Biko, the quest for humanity and nation building

7 October 2014 at 07:03 | 19212 views

Credit: Pambazuka News.

By Veli Mbele, South Africa*

Biko’s Black Consciousness is now more relevant than ever in South Africa. The neo-liberal, white-supremacist order which prevails today not only keeps the Black masses oppressed but also defines the very questions which can be asked about this state of affairs. The elite post-apartheid discourse excludes the important questions like those of land dispossession, racial and class oppression and gender equality from the agenda.

[This talk was presented at the annual Steve Biko conference hosted by the Umtapo Centre and Steve Biko Foundation at the Durban University of Technology on 17 September 2014]

Steve Biko (pictured-Editor) is a difficult and complex ontological subject whose essence compels us to think the unthinkable, say the unsay-able and do the undo-able. Biko represents a rebellion of the oppressed Black soul against self-imposed fear, self-doubt, cowardice, and the tyranny of white supremacy.

In the context of his time and impact on South African and world history, Biko is a colossus. His contribution to the development of Black radical theory and practice is, without a doubt, one of the most critical in the global and historical evolution of the Black emancipatory project, in the second half of the 20th century.

In historical terms, Biko must be located within the Black radical tradition of Prince Hall, Paul Cuffee, David Walker, James Johnson, Edward Blyden, Henry Sylvester Williams, Carter Woodson, George Padmore, Marcus Garvey, Cyril James, Martin Delaney, Henry Highland Garnet, Alexander Crummell, Anna Julia Cooper, Amy Jacques Garvey and Florynce Kennedy.

In more contemporary terms, Biko must be located within the Black radical tradition of Marimba Ani, Jacob Carruthers, Cheikh Anta Diop, Runoko Rashidi, Iva van Sertima, Chancellor Williams, Fernand Cesaire, Theophile Obenga, Asa Hilliard, Barry Fell, Omar Fanon, Josef Ben-Jochannan, Amos Wilson, Chinweizu Ibekwe, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Akinyele Umoja, Claud Anderson, Frank Wilderson, Antonio Monteiro, Jared Ball, Audre Lorde, Bell Hooks, Cheryl Clarke and Rose Brewer.

In his fearless confrontation of white supremacy, Biko must be placed along Toussaint L’Ouverture, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Dedan Kimathi, Mpande Nzinga, Mbuya Nehanda, Emery Lumumba, Malcolm X, Kwame Toure, Noel Sankara, Samora Machel, George Jackson, Assata Shakur, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Mangaliso Sobukwe and of course, Mgcineni; Mambush Noki, who was one of the foremost leaders of the Marikana Uprising.

Seen in this context, the genius of Biko and his peers in the South African Students Organisation (SASO) lay in their ability to synthesise a global, historically-evolved tradition of Black radical theory and practice, and situationalise it to speak to the Black condition in South Africa. This universality, historical evolution and interconnectedness of Black radical theory and practice is acknowledged by Biko when he emphasises that the surge towards Black Consciousness is a phenomenon that has manifested itself through out the so-called third world.

One of the most fundamental implications of Black radical theory is that - as part of extricating themselves from oppression - the first task that Black people must perform is to understand the source, content, form and instruments of their oppression. In the context of today, one of the instruments through which the dominance of oppressed groups is maintained is the facility of formal discourse and, in particular, the language that is used to frame critical discourse.

This is evident in the fact that the neo-liberal academic, research and media institutions have become the hegemonic agenda-setters for what society thinks or discusses. Therefore, those concerned with the liberation of any group or class must get into the habit of asking themselves: who determines the content and form of societal discourse and, most critically, what is their agenda?

Viewed in this context, we will immediately realise that, in the neo-liberal epoch of imperialism, discourse-framing is not just increasingly being used to distort our perception of what is real, but it has also become a tool through which the status quo is being maintained, under the pretext of changing it.

It is for this reason that we find it intellectually and ideologically disturbing that much of our mainstream discourse (both in academic and political life) almost mechanically locates all critical national reflection within the post-1994 periodisation. It is almost as though, in the South African context, all Black political and intellectual history began in April 1994.

This should perhaps also help us understand why it is that, even though we may think about it from time to time, it does not seem like we have developed the intellectual courage to openly ask: what is about post-apartheid South Africa and, consequently, what is democratic about 20 years of democracy?

