In 2014, the British artist Shaun Badham created a large neon sign that displayed the words, ‘I’m staying’. For two and a half years the sign moved between different locations in Bristol, thus creating a sense of dissonance between a declarative speech act of permanence and a reality of mobility.
In 2016 the artwork was put in storage. In the same year, the United Kingdom held a referendum on whether to leave the European Union. The majority of voters opted for ‘leave’.
In 2018, as the British government engaged in ever more bizarre negotiations with the European Union, the artwork was reinstalled, this time in London. Just as the political landscape had shifted, the meaning of the artwork had shifted along with it. The neon-sign is no longer simply a commitment to ‘home’ and locality, but has become part of a larger political project. The phrase ‘I am staying’ came to articulate the desire to stay in the European Union, to be embedded in Europe, rather than isolated from it.
In early September 2019, the phrase ‘I am staying’ appeared in yet another context: in South Africa. Shaun Badham acknowledged the South African resurfacing of the phrase – now as a hashtag, #iamstaying – on his Facebook page, thereby establishing a connection between his artwork and the South African social media movement.
Fighting afro-pessimism is certainly a good thing – yet, there is ample evidence that positive thinking is not going to help us.
The #iamstaying Facebook page (with over 800.000 members in October 2019), was created by Jarette Petzer, a South African real estate entrepreneur. The aim was to affirm a sense of belonging, and to counter negative narratives about South Africa with positive ones.
Around the time the page was started, debates about rising levels of emigration featured prominently in South African media. Of particular concern is migration by highly-skilled South Africans, many of whom are descendants of the colonial settlers.
The 2019 debates echo those of 25 years ago, when – shortly after the advent of Black majority rule – many white South Africans decided to leave the country, settling in Australia (colloquially referred to as ‘packing for Perth’), North America and the United Kingdom. Emigration has continued at a regular pace, with spikes around 2008, and – possibly – 2018/2019.
High levels of crime and poverty in South Africa, as well as an overall negative economic outlook and high unemployment have been seen as push-factors for emigration – and to this #iamstaying answers with an affirmative speech act. It is a positive statement of belonging, expressing patriotic commitment and hope for a better future. The first rule for those posting in the Facebook group is: ‘uplift and encourage’.
Fighting afro-pessimism or inequality?
Fighting afro-pessimism is certainly a good thing – yet, there is ample evidence that positive thinking is not going to help us. Rather, the available psychological evidence suggests that positive thinking might achieve the opposite, and actually hinder us in achieving our goals. The psychologist Gabriele Oettingen has shown this in several experiments over the years: positive thinking calms us and makes us feel happy (for the moment), but it also takes away the energy we need to change things.
A recent article on South Africa’s socioeconomic realties makes for difficult reading. Inequality in South Africa remains exceptionally high (with a gini-coefficient of 0.599). While high-income earners (the top 1%) continue to thrive, the rest of the population is struggling, with over fourty percent living in chronic poverty. A history of settler colonialism also means that – as noted above – prosperity continues to intersect with race: white South Africans have consistently low poverty and unemployment rates, high incomes and continue to own most of the country’s wealth (World Bank 2018, An Incomplete Transition).
The South African context asks for critical discussion, political analysis, for a reality check and honest dialogue; it asks for radical socio-economic transformation. As Farwel Sial and Carolina Alves have argued: positive thinking won’t get anyone out of poverty – or reduce high levels of violence in society. Positive thinking individualizes the problems we face: we can help a homeless person, donate to a charity or believe that we made someone’s day by smiling at them. None of this is going to fix the actual problem: the historically grown – and on-going – structures that keep people poor.
#Iamstaying, politics and race
The second rule of the #iamstaying Facebook page is: ‘no politics’. Yet, as feminist theory has long reminded us: ‘the personal is the political’, and we can never avoid politics, no matter how hard we try.
That it is impossible to evade the political is evident in a particular genre of posts: the sharing of images of white children and their Black nannies, as well as images of these children grown up, posing with their former nannies, now elderly women.
One such post is from late September: we see photos of a middle-aged Black woman carrying a child, blond, white, about two-years old, accompanied by a short sentimental story about ‘our Liesbet’. In their responses others reminiscence about their ‘second mothers’ – women of colour, ‘our African mothers’ – with names such as Lea, Maria, Paulina, Iris, Rebecca, Anna, Sheila and Johanna. A typical phrasing is ‘we hada Johanna’ – the auxiliary indicating possession, thus foregrounding the exploitative nature of these relationships. It is also an act of depersonalization: ‘Johanna’ emerges as a type, not an individual.
