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Author: Litheko Modisane
Title: The Visual black Atlantic? Trope- (ing) Black Identity in Yizo Yizo (1999, 2001)
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
Summer 2011

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Source: The Visual black Atlantic? Trope- (ing) Black Identity in Yizo Yizo (1999, 2001)
Litheko Modisane

vol. 8, no. 2, Summer 2011

The Visual black Atlantic? Trope- (ing) Black Identity in Yizo Yizo (1999, 2001)

Litheko Modisane


Reading Paul Gilroy’s seminal book: the black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, one may either locate its major claims within the theatre of the Atlantic slave trade and its posterity; or better still, expand them beyond the Atlantic world. The first option commits the book’s claims to a spatio-temporal frame; the second advances the conceptual insights of the black Atlantic beyond the historical restrictions of the Atlantic world itself. This article does the latter. It examines the applicability of Paul Gilroy’s trope of the black Atlantic in the reading of a post-apartheid television series; Yizo Yizo (1999, 2001) which it argues reconstructs black identity. It shows that the reconstructions of black identity in the series bear the imprint of reflexive cultures of the black Diaspora, and that Black Nationalism, a discourse with which Gilroy’s work also critically engages, underwrites it. This article explores the concept of Black Nationalism in a way that considers the political vision that informs black South Africans’ quest for power. Their ‘common’ historical encounter with racialised oppression acts as a springboard on which this quest mounts the construction of a future socio-political dispensation. This dispensation seeks to privilege black people politically, a reversal of the generic racialised order. However, Black Nationalism as implied in the series’ reconstructions of black identity disavows the absolute ethnicity that Gilroy argues is at play in the nationalist political cultures of the United Kingdom and the United States in general, and in its articulation of black identity specifically. The article concludes that the trope of the black Atlantic can facilitate a reading of the construction of black identity in the post-apartheid televisual and cinematic representations of black identity.

The portrayal of post-apartheid social life in Yizo Yizo occurs against the background of political transition which is pertinent to the focus of the article. Though located in South Africa, Yizo Yizo resonates with a trans-national historical and discursive frame that contributed to the genesis, evolution, and crystallization in modernity, of the ‘black’ racial/ethnic category. Therefore, historically and conceptually, the ‘black’ in ‘black’ South Africans is not exclusively South African but has a cultural and political dimension with a transnational reach. Yizo Yizo is an attempt at opening television drama to the public debates about the new political dispensation in South Africa, the principal aim of which was the end of the apartheid system and the enfranchisement of the black people. A good part of the debates entailed the continuing problem of socio-economic inequalities in the post-apartheid period. These factors make the series germane to the consideration of the conceptual usefulness of the black Atlantic in the study of post-apartheid South African television and film.

Yizo Yizo

Yizo Yizo (1999, 2001, and 2004) is a state-commissioned three-season television series addressed to the problems around township (black localities in South Africa) schools in South Africa. It is an outcome of a campaign by the national Department of Education called Culture of Learning and Teaching, Teaching and Service (COLTS). The series was part of the Departmental strategies for addressing problems besetting township schools. The series was also charged with the development of positive role models, as well as “modeling a process of restoration in a typical South African school serving urban Black South African community”. [1]Yizo Yizo was aimed at high school and out-of-school youth. Angus Gibson and Teboho Mahlatsi directed the first series; while Mahlatsi and Barry Berk directed the second and Mahlatsi, Gibson and Andrew Dosunmu directed the third series respectively.

Yizo Yizo1 Synopsis

Set in a fictitious township school, Supatsela High, the story charts the progress, demise and resurgence of the school’s youth and teachers as they grapple with the criminality and violence of out-of-school youth (Chester), their sponsor (Bro Gibb) and their school-going friends (Papa Action). The violence ranges across rape, extortion and emotional harassment. The story follows the imposition of autocratic order under the leadership of the principal, Mr. Mthembu. Mthembu later resigns after beating up a pupil badly. Following Mthembu’s departure, his immediate colleague, Ken Mokwena, takes over as acting principal. It is under Mokwena’s leadership that the school descends into anarchy in the forms of drug dealing, vandalism and violent disorder. The arrival of Grace Letsatsi, a motivated young female teacher turns the school around and for the first time, the parents, the school governing body, and the Student Representative Council work together to bring back order to the school. The hooligans attempt to claim the school again but they fail miserably as the community takes charge and gets them arrested for their various misdeeds.

