Interview with Guy de Lancey
Guy de Lancey is an award-winning artist and the Movement Lab’s creative technologist and manager. Given the current civil reckoning in the U.S., we asked him to reflect on his experience of becoming a political refugee from South Africa.
“Time longa dan rope” – Jamaican proverb
Can you provide some background to your experience growing up in South Africa and to what compelled you to become a refugee rather than go along or accept the racist system of your country?
Growing up in South Africa, which had instituted a legalized system of racial discrimination and oppression, and had attempted to present that system as a natural and inevitable order of social relations, that should be depoliticized for both the oppressed and the beneficiaries of a suffocating colonial system of entitlement, it became clearer over time that my views about that system, out of necessity, had to be politicized in order to make sense of and deconstruct the mendacity of what was happening. And how I was raised as a child in a system of privilege.
Part of the system of racial segregation was that young white men were faced with conscription into a military force that was designed along racial lines to oppress and disenfranchise fellow citizens. This was sold as ‘fighting terrorism’ or ‘fighting communism,’ not as propping up apartheid or dehumanizing the majority of the population, and maintaining them in a position of indentured labor.
This arrangement was embedded in the Cold War strategies of the global powers and fully supported by the CIA, who after all were instrumental in alerting the apartheid government as to the whereabouts of Nelson Mandela, described as “the world’s most dangerous communist outside of the Soviet Union” and leading ultimately to his arrest. I felt I had to become aware of how official narratives functioned and to what end.
There was little choice in that system if one refused to go along with it or support it. For treason of conscientious objection I was faced with six years in jail. The option was to go ‘underground’ and fight the system of government from an insurgent position, or go into exile. I chose the latter. Others with far more at stake were faced with extra-judicial murder.
Africa had been in a long process of decolonizing. South Africa was one of the last countries to be forced to go through that process.
Historically South Africa was at a similar point the US is in having to come to terms with its racist history, and its white population was equally intransigent or willfully ignorant of that history. The proximity of lived experience in a smaller country, as well as the reverse minority / majority arrangement prompted a coming to terms with that history in a way that has not yet occurred in the US.
Having a legalized system of racial discrimination too, forced South Africa to think and experience racism more intimately and pervasively. When I left, the country was under a military state of emergency. The practical steps towards creative and conscious change had at that time not yet begun on a broader level, and were at that stage merely measures of institutional violence, as a response to dissent.
You are a refugee from South Africa. You fled when you didn’t want to participate in the racist Apartheid regime. Cutting ties with your family and country at great personal cost: prison for a few years if you returned. Can you talk a bit more about that period in your life? Your family relations, the decision that led you to leave?
I was a political refugee. Motivated by political conscience and awareness of the brutality and sheer stupidity of the racial system of apartheid, as well as conscientious objection to supporting the military system designed to uphold that social arrangement. Now I am no longer a refugee. But rather a privileged migrant. With an ‘alien of extraordinary ability visa’.
Leaving one’s country and everything you know, becoming a refugee, is not an easy task.
In my case it is hard not to view it as a rather harsh severing of ties with homeland and family in relation to those whose lives were actually threatened and in severe danger. Racism is murderous.
Part of becoming conscientized as to the political and cultural realities of your country and the circumstances of your upbringing very often start with observations of one’s immediate surroundings. The courage and will to ask questions about those realities, and to test those observations against those close and immediate to you. It involved questioning, research, reading political literature, engaging in political discussion, developing the tools to penetrate and unmask official storylines, the rigged news media, accepted cultural cues and practices, the received and ‘normalized’ racist views of one’s environment, school, family, colleagues, and society at large. A process of stripping the veil of normalized deceit away. A concerted attempt to see clearer the source of tensions and abuses that were routinely covered up and hidden from a comfortable, privileged life.
The conflicts of political views and notions of justice with one’s family are at first the most hurtful and emotionally charged experiences. But that, obviously is where one starts and hopes to begin to make a difference. So too with anger. Anger is an inevitable outcome to the experience of injustice. And it is anger that fueled my desire for change. Both politically and in the hearts and minds of those close to me. My experience of the anger I felt towards hypocrisy, arrogance, brutality, both ‘liberal’ and government sanctioned self-righteousness, served to maintain a focus, and resistance to the denial that privilege encourages. Anger I believe was, and is, a useful tool in the face of racist brutality. Anger is a companion to refusal.
