In a recent preface to the latest edition of Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu bemoans the fact that the values instilled by Black Consciousness are sadly lacking in our new South Africa. He goes on to say that Black Consciousness “has not quite completed its task”.
Black Consciousness had long influenced the direction of South Africa’s liberatory politics from the moment large numbers of young Black Consciousness cadres joined the armed struggle in the 1970s. They reshaped the culture of liberatory politics, introduced a new discourse and injected an urgency and radicalism in the struggle both within South Africa, in armed struggle and in exile. Likewise Black Theology may appear to have lost its significance in the new era in church and society, but the church can never be the same again.
But what about universities? That is perhaps where the greatest challenge lies. It is a challenge due in no small measure to incomplete transformation in higher education, and to the tension within higher education between the conservatism of traditions and accretions to intellectual pseudo-grandeur, but at the same time the character of the university as a place of ideas and experimentation.
The tension between those two countervailing forces may well account for the state standstill in higher education where very little new and challenging is emerging, and student leadership, such as it is, is immersed in opportunistic politics of self-enrichment or cultivating careers in the dominant politics. The good news is that it has not always been like that, and it will not remain so.
The Black Consciousness Movement found incubation during the worst times of the apartheid repression. The higher education institutions that apartheid ideology had sought to establish as another stage in the total suppression of black aspirations were the very places where subversive ideas took root and where radical action could not be suppressed. This became possible by bringing black students together, and for them to share ideas. They found common patterns of endemic inequality, and a common purpose and resolve to overcome.
There were two stages to this denouement of the plot. First, the idea popularised by Amilcar Cabral that revolutionary theory is the weapon of struggle. This meant that hatching and developing and spreading and engaging in challenging ideas was a revolutionary pastime.
The second element of this consciousness was the assertion that the oppressed had it within themselves to change their fortunes. The liberation could never be brought on a platter, not least from among the oppressor class, however well meaning. There was to be “a total solution in ideas and action”.
Biko stated it poignantly in his testimony when he referred to Soweto 1976 as pointing to “boldness, dedication, sense of purpose and clarity of analysis of the situation …” He went on to say that “all of these things are definitely a result of Black Consciousness ideas among the young generation in Soweto and elsewhere.”
What Black Consciousness inculcated in our people, especially the young, was the belief in themselves as their own liberators - “for the power of a movement”, wrote Biko, “lies in the fact that it can indeed change the habits of people. This change is not the result of force but of dedication, of moral persuasion …”
The radical thought in this Black Consciousness package of ideas was that, as he put it, “the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”. The black personality therefore had to assert its total humanity unbeholden to the oppressor in ideas, in material needs, in culture and interpretation of history – in other words the intellectual tools of analysis must be in the hands of the oppressed-liberator to leverage his own liberatory instincts.
What brought about, I assert, this new thinking among university students at that time was not merely the awareness of the dead-weight of oppression, but also curiosity and puzzlement about the succession of failed liberation projects. We had observed that in many respects there was a psyche of defeat and of resignation, of many who had given up, many imprisoned, even more subjected to torture, and the path to exile did not seem to ever return.
It was out of this puzzle that we got to explore the struggles in other contexts, garnered inspiration from the struggles of Algeria, the Pan-Africanism of Nkrumah, the intellectual movements of negritude, the various phases of the struggles for civil rights in the United States.
It is therefore not surprising that the Black Consciousness Movement grew out of the very campuses where the racist oppression was meant to be so total and ideas so totally controlled. This means that even in such environments ideas could not be suppressed, and they found expression in programmes, in projects of conscientisation beyond the confines of the institutions themselves. They found expression in the political arena and in the workplaces; they gave birth to Black Theology and changed the language of the pulpit. They gave voice to the silent voices of the oppressed in Soweto and elsewhere, and they brought resistance to the doorsteps of rural communities. Above all, they provided analytical tools to address the scourge of racism.
The truth, however, is that racism remains prevalent in our society. Where is the Black Consciousness for our times? Addressing a graduation ceremony at Rhodes University in April this year, Professor Basil S Moore may be pointing the way when he says: “Our task as intellectuals is still to engage with the victims of injustice, to analyse their plight, to give voice to their distress and their hopes.
“But it is not to do this standing aloof from their struggle. It needs to be done from the very heart of that struggle. It is to devise and implement strategies that will restore to people their dignity and humanity. Each of you in your chosen field is being called upon to become liberation activists for social justice.”
Intellectuals in South Africa today, especially those in higher education institutions, are called upon to avoid what Thandika Mkandawire calls the “Faustian Bargain in being part of the new power elite and [being] silenced by the allure of privilege. Rather they could be living up to the character of intellectual in any society to ‘puncture the myths’, demystifying the rhetoric of struggle, deconstructing the politics of liberation, and in that manner take their place in the forefront of ‘responsible citizenship’.”