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Land | Labour | Life

This conversation was produced for the exhibition Sounding the Land, as part of the National Arts Festival, 2020. (

Photograph: Prishani Naidoo, Soccer game on a rooftop in Hillbrow during lockdown.

Music: Healer Oran, selections from the score for A Button Without a Hole.



I am Simon Gush and I am very happy to be able to have this conversation with Prishani Naidoo as part of the “sounding the land” exhibition, in which my film, A Button without a Hole, will be presented. The film is the second in a series of three that deal with the relationship between the land and work focussing on the dispossession and restitution of the land around Salem, a small town to the south of Makhanda.

I met Prishani in 2011 when she was part of a panel discussion organised by Bettina Malcomess, for the opening of one of my exhibitions. Since then every few years Prishani, as well as Ahmed Veriava, who was also part of that first discussion, and myself have had formal conversations for different exhibitions and catalogues. Each of these conversations has shaped my thinking and pushed me in new directions.

The most recent was at the end of 2016, and at the time I was about to start my MA under Prishani’s supervision. I had just begun to think about my project around the land claim in Salem and over the next three years Prishani worked closely with me during the making of the films. I am very happy to be able to carry on this tradition of conversations with her. I am also happy that during this time I have gotten to know her work much better and it is exciting for me to be able to talk about the intersection of our interests.

Due to the pandemic we have had to find new ways of doing things, when pressures of time, work and health have changed what is possible. Prishani and I decided to do something a little bit different by having this conversation over email, before recording our responses, in our own time. I have edited them together here.

HI Prishani

Thank you so much for making the time to do this.

We are currently experiencing massive changes in our lives due to the pandemic. Yet despite all the changes and new problems we are facing, many of the questions that you have been asking throughout your work and some of the questions that I was exploring in the films have taken on a new urgency. I wanted to start by asking you to reflect on some of these that you think are significant for our understanding of the present.

Hi Simon

Thanks for inviting me to this conversation. I think what cuts across our work are common questions about the relationship between land and labour, and in particular how wage labour comes to occupy the dominant position that it holds in society as a means of survival, of life, of social inclusion, and the ways in which we come to see and relate to ourselves and each other in the world, the shaping and constitution of subjects and subjectivities. In my work, I look in particular at the relationship between poverty and wage labour across the development of capitalist society, but with a particular interest in questions of political subjectivity, and with a focus on the contemporary, and South Africa. One of the things I think the pandemic has laid bare are the problems we sit with as a result of our continued reliance on the system of wage labour today. In South Africa, the enforced lockdown immediately showed some of these problems. The introduction of a set of economic interventions on the part of the state to try to lessen the burden on the poor and those unable to continue to work for a wage in this context, is also evidence of this. For me, it is significant that this moment is showing the urgency for us to start developing alternatives to this system, and I want to argue that what are being spoken of as immediate and temporary measures at the level of the economy, in particular changes related to the social grants system, show the possibility for us to think more seriously about more fundamental and longer term shifts in how we live.

But before we speak more about the present, I wanted to ask you to reflect a little on the particular histories of dispossession that in part produced the system and its problems that we sit with today, that you explore in your films - the title of the film you are sharing here - ‘A Button Without a Hole’ - is such a clear illustration of what the forced separation of people from their land does - not just to people’s means of survival, means of production, but to the kind of life they can imagine and make for themselves, and more importantly to their sense of self - The older Mr Madinda’s description of a person becoming like ‘a button without a hole’ when their land is taken from them - useless, without purpose - forcing them to become workers on the very same land for those who take the land. How did you feel when you heard him say this? And, what made you use it as the title of the film? I’m also asking this as I am thinking about what it means, what it might feel like to be dispossessed of one’s means of survival, one’s means of life today under conditions of crisis and pandemic.

For a long time the film had another title and I can't even remember what exactly it was anymore. It speaks how powerful that phrase is or at least how it stuck in my head that it has completely erased the previous title. To me it brings up an image of a decorative button, like those gold buttons on military dress uniforms. Pamella Dlungwana, who did the translations understood it to mean money, a button without a hole. I think both are very strong images of dispossession. Feeling like you no longer have real meaning or purpose or feeling like you have been turned into an instrument of capital.