Yizo Yizo2 Synopsis

The series begins at the start of the new school year. Our main characters are now in matric (last year of public school before they proceed to college or university). The violence that engulfed the school the previous year has been contained. Basic security and order have been established but the problems are not over. This series celebrates the courage and determination of a school community overcoming obstacles in the way of good education. They learn that the best resources are not buildings and money, but people. Yizo Yizo 2 is about ordinary people’s struggle to learn, play, change, read, love, dream and find their place in the world. (Andersson 2004: 3)

The democratic dispensation in South Africa gave rise to new challenges that were encapsulated in a nation-building project congruent with the values of democratic citizenship. While the focus of Yizo Yizo is the problems besetting township schools, it forms part of the state’s attempts at impressing upon citizens the important values in the making and consolidation of democratic culture and accountability. These issues are at the heart of the national agenda, at least according to the African National Congress-led state. [2] Therefore, unlike Fools, Yizo Yizo emerges as a means through which the national agenda insofar as the political vision of the state defines it, is made visible and engaged. This also suggests that the construction of black identity in the series is congruent with this agenda and its assumptions of multi-culturalism. Through its projection of a kaleidoscope of black characters with various motivations, and socio-cultural inheritances, Yizo Yizo gives us a glimpse of the many challenges and threats to the agenda.

Black Atlantic: An Overview

Gilroy outlines the background against which his project is set as one in which the conceptual understanding of the relation between nationality, race and culture are based on absolute sense of ethnic difference. (Gilroy 1993: 3) He sees this at work in Britain, where the self-conception of black settlers, has often been defined against the “underlying sense of England as a cohesive cultural community”. (Gilroy 1993: 3) The sense of ethnic absolutism that Gilroy identifies is according to him, also at play in the English Cultural Studies and “the statist modalities of Marxist analysis which view modes of material production and political domination as exclusively national entities...” (Gilroy 1993: 3-4) He further indicts, “the cultural nationalism which pervades the work of some radical thinkers [....] who are disinclined to consider the cross catalytic or transverse dynamics of racial politics as a significant element in the formation and reproduction of English national identities”. (Gilroy 1993: 4) Therefore, according to Gilroy, in the modern West, the dominant understanding around nationality, race and culture, labour under discrete, essentialised assumptions. Gilroy is ultimately anti-nationalistic because he questions the nationalistic inclination of black political culture in Britain and the United States, and the English and African-American versions of cultural studies. The concept of the black Atlantic also eschews racial discourse as the mode of explaining black identity:

Whether their experience of exile is enforced or chosen, temporary or permanent, these intellectuals and activists, writers, speakers, poets, and artists repeatedly articulate a desire to escape the restrictive bonds of ethnicity, national identification, and sometimes even “race” itself. (Gilroy 1993: 19)

Further, Gilroy problematises the articulation of the concept of modernity within Western political and philosophical thought. According to him, Western thought on modernity does not take into cognizance the experience of slavery by blacks in the West as part of its heritage. On this point, Gilroy argues: “racial terror was not merely compatible with occidental rationality but cheerfully complicit with it”. (Gilroy 1993: 56) Gilroy seeks to rewrite modernity from the perspectives of the slaves and their descendants. As he does this, Gilroy draws attention to black artists, and intellectuals’ imbrication within, and their negotiation of modernity. He foregrounds his argument in terms of the historical presence of black people in the intellectual and cultural heritage of the West, at least since the Enlightenment. (Gilroy 1993: 2) Accordingly, black people’s inheritance of modernity, as well as the rapport of their reflexive cultures with the memory of slavery, migration across the Euro-American divides, forms the loci of the formation of blacks as modern subjects. (Gilroy 1993: 28-9)