Formulations such as post-apartheid and 20 years of democracy have not just become the unquestionable existential truths of our time - but there also exists a system that ensures that those who promote and perpetuate these intellectual obfuscations get rewarded and recognised in all sorts of ways. If measured against the lived experience of the Black majority in South Africa, how valid are these formulations?

This leads me to the question I have been asked to answer: Biko and The Quest for True Humanity: Does Black Consciousness Still Have A Role In Nation-Building and The Future of The Country?

As stated earlier, one of the habits that an oppressed people must internalise in order to extricate themselves from oppression is the habit of asking questions. Without the benefit of knowing the rationale of those who crafted this question for me, the question that I have been asked to respond to has, in my view, a number of interesting implications.

First, it may imply that, in the past, BC (Black Consciousness-Editor) did play a role in nation-building and the shaping of the direction of our country and now (probably after 1994), this role is under question. If my deduction is correct, then we must be curious: who is questioning the validity of BC, post 1994, and why are they doing so?

Second, the question almost gives BC the character of an apolitical and neutral nation-building paradigm, of the neo-liberal type. For instance, as framed, it doesn’t seem to directly concern itself with two critical elements of Biko’s BC, which are: the Black condition and the concept of liberation. Does the question under discussion perhaps move from the premise that these two elements are implied in its phraseology?

Arising out of these deductions, allow me to reconfigure the original question and ask: Does Our Country and, Most Fundamentally, Does The Black Majority, Have A Future Without Biko’s Black Consciousness?

In answering both the original and supplementary questions, it is perhaps useful to start by reminding ourselves what Biko meant when he talked about Black Consciousness and the quest for true humanity, and what his attitude was towards the concept of nation-building.

In his essay, The Definition of Black Consciousness, Biko explains Black Consciousness as follows:

"We have defined blacks as those who are by law or tradition politically, economically and socially discriminated against as a group in the South African society and identifying themselves as a unit in the struggle towards the realisation of their aspirations... Black Consciousness is in essence the realisation by the black man of the need to rally together with his brothers around the cause of their oppression - the blackness of their skin - and to operate as a group in order to rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude. It seeks to demonstrate the lie that black is an aberration from the normal, which is white. One must immediately dispel the thought that Black Consciousness is merely a methodology or a means towards an end. What Black Consciousness seeks to do is to produce at the output end of the process real black people who do not regard themselves as the appendages to white society. This truth cannot be reserved. It seeks to infuse the black community with a new-found pride in themselves, their efforts, their value systems, their culture, their religion and their outlook to life. The interrelationship between the consciousness of the self and the emancipatory programme is of a paramount importance. Blacks no longer seek to reform the system because so doing implies acceptance of the major points around which the system revolves. Blacks are out to completely transform the system and to make of it what they wish. Such a major undertaking can only be realised in an atmosphere where people are convinced of the truth inherent in their stand. Liberation therefore is of paramount importance in the concept of Black Consciousness, for we cannot be conscious of ourselves and yet remain in bondage. We want to attain the envisioned self which is a free self."

According to Biko therefore, BC has the following attributes:

- It addresses itself specifically to Black people in the South African context and their condition of oppression.

- It is predicated on self-knowledge, group solidarity and action.

- It is an existential consciousness with a political agenda.

- And most critically, it seeks to inspire an emancipatory programme that will culminate in the liberation of the oppressed (Blacks in this case).

Even though the concept of nation-building is not ordinarily associated with the parlance of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) in South Africa, in his essay, Black Souls in White Skins, Biko explains his attitude towards nation-building in South Africa as follows:

"If by integration you understand a breakthrough into white society by blacks, an assimilation and acceptance of blacks into an already established set of norms and code of behaviour set up by and maintained by whites, then YES I am against it. I am against the superior-inferior white-black stratification that makes the white a perpetual teacher and the black a perpetual pupil (and a poor one at that). I am against the intellectual arrogance of white people that makes them believe that white leadership is a sine qua non in this country and that whites are the divinely appointed pace-setters in progress. I am against the fact that a settler minority should impose an entire system of values on an indigenous people."