Posting critical comments are regularly admonished for not adhering to the ‘pro-positivity’ ethos of the #Iamstaying-page
Moreover, it most cases the names listed are bestowed on the worker by the colonial system, they are ‘European names’. It is in a multitude of everyday practices that the dehumanizing and racist systems of colonialism and coloniality are enacted; naming was – and is – an important site (see also Hlonipha Moekena, Anyone can be a Maid, 2010).
Ena Jansen notes in her recent book Like Family(2019) that the relationship between employers and domestic workers has been ‘the main meeting point between white and black people’ during colonialism and apartheid. These relationships are now elevated – nostalgically – as naïve proof that ‘we can all get along’, ignoring the fact that the presence of Black domestic workers in the household had been ‘a key site for the reproduction of white privilege’ (Tamara Shefer, 2012, Fraught Tenderness).
Dissenting voices and failing to be 'pro-positivity'
Although these posts are not uncontested, dissenting voices are clearly in a minority; the majority of responses are of the type ‘wonderful story of love and hope’, occasionally adding the emotive hashtag #bondsthatcantbebroken. Labour exploitation morphs into nostalgia.
Relationships of domestic labour are given as a reason for staying, perhaps even a reason for returning. In Johnny Steinberg’s (2015) Why I’m Moving Back to South Africa, an unnamed ‘woman who wears the cotton uniform of a maid’, is among those he has longed to see while working in the United Kingdom.
#wewontmove expresses collective resistance to injustice and oppression.
The few critical voices that appear emphasize the lack of respect that had been afforded to domestic workers, and the continued socioeconomic exploitation they experience in post-apartheid South Africa. They also note, repeatedly, that domestic workers had to leave their own children behind, that their care for white children came at a high emotional costs to their families: ‘they wait for their mother to come back from ebalungwini [‘the white homes’] #stolenmoments’.
Those posting critical comments are regularly admonished for not adhering to the ‘pro-positivity’ ethos of the page: ‘Please delete negative arguments’ is a common response. Critical comments are sometimes deleted by the sites administrators because they do not conform to the ‘uplift and encourage’ rule.
This happened, for example, on the day I started writing this column. Responding to a similar post, a member of the group explained that it is very disrespectful to refer to adult women simply by a given name, they should be acknowledged as ‘MmeFlora’ or ‘Ma’Flora’ – in line with the African custom of respect to one’s elders. The post was deleted by an administrator for failing to ‘uplift and inspire’, and the discussion was closed soon after.
#iamstaying, kumbaya narratives and depolitization
#iamstaying articulates a particular version of South African belonging: rainbow and kumbaya narratives are foregrounded; colonial/apartheid memories are whitewashed and recast as nostalgia; critical-political analysis is discouraged, and more often than not silenced. Moreover, on #iamstaying everyone is endowed with the agency to decide that they will be staying – immobility is a choice, not a structural condition. The hashtag has an actor that is an individual, not a collective.
As such this social media movement is embedded in the individualistic logic of neoliberalism. This ideological location is also evident in a recent turn to add promotional merchandise, and to support small businesses via crowd-sourced funds. Individual acts of kindness and charity are encouraged (‘good deeds’): to pay for someone’s groceries, to buy someone shoes, to tip someone generously – these are stories that circulate on the site.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with kindness or with supporting individual entrepreneurs. But it will never address the fundamental historical injustices South Africa faces (see also Andile Zulu,The idealism of #iamstaying has its limits).
In lieu of a conclusion, I would like to contrast #iamstaying with a very different hashtag of belonging: #wewontmove.
‘We won’t move’ is a hashtag avant la lettre. The phrase rose to prominence in the 1950s when residents of Sophia town resisted the forced removals by the apartheid regime. It has been appropriated by Twitter users as a hashtag and surfaced in the South African students protests. #wewontmove articulates defiance. The phrase expresses not the seemingly free agency of #iamstaying, but collective resistance to injustice and oppression. It articulates a sense of belonging too, but a very different one. It is a belonging to a place where one’s belonging is denied, where one is deemed illegitimate and unwanted. It reflects the experience of the wretched, of colonized peoples but also migrants who are threated with deportations: it says ‘the land is ours’, resists and speaks truth to power.
It is a phrase that is not limited to South Africa: in 2018, the artist Arlissa released We won’t move, a powerful song of revolution and resilience. It starts with the following three lines: Sweep it all beneath the rug/ Doesn't mean the dirt won't come up/There's a fire burnin' up.
The persistent inequalities that shape South Africa wreck destruction; they are the historical dirt that keeps coming up, and community protests around the country often, quite literally, light fires that are burnin’ up. Positive thinking, individualistic responses and feel-good stories – especially those steeped in white nostalgia – will never bring the change we need.