a public lecture by Achille Mbembe, 12 September 2007
On September 12th democrats all over the world and throughout our
country people will remember one of the most tragic days in our long
and brutal history. This is the day when the life of one of the
brightest political thinkers our country ever produced was brought to an
end by the apartheid police. Steve Biko represented everything that was
beautiful and honourable about that long struggle- courageous, witty,
intelligent and magnanimous. Together with his peers in the black
consciousness movement, Biko gave back identity, meaning and the courage
to act to a people who were on the verge of psychological defeat. His
greatest achievement was the restoration of consciousness to black
people so we could journey on to where we are today. Without his
intervention we would literally never have achieved our democracy. But
now that we did Biko’s name has often been used to to buttress all kinds
of essentialist, nativist discourses – to attack and besmirch opponents
and shut down debates. The Platform for Public Deliberation has asked
Achille Mbembe, one of the world’s leading thinkers on the postcolonial
condition in Africa, to deliver a public lecture on Black Intellectual
Traditions and Democratic Thought, from Fanon To Biko.
Stephen Bantu Biko died thirty years ago. A young black man, he had
spent most of his short life thinking about how black people in South
Africa could win for themselves a greater degree of intellectual,
political and cultural autonomy.
He grew up at a time in South Africa when the physical features
that are associated with blackness (dark skin, kinky hair, full lips)
were stigmata of degradation, inferiority and abjection. These were also
times when the deadly force of white supremacy denied the rights and
severely reduced the life prospects of all blacks.
Like many interpreters of the black condition elsewhere in the world,
from Frederick Douglass to WEB Dubois and Frantz Fanon, he painfully
realized that whites had refused to accept blacks as fellow citizens. To
expect justice from them would be "naïve", he argued.
White racism had also engendered a social caste that suffered from self-alienation, he thought.
Blacks had been rendered incapable of developing an independent
collective identity and had been limited to viewing themselves through
the eyes of their oppressors. The truncated consciousness that they did
possess was suffused with feelings of self-doubt. Furthermore, these
feelings had been internalized through racist propaganda, fear, material
want and deprivation, and merciless brutality.
Gradually, he came to the belief that if they were ever to
transcend the vicissitudes of racial bondage and regain faith in their
ability, blacks should pursue independent collective development and
self-reliance through critical self-examination and self-scrutiny.
For him, critical self-examination and self-scrutiny were
essential starting points for the development of true self-consciousness
and the healing of the wounds inflicted by centuries of racism,
degradation and self-estrangement.
During his short life, he taught his people to raise their
heads above the wasteland of raw, merciless racism and routinized
humiliation and to stop being afraid.
For black people to learn to be human again, he asked them to
look the world straight in the face and to rise above fear, anger and
resentment. "It is fear, he said, that erodes the soul of black people
in South Africa".
He never stopped alluding to the "deeply embedded fear of the
black man so prevalent in white society". Whites, he argued, "know only
too well what exactly they have been doing to blacks". But "the
tripartite system of fear - that of white fearing the blacks, blacks
fearing whites and the government fearing blacks and wishing to allay
the fear among whites" made it difficult to build cross-racial
He fought hard not only to restore pride to blacks, but even
more radically, to destroy the mental shackles by means of which blacks
in South Africa had been made to forget that they were fully human. "The
most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the
oppressed", he used to say.
He was convinced that critical introspection could be a powerful tool to reconstruct the humanity of the black person.
He also thought that once the humanity of the black person had
been restored, blacks and whites in South Africa could be open to a
But for this to happen, whites had to come into consciousness
by fighting on their own for their own freedom, in the full knowledge
that they could never be free as long as they kept denying freedom to
blacks: "If whites do not like what is happening to the black people,
they have the power to stop it here and now".
This openness to a new humanity and to a different future is what he meant by "Black Consciousness".
In a context in which the possibility of being human was
foreclosed for blacks and for whites, the concept of "Black
Consciousness" became the name of a different life to come.
This is why "Black Consciousness" was, from the beginning to the end, a philosophy of life and a philosophy of hope.
Weary from the long years of black people beating their brains
out against the walls of white prejudice, Biko viewed white people with a
degree of distrust and suspicion.
But ultimately, his goal was human brotherhood and sisterhood.
He believed that black solidarity would one day make it possible for the
members of all races to live together free in one nation. This is why
he saw black solidarity as a temporary strategy for realizing a
political community that fully embodied democratic ideals.
"We do not have the power to subjugate anyone. […] Blacks have
had enough experience as objects of racism not to wish to turn the
tables. […] In time we shall be in a position to bestow upon South
Africa the greatest gift possible - a more human face".