The black Atlantic ultimately refers to the specificity of modern black cultural and political formations, which denote the desire by blacks to “transcend the structures of the nation state and constraints of ethnicity and national particularity”. (Gilroy 1993: 19) It also defines the “cultural forms originated by, but no longer the exclusive property of blacks dispersed within the structure of feeling, producing, communicating and remembering [...]”. (Gilroy 1993: 3) It suggests cultural mutations, hybridity, and (dis) continuity as the best way to understand the constitution of modern black subjects in the West. (Gilroy 1993: 2) In this way, Gilroy privileges culture over nationality as the cardinal realm in the construction of modern black identities in the West. Briefly then, the black Atlantic historicises and theorises black identity in relation to Western modernity, and at the same time, questions the philosophical claims subtending Western modernity through the perspective of the black slaves and their descendants. The conceptual implications for modernity are profound. It suggests that slavery is part of the heritage of modernity and that thinking about this in simple binary terms is not sustainable. It also means that tradition as reflected in the reflexive cultures of the slaves and their descendants is also part of the cultural and intellectual makeup of modernity.

The manner in which Gilroy questions the dominant understanding of modernity in the West has a striking resonance with the experiences of modernity in Africa in general and South Africa in particular. Whereas slavery was the form through which Gilroy revealed the underbelly of modernity in the West, in South Africa successive regimes visited upon black people, oppression that was equally articulated in various forms of the discourse of scientific racism, and ultimately economic exploitation. According to Gilroy, these constitute the hallmarks of Western modernity. Therefore, the significant difference between the encounter with modernity by black people in the Diaspora, and the South African blacks’ experience of it, is in the mode of domination and the form of violence endured: racial slavery in the Americas, and racial oppression in South Africa. These differences notwithstanding, we can discern in both cases a qualitative similarity in the encounter with racist discourses and practices, in short, with the contradictions of modernity. The implication of these similarities, for the question of the conceptual applicability of the black Atlantic in reading South African television dramas and films, is apparent: the black Atlantic might offer a substantive conduit for thinking through black identity outside the Diaspora. However, historical engagements of the pains and pleasures of modernity in South Africa by black people, invite further consideration of the significance of Gilroy’s thesis about black identity and modernity, for the South African context.

Gilroy’s thesis has provoked critical responses to its historical bias for the blacks in the West, and its conceptual framing of modernity. [3] Ntongela Masilela decries the elision of the African and Latin American intellectual and cultural imprints from the historical and epistemic parameters of the black Atlantic. [4] Masilela laments: “In a deeply saddening way, the black Atlantic expresses an unremitting disdainfulness for Africa, for things African, and for things that come from our ‘Dark Continent”. [5] He concludes that this reflected its location within “late modernist European experiences rather than African modernist articulations”. [6] According to Masilela, these articulations were demonstrable in the attempts by intellectuals in the black Diaspora to make a rapprochement with Africa- a fact, which was reflected in the Diaspora roots of Pan-Africanism, which he argues is “the fundamental political philosophy of African modernity in the 20th century par excellence”. [7] Masilela further makes the example of African modernity in South Africa as a historical outgrowth of African-American modernity. In making this point, Masilela delineates the intellectual influences of the African American intellectuals on late 19th and early to mid 20th century African intellectuals in South Africa. And he cites luminaries of the 1920s newspaper, Umteteli wa Bantu, such as R.V. Selope Thema, H.I.E. Dhlomo, Solomon Plaatje, H. Selby Msimang, Allan Kirkland Soga and others to make his point. [8]

In contrast to Masilela, David Attwell models dialogical and ambivalent predisposition by Ezekiel Mphahlele to African American modernity. [9] Equally, Laura Chrisman recognises complex and critical reception of African American thought in South Africa, a fact, which she thinks, is generally ignored. [10] She points out that the easy transposability of African-American thought in Africa tends to ignore nationalism, political struggle and Marxism- thereby downplaying the political condition of modernity. [11] Gilroy is not exempt from Chrisman’s uneasiness with the silence on black thinkers’ anti-capitalist analyses. Chrisman puts into question, what she regards as Masilela’s emphasis on the African-American vanguardist leadership of African intellectuals in South Africa. [12] In a critical manoeuvre aimed at debunking the recursive deployment of cultural bias in Masilela’s understanding of modernity, Chrisman illustrates the materialist bent in continental Africans’ critical appreciation of modernity. According to Chrisman, while Masilela’s New Africans modelled themselves on the Talented Tenth, [13] the elucidation of the idea the New African, by one of its chief exponents, H.I.E. Dhlomo, betrays this uncritical emulation. For Dhlomo, New Africans were mostly “organised urban workers who are awakening to the issues at stake and to the power of organised intelligently- led mass action and of progressive thinking African intellectuals and leaders”. [14]

