The anniversary of Steve Biko’s death happened this weekend and, as always, it was a time of remembrance and reflection on his life and philosophy. Despite what some might think, his teachings are still as relevant to our times as they were in 1977, when he was murdered.
I enjoyed reading Xhanti Payi’s column last week which dealt with the issue of black consciousness (though he never mentioned it by name), and as much as I welcome a discussion of the issue of race, something we’re sometimes discouraged from actively discussing in this country, I must disagree with him on one or two points.
The context in which Black Consciousness was forged is very important to fully understand the nature of Steve Biko’s movement, which was sometimes erroneously branded as a form of black racism.
The Black Consciousness movement was formed in the vacuum created by the banning of struggle movements like the ANC and the PAC. White liberal movements then stepped in to fill that void, seizing control of the struggle, and determining how it was to be conducted and so on. One of the main consequences of this white liberal take-over was that the struggle was fought within the rules of apartheid. Black students, among them Steve Biko, then stepped forward and argued that it was impossible to try to defeat apartheid by playing within the rules of the very establishment they were trying to destroy.
They said that the only people who could truly understand apartheid were those who were oppressed by it. The main foe Biko and his colleagues wanted to eradicate was the so-called colonisation of the black mind. Even within the struggle movements, they noted that the blacks were unconsciously subverting themselves to the thoughts of whites. They sought to eradicate this black self-imposed inferiority by creating a sense of pride and value in their blackness, because as long as black people viewed themselves as second-class citizens, or spectators at a game they should have been playing, they would never be truly free. Black Consciousness was, and still is, about levelling the playing field. It was about bolstering black people, and not about creating diametric opposition to white people. Biko himself said, “I don’t hate white people, but I hate white racism”.
I agree with Payi that Biko’s words, “Black man, you are on your own” tend to be misunderstood for opposition to white people, rather than as a call for self-awareness, self-pride and self-sufficiency within the black community. However, I fear that Payi himself may have misunderstood Biko’s intentions by quoting Martin Luther King Jr when he said, “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.” What Black Consciousness sought was to prepare black leaders so that they could be more effective leaders when they later joined the multiracial anti-apartheid organisations. This “exclusion” was not an end in itself.
When I interviewed Nkosinathi Biko a few weeks ago, we discussed the question of the relevance of Black Consciousness in South Africa today. He made one observation which I think South Africa has to discuss and debate more. He asked whether the definition of blackness itself had not changed since the 1970s, and by extension, whether the definition of Black Consciousness itself had not changed. If being black back then meant being politically, culturally and economically disenfranchised, and that is now no longer so, does this mean that the definition of blackness itself has not changed? My immediate thought was that since the control of power and money was previously superimposed on race, and that distinction is now in the process of being removed, the immediate connotation of “victim” or as the government puts it, “previously disadvantaged” that comes with being black must sooner or later fall away.
In the same breath I say we must not be tempted to think that the black mind has truly been emancipated simply because blacks can now vote. I’m reminded of what the American comedian Eddie Griffin said in one of his stand-up routines. He said the civil rights movement in the US had actually harmed a lot of people by making them believe that they could march to achieve freedom. “You can’t march to freedom,” Griffin said. “Freedom is a state of mind.” In the same way, the shackles of apartheid won’t fall away from the black mind just because the black man can now vote. Apartheid will only be eradicated once the psychological effect it had on the black mind is reversed.
In that sense then, the need for Black Consciousness, that self-awareness, self-pride and self-sufficiency has not yet been achieved to such a degree that we may say that the effects of apartheid have been eradicated. We certainly cannot sit around and expect white people to remove the apartheid bottled up in the black person’s mind. We have to do it ourselves. That’s what Biko meant by “Black man, you are on your own”. DM
Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.
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