During his short life, he conspicuously walked tall in a land where black men and women were expected to have bent backs.
With boldness, audacity and bravery, he labored so that South Africa could be made safe for black people.
In the process, he instilled a new spirit of defiance and
self-confidence to an entire generation. Ready to sacrifice himself, he
feared nobody and nothing.
He died strong in body, sturdy in conviction, full of unbending belief, the subject and owner of his death.
He suffered a terrible death in the hands of a grotesque and
brutal power - Biko's captive body locked up, tortured, injured,
stripped down, chained, the object of mutilation, a human waste that had
been utterly disgraced before being lynched.
They wanted his death to be the epitome of indignity and
abjection, the symbol of a derisory and superfluous humanity, in the
manner of the slave's death.
This is why in the story of black
martyrdom, Biko stands opposite to Nelson Mandela, the hero who came up
from death and captivity, unharmed in body and in mind.
Paradoxically, Biko's death only served to further illuminate the ineradicability of his life.
This is why, for as long as history has not come to an end, he will be with us.
Since Biko's death, blacks in South Africa have secured equal
citizenship rights. The Constitution outlaws racial discrimination.
Today there are significantly more blacks in the middle and upper
classes than thirty years ago. In the words of a black female
entrepreneur, some have more than one luxury vehicle. They own more than
one home and can afford private school education for their children who
own cell phones.
"Affirmative action" and "black economic empowerment" programs
have been designed to improve their socio-economic conditions. Blacks
are also more visible than thirty years ago in positions of leadership
and influence in almost every sector of South African life (government,
business, industry, banking and commerce, higher education, media and so
The meaning of race and the nature of racial identity are now
far more complex and ambiguous than they have ever been. Who is 'black',
'Afrikaner', 'white', 'colored' or 'Asian' is no longer entirely
pre-fixed. The discourses in which South Africans represent race
relations are changing.
Notwithstanding the extent of the abuse and daily humiliation
of farm workers and tenants in rural areas and small towns, racism
itself no longer seems to reside exclusively in the economic and social
settings of yesteryear as it migrates into the realm of privately held
But the defeat of legalized white supremacy has not meant that the struggle for racial equality is over.
Pervasive material inequality between whites and blacks
coexists with formal legal equality. Significant racial inequality
remains, for example in average household income, wealth, home
ownership, employment opportunities, and access to quality health care.
The institutional mechanisms for enforcing anti-discriminatory
laws are still inadequately administered. Far too many poor blacks are
still not in a position where they can create something meaningful with
their lives. Too many, too, still have nothing to lose.
Thus despite their undeniable progress in some areas, black
South Africans are still seeking to realize fully the freedom, equality
and prosperity that the South African constitution promises.
As we commemorate Biko's death, we have to remind ourselves
that the moment when South Africa will be able to recognize itself as a
truly non-racial community is still far away.
In a country where very few apartheid-era atrocities have been
prosecuted, where key political figures refused to testify to the Truth
and Reconciliation Commission, where there have been too few acts of
public contrition from former executioners and where most killers and
torturers have escaped jail time, the persistent denial of white
privilege partly explains the acrimonious nature of race relations.
But so does the drive to assert a form of black communal identity predicated on the idea of victimhood.
The two defensive logics of black communal victimhood and white denialism collide and collude, often in unexpected ways.
Together, they gradually foster a culture of mutual
ressentiment which, in turn, isolates freedom from responsibility and
seriously undermines the prospect of a truly non-racial future.
Furthermore, the logic of mutual ressentiment frustrates blacks' sense
of ownership of this country while foreclosing whites' sense of truly
belonging to this place and to this nation.
For Biko's death and its commemoration to have any meaning at all in
our times, we need to keep asking some of the most difficult questions
he himself asked in his life time, or those he would probably ask today.
What could black consciousness possibly entail today, in a free South Africa?
Is black solidarity still essential to achieve the full freedom and equality that the South African Constitution promises?
Is the model of black radical politics advocated by Biko still
adequate for addressing the problems that South Africa in general and
blacks in particular face today, or is it that most of the ideas
commonly associated with this tradition should be rethought?
In particular, we have to ask ourselves whether "race" (and the
forms of solidarity it may sustain) can still be taken as a sound basis
for social identities, cultural affiliations, membership in
associations, public policy, or political movements; or whether any form
of racial particularism is needlessly divisive.