For Chrisman then, the national focus and accent on racialised labour in Dhlomo’s definition, deflates Masilela’s privileging of Du Bois’ idea of the Talented Tenth, and also draws attention to the materialist and critical engagement of African-American thought. Over and above her highlighting of African intellectuals’ critical encounter with African American modernity, Chrisman expends her reading on Gilroy’s anti-nationalist project. She does not “consider it possible nor desirable to eliminate all nationalist ideologies and cancel national entities as objects of analysis”. [15] Chrisman also questions the lack of conceptual specificity of the nationalism that Gilroy sought to expose. According to her, Gilroy does not make distinctions between diverse nationalisms such as secular, ethnic, and fundamental nationalisms. [16] Consequently, Chrisman argues that Gilroy generalizes ethnicist nationalism as the only kind, and assumes that nationalism can only be purist. Against what she sees as Gilroy’s displaced opposition of nationalism and ‘outer-nationalism’, Chrisman proposes an interdependence of the two. [17] The critical appreciation of Gilroy’s work is illuminating, particularly the warning by Chrisman of the complexities in the interplay between African thought and African-American modernity. Chrisman’s advice is attractive for its insistence on the critical and complex dialogue or exchanges between African and African American thinkers.

Thus far, it is increasingly becoming clear that the scholarship on Gilroy’s black Atlantic in relation to Africa in general and to South Africa in particular is framed historically, that is in relation to early to- mid-20th century black thinkers. The focus, by Gilroy’s critics, on 20th century African intellectuals is understandable because the historical terms of the debate on blackness and modernity, at least insofar as Gilroy set them up, threw into sharp relief the absence of Africans from the historical scene delimited by his black Atlantic. Though highly instructive, these critiques have in retrospect, inadvertently instituted the exclusion, from the debates on the black Atlantic, of genres other than the overtly political writings by African intellectuals in 20th century South Africa. Public engagements are no longer the preserve of the traditional genres such as the newspaper column or the book, which early intellectuals were by force of necessity more than likely to utilize. The advent of the cinema, television and more recently the World Wide Web, prompt us to consider anew, the terms in which concepts that might be considered remote to contemporary preoccupations are engaged. As one such concept, Gilroy’s trope of the black Atlantic provocatively implies an understanding of black identity and modernity, in terms that do not lend themselves to African cultural settings. This article recharts the spaces, in which the trope of the black Atlantic has been considered both by Gilroy and his critics. It inquires into the relevance of the black Atlantic trope to televisual and by extension filmic re-imaginings of black identity, and in doing so, contributes a genre-specific perspective to contemporary understandings of black identity (re)constructions.

Against and partly due to the critical concerns about Gilroy’s exclusion of Africa from his work, as presented by the aforementioned commentators, this article assumes that the absence of the continent from his black Atlantic work does not equal the foreclosure of his critical intimations for reflecting on black identity and cultures within it. Of especial importance in the article’s recalling of black Atlantic in the analysis of the series is the question of its critique of nationalism. Gilroy’s critique of nationalism presents a problem because in the selected series, the article suggests, nationalism is engaged in a way that highlights its importance for the construction of black identity in South Africa. Recalling the trope of the black Atlantic in relation to the selected post-apartheid television drama series does two things at once. It presents the opportunity to consider the (re)constructions of black identity in the post-repressive regime era, and the implications of these for the theoretical standoff between Chrisman’s critique, and the theory of black identity and modernity presented in Gilroy’s work. Briefly, it allows us to ask the question: whether and how post-apartheid films present the local inflections of black identity that might offer critical insights into its post-colonial turn, and into the issues pertaining to black identity in South Africa and the black Atlantic, that Masilela and Chrisman raise.

The onset of the new dispensation in South Africa, along with its train of contending hopes about the future, calls for new considerations of African engagements with modernity. Some post-apartheid television series and films have alongside other genres, represented the anxieties and pleasures attendant to the unfolding political transition. They present both a new historical context and a new form through which reflections on constructions of black identity could be engaged. This article focuses on one- Yizo Yizo.

