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Black consciousness: The debate starts

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 issue of black consciousness is even more loaded than I previously thought, as was demonstrated by my exchange with some members of the SA's main opposition party after last week’s column. All the more reason for us to have the discussion and unpack the issues, no matter how “difficult” they may seem.

There’s a certain irony to the fact that a column I intended to ignite a debate about black consciousness among, well, black people ended up in a long and involved debate on Twitter with Ryan Coetzee, the Democratic Alliance’s strategist on the issue of racial nationalism. Only in South Africa, and all that.

But given today’s climate and the clashes between the conflicting interests of social justice, racial nationalism and all the rest, I feel I must bring this debate to the reading public’s attention.

Besides, we’re in an election year, aren’t we?

The first consideration is whether black consciousness is necessarily an exercise in racial nationalism, as far as it attempts to define “blackness”. Coetzee believes it is, and so does the DA’s executive director of special projects, Gareth van Onselen, who was kind enough to lend his thoughts on the matter. I don’t believe it is, mainly because I don’t believe the only end-point to a discussion on black consciousness is racial nationalism. There are many avenues of departure on the concept before one arrives at the sort of racial nationalism that saw the horrors of the Bosnian genocide or in our case, Jacob Dlamini’s professional blacks. I can’t pretend to speak for Steve Biko, but I don’t imagine he would have been too chuffed with the small, but active segment of black professionals who peddle in their skin colour and status as “previously disadvantaged” for material gain.

In an email interview, Coetzee said to me, “I haven’t read Biko’s ‘I Write What I Like’ since 1991, and I don’t pretend to be an expert on black consciousness as a system of thought. But in my view any philosophy premised on the idea of group racial identity is a form of racial nationalism, so if that applies to black consciousness, then yes, and if not, then no.

“To the extent that black consciousness is about each black person defining for themselves the meaning and importance of being black, then I would not equate it to racial nationalism,” Coetzee said.

This brings us to our second consideration. Black consciousness was envisaged as a way of wresting the definition and worth of blackness from the apartheid government and to assert a positive group identity in the face of a negative group identity enforced by the authorities. Is “blackness” as a group identity still necessary, or should society adopt a liberal individualism stance? Coetzee takes on the liberal stance, saying that contesting the primacy of race in the first place “seems to me better and more radical”. Again, I disagree. Against a backdrop of collective oppression of black people, it would have been foolish to spearhead the opposition to apartheid by those who were actually under its boot with the argument that race does not exist. Scientifically, it may not, but in the reality in which  they existed (and in which many black South Africans continue to exist) race is everything precisely because that is how the apartheid government wanted it to be. The best way to fix that is not to deny that race was the be-all and end-all, but to accept it and first work to right the imbalances forced on people because of race. We need to have all the chess pieces present on the board before we can speak of applying strict non-racialism to how we deal with each other as a society.

I have previously called for the establishment of self-identity as a tool to break the stranglehold of apartheid and a way to build a better society. It seems on the face of it to directly contradict what the essence of black consciousness is. There is no contradiction as far as I am concerned. Black consciousness was not in fact an end unto itself, but a means. Without self-worth, or pride in one’s blackness, how can a black person set about building a self-identity? The building of that pride in blackness is a shared experience and ought to be a shared identity, in my view. It is the foundation upon which individual identities can be built. This is just like the fact that there is no contradiction between the South African Constitution establishing non-racialism as a central pillar, but allowing for policies which correct past imbalances which are necessarily framed around race, among other criteria.

This apparently escapes Coetzee, who said, “If you are arguing that black people cannot develop their individual identities unless they share an understanding of what it means to be black, then I am afraid it does escape me because, apart from anything else, it is demonstrably untrue. After all, it’s easily observable that there are lots of black people who manage to define themselves every day in the absence of a shared understanding of blackness.”

Coetzee is wrong on that count. There is, in fact, a shared understanding of blackness. It may manifest itself as culture, tradition or religion depending on the community, but it’s there. However, he agrees with me that there is a need for the restoration of self-worth and pride. “I believe apartheid was an unspeakable assault on the dignity of black people (and indeed of everyone),” he said. “It’s difficult for me to agree that every black person suffered a loss of self-worth and pride because I can’t possibly know that, but it is certainly the case that this was one consequence of apartheid for many black people and overcoming apartheid’s legacy for those so affected necessarily would involve a restoration of self-worth and pride.”

The third consideration is whether or not the government has a say in black consciousness, and this particular discussion arose out of a misunderstanding (I believe) of what I was calling for in my earlier article. Black consciousness is no more the business of the government than morality or what the colour of your underwear is. In this regards, Coetzee and I are of the same mind. I never called for the discussion on black consciousness to involve the government in any way.

However, this does bring us full circle on the matter of racial nationalism. I believe writing policies to fix current imbalances is fully within the ambit of a progressive government that is committed to social justice. What those policies should look like is another debate altogether, but the need for the existence of such policies is undeniable.

Coetzee agrees with this idea. “Our aim should be to achieve a situation in which the imbalances caused by apartheid are eliminated entirely”, he said to me. “This requires action by the government, by the private sector, by civil society generally and by every person who cares about justice. It should be done in a manner that (a) doesn’t entrench the idea that racial identity is primary, because that’s the very idea we’re trying to overcome, (b) targets those who currently suffer the consequences of apartheid, not those who no longer suffer them (certain tycoons spring to mind), (c) isn’t used as a smoke screen for advancing the interests of a particular political party, as is the case with cadre deployment and (d) doesn’t have the unintended consequence of harming the very people who deserve redress (as for example happens when service delivery is negatively affected by badly implemented affirmative action).”

The DA’s spokeswoman Lindiwe Mazibuko said the DA would never adopt a position that treats all South Africans as if they were on equal footing. “South Africans are not on an equal footing – we live in a decidedly unequal society, and although we have certain hard-won freedoms, the majority of our people (most of whom are black) are unable to access these freedoms because they are trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty,” she said. “Where we differ from the ANC is on the method of addressing these imbalances.”

Mazibuko continued: “The DA has no position on black consciousness per se, because it is a philosophical concept relating to individual experience rather than governance issues. We have always been of the view that it is the personal choice of individuals in a free society to form their own moral, philosophical and/or religious views, and not the job of the State or political parties. Our role is to have positions on delivery, freedom and accountability, not personal identity and morality.”

This entire exchange proves to me (besides how right Steve Biko was about liberals) why a discussion on black consciousness is so necessary. It is not only conflated with racial nationalism of the Jimmy Manyi sort, but it is in grave danger of being the preserve of the Jimmy Manyis of this world, who will use it to advance their personal agendas of wealth accruement by their blackness.

All I’m asking for is a discussion – what the people decide is up to the people. Is that too much to ask? DM


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