Opinionista Onkgopotse JJ Tabane 15 September 2014

Dear Stephen Bantu Biko, let’s talk frankly

All these years after Steve Biko’s death, we have reason to be mourning the loss of Black Consciousness. And in its place, we have the rising of a hideous new black self-hatred, the symptoms of which are insidious and varied.

Dear Comrade Biko,

[Best Read with  Hugh Masekela’s song Ibala Lam]

Please intercede for us, wherever you are, to abandon black self-hatred, as last week we commemorated another anniversary of your passing as the father of Black Consciousness. This hatred has seeped into the very marrow of our bones, and is touching every aspect of our society.

Predictably, Comrade Stephen, many analysts and speakers at different Biko Lectures were falling over themselves to extol your virtues – in contradiction with what is happening today.

It is true that leaders of your courage and conviction are in short supply, when we look around, both within and outside of the Black Consciousness tradition. So emulating a leader like you is understandable, even as it may seem like clutching at straws.

None of our leaders today are even half the man you were. We can say this without fear of contradiction. From the point of view of just being original in thought leadership, and leading society out of a morass, decades after your untimely demise I am sad to say you still remain head and shoulders above just about every other leader we can point out today.

Last year, your ear was once again made to itch round about 12 September, with all the platitudes reserved for you. Nelson Mandela, the father of our nation – one of the few who can stand alongside your towering existence – was in a critical condition. He passed on in December last year, and hopefully, like you, is sitting at the right hand of the Father. For months now, we continue to grapple with how we will preserve his unmatchable legacy of moral rectitude.

Comrade Bantu, there is little or no thought leadership in our politics. It has been replaced by horrible and mindless conformity and embarrassing acquiescence. On all sides of the body politic, radicalism has been replaced by chaos, and principle by the politics of convenience.

Our people would rather just keep their heads below the radar, for fear of being shot at by power mongers in a society that has grown intolerant of thoughts that are not in line with the norm. Very few are willing to stand up to even the most obvious moral bankruptcy surrounding them at all levels of society. The architecture of the rot has become so sophisticated that it is the way of life, especially in our body politic. In the private sector, it has become dressed up as the efficiencies necessary to deal with government inefficiencies, as we recently saw with the corruption of construction companies.

Over this glaring private rot, there was little or no outrage in society. Instead, the reference to this straightforward malady is being given fancy titles, such as ‘collusion’. On the other hand, this incident has become a shining example used by those who are tired of over-reporting of public sector corruption, to show that several fingers are now also pointing at the private sector – and so we are square.

Comrade Steve, you were a big advocate against black self-hatred. Sadly, such self-hatred has intensified over the years, and it has taken the form of deep-seated corruption and the collapse of the moral compass across society. Such hatred has morphed into what one can describe as the lowest common denominator syndrome. This syndrome takes the shape of a sentiment that assumes everyone to be corrupt and therefore without the right to engage in any discussion about corruption. Those that are caught threaten to take their accomplices with them and not go down alone – painting a terrible picture of lawlessness across society. This has introduced a cynical vicious cycle of impunity and suspicion. The recent public display of utter disrespect for the Public Protector is an example of this syndrome.

But it does not end there – about a year ago it was discovered that about 1,500 police officers were convicted of heinous crimes like murder and armed robbery, but these officers are still on the payroll of the police. There is nothing more that can prove the kind of slippery slope that our society is on if those who are tasked with enforcing the law find themselves being equally unbothered about upholding it. Many now start to believe that there is no point in being law-abiding citizens when there is so much rot in the corridors of power. In a painful sense, not much has changed about how the police are viewed since they made you meet your end prematurely. Police brutality is a reality we live with.

I can assure you that a lot is being done to change this – but quite frankly, we have too long a way to go.

The PhD syndrome is another virus eating at our society. Hatred towards and amongst black people who work hard and reach for the stars has increased phenomenally. Successful black people both in politics and business have to constantly look over their shoulders as they expect to be stabbed in the back at any time – often by those they consider close to them. Pull him down. No  sooner are  politicians elected to their positions than there are plans to trap and oust them. Spying on each other has become the norm, and in the process, state apparatus is abused by those who have usurped the powers and functions of this machinery to pursue political goals. As you can imagine, the media is having a field day with comrades whispering about each other all over the place.

Comrade Steve, we are engulfed by another syndrome. The ‘it’s our turn to eat’ syndrome. This is essentially a callous way of mingling politics and business interests. Politicians at the highest and lowest levels of government have embedded interests and use all kinds of proxies to access state largesse. This has become the norm – so much so that anyone trying to do business outside this framework is seen as totally stupid and even naïve; someone who should rather go and try to run a youth NGO or something. Bribery in tender deals has become standard operating procedure. So standard has it become that some within the ruling party think the best way is to centralise the tender system. This way, it is believed there could be better control. A special person called the Chief Procurement Officer will be expected to stem the tender malice out. Good luck to him, and as Minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi once remarked, good luck, South Africa. What should comfort us is that at least someone is trying to do something.

What all this means is that black self-hate is sadly self-inflicted: collectively, and in many ways since the dawn of freedom. The perceived failure of the state to arrest corruption is but one of the symptoms. But I am an eternal optimist. A prisoner of hope. When I see the state employing 2,000 ethics officers to try to stamp out corruption, I know that we have a reason to have some measure of hope in the future.

But, Comrade Bantu, you have left a gap that is impossible to fill. I know you were not perfect yourself, but you at least left us with the courage to speak frankly.  You and Martin Luther King left us with the kind of courage that can stand up to the worst bullies in our society, who would use their access to power to humiliate and even to kill their perceived enemies.

King inspired me when he stated: “I am not concerned about longevity .Longevity has its place, but I am concerned about doing the will of the Lord.” Since your demise, very few are concerned about values in our society. A few voices that speak out are often just ignored in the cacophony of the louder voices that stand up in defence of patronage.

The spate of political assassinations in provinces like the North West and Mpumalanga have been successfully swept under the carpet. At least 12 murders in Mpumalanga alone remain unresolved over the years. The latest was over the building of a World Cup stadium there – big names are implicated. I’m not sure why we don’t have a state of emergency in that province. Recently, an MEC in the North West province was arrested on suspicion of murder. So we are not just generalising the issues. You can just imagine what will happen when the truth in that trial comes out. It will probably become apparent that he was not acting alone, but was acting alongside other politicians to a particular political end. This is self-hatred at its best.

Rumour has it that you were somewhat Catholic. It is at this point that I ask you to intercede with the mother of Jesus in any way that you can – a simple prayer of the recapturing of the Consciousness   of our Blackness…the endowing of self-love for black people; the majority who stand to lose badly if our state fails. Our Black Consciousness is fast fading. It is morphing into such deep-seated hatred one for another – it has got to be stopped.

Intercede for us, dear Comrade Biko, before it’s too late.

We learned from your great works that this blackness is not a matter of pigmentation, but a mental attitude. With what has happened since your demise, we indeed are still on our own.  Our culture takes second place and is accommodated apologetically in our body politic. This has come to fuel black unconsciousness in a big way. I can’t finish everything now – I will need to write to you very soon again, because there is so much still to talk frankly about…

Yours frankly,

Onkgopotse JJ Tabane DM