Giving Content to Decolonisation; The Trans Collective in South Africa

“Our bodies are political.

Our pain is systematical.

We represent the bastards.

We stand for the nothings.

We shout for the unheard.

We occupy space for the excluded.

We demand representation for the invisible.

We speak with people like us.” 


The Trans Collective is a radical black decolonial student movement with close affiliations to and personnel overlaps with the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) movement at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. This article extrapolates from a conversation with the Trans Collective, as well as from resources and statements made available on their Facebook page. The conversation was initiated in response to the Trans Collective’s recent intervention at the opening of the exhibition: Echoing Voices from Within, commemorating the first anniversary of the formation of the RMF movement. The Trans Collective has stated in no uncertain terms; “Our intervention is an act of black love. It is a commitment towards making RMF the fallist space of our dreams.” In other words, the intervention, as well as the struggles that led to it, are not to be appropriated as somehow symbolic of the flaws of the decolonial struggle by those who desire the continuation of entrenched, racist structures of power. That the decolonial struggle is being contested from within is a testament to its rigour and vitality. As the Trans Collective state; “Decoloniality is not a metaphor”- it is experiential practice that simply cannot be decided in advance.

The Trans Collective reflect this radical decolonial praxis in their refusal to capture and commodify, in their refusal to assert ultimate signifiers and meanings. There is a kind of intimate knowledge there, a knowing of the damage that can be done by a single word, a single pronoun, a name. For the Trans Collective, solidarity cannot be centralised around a single rallying point because that could never do justice to the complexity and multiplicity of experiences of oppression under white supremacist colonialism. Rather, solidarity is to be found in a kind of radical empathy, an understanding of intersectionality that implies that this pain is political, but other pain, unknown pain, is valid and political too. The more a person or movement claims to have all the answers the more answers are maimed in the process and thus, the Trans Collective reject an egoist, assertive politics, and embrace, instead, a radically militant, yet uncertain politics where the scope of consideration is opened up rather than narrowed down. They understand that a truly decolonial project cannot simply pick and choose the aspects that suit it best. They understand that the aspects that sit most comfortably are probably the ones most desperately in need of unsettling, because sitting comfortably has no place in dethroning. And they are positioned to know this, to see the insidious workings of systemic power and oppression when their daily lives, the most basic of tasks- such as using a toilet, or being addressed, or having to fill out a form, or produce a student card, or occupy space in a residence- coalesce in a series of violent microaggressions that would see them suffocate with every breath taken.


The Trans collective puts forward the idea that Decolonisation must be built on a reclamation of humanity and this cannot occur when what is most valid and necessary and human is still being demarcated, commodified, and decided in advance. White supremacy has always employed, and continues to employ, overt, as well as subtle and pervasive, technologies of physical and metaphysical power. Its processes of mapping, naming, containing, and classifiying, symbolically and physically disfigure, dismember, and dehumanise. The Trans Collective are acutely aware of these intersections when they position confronting toxic gender constructs as an indispensable part of the decolonisation project. Hierarchical processes of visibilising and invisibilising need to be met by similarly thorough refigurings and rememberings and the Trans Collective seem to call for this comprehensive reorganisation, for a passionate disordering that completely subverts and exorcises the exploitative logics of alienation and dispossession.

To labour the point against the materiality of resistance to change; if the oppressions suffered under a white supremacist, imperialist, ableist, capitalist cisheteropatriarchy are systemic, they are inherently multi-faceted and no single aspect can be hierarchically prioritised above the rest; to do so would be to employ the very same logics that the current decolonial struggles seek to eradicate. Telescoping out to current South African politics, a conversation currently happening from within and between black communities (because this is the only zone from which this can happen with any validity) then contests; when black cishet patriarchs within decolonial struggles choose to frame anything that does not conform to their particular construction of decolonisation as being somehow divisive, as being somehow geared towards a derailing of the struggle, they simply fail to properly comprehend the struggle itself. The Trans Collective asks; if unlearning is not a fundamental part of the process, then when will the unlearning happen? To ask for some issues to be left at the door is to ask for people to be left at the door, to be excluded from the struggle- a reality powerfully embodied when members of the Trans Collective lay naked at the doors to the RMF exhibition, speaking truth to power in their provocation for people to step over them if they felt the consumption of content to be more important than actual bodies, actual lives. Commodification and thing-ification are tactics of colonial power, directly pointed to by the title of their statement on the intervention: Tokenistic, objectifying, voyeuristic inclusion is at least as disempowering as complete exclusion.


If this article has spoken to the importance of the Trans Collective’s perspectives for the decolonialisation project generally speaking, it is to drive home the significance of their theorising from the margins, to highlight the wealth of insights they have courageously offered-up to the ongoing struggle and some of the ways in which they have given that content.  However, the intervention was the performance of justified rage against their erasure, against the co-option of their bodies as public persuasion rhetoric, against the hypocrisy of knowledge that what might be exhibited as gains for the RMF have not necessarily translated into gains for them as black trans bodies; and this despite the Trans Collective being actively involved in the formation of RMF and standing on every hostile frontline- facing tear gas and stun grenades and violence with no hesitation for the heightened vulnerabilities their bodies may carry. They were undoubtedly entitled to the deliberate occupation of the exhibition space, to the radical act of reclaiming the meaning of their own bodies. Not only has the Trans Collective created a powerful, living archive of black trans contributions to decolonial struggles, but they have also stuck a thorn in the side of what liberation might mean, forcing decolonisation to face that which it has over-looked and, in doing so, become much stronger.


You can learn more about this this radical, black, trans, militant feminist, decolonial student movement, as well as read the official intervention statement here:

#RadicalBlackFeministMilitancy #Decolonization #BlackTransBodiesGivingContent #BlackTransBodiesReclaimingSpace #RMFTransCapture

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