So, changing the views of one’s family and friends, who have accepted and internalized ‘normalized racial attitudes’ that they may or may not be aware of, is the first place one encounters personal cost.
At the very least one hopes to encourage family and friends to become aware of what they cannot or will not perceive; of how what they do perceive has been ideologically served up to them in insidious and very subtle ways; of how what seems normal, is anything but. Of how denial is a prison.
These were the first steps for me in a privileged upbringing, while all around others were suffering far more brutal forms of social repression that were exercised in order to maintain the privilege, the entitlement, the institutionalized and accepted notions of supremacy.
Being faced with prison, condemnation, or being threatened by frightened racists however, is the least possible cost to be suffered when one has formed an ethical and political conscience against the iniquity of social relations that are toxic to all who live with or under them. Becoming a refugee, while extremely hard psychologically, is relatively easy when one has become committed to shared views about the evils of a social system. One also comes to the realization, in exile, that ultimately, we are all exiles.
What is it like for you to learn about and function within different country’s racist systems after having grown up learning and understanding racism in South Africa?
It feels like déjà vu. I was aware, from a distance, that the US had a racist history. I was not aware how deep and virulent that history was until living here. I also learned, after living through a system of legally instituted racism, and seeing that system suffer ‘defeat’ of some sort, that racism of that kind had always been a global project and that apartheid was alive and well all over the planet, and that despite the pretenses of economic sanctions, disinvestment, and anti-apartheid sentiment in the
‘developed world’, it was the ‘developed world’ that invented apartheid, exported it, and maintained it world-wide for centuries. It was always in the white man’s economic interest.
The populations of the ‘developed world’ were maintained in an astounding ignorance of this fact, and held in a system of denial, that turned out to be as self-reinforcing as that of the white population in South Africa. It was and is the same idea, the same economic model, the same elitist entitlement, the same political system of dis-enfranchisement on a global scale. South Africa, it seemed, like many other colonies was a testing site for these ideas. In the same way that abusive, racist neo-liberal economic methods have been tested globally and are now being exported back to the populations of the ‘developed world’.
It seems too, that the denial of the deep racist history in the US, which has led to this moment, offers the same opportunities to reconfigure accepted notions of entitlement, supremacy, rules of political engagement, received cultural practices of exclusion, and difference.
The power of money, the entrenched political and economic interests, and the fear of demographic fluidity, however, seem formidable here. The general de-politicization of life, too, seems insurmountable. Yet it appears a historical moment has arrived and the option to either become conscious, or to advance further down a road of self-reinforcing denial presents itself as possibly once-in-lifetime thing. It would be an extremely destructive option not to take the creative and liberating possibilities of the first. Both for the disenfranchised and abused; as well as the entitled.
As a white man, actively rejecting racism in your own family and country, what lessons can you share with others, especially white people in this country, in this current climate, that helps people stand up for racial justice?
White Nationalism is a criminal enterprise. The clarity of the nature of the crime becomes clearer when it is often too late, and a society has already been traumatized by it. The criminals who espouse it speak the language of 'liberty', and fear. Under no circumstances allow fear to become currency. Begin with your immediate surroundings. Your family and friends. Politicize your thinking, your consumption of culture, your education system. When I say politicize, I do not mean preach from a pulpit, or use political correctness as a policing tool. I mean sharing the tools to articulate what is being actively hidden from you as a citizen through officially sanctioned discourse. I mean being aware of how systems of injustice function; how they are set up and who they serve. How they are presented as the benign natural order of things. How they operate unimpeded in day-to-day engagement, and how one can creatively, actively, subvert these. How embracing diversity and difference enrich experience in the face of the sheer poverty and desiccated spirit of prejudice.
Systems of racial iniquity and injustice make every attempt to de-politicize the way you think about things. To rule and preside by division. Read literature that educates you as to the political history of your country, its economic systems, its cultural values, its institutions, its social relations, its relations with the rest of the planet. Consider critically the sources of what you read. Share what you learn. Not in a suffocating evangelical way, but with generosity and sensitivity to that fact that some might never have had the opportunity nor the tools to think of the things you may have discovered.
Encourage the discovery of alternate worlds of experience, justice, cultural difference. The richness of engaging outside of a stifling arrangement of relations that feed on conflict and abuse. Be an inspirational example in whatever small way you can. If you work in the arts use humor and incisive ridicule. Be honest. Think of honesty as a gift, not a threat. Do not shame or trade in guilt.