There is a question that almost always pops up in discussions about the black consciousness movement. Presented in various permutations, it has to do with the almost saintly reverence people hold for Steve Biko – not without good reason – and whether he would (still) be a revered figure were he alive in 2022. Of course, we don’t know. The same may be said about any thinker, great or small, decades or even centuries after their death. I usually present a philosophical and a historical answer, which almost never satisfies true believers.
The historical response is that whatever Biko said, he did so at least four decades ago. The philosophical answer is that we should leave room for the possibility that were he still alive, he may have changed his mind over 40 years. In other words, Biko is not alive and cannot defend or better explain the positions he held in the 1970s. This is not to say he was not prescient in some respects. The same goes for any great thinker in history; from Frantz Fanon and Thomas Sankara to Karl Marx.
Actually, Marx’s old buddy Friedrich Engels reminded us (Chapter 11 of Anti-Dühring) just how ridiculous it was “to ascribe any absolute validity to our present views….” The historical fact (Biko or Fanon expressed themselves decades ago), and philosophical contention (that we ought to leave room for the possibility that they may have changed their ideas over time) are usually met with vitriol and that reverence. Let us set that aside.
The other part of the question I am often asked to “defend” or “explain” has to do with the belief that black consciousness was a unifying force that rendered conflict between black people impossible. For what it’s worth, I spent hours with the late Muntu Myeza – who inducted me into the black consciousness movement – arguing that we were too idealistic and romantic about (us) black people at a time when, in the early 1980s in South Africa, we started killing each other. There was nothing exceptional about us, I told Muntu a year or so before he died in 1990.
Since then, and since Muntu’s death, we have seen an enormous amount of suffering and misery, warlordism, persecution and at least one case of genocide (in Rwanda) across Africa – among black people. I should add, in haste, that this does not set Africa apart; Europeans, Asians, Latin Americans, and just about every group of people have been at war with “their own” kind across history. Some people will probably get bored by the reference I often make, a statement by the British historian Michael Howard that the history of Europe was shaped on an anvil of war.
We are human after all
Many of us grieve when we see pictures of non-South Africans burning to a grizzly death. From behind a camera viewfinder, I grieved when Maki Skosana was burned to death in the mid-1980s. We are shaken every time we see unspeakable cruelty in our communities, but we hold steadfast to the idea that only black unity, starting with a “consciousness” followed by a programme of action would set us straight and on a righteous path to shared wealth, prosperity, access to healthcare, employment, social cohesion, stability and high levels of trust among us. All of this would restore our dignity. How foolish we are. Are we not human?
There are times when it seems, at least to me, that as humans we are hotwired for conflict and the merciless killing of each other – and the evidence is overwhelming. Here (again) I return to one of my greatest intellectual heroes, the late Richard Feynman. I paraphrase: You may have a beautiful theory of amity among black people, but if the evidence does not support it, discard the theory. From the violent collapse of the Songhai Empire in the early 17th century (that’s the deepest study I have done on African political economy), to Zimbabwe’s Operation Murambatsvina in 2005, to Operation Dudula, we have been cruel to each other (much like the Europeans) over the centuries.
In Asia, Chairman Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” caused between 30 million and 40 million deaths. In Cambodia, under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge government (between 1975 and 1979) an estimated 1.5 million to two million Cambodians died of starvation, execution or disease. In the 20th century alone it has been estimated that anything between 90 million and 120 million people were killed in war, “conflict” and famine caused by undemocratic and negligent regimes.
In South America, the Arawak, Carib and Tupi fought brutal wars, centuries before the Europeans arrived with their special breed of conquest and warfare. Completely pacific communities (like the Chavin in around 900 BCE) were a rarity.
Barbara Ehrenreich, whose Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War is an outstanding treatise on war, has said that the idea that we can resort to war to end war is one of the great follies of humankind. It is a “cruel trick”, she said. Indeed, because of the mass slaughter of the First World War, it was described as “the war to end all wars,” but Europe continued its war in 1939. (Some of us believe that the “first” world war ended in 1945.)
Anyway, Ehrenreich wrote, Marx was wrong: “It is not only the ‘means of production’ that shape societies but the means of destruction [referring specifically to the US’s addiction to war]. In our own time, the costs of war, or just war readiness, are daunting. The resulting cost squeeze has led to a new type of society, perhaps best termed a ‘depleted’ state, in which the military has drained resources from all other social functions.”
It doesn’t matter, then, what grand theories of inherent pacifism, or romantic idealism, we may have about ourselves as black people – or as “non-white” or “non-European”. It is our basic humanity from which we cannot escape. The evidence has shown that humans have been killing one another for centuries, and there is no indication that they will stop any time soon.
I participated in a seminar a couple of decades ago that considered whether war can be eliminated or at least be made more humane. One reference that stood out at the time, and remains with me, is (like the Chavin in what is now Peru), a Malayan tribe, the Semai, who came closest to resembling the myth of “primal innocence”. One record has it that killing was unknown among the Semai to the extent that they had no word for it in their language. Then the British arrived and recruited members of the Semai to fight their (British) anti-communist wars. Participation in war swirled in the Semai imagination and shaped a collective identity they (themselves) referred to as “blood drunkenness”.
No amount of proclamation of eternal innocence, pacifism or inherent kindness and decency can save us from conflict. Black consciousness remains, to me, a marvellous ideal and emancipatory impulse, but it has to come second to my own basic humanity. Is it not true that you are born, first, before you become anything? DM