Sitting with Mr Madinda was a very powerful experience for me. I was moved hearing him speak even if I didn't always know precisely what he was saying. We only had short translations during the interview. He often looked at me directly when answering even if it was Niren Tolsi (who I worked with on the interviews and research) who asked the question. He wanted to address me as a Gush and a descendant of the people who had dispossessed him and his family. I had this feeling again when I watched the full interview with the translations. Experiencing his words, how he speaks was very powerful. The interview took place on one of the restituted farms, he is on the land that was lost and that had been returned. Being back on the land brings him a lot of joy. But the pain and anger of what has been lost remains so visceral when he speaks.

The dispossession of land and the untethering of people from their means of subsistence and survival is a key point in the construction of wage labour and the development of capitalism. This was not only a process of violent dispossession but the severing of reproductive from productive labour and the separation of the site of care from the site of work. Right now we find ourselves in a situation due to the pandemic and the lockdown restrictions where this physical and temporal separation of spheres of work and care have been collapsed for those lucky enough to still have work in this moment. But this collapse has not brought with it the integration of work and life. Rather the structures have remained intact, and often now it seems even more than before that work dominates life.

I think it’s really interesting what has happened to this separation with the call to ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ and the broader consequences of its collapse. Of course, this separation of work from home had already disappeared for a layer of workers for some time before the pandemic as a result of the kind of work they do. But, I agree with what you’re saying about the current moment making it more real for many more in the ways you describe. I would add, though, that many of us lucky enough to continue working for a wage from home are finding that we are both working more for this wage, but also fulfilling roles that would otherwise be taken care of differently - what some would call reproductive labour - for example, the tasks of schooling children at home, looking after children at the same time as doing work for a wage, and so on. But for a large number of people, staying at home has meant losing waged work and the opportunity to earn money through work. It is also interesting that many of these jobs that have been lost have been in the service sectors of the economy, including those that provide much of the ‘reproductive labour’ that we are speaking about - so for example, fast-food outlets, laundries, creches, domestic workers… aspects of ‘reproductive labour’ that have over time become waged forms of work outside of the home that function to allow other groups of workers to perform in other jobs for longer periods of time by ‘freeing up time’ that would otherwise be spent on care work related to themselves and their families.

And, lockdown has also limited and changed how people are able to play, to relax, to take time out of work, and this relates also to the fact that for many of us play and leisure means being able to come together with others outside of our homes.

We have also seen another one of the ‘unintended consequences’ of this lockdown being an increase in levels of gender based violence - a very real manifestation of how this historical separation has played itself out over time.

We could also speak here about what this collapsed separation has meant for other kinds of work - for example related to leisure and play, and in what have come to be called the creative industries and perhaps you could say a little more here about your own experiences and those of other artists in this moment.

I can only speak about my situation but I know many visual artists are experiencing versions of this. There are actually very few people who make all their income from sales of art or exhibitions fees. I do other kinds of work as well to pay the bills and much of that work is gone or likely to disappear. I think this time has really exposed the extent to which the art world relies on unpaid labour and not just from artists but curators, interns and assistants. Without jobs to subsidize art production I am not sure how the art world keeps going.

I am really lucky that I can work from home at the moment, although most of the work I am doing is not paid. But I am able to find ways to keep myself busy and my art is a way for me to make sense of this moment. I have just finished a film in which I tried to deal with some of my experiences and anxieties of lockdown. I am alone and have been struggling with the feeling of isolation and loss of connection to friends and those I love. It feels like freetime without leisure or pleasure. I can channel some of that into my art. However many women with families who work in the artworld are really struggling to find time to work or make artwork, with all the additional responsibilities they are facing on top of dealing with these anxieties.

