Daily Maverick

Reflections on Steve Biko and Black Consciousness

Somewhere the spear of Black Consciousness has fallen, writes SIPHO MALEFANE. The baton has been dropped yet the race is far from won. We need a new cadre to redefine Black Consciousness as a theory of praxis.

September 12, 2018 marks 41 years since Steve Biko died at the hands of apartheid forces. He would have turned 72 on 18 December.

South Africa needs a new consciousness to take us from the doldrums of moral emptiness and a soulless struggle.

Marx wrote in the Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”

I guess Marx meant that humans derive consciousness out of the context of their prevailing material conditions.

Depending where they find themselves in the prevailing power relations, they are thrown into dialectical tensions between those who dominate the power relations and whose interests vest in maintaining the status quo and those that are the subject of power and whose lot depends on the overthrow of the status quo.

These dialectical contradictions and resultant tensions exist “independent of their will” and independent of their consciousness or lack of it.

It was no different to the bright minds of society and those of our forebears who loved freedom more and took it upon themselves to conscientise and mobilise the masses of society against the horror and terror of apartheid colonialism.

Biko in that respect was no different and yet in many ways distinguished himself among his peers with his understanding that a struggle waged without consciousness was a struggle not worth waging. The cornerstone of Biko’s struggle was principled consciousness.

For that reason he was not afraid to go against popular dogma and rhetoric beating the common path to struggle. He had the courage of his convictions to foray into new frontiers of thought informed by an objective analysis and understanding of the problem facing black people in South Africa. He was not afraid to call the proverbial spade a spade.

He was an intellectual giant but more important, he was principled. His analysis of the South African problem was incisive, his articulation of it poignant and his interaction and collision with it admirably colourful. His revolutionary consciousness was firm beyond comparison.

It is this principle that allowed him to articulate the South African problem for what it is. He was unapologetically incisive. To him the thesis to the problem of blacks was white racism. The antithesis was black solidarity and unity.

Like all mortals he had his human frailties, yet he remained true to his convictions and remained stubbornly resolute to the bitter end and for that he paid the ultimate price, with his life.

The legacy of Biko lies not in his brilliance or intellect. It lies not in the clarity of his articulations. His death did not only immortalise his youthful rebelliousness. His legacy lies in the new thinking and consciousness he injected into the youth of his generation.

He infused a new consciousness about what it means to be black. He engendered the boldness of blackness aptly captured in the slogan of the day, “Black man, you are on your own”.

He instilled a newfound confidence to the black youth who for the first time began to understand what it meant to be black and how to love their blackness. He inspired a new sense of self love that negated the self hatred that the script of hundreds of years of racism and racial oppression had tattooed on their black skins.

Critics of Biko and Black Consciousness argue that if failed to offer anything more than rhetoric and lacked practical application beyond sloganeering. They argued that it was not premised on scientific or revolutionary theory, hence it could not offer any meaningful solutions to the problem of racism and racial segregation. They point to the decline of the black consciousness movement in the ‘80s as testament to this.

Unlike what his critics claim, Biko to all intents and purposes meant for Black Consciousness to be a philosophy of praxis and not a mere chant of the marching. He intended for black people to do things for themselves, to be self reliant and to champion their destiny. The establishment of Black Community Programmes (BCP) bear testimony to this.

The challenges facing South Africa two decades post a democratic disorder beckon a new consciousness. We have been caught up in the whirlwind of post-democratic euphoria and are now gridlocked in the realities and contradictions of governance.

The contradictions of a post-liberation South Africa have proven Biko right. The thesis of South Africa’s problem is white racism and the antithesis is Black Unity and Black Solidarity and not Non-Racialism. Non-Racialism is the outcome that will follow the collision between the thesis and the antithesis. You cannot attain Non-Racialism without undergoing the antithetic moment. The short comings of short-cuttism that have been opted for continue to be exposed through daily lived experiences of blacks. The Non-Racial project is a spectacular failure.

We need to go back to basics. We need to move from mobilising our people for votes to building revolutionary consciousness premised on principles.

A struggle without principles is a struggle without a moral compass. To move away from individual self-gratification to true emancipation of the masses we need a new resolve to Black Consciousness. Biko and his contemporaries led the way.

Somewhere the spear of Black Consciousness has fallen. The baton has been dropped yet the race is far from won. We need a new cadre to redefine Black Consciousness as a theory of praxis. We need to reposition Black Consciousness as a philosophy that synthesises the pragmatics of dialectical materialism with the spirituality of our Blackness, our Humanism, our Ubuntu/Botho, if we are to achieve our quest for a true humanity.

We cannot find this in the east and we cannot find this in the west. We need to look within, to our Humanity.

This post is dedicated to one of the forgotten bright minds to come from Garankuwa, Dr Gomolemo Mokae. DM

Sipho Malefane is director of Nilevalley Systems Consulting.

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