Songs At The Gate – Peer Reviews

Review One - Amie Soudien

This project looks back at the protests of 2015 and 2016 through the perspectives of students who were involved in Fees Must Fall. Echoing the intentions of the creator[s] of the site, some students interviewed reiterated the urgent need for collective reflection on the events of the Fees Must Fall movements. In response to this need, Songs at the Gate has created a dynamic participatory space, which has the potential to become an important national repository of experiences as told and recorded by students.

In Songs at the Gate trauma is explored in all of its iterations. Recorded soundbites from moments within protest – wailing, screaming in pain, people shouting, exclaiming in shock and anger – punctuate the interviews of students and former students. The students describe their experiences of violent police action, and go on to discuss the lingering psychological effects of these traumas. However, as Anzio Jacobs explains, memories of trauma and great joy can also co-exist within the same spaces, such as Solomon Mahlangu House at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).

Solomon Mahlangu house, as Jacobs elaborates, is both the site of administrative, institutional trauma, and the site of important collective student action. Jacobs, like several of the other students interviewed, made reference to the struggles of family members in the anti-Apartheid struggle, and the cyclical nature of protest in the face of discrimination. In locating trauma at particular sites within and surrounding Wits, I was led to consider the cyclical nature of trauma experienced within institutional spaces, spanning many generations of students.

In my first interactions with the site, I was struck by the correlation between the birds’ eye view of Google Maps, and the role of surveillance by institutions, the biases of mainstream media reportage, and the voyeurism of the general public, in relation to the Fees Must Fall protests of 2015 and 2016. With the intervention of Songs at the Gate, this practice of reportage is subverted by interviews with those who were present and participated in the protests, and the invitation to upload any footage or still images to the site. In addition, owing to the flexibility of the format of YouTube, future participants may submit contributions to Songs at the Gate in a variety formats that may include art performance, and theatre documentation, in addition to interview, video footage of key events, and photographs.

Considering the usability of the interface, the creator[s] of Songs at the Gate have developed an elegant solution to the challenge of collating many stories, using the existing framework of Google Maps. For uploading, the online form appears simple to use, allowing for very effective usability. Within this framework, the site can reflect a national student movement, and thus a multiplicity of experiences, some of which may not yet exist in public fora. In this way, Songs at the Gate is an important online platform, and a project which will likely speak to many peoples’ experiences, both nationally and abroad. I look forward to seeing how the site develops.

Review Two (anonymous)

Reflecting on the physical and lingering psychological violence experienced by students involved in Fees Must Fall (over the course of 2015 and 2016), student activist and Songs at the Gate storyteller Phethani Madzivhandila affirms the need for a space in which traumatised students “can heal”. Importantly, however, he insists that implicit within such a space for healing is the necessary acknowledgement of a social and political irresolution; as one demanding an ongoing engagement with (and resistance to) the university and state.

It is in this context that Songs at the Gate seeks to enable, “an online space for people to come together and share stories”. Using Google maps to unsettle the conventional mapping of the University campus, located sites associated with lived experiences of police and private security violence (enacted against student activists) create openings, or ‘gateways’, for the narrativisation of trauma. With each site (appropriately marked by a red Google maps ‘teardrop’) linked to a video interview with a student activist, forms of institutional violence are specified and located within the context of lived individual and social experiences. Significant to this approach, and the intimate reflections of the storytellers themselves, is its strategic countering of the perpetuating violence through which forms of institutional power (extended to forceful domination) are regularly substantiated via the discrediting of student/activist positions as disingenuous, hysterical, extremist, violent, thuggish, and/or naïve.

Admittedly, drawing on narrative as a means of making shareable (to some degree at least) experiences of trauma, and as a means of facilitating forms of healing, recalls the well-established formulations of trauma theory developed in response to the trauma of Holocaust survivors, and which was to a large extent reflected in the privileging of narrative and associated opportunities for healing and closure in the much-critiqued context of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The application of narrative in Songs at the Gate is, however, shifted to an emphasis on dialogue – as opportunity is made not only for engaging with the featured narratives, but for the uploading of new narratives (by users) – to be reflected on the map. Addressed in this interactive drive is something of Sara Ahmed’s insistence on the sociality and associated politics of pain – as an experience not limited to the internal individual realm, but entangled within a world of implicated others. And here, the link is made to that sense of ongoing social and political involvement recognized by Phethani Madzivhandila.

Envisioned as a resource rather than a documentary, Songs at the Gate is an accessible platform in which narratives can be easily accessed and uploaded – although the process whereby uploaded videos are ‘curated’ could be more clearly/transparently communicated. One minor caution would be – somewhat ironically – the lush production value of the featured filmed narratives, the quality of which, whilst granting a measure of dignity to the delivery, may discourage users from uploading their own stories via cruder (but no less relevant) processes of mediation. To conclude, the critical value of Songs at the Gate lies in its approach to healing, not as suture or ‘reconciliation’, but as a social work central to the sustenance of engaged student activism in South Africa.