Many of the masculine critiques of work have been about how work has changed and the effect this has on workers. I have found that in my own research that the most incisive critiques have come from a feminist tradition, in particlular Kathi Weeks’ and Silvia Federici’s writing, where the critique of work starts not from work itself but what it has excluded, prominently but not exclusively reproductive labour.

In South Africa, high unemployment means that few people have access to waged work. Your work begins from the position of thinking about the poor, again from who and what is excluded from work, with equal emphasis on the role of race and gender. I find this approach is sensitive to local questions but with resonances that go beyond our situation.

I am interested in how thinking across these ideas of the local, the poor, race and gender open up different questions for you and your work?

The first point I want to make here is that there is a problem with the very ways in which we treat and relate to what we’re calling ‘the local’. The poor, race, gender - these are all issues that are fundamental to, that are constitutive of capitalist society and the unequal relations that allow it to emerge and to survive, and, yet, it has been a struggle to centre them in analyses of capitalism and how to struggle against it. The Wages for Housework Campaign and the arguments put forward by Maria Rosa Dalla Costa and Selma James are a wonderful example of a struggle by women within a movement struggling against the capitalist system to show its failures to see and include the labour of women and children in a critique of the system of value production and exchange. Closer to home, race and gender have often been subordinated in analyses of left groups to the question of class.

But, the more important point that I want to make here is that in my own work that has been with and focused on struggles of the unemployed poor in Johannesburg, it has been in the everyday makings of life outside of the security or even promise of a regular wage that I have witnessed the possibilities for the imagination and creation of alternatives to our current system. Life here is not easy, but choices are made and experimentation happens in the absence of waged work. And, often, it is women and younger people who have not ever had the experience of working for a wage, who have given up on the possibility of ever having waged work, who are at the centre of such kinds of what I would call alternative production and life beyond survival. But, this is not something I want to romanticise because at the very same time there is also the continued belief amongst many that job creation is the only solution to today’s problems. And, without much more fundamental systemic changes, such local experiments tend to be short-lived and come up against the very same problems produced by the continued rationalities and logics of ‘the market’ that Black people in Salem even after receiving some of their land back face having to work the land according to capitalist principles and the historical, racist practices that continue to underpin it. The bigger question, then, becomes how to make the lessons learned from these experiments relate to and speak in broader processes that hold the potential to effect much more fundamental and lasting change. The Salem experience explored in your films is interesting in relation to this question for me - because of what it means in very real terms for how access to land can or cannot be a possibility for making life outside of the wage, but I am also interested in how the land claim comes to centre on an idea of what constitutes ‘a community’ and contestation over what is called ‘the commonage’. And, how race figures in this, both historically and in the very real present, as well as what this particular case and its outcomes might mean for possibilities for change today. Or impossibilities…? How did you feel going through this experience with this community as Simon Gush?

I was very nervous going in as a Gush, as a white guy asking about land. Because of my family history and because the land claim had not been settled. Even if my family is not involved in the claim, the history of the settlers and the antagonistic position of the current white owners contesting the claim made me worry about what the response from the community would be.

In many of the interviews the people I talked to spoke very clearly about their experience of racism and mistreatment by the white farmers. The groups are still divided and there is little communication or collaboration. The claim for the land was made under the name of the Salem Community but the community that had been there historically was fractured. Members have moved away, some have returned now and some of the people on the land now who are beneficiaries were never part of the historical community. The claimants are in the process of reconstituting what their community might be. I think that it will be a long time before there will be the possibility of a sense of community or togetherness in Salem across both groups of the white owners and the black farmers, workers and residents.

I did feel that going in that it was really important to have that point of historical connection. Asking people to open up about their experiences meant that I also had to deal with my own history. The response to me from the people I talked to was as a result complex but they were very open, and that openness definitely affected me. The films would have been terrible without the access and insight that it allowed me. It was through those personal connections that I began to understand the problems around land in a much deeper way.