Imagining Black Identities in Yizo Yizo: Democracy, Citizenship

In keeping with the aspiration for a properly-run school, with diligent pupils, competent teachers and committed parents, the drama plots the nightmare of sexual harassment, murder, abuse and offensive language through highly suggestive images and speech. There are unambiguous images of girls being raped in Yizo Yizo1 (Dudu in Episode 9), a man being murdered by youths, another being raped by a fellow prisoner- both in episode 4 of Yizo Yizo2. [18] In the series, teachers with a twisted sense of their profession- abuse the girl pupils, or merely abscond from their duties. Yet there are others including the new principal (Grace Letsatsi) who are committed to the school. Yizo Yizo therefore, structures a moral dualism. It is within this contrasting of qualities that the series constructs black identity in terms of its social relations. This move ensures that it does not assert black identities in a way that fixes them as homogenously bad or entirely good, but constructs them within a terrain of social and cultural struggle. The journeys of the characters are projected towards personal or collective achievements which are aligned with ideals of citizenship and others proper to democratic civility. Black identity in Yizo Yizo can be said to be constructed in light of these ideals. The principal pleas for parents in the township to be part of the school governing body; and her eventual success exemplify the pursuit of localized democratic life.

Against the authoritarian tendencies of the former principal of Supatsela, Mr. Mthembu and his supporter Mr. Nyembe, Yizo Yizo ushers in a “gender-conscious” democratic practice in the school. [19] This serves its dualistic schema. The narrative also castigates the irresponsible Mr. Mokwena under whose headship, the school falls into chaos. Mthembu’s liberal use of the cane, autocratic leadership style as well as cultural conservatism as demonstrated in his hatred of ‘dreadlocks’, aligns him firmly with both the patriarchal camps of the apartheid system and archconservative interpretations of African culture. Therefore, the drama registers democratic values in terms that are oppositional to the explicitly undemocratic leadership of “the patriarchs”. The new system, it seems requires a liberal outlook in keeping with openness to modern values. Thus, the imagination and reconstruction of black identities in Yizo Yizo primarily assumes the form of a liberal democratic political order. It is also shot through a social realism that is narrowly focused on the practicalities of leadership and order in an urban setting.

The construction of local participatory democracy in the series reverses the subject status of black identity as it is emblazoned in the colonial and apartheid imaginary. In the place of the subject status, Yizo Yizo adopts the discourse of citizenship to facilitate agency for black identity. This way, the series reconstructs black identity in terms of the discourse of national democratic citizenship. Therefore, it reinterprets black identity according to the ideal categories of modernity- which are diametrically opposed to both culturist and colonial outlooks. This runs parallel to the argument in the black Atlantic that black identity in the West was forged in the tension between the desire for the political norms of Western modernity, and a disdain for their injustice. In the series, the excesses of modernity (apartheid, colonialism) are rejected, and modern norms for a society based on justice (democracy, citizenship) are embraced and encouraged. In spite of the historical differences between the historical backdrop of Gilroy’s work, and the neo-colonial scene represented in Yizo Yizo, the series bears out its premise, namely, that black people’s encounter with the contradictory features of modernity explains the ‘constitution’ of black identity. The implication here is that the parallels between the historical and geo-political frame of the black Atlantic, with the black people’s experience of modernity in Africa, rely on the same premise- which the series’ construction of black identity demonstrate.

On another level, settings that valorize black Diaspora icons compliment the liberal outlook of the series. The photograph of the ‘dread’-locked reggae icon, Bob Marley adorns the walls of one classroom in Yizo Yizo2. It is resonant with anti-colonial struggles, in particular the cultural dimension of the struggle. The ‘dread’-locked female teacher and pupil signal continuity with the tendency in the series, of cross-cultural and political undercurrents, which emerge as polar-opposites of the values that the autocratic principal represent. The portrayal of the setting in the series, and of personal stylization in the form of dreadlocks, signals the import it attaches to the black Diaspora on the construction of black identities in South Africa. We may consider also the series’ adaptation of radical African-American poetry.

