We have just come to the end of September, the month in which many of us commemorated the 35th anniversary of the death of Stephen Bantubonke Biko, the father of black consciousness in South Africa. As we stand at this point, we must take inventory and ask whether the much-celebrated leader’s ideas and teachings have in fact taken root in South Africa or whether his name is evoked by political pariahs only when they wish to create the impression of a deeper consciousness without really understanding the fundamental message of his teachings.
More importantly, we must ask whether there is room in the general discourse for genuine criticism by black people of the incompetence of other black people in positions of power, without the critics being given unflattering labels or accused of attempting to ingratiate themselves with whites. Is it possible that black-on-black criticism is inspired by nothing other than a fundamental belief that black people deserve the best and are capable of the best? Is it possible that to hold ourselves to a lesser standard, regardless of the circumstances, is a desecration of the sacrifices of our forebears and a soiling of a bright collective future?
A few days ago, Dr. Barney Pityana, respected academic, intellectual and human rights activist, said in a lecture at the Eastern Cape’s Kingswood College that “South Africans are to blame for the unintelligent and incompetent leadership we have in government today.” I believe that Dr. Pityana’s indictment was in fact aimed more specifically at black South Africans, because it is black South Africans in the main who have voted the current leadership into power – thereby legitimising mediocrity in governance. I must hasten to add, for those who don’t know Dr. Pityana’s struggle credentials, that he is one of the most respected black consciousness leaders and was both a contemporary and friend of Steve Biko’s. He is widely understood to have been instrumental in the development of much of the philosophy of black consciousness as we know it.
He joins an eminent and growing chorus of “thinking” struggle giants whose voice of criticism and warning waxes daily. Luminaries such as Dr. Mamphele Ramphele and Prof. Jonathan Jansen have been passionate in their constructive criticism of the many blunders in SA’s governance, from our floundering education to matters of foreign and economic policy. Even from within, the governing party has been criticised constructively by thought leaders such as Dr. Pallo Jordan, a respected intellectual within the ANC, and Prof. Ben Turok (the list is endless). Those who have been silent have been conspicuously so, signalling a concerning resignation to the mediocrity South Africa has been subjected to in recent years.
The concern here is not so much the reasons for this growing criticism, as disturbing as they may be. It is, instead, the unfortunate reasoning and manner of debate characterising the response to such criticism from self-appointed “blacker than thou” apologists.
During the days of the legalised systematic oppression of black people in this country, there was a natural solidarity amongst the oppressed in all manner of endeavour. We had a common enemy, the immoral system of Apartheid. In many ways, this gave the impression that we were a homogenous society in the way we saw life, when the truth was that we were as different in our perceptions as any other society. Some of us found such profound meaning in the struggle against Apartheid that the struggle became our only reality, our only reason to live. We forgot, tragically, that the reason for the struggle was to bring about freedom from struggle. Such was the devotion to the struggle by some that its end was traumatic – robbing them of meaning and authenticity. Some, feeling empty in its wake, have had to seek out a new “struggle”, even post-Apartheid.
Steve Biko foresaw this strange fixation with oppression, a mental disposition defined by a twisted affinity for struggle – a need for chaos in order to accommodate constant struggle. He understood that the true emancipation of a deeply oppressed people would not simply come as a result of political emancipation alone. In fact, he dreaded the idea of political emancipation without breaking the chains of mental slavery.
Steve Biko may have sympathised with the sentiments of many political formations such as the ANC and PAC, but there is no record of him actually participating actively in such organisations as a member. This is why the leaders of these organisations were rather cool towards him, because he preached a deeper, more profound freedom than the influence over material conditions. His was the message of freedom from our destructive selves.
His idea was that freedom existed in the mind first – that until such deep-seated slavery was appropriately understood and uprooted through appropriately contextualised knowledge of oneself and one’s history, political emancipation would only facilitate the entrenchment of mental slavery. Worse still, it would perpetuate it through black Neo-colonialism. This is why Biko said “the most powerful weapon in the hands of the oppressor…is the mind of the oppressed”. Many on both sides of the political spectrum preferred, erroneously, to understand black consciousness as a racist doctrine designed to philosophise hatred for white people. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Could it be that much of the mediocrity in leadership, dismal policy implementation, sub-standard service delivery and other ills that many (particularly black folks) are constantly complaining about is not an inherent incapability but the manifestation of this slave mentality? A self-sabotaging mechanism deeply embedded in the psyche of our leadership and our people in order to continue “the struggle”?
Could it be that the criticism by people such as Dr.Pityana and others is recognition of this condition amongst us black folks, and that this is not necessarily aimed at ridicule or destructive criticism but a call to introspection? A call to black consciousness as taught by Steve Biko? Could it be that the reactionary name-calling and baseless assumptions made by the so-called “defenders of the struggle” is yet another manifestation of the same illness of the mind bent on promoting mediocrity in order to feel some irrational authenticity based on out dated rhetoric? Could it be that those who criticise are motivated, constrained by a responsibility to succeed in honour of those who paid the ultimate price for the liberation of our beloved country? Could it be that their criticism is in fact the most genuine display of patriotism and love for all the people of this country?
The next time you, my brother or sister, rise to call those who criticise our government’s mediocrity – and our inability to hold them to account –names such as “sell-outs”, “coconuts”, “privileged middle classes” et cetera, please think who the sell-out really is.
Examine yourself first. You may be the one who ingratiates yourself to mediocrity, perpetuating the idea that we blacks should be satisfied with less than the best because we come from a history of oppression. Check whether or not you may be trying to obfuscate the issues because you are daunted by the reality and responsibility of leadership and would rather point to other factors other than those openly pointing to your own inaction.
Be careful, my brother or sister, that you are not the new oppressor who shouts down any idea that may call you to stand up and be counted for what is right, not what is white. Being black does not have to be synonymous with backwardness, illiteracy, mediocrity and poverty. Those are attributes of slavery. We, too, can be progressive, literate, excellent and wealthy without being corrupt, inept or incompetent. Right is not white, it is right! Let’s do the right thing and hold each other to account. Steve Biko would not have wanted anything less for us or from us. DM