"If on the other hand by integration you mean there shall be free participation by all members of a society, catering for the full expression of the self in a freely changing society as determined by the will of the people, then I am with you. For one cannot escape the fact that the culture shared by the majority group in any given society must ultimately determine the broad direction taken by the joint culture of that society. This need not cramp the style of those who feel differently but on the whole, a country in Africa, in which the majority of the people are African, must inevitably exhibit African values and be truly African in style."

According to Biko, in the South African context, nation-building must at least have the following features:

- It must not be predicated on white values and norms or imply the automatic assimilation of Blacks into these.

- It must not be forced upon people.

- It must be preceded by a process where Black people build-up their self-esteem, value systems and group power, to be meaningful co-architects of what could be regarded as a normal society.

- And because South Afrika is a country on the Afrikan continent, such a project must be underpinned by the norms and values of the majority.

Then in his essay, Black Consciousness and The Quest For True Humanity, Biko explains his notion of a quest for true for humanity as follows:

"For the liberals, the thesis is apartheid, the anti-thesis is non-racialism, but the synthesis is very feebly defined. They want to tell the blacks that they see integration as the ideal solution. Black Consciousness defines the situation differently. The thesis is in fact a strong white racism and therefore, the antithesis to this must, ipso facto, be a strong solidarity amongst the blacks on whom this white racism seeks to prey. Out of these two situations we can therefore hope to reach some kind of balance - a true humanity where power politics will have no place. We have set out on a quest for true humanity, and somewhere on the distant horizon we can see the glittering prize. Let us march forth with courage and determination, drawing strength from our common plight and our brotherhood. In time we shall be in a position to bestow upon South Africa the greatest gift possible - a more human face."

Drawing from these extracts, it would be difficult to convincingly assert that, in terms of Biko’s understanding, there exists today something that can be referred to as a united South African nation. As a historically-evolved entity, a nation is generally understood as a group of people (usually ethnically or racially homogenous), who reside in a specific territory, over a certain period of time, and have a shared origin, history or ancestry, a shared language, customs and rituals. And most importantly, who have full control over their territory (this includes their land and related economic resources) and all aspects of their national life.

If you apply this template to the South African context, you will immediately realise that we are not just an ethnically and racially diverse society, but also that, in historical terms, our society essentially comprises those who are indigenous to the Afrikan continent and those who, for a variety of reasons, came to the Afrikan continent, from other parts of the world.

As a society, we therefore do not necessarily have a shared origin, history or ancestry. In the functioning of our mainstream public and private institutions, the languages, customs and rituals of those who came to Afrika dominate the languages, customs and rituals of those who are indigenous to Afrika. And while the state is managerially under Black leadership, other critical aspects of our national life, such as our mineral resources, our ancestral land, the content of our education and the mass media remain under the control or influence of those who came to Afrika.

To fully understand the paradoxes in the make-up of South African society we must bear in mind that, both in historical and contemporary terms, the project of nation- building has never been conflict-free, class or ideologically neutral. Nation-building, like all human activity, assumes the political, social, cultural, economic and ideological context of its time and location.

Besides, human history is replete with examples where political elites, of various countries, have used concepts such as nation-building or patriotism to justify the enslavement of various social groups or peoples, or to dispossess them of their land and related wealth.

Today, countries like the United States of America and their allies, use such notions as the war on terror to conceal a ruthless and bloody white-supremacist agenda of global dominance. This should help us understand the incessant proxy-imperialist conflicts on the Afrikan continent and why these are deliberately branded as conflicts that are sparked by ethnic or religious chauvinism.

It is this western-imperialist agenda which helps us to understand why it is necessary for the oppressed in this country to pledge solidarity with the struggles for self-determination of the Saharawi of Western Sahara, the Touareg of Mali, the people of Palestine, the Melanesians of Papua New Guinea, the Mapuche of Chile and many other such struggles.

In the context of contemporary South Africa, when it took office in 1994, the ANC consciously adopted an acutely neo-liberal nation-building paradigm, which is based on liberal, post-race theory. Post 1994, South Africa’s nation-building project was driven by an illusive notion called the Rainbow Nation, the legal basis of which was to be found in such pieces of legislation as the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act of 1996 which, as you know, provided the legal framework for that monumental miscarriage of justice called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

The Rainbow Nation thesis was essentially designed to seduce the Black majority into celebrating the legalisation of the robbery of their land and its attendant mineral resources by whites, through the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA).