How can we reinvigorate the dream of racial reconciliation and
reactivate the possibilities of cross-racial solidarities as the basis
for progressive and radical political practice here and now?
What further demands should be made on ourselves as citizens
and on the state for racial reform if racial justice has not yet been
We also have to assess whether the core values of the Black Consciousness Movement are compatible with the core values of a
democratic, liberal and constitutional state such as equal citizenship
for all persons, respect for individual autonomy, democratic
constitutional government under the rule of law, basic right to freedom
of conscience, expression and association; tolerance for different
conceptions of the good; equal opportunity in education and employment;
and a guaranteed minimum standard of living.
If Black Consciousness is to be sustained in a post-1994 era,
what are those ideas commonly associated with that tradition that will
have to be rethought?
Is Black Consciousness the same as "black economic empowerment"?
Or is it that the ideology of "black economic empowerment" is
the new way in which the "black elite" advances its narrow interests and
legitimates its hegemony over the black working class and the black
In order to address these
questions, it might help to remind ourselves that Biko defended a
conception of blackness, or of black solidarity, that was not concerned
primarily with questions of identity, but that urged a commitment to
defeating racism, to eliminating unjust racial inequalities and to
improving the life prospects of those racialized as blacks.
Blacks, for him, were "those who are by law or tradition
politically, economically and socially discriminated against as a group
in the South African society". They were also those who identified
themselves as "a unit in the struggle towards the realization of their
To be black was "not a matter of pigmentation". It was a
"reflection of a mental attitude". To describe oneself as black, he
argued, was "to set oneself on the road towards emancipation".
The term 'black' was discriminatory. Biko himself said that it was "not necessarily all-inclusive".
For him, to not be white did not necessarily mean to be black:
"If one's aspiration is whiteness but his pigmentation makes attainment
of this impossible, then that person is a non-white. Any man who calls a
white man 'Baas', any man who serves in the police force or Security
Branch is ipso facto a non-white. Black people - real black people - are
those who can manage to hold their heads high in defiance rather than
willingly surrender their souls to the white man".
By defining blackness in these terms, he dispensed with the
idea of race as a biological essence while continuing to embrace
blackness as an emancipatory weapon.
His concern for blacks as a racialized subordinated group did
not mean an endorsement of an exacerbated sense of victimization and
Indeed, the difference between "Black Consciousness" and
"nativism" is that in the name of the right to self-definition,
"nativism" paradoxically recreates and consolidates the mental ghetto - a
lethal device white racism so effectively used in order to inflict
maximum psychic damage on the soul of black folks.
Contrary to Black Consciousness, nativism always tends to
repeat the sorry history it pretends to redress. It is in essence a
Consciousness on the other hand belongs to the old and enduring
tradition of black nationalism. Black nationalism is an old, but
thoroughly modern political tradition. It emerged in the XIXth century
in response to contexts in which, regarded as inherently inferior and
thereby incapable of self-government, blacks were oppressed on account
of their blackness.
In such contexts, black nationalism became an expression of the
desire by blacks to escape the suffering caused by racial injustice and
to live in a just society in which they would be able to rule
themselves and shape their own destinies while being in control of their
Black nationalism, in this sense, was the result of a mutual
recognition of black people's common vulnerability to white domination
and their collective resolve to overcome it.
Traditionally, black nationalists advocate such things as black
self-determination, racial solidarity and group self-reliance, various
forms of voluntary racial separation, pride in the historic achievements
of persons of African descent, a concerted effort to overcome racial
self-hate and to instill black self-love, militant collective resistance
to white supremacy, the development and preservation of a distinctive
black cultural identity, and the recognition of Africa as the true
homeland of those who are racially black.
Our situation today is somewhat different from Biko's days. For
instance, a major revision in South Africa's white supremacist ideology
is under way.
Today, white supremacy is no longer a matter of asserting the
'natural inferiority' of blacks. The assault is no longer on the idea of
a common humanity, a world of individuals endowed with common rights.
Instead, the defense of racial inequality and stratification is
articulated in three new ways.
First, it assumes the form of a contest over the moral
legitimacy and appropriateness of policies of redress. Here, the belief
is that law should neither mandate social equality, nor attempt to
eradicate conditions of racial inequality and the legacy of past
Second, the apology of racial inequality is gradually couched
in the rhetoric of rights, fairness and equality. Such rhetoric is
mobilized in an effort to institutionalize racial privilege that is
trying to mask its racial nature. By denying the fact that past racial
injustices can be rectified by legally enforced and race-conscious
remedies in the present, it is hoped that real differences among racial
groups will be protected and preserved and the imperative of justice and
redress indefinitely postponed.
