might have to negotiate (how to balance communalism and ritual practice with the particular consumerist demands of that corporate shit-nexus called Jo’burg?). But the film equally offers no interrogative angle on this issue. The spluttering genius Slavoj Zizek, if I may be permitted to get academic on your ass for one second, has that one of the conditions of postmodern capitalism is that so-called “traditions” get “unproblematically incorporated into a multicultural global universe”. Traditions survive, but “in a mediated, ‘de-naturalised’ form… no longer as authentic ways of life, but as freely chosen lifestyles”. This pretty much puts to bed the traditional practices that these dudes undertake in the few minutes the film allows. One black guy goes to see a spirit guide, but he may as well be going to see an astrologer. One woman goes on about rearing her baby using the pediatrician’s advice over her mother-in-law’s wisdom. The equilibrium is all off-kilter, but most importantly, they don’t matter: for these middle-class representatives, tradition is something to be grafted onto the conditions of modern life, something to be evacuated until it is sufficiently adaptable. The asymmetry with which modernity de-barbs and recuperates traditional practice doesn’t seem to get much critical mention.
So anyway, after the film, this woman sitting in the row opposite us is gushing with menstrual enthusiasm about how awesome she thought the film was. She says with perfect inanity that she liked the fact that the film didn’t even attempt to tackle any complex questions, because she thought that this couldn’t be accomplished in fifty minutes, and she liked that the political dimensions of the class issue were not overplayed because she presumably doesn’t like to think about politics. Honestly, my opinion of her went from zero to pathos in four point five seconds. The power that inheres in documentary is the power to provoke, to interrogate, to disillusion, to destabilise; to provide the base from which we can launch debate and discussion. Class is a deeply politicised issue in our country and it’s enabled and disabled by a certain history that is bound up in separatism, racial capitalism, division (the list of unpleasant phenomena could continue to swell). This woman’s clownish multiculturalism is precisely what we should be anxious about.
At the launch of the Cambridge History of SA Literature at the Book Lounge last week, Njabulo Ndebele said that he would not make that classic Cape Town gesture, by lamenting the absence of blacks at in the room (if you take “black” in its all-encompassing sense, then there was a magnificent total of eleven: I counted). His solution was to say, “There’s a little black in all of us.” Hmm… that’s not going to cut it, son (to be fair to him, he was working within the context of that rather overdeployed academic binary of self/other). I feel the anxiety about black absences in restaurants and classrooms. I am the only darkie in the MA English programme at UCT this year, as I was the only “black” fellow in the Honours group last year. These new dynamic borders between classes are a deeply complicated, frustrating issue – among the most important issues South Africa today.
The documentary is beautifully shot (although it has a haunted soundtrack that sounds like Aphex Twin with wailing black vocals thrown in for indigenous flavour). It is patient, playing excellently with time and space. But the particular mandate it sets out to accomplish just seems – to borrow from the parlance of Roger Young – rather “whatevs”. There is far more interesting thematic territory here left unengaged, but the style at least avoids some of the more predictably lame elements of documentary and perhaps warrants recommendation.
*Forerunners plays at the Artscape on the 22nd of March at 12:45 PM. The full schedule is available here