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Bring back black consciousness, killed by ‘non-racialism’

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.

The reasons why black consciousness came into being as a movement in South Africa have not entirely gone away. Sadly, efforts to even talk about black consciousness have died, impaled on the “non-racialism” spike. Political correctness killed a very important discussion. It’s time to revive it.

Can anyone tell me what blackness is supposed to mean today? It was simpler in the apartheid years – being “black” meant being oppressed. What of the post-apartheid period? Shouldn’t black people, the so-called previously disadvantaged, be defining what blackness means today?

Discussions of this nature have been banished from popular parlance, thanks largely to that pernicious idea of non-racialism. Before you get all hot under your liberal collar, non-racialism was envisaged in terms of the law. Nobody can be legally or unfairly discriminated against based on the colour of their skin, or some such arbitrary characteristic. Non-racialism was never intended to be a block against instituting social reform, or addressing past discrimination based on race.

For whatever reason, any attempts to address issues of black identity have been stifled under the banner of non-racialism. Worse still, these discussions have been herded into the extremist corner. Talking about black identity, are we? What are you, a black racist? You want to drive the whites into the sea? “Shoot the Boer,” and all that?

The fact is the reasons for founding a black consciousness movement have not gone away. Political freedom has been achieved, but Steve Biko spoke of a need, essentially, for black people to define for themselves how the struggle was to be fought. He recognised that the struggle could not be spearheaded by white people, no matter how well-intentioned, simply because they didn’t really know what being disenfranchised meant (for a fuller discussion on the roots of Black Consciousness, refer to an earlier column of mine: Black Man, You Are Still Very Alone).

The habit of well-meaning, but ultimately harmful liberals to try to direct the struggle for black people has survived today in the form of efforts to move past race, as if apartheid and all its effects were wiped out in 1994.

“Black consciousness” is still necessary. Black people still need to shape a post-apartheid identity, away from the attentions of those who would seek to capture such discussions for their own ends.

There is no “rainbow nation”, no Mantashean “social cohesion” and no living together in peace and harmony until black people can have a real identity and take pride in it. Without these debates and discussions, held for black people by black people, not only is there no sense of self, but we will continue to fall prey to those who don’t understand and those who don’t want to understand.

Personally, I’ve repeatedly had to fend off liberals on the one hand who think that because I’m not a racial nationalist, I must necessarily be a doe-eyed  disavower of “blackness”. And on the other hand, bitter right wingers who think that because I don’t vote ANC, I must necessarily agree that there is white persecution. Aided by blacks who wish to “commodify” blackness into some sort of government tender credit card, these groups have ensured discussions around blackness are now banished to the dusty hallways of academia.

Black consciousness still has a very vital part to play. The work Steve Biko set out to do by founding the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa is far from done.

Why aren’t organisations such as the Black Management Forum hosting seminars or publishing in-depth papers on the cultural friction in today’s workplace that hampers black professionals from thriving in corporations, instead of mounting attacks on any white boss who expresses criticism of a black manager?

With the likes of Malema and Manyi seemingly intent on waging war on anyone deemed not to be black, perhaps it is natural that there should be suspicion about the intentions of trying to bring black consciousness back into the public dialogue. But not having them on that basis is like banning all driving because of the possibility of drunk drivers. We can’t be held back by other people’s paranoia.

To quote Aubrey Matshiqi’s fantastic essay on race in BusinessDay, “Any attempt at building a non-racial society in SA will fail if it proceeds on the basis of avoiding difficult conversations about race.”

How many times have you seen some sputtering curmudgeon rage about how we must stop talking about race in the News24 comment sections? The bad news for people of that ilk is that we have only just begun addressing 350-odd years of disinheritance from our cultures and the self-value. The great news for everyone else is that the country your children will someday inhabit will be better off for a proper redressing of the past. DM


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