Third, for many beneficiaries of past racial atrocities,
reconciliation means that blacks should forget about South Africa's
fractured past and move on. Furthermore, many whites have not only
retreated to a comfortable position of personal non-culpability. Many
now believe that white racism can no longer be considered the most
fundamental cause of black poverty. Nor can it be held responsible any
longer for the troubling gaps in life-chances between black South
Africans and their white compatriots.
The transformation of white supremacist ideology
notwithstanding, we have to be able to respond to today hard moral and
Is "black empowerment" or "transformation" a form of
reparation, redress, or, rather, a temporary expedient that will at some
point wither away?
Can an injustice rendered in the past against a black person be
compensated for by discriminating against a white in the present?
Do claims for racial redress advanced by former victims of
racial discrimination irremediably compromise the non-racist principles
enshrined in the Constitution?
A distinctive mark of black nationalism has always been the politicization of black peoplehood.
One of the distinctive contributions of the Black Consciousness
Movement to the theory of black nationalism is its insistence on moral
In Biko's political language, moral sovereignty encompassed the
three areas of social equality and democratic citizenship,
self-government and self-representation, and autonomous thinking.
In those three areas, South Africa still has a long way to go.
To be sure, today, black South Africans enjoy the right of
self-government. They are their own rulers. But whether each individual
South African embodies the essential ingredients of the sovereign moral
principle which, for Biko, composes the true basis of liberty, is open
Clearly, if citizenship is more than the right to vote, South
Africa has to attend to the unfinished business of democracy.
This implies, for instance, a profound reform of the electoral
law and the abolition of the practice of floor crossing. The people as a
whole should regain the right to elect their president. As in every
other major democracy, members of Parliament and other representative
bodies should be elected by their constituencies and should be
accountable to the latter.
And for blacks to have true social equality with whites, they have to match whites in cultural and economic achievement.
Without proportionate black and white attainment in the central
spheres of life, the two races will not truly live together on terms of
mutual respect and dignity. The commitment to substantive, rather than
mere formal, equality should therefore form the backbone of South
African efforts to build a truly democratic society.
As far as autonomous thinking is concerned, it is not simply
that blacks should not allow whites, even those sympathetic to black
interests, to think for them.
It is that nobody should allow anybody else to think for him or
her. Not only should blacks resist white paternalism, they should also
resist black paternalism. Independence of mind was not only crucial
under conditions of dominations. It is an essential resource in the
practice of freedom and the fight for equality.
Furthermore, black solidarity cannot mean communal nationalism.
Communal nationalism is a form of authoritarian collectivism which
consists in the belief that all black people should act unanimously
under the leadership of a "big man".
Communal nationalism also tends to reduce all forms of black disadvantage to racial oppression or white supremacy.
Communal nationalists believe that our task here and today is
still to defeat white supremacy. To that effect, they argue that we must
But racism is not the only significant obstacle that black
South Africans now face. The social and political changes the country
has undergone since 1994 have significantly shifted the context for
black political struggles.
Today, blacks in South Africa have political power. Their
ability to effect meaningful social changes is substantive. They can no
longer act as if they were totally powerless.
For black solidarity to serve as a political and moral resource
in the post-liberation era, it needs to be refined not only to deal
with new social realities, but even more importantly, to better conform
to democratic principles.
For black solidarity to remain the moral struggle it was in
times of bondage, it must also be rooted in a commitment to equal
justice for all - a commitment to enable all voices to be heard, and to
protect the legitimate interests of minorities.
Without such protections, majoritarianism will remain a
menacing force, capable not only of restricting freedom but of
undermining the prospects for non-racialism itself.
The burden of racial oppression has been formally lifted. The great
challenge today is how to put in place a radical program for black
uplift and, in so doing, how to achieve economic justice within a
To achieve a modicum of social justice after apartheid has been
abolished and racial segregation outlawed, South Africa had to
dismantle the barriers that were erected against full justice for all
and attend to distributional inequalities.
For black South Africans in particular, freedom has to
translate into an expanded control over their labor and their lives. It
is the role of the State to galvanize them as they struggle to eradicate
the legacies of the violence that preyed on their vulnerabilities
during the years of captivity.
But economic justice will not be achieved if blacks do not
realize that they must rely on themselves, as individuals and as a
collective, in their effort to rise above their low position in South
The surest road to a dignified existence is self-respect, self-help, independence of mind, creativity and ambition.
The transformation project can easily turn into a social
quackery if its first goal is not to restore capabilities to those who
have been deprived of these by unjust laws and racist policies.
