Is Knowledge Power? The Monologue of a Disability Rights Activist

Special dedication to all my teachers who sometimes innocently worked diligently to mislead me.

Sweet memories have taken me back to those good old days when I was a learner at that place in Matabeleland North called John Tallach Secondary School. Towards the end of 1998, there arose what I will here conveniently refer to as “a clash of the Sabbaths”. At that school which belonged to the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, we were told that the Sabbath would start at 12:00 a.m. on Sunday ending at 12:00 a.m. Monday. Some pupils with Adventist background decided to challenge this narrative and claimed that there was no scriptural basis for this rule. According to them, the Sabbath should start on Friday at sunset and end on Saturday at Sunset. The situation was further fuelled by one partially sighted boy, Nhlanhla Siphepha Nkomo who was resitting for his O level exams who brought in a certain book called “the national Sunday Law” which linked worshiping on Sunday with papal mischief. It was argued in that book that the papacy represented the beast referred to in the book of Revelations and that worshiping on Sunday was the acceptance of the beast’s authority hence, the mark of the beast. This actually frightened a lot of pupils in our class and especially girls were overwhelmed by this Sabbath narrative.

The authorities of the school who were predominantly Scottish got wind of this problem and they decided to deal with this as firmly as they possibly could. They could not understand how people were failing to revere a day when the Lord Jesus himself had resurrected. To them this was the height of heresy. Nhlanhla was called to the office of the head mistress and told in no uncertain terms to stop spreading his destabilizing literature. One Sunday morning, we went for the Sunday school with one of the Scottish teachers who was part of the administration of the school. She decided to use the opportunity to deal with the contentious issue of the Sabbath at an intellectual front. She tried to tell us how the Sabbath was no longer a Saturday but a Sunday. She opened all the verses that she thought were in support of this proposition. Then she opened the discussion to the flow.  These were discussions I never took part in because  I had my strong views that were for neither of the two sides of the debate.

One girl who I considered very intellectually sharp, named Simangaliso Ncube, (here after referred to as Simanga), raised her hand to contribute. Simanga was an ardent Adventist and not necessarily influenced by Nhlanhla’s book. She emphatically refuted the Scottish teacher’s proposition that the true sabbath could be a Sunday as there was to the best of her knowledge, no scriptural evidence to back that.   We attentively listened to Simanga surgically shredding the teacher’s argument into pieces. She started by dismantling the teacher’s assertion that the Sabbath had started with Moses. She referred to Exodus 20; 8 and stated that it would never have been possible for God to say remember if Moses and his people never knew of the existence of this day. After this she clearly proved that the scriptural Sabbath did not start at 12 A.M and did not end at 12 A.M. She went on to refer to a scripture in the book of Isiah which says “My Sabbaths shall be a sign between me and my people for ever”. After going through a lot of convincing Old Testament scriptures, Simanga finally closed her discussion with quoting from Matthew 5:17 where Jesus says, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil”. Simanga then reasoned that it would not be compatible with the concept of fulfilment if Jesus had tampered with God’s law to such an extent that he would change it. Simangaliso’s arguments were  lucid and convincing. They were sounder than those of the teacher. At list this was the feeling of some of us who even then had begun to respect the art of cogent arguments. The teacher decided not to further engage Simangaliso at that level but she simply chose to take another harder instrument from her tool box. She simply said.

“This is the free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Here, the Sabbath starts on Sunday at 12 A.M and ends on Monday 12:00 A.M. I am employed to maintain this position and any argument to the contrary will not be tolerated.” The argument was sealed.

I do not intend to continue discussing the clash of the Sabbaths but wish to address a pertinent question arising out of that discussion. Who warn between Simanga and the Scottish teacher?  I have always until recently clung to the view that Simanga warn for I always admired the bravery and intellectual depth with which she challenged the core values of the system. As a person given to the art of arguments, my reading of the philosophy of arguments was in agreement with the position that appeal to authority was a fallacy of reasoning. However, I find myself forced to revise this kind of thinking. It appears to me clearly that while Simanga’s argument was more cogent, what carried the day was the Scottish teacher’s statement. This therefore leads me to the question: Is knowledge power? Teachers have continuously hammered this kind of a statement into our heads quite unconditionally. There was no doubt that Simanga was knowledgeable about her position and faith and there was no doubt about her ability to defend her faith. However, the Scottish teacher did not use that to get the argument sealed. She simply used her authority and angry face. Those two were good enough to tell Simanga that any funny thing would get her out of the prestigious school. In other words, both Simanga and the Scottish teacher had knowledge but the difference between the two is that the Scottish teacher in addition to her knowledge of the Free Presbyterian system which could not withstand Simanga’s arguments, had knowledge of power. I truly feel that the bulk of the education that we have been exposed to gives us a lot of knowledge but does not help us to understand where power really lies.

As a disability rights activist, I must confess that I sometimes feel so helpless when I think of how much knowledge I have and yet how little power I wield. There are times when I move around and see a lot of more oppressed disabled people who are however much happier than me. I have been exposed to the knowledge about oppression, discrimination and segregation and I can dissect those subjects and present a cogent argument against the perpetuation of such practices. In fact I have done that in many fora. Yet I feel that oppression continues unabated. Forgive my repetition yet I shall ask again; is knowledge power? 

One day prior to the last constitutional referendum, my three friends and I, clearly and logically convinced that the language in the then draft constitution did not promote the empowerment of disabled persons, went into a very big office at Munhumutapa building where we sought to put forward a case to see the president. The man we saw was clearly empowered to talk to the president on disability issues. Yet without regard to our cogent arguments, this man told us in unequivocal terms that he thought the constitution had captured disability so well. The man actually suggested that we were better off fighting for a disability act than the contents of the constitution. As a trained lawyer, this was one of the most inoperable arguments I have ever come across. Yet his views carried the day. With our knowledge, we could not see the president.

I think I have seen so much power oozing out of ignorant people and I have seen a lot of knowledge in the heads of powerless people and I now believe that I was misled. If for a moment I were to concede that knowledge is power, I will just have to ask again is all knowledge power? I don’t think the knowledge that Shaka’s mother was Nandi or the knowledge of the voyages of Vasco daa Gama gives me any power. Perhaps I ought to have pursued power with an equal force that I used to pursue knowledge because as it currently stands, I feel so oppressed and have all the language to describe it but little power to change anything. I therefore call upon all activists to seriously consider the pursuit of not only knowledge but also power so that we may be part of the real change we desire.

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