The legacy of Steve Biko, being remembered in September, should go beyond favourite quotations and vague recollections of his ideals. Those ideals and goals need to be shared and espoused as our own.
Recently, a number of my Facebook “friends” have been updating their statuses with the line, “Black man, you are on your own”. This is a quote from Steve Biko, whose strategic genius was the development of a line of thinking which sought to emancipate black people from their own self-disrespect – insisting that blacks ought not to see themselves as “appendages to white society”. In my view, its meaning may be misunderstood, and perhaps prejudicial to our current struggles, particularly as young black people seeking to develop our talents and make an impact in society which is somewhat skewed against that.
In this sense, I think the words of another great black leader, Martin Luther King, are relevant. In his seminal “I have a dream” speech, King observed, “The marvellous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”
There are many examples, some prominent and others not, which are evidence that there have been many occasions, and there are today, where blacks and whites in South Africa have stood together in the understanding of a shared destiny.
There is no doubt that the struggle for equality is present, and that there are white people in South Africa who are not interested in empowering black people, and others too, who have stood as impediments to this goal. But the statement, “black man, you are on your own”, simply understood, may serve to create a mindset that all white people are bad. This mindset would be dangerous because it would create a further sense of division among us, and discourage and alienate even those many white South Africans, who concern themselves every day with sharing their knowledge, skill and wealth. Those who may have failed to take up arms to fight apartheid, but who are today making a significant contribution towards a South Africa we want.
This same danger prevails in the discourse about the media, where those who have suffered due to the ills in the media, now paint every media practitioner or publication with the same brush. There are many professional media publications that are run with the utmost of fairness and integrity. An attack on all media may place us in danger of destroying the excellence we already have, which would otherwise serve as seeds for a higher standard in one of our most valued institutions.
Recently, I asked Helen Zille how, in light of the fact that there are those in South Africa who have a lot and those who have none, we could convince those who do have to share, with the common goal of building a better South Africa. With a true politician’s demeanour, she spoke about many things and never answered the question. This cannot be understood to mean that white people ignore the question of transformation and empowerment. It only means that there are those who may not share our understanding of the world.
No doubt, this is not to give credence to the thinking that it is up to white people to emancipate and empower those in black society. Biko himself would have argued that mindset is not conducive to anything good. As has been highlighted before, some of the loneliness experienced by the black man has been due to the abandonment by other black people. I will admit that when faced with a black medical professional, a sense of discomfort sometimes rushes through me.
Black man, you are not alone, you have compatriots who have not only a charitable interest in your success, but share your strategic and patriotic goals.
As we celebrate in many forms this month the legacy of Steve Biko, I believe it would be correct to rethink and make his ideas our own. DM
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Xhanti Payi is a writer short of a few best selling books and a Nobel Prize. He works as an economist, researcher and advisor to various institutions. A staunch believer in clever blacks and would-be clever blacks short of opportunity. Proper pronunciation of the click is optional.
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