D is for Dissident

This talk was first delivered by multi-potentialist Dinika Govender at 10and5’s X conference for creative womxn on 13 August 2016.

Grade 3 was a big year for me.

First, I had my first poem published in a national English textbook. It was entitled “Why I Like Sand” and, according to the editor, it demonstrated a keen understanding of descriptive adjectives. I was thrilled. I loved books and I loved writing, so to have something that I had written appear in a book was too cool.

Later that year, I put my hand up to join a group of scholars from around Johannesburg on the Felicia Show. The show’s segment was “Word From the Mouths of Babes” and it was on that show that I, eager to impress, declared to Felicia Mabuza Suttle and to the country, that I when I grew up I was going to be a Marketing Manager. Look – I was seven years old and had no idea why I said that. I did not even know what Marketing was, but I knew that my mother was working in a corporate environment and that there was something very alluring about having your own desk, with your own computer and a work phone, and that you got to wear suits and say things like “do you have a business card”?

Then seven-year-old me had a bit of a dramatic time socially. In the political world of girl friendships, I had been given the title of Posh Spice in our group of Spice Girls. I had cropped black hair and couldn’t sing very well – which made me a good fit for standing, pouting and mouthing along. However, Grade 3 was the year that the real Ginger Spice, Geri Halliwell, left the real Spice Girls. This caused a lot of discomfort, because our existing Ginger Spice – who used to have most of the lines – was suddenly irrelevant. Without much deliberation or consultation, it was decided that I should switch places with our Ginger Spice because “She was white and Posh was ‘technically’ white.” Before this mutiny could be finalised, our manager, and my best friend at the time, decided to quit because we had failed to pay her 10c management fee. She had organised us a pretty good gig at an upcoming Friday Assembly and that would be her last. Without a manager, we were doomed, so it was that year that the Spice Girls of Cyrildene Primary School also disbanded.

I did not know it then, but these three experiences represent three forces that have shaped, and in many ways, continue to shape my journey.

The first force is one of innate love. In my case, it is a love for words. Words as a tool to create new worlds, to give shape and form to feelings and to act as a basic unit of connecting me to the world, me to you. Where this love came from I cannot know for sure, but it was certainly nurtured from an early age. I grew up in a household that held a deep respect for books, and Saturdays were always Public Library days. Apart from M-Net Open Time and the 7 ‘o clock news, TV was not a major part of my life until much later, after 1994 – when we, like many educated South African Indian families, jumped up the socioeconomic ladder. I would spend time writing adventure stories about my invisible friends. I would also practice writing with both hands, because you never knew when you might suddenly lose a hand.

The second force is that of affirmation and ambition. This one is a little more complex, because it’s a function of other people’s ideas of progress, my response to those ideas and my own ideas. Even at age 7, it became clear that not all ambitions receive equal recognition. My interest and basic joy in literature, for instance, had been affirmed as a strength, which meant that more time could be allocated to building strength in “core subjects” like maths and science. My interest in theatre and history was affirmed as “character building”, which was a good step towards leadership.

It was a time of Growth, Acceleration and Redistribution in The New South Africa, and these macroeconomic goals filtered into the microeconomic world of my family’s middle-class aspirations – policing dreams and channelling talents in more responsible directions. Coming from a place of limited capital and historically stunted freedom, our very survival in a new and liberal democracy depended on how well we could distinguish ourselves as future agents of economic growth. So, as the first-born whose duty it was to be an excellent role model, I channelled my energies and passions into “the responsible things”.

The third force is that of resilience. I’m used to being a minority, so whilst being ousted as Posh Spice was hurtful, I chose diplomacy. We paid our manager her 10c fee in milk bottles, and we soon discovered Britney. See, growing up in an ex-Model C environment in central Johannesburg, where most of my friends and neighbours were either Portuguese, Italian or Greek, I had to learn to be ok being “the other”. In the Rainbow Nation spirit of non-racialism, I regularly left my Indianess and any socialist tendencies at the door.

Grade Three, hey.

— — —

It is now almost twenty years later, and I find myself back in my hometown at an inflection point – a product of love, ambition and resilience that I am constantly navigating amongst a galaxy of other forces both known and unknown.

Since my moment on The Felicia Show, I’ve worn many hats in different environments.

In the last few years since I joined the world of income tax, I’ve helped grow three digital and innovation startups; one co-working space and a start-up focused on urban planning and policy. I also started my own business, a bakery, in the midnight hours after office hours. Before that I co-managed an international internship programme, helped other companies create their own internships, and have designed and run events that promote innovation through diversity and deep engagement. (I also represented South Africa at a European Financial Seminar in Switzerland. That was weird.)

I guess you could say I’ve treated myself like a glitter bomb at a paint party.

I can tell you exactly how I’ve done this, but my journey has really been one of constantly questioning why. And I’d like to share why that is.

So I before I continue, here’s a small exercise:

— — —

I’m going to ask you a few questions. You may interpret the questions however you wish to. You do not need to share your answers, so be real with yourself. It may also help to close your eyes…but please don’t fall asleep.

Ready?

We’ve just fast-forwarded 30 years and you’re in your future home. What does your home look like? …Where is it? … Can you picture objects, or the people and the memories that make up this home? Somewhere, perhaps there’s a framed photograph or a magazine with your name on it. What is it for? Is this what you want to see?

Done dreaming? Was that distressing?

— — —

I was given this exercise by a mentor years ago, when I was stuck at the crossroad of who I Should be and who I Must be.

And do you know what I saw in my future home? What I saw on that hypothetical magazine cover?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. If I was in a horror movie this was a sure indicator that I had about 7 days left to live.