The deal that was struck between white capital and sections of the Black political leadership at CODESA essentially ensured that those who were landless and powerless before 1994 remained landless and powerless after 1994, and that those who were in control of our national wealth remained powerful and in charge of the economy after 1994.

This effectively transformed political relations in South Africa from colonial to neo-colonial. This is why it continues to baffle the mind why we as Blacks continue to celebrate days like Freedom Day. By celebrating days like Freedom Day, we Blacks are essentially celebrating our own robbery. It is profoundly interesting that there is a sense in which Biko predicted all this. Just shortly before he was murdered, he said:

"I think there is no running away from the fact that in South Africa there is such an ill distribution of wealth that any form of political freedom which does not touch on the proper distribution of wealth will be meaningless. The whites have locked up within a small minority of themselves the greater proportion of the country’s wealth. If we have a mere change of face of those in governing positions what is likely to happen is that black people will continue to be poor, and you will see a few blacks filtering through into the so-called bourgeoisie. Our society will be run as of yesterday. So for meaningful change to appear there needs to be an attempt at reorganising the whole economic pattern and policies within this particular country."

To fulfill the agenda of its architects, the Rainbow Nation thesis had to be consciously dehistoricised and it should therefore not be surprising that, 20 years after the so-called 1994 miracle the interconnected and fundamental questions of Black liberation in South Africa such as the National Question, the Land Question, the Race Question, the Class Question and the Gender Question remain unresolved. In Bikoian terms, our society is being run as of yesterday.

South Africa is therefore not a normal society or nation. What we have is a precariously contradictory co-existence of two major groups, one white and powerful and one Black and powerless. If we are to have a truly united nation in South Africa, as understood by Biko, our nation-building project must at least have the following features:

- First, it must be conceptualised and executed by Blacks alone.

- Second, it must locate the political discourse on nation-building within the historical and global narrative of the unfinished project of Black liberation.

- Third, the agenda of this project must include the critical question of land repossession and meaningful redistribution of our country’s wealth.

- And fourth, it must analyse Black oppression not just in terms of race and class, but also in terms of gender, and locate these inter-connected forms of oppression within the global experience of Black oppression in the era of neo-liberalism.

Any nation-building project that doesn’t seek to radically resolve the inter-connected questions of national oppression, land dispossession, race, class and gender oppression, is nothing but a giant sleeping pill that wants Black people to accept their slavish status as the permanent tea-girls and garden-boys of the white community.

The continued powerlessness of Blacks is dialectically linked to the continued power of whites and to view the two as disconnected is not just intellectual cowardice of the worst kind, but also an act of monumental duplicity. The dialectic between white power and Black powerlessness plays itself out every morning, on our roads, when the Black majority wakes up in a rush to catch a taxi or train just to go and look after the children and businesses of the white minority.

This dialectic is present in the paradox where a government that is led by Blacks doesn’t hesitate to mercilessly and periodically kill their own, like Andries Tatane, Nqobile Nzuza, Jan Rivombo, Josiah Rahube and Lerato Seema. In recent memory, nowhere has the dialectic between white power and Black powerlessness been more palpable than in the bloody sequence of events that have come to define the Marikana Uprising.

The Marikana Uprising is the single most important event, in contemporary terms, which embodies the Bikoian type radical Black Consciousness. There is also a sense in which this uprising emphatically confirms that it doesn’t matter how highly eulogised our country’s Constitution may be; being Black continues to represent a state of debilitating nothingness. A traumatising space wherein to exist actually means not to exist. Blackness is a brutal absence of presence, with bloody consequences.

In the final analysis, we will all have to accept that, even under ANC rule, our beloved South Africa is nothing else but a neo-colonial bastion of white supremacist capitalism managed by Blacks, on behalf of whites. And for this reason, it is not Black Consciousness that must incessantly justify its relevance or future, but us, the Black majority, who must be haunted by the tragedy of our indifference in the midst of growing anti-Black brutality, both in South Africa and other parts of the world. Bolekaja!

* Veli Mbele is a South African writer and social commentator.

Editor’s Note: Here is a documentary on the late Steve Biko:

And here is a rare TV interview of the man himself, the late Steve Biko. Click on the clip below: