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In memory of Steve Biko: Fighting spiritual poverty in post-Apartheid South Africa

Simamkele Dlakavu is a human rights television producer and runs a social enterprise aimed at developing rural and township youth in South Africa. She was included in the Mail and Guardian Top 200 Young South African's list of 2014.

The prevailing structural and material effects of Apartheid, which continue to be perpetrated in post-Apartheid South Africa, are widely explored. There is much literature available that proves that it is the black majority that experiences the highest levels of poverty, unemployment and lack of access to basic services. However, the “spiritual poverty” black people still experience in post-Apartheid South Africa is largely ignored.

Unlike the material effects of Apartheid, the mental and spiritual effects of this “spiritual poverty” are invisible to many. As we celebrated the legacy of Stephen Bantu Biko last week, the 37th year anniversary of his passing, I was reminded of one of his most powerful quotes: “Material want is bad enough, but coupled with spiritual poverty, it kills.”

Growing up in and going to school in the rural and township areas of Eastern Cape, I have seen how spiritual poverty has killed many young people’s hopes and dreams. I have always been a big dreamer and understood that I could change my circumstances and that I could achieve whatever I wanted. However, when I would express those dreams with my peers and my community elders, I was told that “uyaboniswa” (you are delusional) and that “uyaphapha” (you are forward). Some would be kind enough to let me down easily, to “pull me back to the ground”, so that I wouldn’t be disappointed. I understand now that one’s mental space is impacted by one’s conditioning and sets the trajectory for one’s life course. What have black people been conditioned to do in this country? Biko tried to answer this question:

“… what makes a black man fail to tick? Is he convinced of his own accord of his inabilities? Does he lack in his generic make-up that rare quality that makes a man willing to die for the realisation of his aspirations? Or is he simply a defeated person?”

Although Biko realised that the answer was not clear-cut, he concluded that the closest answer to this question lay in the logic of white supremacy and Apartheid South Africa’s need “to prepare the black man for the subservient role in this country”. This is indeed a part of the problem, looking back at history; these sentiments were freely uttered by colonial and Apartheid South African leaders in Parliament and reflected in their education and job reservation legislation. A popular example was an utterance made by former prime minister of SA Dr Hendrik Verwoerd.

“There is no place for [blacks] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour… What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?”

However, we are 20 years into our democracy, and surely while important, Apartheid policy and logic cannot take the sole blame? Our black government has forgotten to reinstall the confidence that the colonial and Apartheid government took way. The mental and spiritual work has not been prioritised; instead it has been privatised, like many of the other basic needs in our country. The privatisation of this work is what photographer and social critic Victor Dlamini calls “the motivation Kool-Aid”.

There is not a day that I do not see an invite or poster for an upcoming event with “life coaches” and “motivational speakers”. These are the spaces where people are invited to learn to “live their best lives” and to “be their best selves”. I see a lot of my black brothers and sisters (mostly middle class), lining up to attend. I applaud these spaces and I see their value. However, they are becoming more of a business than a genuine concern with changing people’s lives. What these people sell is mainly conferences and speaking and cashing in on speaking fees. They also are accompanied by high levels of materialism that we find in the “prosperity gospel” common in our churches today. We need to interrogate their importance in post-Apartheid South Africa, as well as how they locate themselves in the context where black people were restricted in who and what they could be. Dreaming under Apartheid for black people was not tolerated. Blacks could only do and be so much.

Although there is good work being done by some motivational speakers in our country, visiting rural and township schools without any financial benefit, it is not enough. The mental and spiritual work in democratic South Africa should be streamlined and institutionalised. As we remember Steve Biko, we must remember to continue the “inward-looking process” that is set “to pump back life into his empty shell; to infuse him [or her] with pride and dignity”. It should be someone’s, or an institution’s business every single day to make sure that this work is being done. DM

**Simamkele Dlakavu is a human rights television producer and runs a social enterprise aimed at developing rural and township youth in South Africa. She was included in the Mail & Guardian Top 200 Young South Africans list of 2014.


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