The return of land is incredibly important as an act of both real and symbolic justice. But while making the films one of the things that became clear to me is how much more than just land was dispossessed. How what was taken was not just an asset but the basis of community and a way of life. I believe that one of the major obstacles to the successful return of land, is that in a capitalist system what is currently being returned is often reduced to an asset. The expectation in the case of farmland is that it must now function as a commercial enterprise and provide wages, without even sufficient government support to do so.

The land in Salem has a history as commons although in different forms. I think that we could think about the pre-colonial Xhosa relationship to land as a form of commons. The settler commonage of the 19th and early 20th century is another, although highly problematic form. Is there a possibility to think about a new and different form of commons, one that can speak to our current situation? I agree we shouldnt romanticise the struggles in the absence of work, but might a new commons emerge from the forms of survival and maintenance of life that already exist in these spaces?

This is also for me the central question, a question that we need another conversation or conversations to begin to attempt to answer, and perhaps this is something we can only do with others. I should say, though, that I have come to relate to these questions through a school of thought and struggle that speaks about ‘the common’ (not commons) - coming from the work of autonomist Marxist thinkers like Antonio Negri, Michael Hardt, Cesare Casarino and others. I do not have the time here to do justice to this body of scholarship and thought, but I will attempt to share a few ideas here that I think are relevant to what we have been talking about. Related to and emanating from analyses and experiences of changes in the nature of work and struggles of the working class over the history of capitalism, it is argued that outside of the state and capital, those who come together in struggle (against the forms of life or aspects of the forms of life that capitalism imposes) hold and exercise the potential (or constitutive power) for the production of different and new forms of life that can be understood as ‘the common’. In this production, contestation and difference are not sublated to any notion or idea of unity or oneness, but are constitutive of ‘the common’. There is also no predetermined or known idea of what ‘the common’ is prior to its constitution, but it is a struggle that produces it, suggesting also that it is continuously being produced.

And, central to this process of production is conversation as a method, conversation not understood as dialogue between individuals who come into engagement in order to win an argument based on pre-existing beliefs and ideologies or dogmas that they see as needing to be defended, but those who see conversation itself as a process of production through an encounter in which difference, disagreement and contestation can be productive of something new. I have come to embrace these ideas and approaches in my own struggles both in movements and in academia - and I believe that in South Africa, now more than ever, being able to begin by admitting that we do not have the answers is extremely important, and that we can only find real and lasting solutions for us all through allowing our different experiences and ways of making sense of them, as well as our ideas about what is needed and how problems can be addressed, to come into conversation.

I mentioned before how the virus has brought visibility and urgency to older questions. But with the very real possibility that this could continue for we don't know how long or possibly for it to return in a new form, we have to learn to adapt and live with the virus. Do you think that this process of finding new ways of living we might offer us space to think to address these older questions or will the overwhelming nature of this moment result in more of the same? What I am asking is there the potential to be hopeful about real change right now?

I can’t say that I have any definitive answers to your question. I have struggled mostly with myself recently (and continue to struggle) to try to understand how to be in this moment, how to live, how to work, how to rest, and how to be politically. I have been ill, I have been afraid, I have been sad, I have been angry, I have been well, I have been thankful, I have tried to be ‘productive’, and... It has taken some time for me to be able to say this, but for me it is not about whether we can be hopeful or not about potential possibilities for change. The current moment is showing the need for change, and much has changed. How we act and choose to relate to what is taking place will determine what possibilities are made real. It is difficult to imagine how to be together in struggle with others right now in a time of physical distancing, and the need to make use of technologies of communication and interaction that we are not used to, that literally work against us coming together in ways we know and trust. But, without being rosy-eyed and romanticising this moment, I think that we are each in struggle every day in different ways, ways that are forcing us to confront ourselves and the ideas we have about government, about community and collectives differently, that force us to live separately and imagine ourselves as separate from each other, but that also present the necessity and opportunity to begin reimagining struggle and how it is that we contribute to the shaping of the changed and changing world that we are being faced with and worlds that are to come. This is the work we have to do, together. And, perhaps being physically apart, new forms of interaction and engagement might enable new forms of life that help us to produce a(new), to produce differently. But I don’t know...

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