It was honestly a very disturbing moment. Granted, I did even not pause to question whether these were even the right questions to be asking. But the fact was that I couldn’t picture what I wanted my own life to look like. I could tell you the things I was concerned about in the world: global warming, rape, reckless consumerism, class-based exclusion, failing leadership. And I could tell you the things that excited me about the world: the internet, food, spoken word poetry, bicycles, love. Of course I wanted to find a way to use the things that excited me to address the things that concerned me, but I had no idea where or how or when or if it would be “enough”.

This idea of “enough” – of having my ambitions affirmed – is in many ways an abusive lover. It starts off benevolently dictating my movements and actions – and I barely notice because I feel visible and safe. It guides my dreams and ambitions towards something that is mutually beneficial – and I barely notice that I am being converted from human into resource. I begin to confuse the warmth of belonging with the attachment of being possessed.

And so my journey towards balancing roles as a strategist, writer and entrepreneur has been a function of the tug-of-war between the worlds of Should and Must – and a subsequent struggle against the nature of my dreams.

My first move in pursuit of my own future was to leave home. I had this grand plan: I would study what was expected of me, and I would pursue my creative interests on the side.

Little did I know about The Institutionalisation of Self-Doubt.

I had left Johannesburg after high school and moved to Cape Town, where I studied Business Science at UCT.

I initially specialised in Actuarial Science, and I spent my entire first year wondering what on earth Actuarial Science is. I’m still not 100% sure.

It was 2009 and I was growing sceptical about the conviction in The Free Market to create a healthy society. The world was in the middle of the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. The poorest people were paying the biggest price, and here we were – Business Scientists in the making – learning how to price financial instruments based on staple food crops like maize.

To be very blunt, I know university is romanticised as this magical place where intellectuals gather, rip off their social conditioning, and feast off each other’s awesomeness as they create knowledge that will make the world more awesome. But university was not this for me. I experienced a mechanised place that reinforced social conditioning and fed us enough knowledge to help keep the world more or less as it is, only more racially diverse.

When my final year arrived, for instance, I had struggled to get support for my thesis, which was a proposed study of the influence of European standards of beauty and lifestyle in advertising on the self-image of women of colour. I was told that the topic was too big for me to handle, that we hadn’t really covered that kind of theory in four years of consumer studies, and that I was unlikely to find a supervisor with the resources to support me. This was one of those scenarios where I did not know if I was a total lost cause, or if my department was only interested in certain flavours of critical thought.

I was unable to articulate the nature of this dilemma at the time. I had been lucky enough to be on a full scholarship that allowed me to stay in Cape Town – but it required that I stayed within my chosen faculty. “No such thing as free money,” they say. So I became focused on fixing myself, ‘developing’ myself, because I was the one who was not fitting in. I had internalised the idea that I needed to play by the rules and win the game before I could change the rules – and I was unable to articulate how problematic this also was.

Whilst I wasn’t sure if it was me, or the education game, or my inability to respect the education game, I did know three things about my future:

1. I knew that I didn’t quite agree with the whole idea of a 5-year plan. What if you died in year 3? What if Serendipity was sitting next to you at a dinner in year 4?

2. I knew that I couldn’t wait around for Purpose to fall from the sky. I was better off than a lot of young South Africans my age, so to waste time and not contribute anything of myself because I wasn’t sure it was my best self, was simply not an option for me.

3. I also knew that every time I played Superwoman by Alicia Keys, I felt I could do anything.

So I put the song on repeat and I threw myself at almost everything. I trusted that the more I exposed myself to, and the more challenges I took on, the more I would learn about myself and the higher my chances of making serendipitous connections would be. I became the guinea pig and the scientist. I attended events and conferences just like the Creative Womxn one, and I volunteered at the events I couldn’t afford to attend. I kept (and still keep) my interests democratic – which means that I try not to censor myself from ideas that I do not agree with. I surrounded myself with an incredible network of supportive friends in diverse fields: from cycling to art to food, and I avoided those who have the awkward tendency of asking things like, “what are you?”

My experiences thus far have shown me that there’s a distinct power that emerges when I find myself constrained. I was forced to become more resourceful – and I was also privileged to have access to non-financial resources that helped me find more creative ways of broadening my horizons – not just for myself, but for anyone else who had internalised the idea that they needed to Other themselves in the short term in order to free themselves in the long run. But I’m not here to suggest that we rely on perceptive things like luck and resourcefulness.

———

Egyptian revolutionary and feminist, Dr Nawal Zaynab el Saadawi, writes extensively on the topic of creative women as dissidents, as bodies in constant protest. She writes:

“This is creativity – it is inspired and stimulated by our living our own lives, and not copying theories of struggle. Every struggle has its own unique theory that cannot be separated from action. Creativity means uniqueness, innovation, discovering a new way of thinking and acting – of creating a system based on more and more justice, freedom, love and compassion.”

One week ago, four South African women artfully reminded us to #RememberKhwezi, only to be told how they should have voiced themselves.

In a world that polices who we should be, how we should be and where we should be – creativity is not just necessary. It’s urgent.

I am happy to say that I am no longer in a tug-of-war between who I Should Be and who I Must Be. I am even happier to say that I’ve rekindled the kinship with the seven-year-old me who once wrote a poem about sand, and I am now using my accumulated experiences and talents for the purpose of re-imagining a world that does not need to dominate imagination or to force little girls, or any little humans, to feel the need to lie to Felicia Mabuza Suttle about who they want to be when they grow up.

Dinika Govender3

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