Spoken word

In episode 5, the pupils recite in the rapping fashion of Hip Hop, the combative poem by Maya Angelou, Still I Rise presented here in a shortened version:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.....
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,....
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

The poem constitutes a multi-generic textual strategy, which informs the construction of black identity in Yizo Yizo. The poem surfaces the political sensibilities of the series, its vigilance to the historical oppression of black people in South Africa and the United States and their defiance of oppressive discourses and practices. The appropriation of the poem invites attention to the quest by black people for liberation. Speaking to an unidentified and homogenized oppressor, the poem is ultimately cognizant of the shared historical ‘experiences’ across the Atlantic. Given the universality of the theme of freedom, the filmmakers’ preference for the above poem is significant. Precisely because it is lifted from an African-American literary canon, the poem speaks to a politically and historically informed subversion in the series, of the oppressive nature of colonial and apartheid powers. On the other hand, its role in the drama seems fashioned to confront historical misrepresentations of black identity. The first two lines capture this vividly: you may write me down in history, with your bitter twisted lies [...] but still like dust, I rise. Consequently, the rise of the black youth and of their parents and teachers from the dust of a hostile history is a militant gesture. With the help of African-American Jazz and reggae artists, radical poets and its leaders, the population of Supatsela is charged with a political task to determine its agency and destiny.

The series can also be read in the light of the stylistic and thematic parallels with part of the black-centered film culture in the Diaspora, that address precisely the social and political challenges identified in the black Atlantic as central to the understanding of black identities. In Yizo Yizo, young gangsters like Papa Action, Chester, and Zakes are represented with sensitivity to their social milieu, which is not new in black-centered film history, particularly of black-centered films in the Diaspora. John Singleton’s Boys n the Hood (1993) and Albert and Allen Hughes’ Menace II Society, in which young black criminals are at the centre of the film, evince a similar impulse. Fernando Meirelles’ Cidade de Deus (City of God) (2000) and Cidade Dos Homens (City of Men) (2002) present gritty images of social violence, in the Brazilian favellas. While differences may be traced between these films, they ultimately speak to the concern with the overarching social reality of brutalisation of young blacks in economically depressed, and often politically repressive societies.

Indeed the Diaspora inheres in and perhaps informs the directorial visions and strategies in Yizo Yizo. [20] The series’ exploration of urban landscape shows unmistakeable parallels with some of Spike Lee’s black neighbourhood films or ‘Joints’ as Lee calls them. These are in keeping with the production of young black masculine youth identities. In Yizo Yizo and other local films such as Tsotsi, (2006) [21] the young surviving types (aboGuluva/tsotsis) emulate their African American counterparts. In Tsotsi, the film sets the sequence subsequent to the opening shot in which the film’s main character Tsotsi and his colleagues go out on a ‘mission’, against a ‘masculine’ inclined song. The song is by Zola, a South African Kwaito musician- who also features in the film.

Yizo Yizo acknowledges and promotes Kwaito as a music genre of choice for young blacks in South Africa. Kwaito is an amalgam of local (‘bubblegum’ or South African disco) and Western influences (American Hip Hop, European House music, Ragga). (Nutall and Michael 2000: 256) According to Stephens, Kwaito does not only appropriate the musical elements of Ragga and Hip Hop, but also its “symbols of black cultural ecumene and resistance”. (Nutall and Michael 2000: 257) The imprint of Hip Hop within Kwaito therefore shows that the film’s attempts to represent authentically the local cultural scene, is confronted with the hybridity of youth culture itself. Kwaito complements the urban cultural milieu of the film. Therefore it is through Kwaito that Yizo Yizo is able to show the globalised or rather the trans-Atlantic presence in the youth imaginary of black identity in South Africa. Through the representation of black youth culture in terms of its emulation and adaptation of popular culture from the Diaspora- especially African-American Hip Hop, the film broadly reconstructs black identity over and above the cultural boundaries of South African national setting.

Yizo Yizo stretches the historical limits of the politically inclined expressive cultures of the black Atlantic, and at the same time upholds the motivations sustaining such cultures in the construction of black identities outside the West. This means that it participates in the historical critique of the black Atlantic, but maintains its premises, namely the role of hybridity in the formation of black identities. However, even this hybridity favors those black cultures in the Diaspora, ‘connected’ to the local political ideas and histories of blackness, such as Bob Marley’s image suggests. Black Nationalism, the Rasta icon and Maya Angelou’s poetry tacitly suggest, bears important symbolic capital for black identity in the post-apartheid era. Moreover, the film implies that Black Nationalism has durable currency in the understanding of black identity. Even more importantly, the construction of black identity in Yizo Yizo negotiates both its attachment to the official national agenda- underwritten by a multi-cultural nationalism, as well as allegiance to Black Nationalism, the culturally itinerant and variant of anti-colonial struggles. In addition, Yizo Yizo captures the contradictions of modernity, in relation to black identity, and the attendant alienation in the formation of black identity- a point the black Atlantic incessantly makes.


I began the article by asking whether the black Atlantic, in particular its arguments about the conceptual premises of black identity, could be applied to the readings of Yizo Yizo. I have demonstrated that such a reading is possible. At the same time, I show that the series engages critically with the black Atlantic, especially its omissions of Africa, from its historical purview, and more especially its anti-nationalist stances. While the series demonstrates the hybridity, and diasporic tenor in its constructions of black identity, tendencies which are congruent with Gilroy’s trope of the black Atlantic, it does not share its anti-nationalist bias. Yizo Yizo appears to encourage conformity with an implied Black Nationalism, which is realised through the appropriation of black Diaspora expressions. The series draws on iconic statuses, textual import and political values from the black Diaspora. Its import lies in the buttressing of the cultural, social and political affinities between South African black ‘experience’ and the encounter with oppression by blacks from the Diaspora. These intertextual references stand alongside the disavowal in the series, of the colonial and apartheid ideas of black identity. The series represents Black identity in nuanced ways that acknowledge cultural and social specificities and differences- thereby shifting it from the homogenous to the plural.

However, the plurality is itself not value-free because of the series’ pursuit of liberation from the apartheid and colonial views of blackness, and the impulse towards liberation. Ultimately, the political form that the implied but certainly pursued liberation assumes, places at its center, the self-determination by black people of the terms by which they will engage, contest and enter modernity. Yizo Yizo embraces a dialogue within a chronotope occupied by the formerly-oppressed across class, ethnic, gender and age lines. Its shifting of black identity from subject to citizens favors a determination of the political and social life of black people by black people- on the basis of a shared struggle and collective vision of the future.

While Yizo Yizo evinces a pro-nationalist sensibility, this does not stem from racist and ethnic absolutism, but is inspired by historical vigilance against oppression, particularly the extent to which it presented the political and social organization in predominantly black neighborhoods. The series does not avowedly embrace nationalism but is not averse to it because of its emphasis on values and options congruent with black self-determination. This historical and political line negates Gilroy’s anti-nationalistic stance. However, the tension between the series and Gilroy’s position is troubled by the cross-cultural mutations and hybridity in its staging of black identity and attendant discourse of liberation. The series’ pursuit of corrective social ad cultural life is complemented by its affirmative appropriations of black Diaspora texts- particularly those that celebrate black modernity, without disavowing its political conditions. Eventually it shifts away from the anti-nationalism of the black Atlantic analytical apparatus, but still retains some of its premises. However, the series does this by recasting such premises within the space of African modernity. In its resonance of the diasporic cultures and troubling of Gilroy’s black Atlantic, the series demonstrates its analytical usefulness in the engagement of the constructions of black identity in post-apartheid films, as well as its limits in theorizing and historicizing black identity.

Yizo Yizo evinces critical alertness to the significance of black diasporic expressions for the (re)constructions of black identity in South Africa. It surfaces the limits and strengths of the trope of the black Atlantic for reading South African television. The representations of black identity in the drama series shows that it corresponds to the analytic apparatus of the black Atlantic, namely; its illumination of the cultural mutations and hybridity of modern black identities, and the dialectic of modernity. However, the implied Black Nationalism in Yizo Yizo foregrounds the role of nationalism in post-apartheid representations of black identity. This foregrounding does not only trow into sharp relief, Gilroy’s negation of nationalism as a constituent aspect in the formation of black identity in the modern West, but also destabilises such negation.

Litheko Modisane is Post-Doctoral Fellow, Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative, in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.


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Modisane L., ‘Yizo Yizo: Sowing Debate, Reaping Controversy’, Social Dynamics: A Journal of African Studies, Vol. 36. No 1. 2010, 122-134.

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Online References

De Klerk, F. W., Setting the National Agenda for the Next Decade. <>

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Hughes, A., and Hughes A., (USA) Menace II Society (1993)

Meirelles, F., Cidade de Deus (Brazil) (City of God) (2000)

Meirelles, F., Cidade Dos Homens (Brazil) (City of Men) (2002)

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Singleton, J., (USA) Boys N the Hood (1991)

Schmitz, O., Mapantsula (South Africa), 1988

Hood, G., Tsotsi (South Africa) 2006


1. See <http://www/> (accessed 2, July 2006)

2. For explanations of the National Agenda in South Africa, see former President Thabo Mbeki’s article: Implementing the National Agenda, Mrabulo no2, October 2004. For part of the engagements of Mbeki’s thoughts, see F.W. De Klerk’s article Setting the National Agenda for the Next Decade in <> (De Klerk is a former president of the Republic of South Africa, the last in the Apartheid line).

3. The importance of Gilroy’s work can be intimated in the 1996 issuing of a special edition on the black Atlantic by the journal Research in African Literatures. See Abiola Irele (Ed) Research in African Literatures, Indiana University Press , Bloomington, Vol. 27, no2. Summer 1996.

4. Masilela N., The Black Atlantic and African Modernity in South Africa Ibid., 88-96. The exclusion of Africans from the black Atlantic has also been noted by Charles Piot. However he focuses on the cultural practices of the Togolese, and makes an argument for the Diasporic imprint in these cultures. See his Atlantic Aporias: Africa and Gilroy's Black Atlantic in The South Atlantic Quarterly - Volume 100, Number 1, Winter 2001, pp. 155-170. See also Gikandi, Hegel, 1996.

5. See also Gikandi S., Hegel, 147.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., 90. Masilela also commits a wealth of documentation on a website especially dedicated to his intervention into the black Atlantic and the making of South African modernity. See Masilela N., New Negro Modernity, New African Modernity, 4 in <>.

9. Attwell D., Rewriting Modernity: Studies in South African Literary History, University of Kwazulu Natal Press, Scottsville, 2005, 111-136.

10. Chrisman L., 2001 92

11. Chrisman L., 2003, 91

12. Chrisman. L., Post-Colonial Contraventions Cultural Readings of Race, Imperialism and Transnationalism, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 2003

13. The Talented Tenth denotes W. E. B. Du Bois’ argument that leadership of the African-Americans must hail from the first ten percent of the enlightened men among them. He wrote his ideas in his famous essay: The Talented Tenth, The Negro Problem: A Series of Articles by Representative Negroes of To-day, New York, 1903.

14. Dhlomo in Chrisman L., 2003, 92. For Dhlomo’s revisions of Du Bois’ Upper Tenth idea and his changing ideas about Africa political and intellectual leadership, see Peterson, B. K., Monarchs, Missionaries and African Intellectuals, Wits University press, Johannesburg, 2000, 176-193.

15. Chrisman. L., Journeying to Death: Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic, Contraventions, 2003, 78.

16. Chrisman L., Contraventions, 2003, 73.

17. Ibid., 191.

18. These and other images as well gave rise to a public furore, which also hinted on the issue of black identity. See Modisane L, ‘Yizo Yizo: Sowing Debate, Reaping Controversy’, Social Dynamics: A Journal of African Studies, Vol. 36. No 1. 2010, 122-134.

19. In Yizo Yizo, the children call Nyembe ‘Isaac Hayes’, thanks to his bald head and free flowing beard. That the new principal is a black woman resonates with the new gender sensitive culture within the post-apartheid political culture in South Africa, particularly in the Mbeki era.

20. In an interview with Andersson, Mahlatsi makes reference to the influence of Spike Lee’s Mo Better Blues, Do the Right Thing and She’s Gotta Have It. See Andersson, Intertextuality and Memory in Yizo Yizo, PhD thesis, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 2004, 80.

21. Tsotsi was directed by Gavin Hood. It is based on Athol Fugard’s novel of the same name but set in post-apartheidSouth Africa- and alludes to themes absent in the novel such as HIV-AIDS. Tsotsi won the 2006 American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Award for Best Foreign Language Film.