Morally bankrupt as it was, something can be learnt from the
Afrikaner model of empowerment (reddingsdaad). To a large extent, this
was a social movement and not simply a state-inspired initiative.
It is significant that this was an economic movement with
intellectual and cultural foundations. In order to foster their economic
upliftment, the Afrikaners created two structures: the Federale
Volksbelegging (Federal People's Investment) and the Reddingsdaadbond.
The role of these two institutions was to mobilize capital, to
pool the financial resources of white Afrikaans commercial farmers,
entrepreneurs and workers, to regain control of their savings, labor and
buying power while promoting self-help at various levels, including
language, culture and politics.
That is how almost every Afrikaner came to have something at
stake in the future of South Africa - a home, a job, education,
something they were ready to fight for and to protect.
A meaningful class differentiation among black people is emerging in
South Africa, the long-term significance of which cannot be downplayed.
Because of growing differences in education, income, occupation
and opportunity, there will inevitably exist a more advantaged group
within the black population whose material interests might diverge from
those of their more disadvantaged racial kin.
Today, we do have a proud new black elite based on education,
income, occupational status, political connections and, eventually,
But for a number of critics, the kind of black economic
empowerment pursued by the government and white capital is less than a
policy. It is a method perfected by the oligarchy to placate the
political elites and to buy protection.
What is emerging is an unproductive, comprador class of rich
black politicians and ex-politicians who depend on white capital and
entertain a parasitic relationship with the government.
On the other extreme, racialized poverty is exacerbated. A vast
urban black underclass is in the making - a mass of disposable people
who have nothing to lose, many of whom depend on handouts from the
government under the name of "service delivery".
A radical programme of black uplift is urgently needed in order to avoid the trap of "service delivery".
The philosophical premise of such a radical program should be
self-help. Its goal should be to create self-reliant individuals.
There is a long tradition of self-help in the history of black thought.
Such a tradition has always placed a strong emphasis not only on the
kind of education that will prepare the black poor for entering the
workforce and to undertake entrepreneurial endeavors, but it has also
placed a significant importance on the cultivation of a sense of
According to this tradition, each black person should take
primary responsibility for her or his condition. Blacks should not view
themselves as victims, nor should they encourage others to look upon
them as such. Among the virtues to be cultivated should be the
willingness to make sacrifices in the short term for greater gains in
The other component of this self-help philosophy has always been institution building for purposes of racial uplift.
This is a tradition that has always put a premium on
institution-building and self-organization as the true road to freedom.
This tradition has always encouraged blacks to save and invest rather
than spend money on entertainment and luxury goods.
Marcus Garvey for instance was an exponent of black self-help.
He championed capitalism as the road to black liberation. He believed
that the development of black businesses on a global scale would
ultimately lead whites to respect blacks and to deal with them on equal
None of this should mean an encouragement to self-segregation.
The goal of black solidarity and black economic assertion should always
be to deepen South Africa's democracy.
That is where its emancipatory potential lies.
Historically, it is a fact that formerly oppressed groups have
advanced mainly through self-organization. But black solidarity cannot
help democracy if black solidarity remains but an embrace of the horn of
No reassessment of Biko's legacy can proceed today as if our age was not an age of contradictions.
The biggest contradiction of our age is probably the simultaneity of
massive social mobility and the ubiquity of death in our lives.
To a large extent, to die on the way up is the most single political dilemma of our times.
The overwhelming presence of death in black people's everyday
life only serves to dramatize the predicament of freedom in South
Weekly funerals have become the dominant way in which time is
remembered - AIDS death, death on the road, death on a train, random
death in the hands of criminals, death from tuberculosis and
malnutrition, and more and more cases of suicide in the townships and
the squatter camps.
For South Africa to become a society that fosters cross-racial
solidarities as the basis for progressive and radical politics for our
times, blacks cannot be content to celebrate blackness in much the same
way that white supremacists do whiteness.
Nor should black solidarity embrace the horn of racial
particularism, nativism, communal nationalism or the politics of
difference for the sake of difference.
If black solidarity is to serve as a political resource in the
broader quest for life and racial justice, it must be firmly rooted in a
moral commitment to racial reconciliation and equal justice for all.
Only such a commitment can enable South Africa to become an
Afropolitan nation in which race as such is no longer the basis for
modern African nationality.
Freedom for black South Africans will be meaningless if it does
not entail a commitment to freedom for every African, black or white.
Furthermore, if black and white South Africans are to be
respected in the world, then their original homeland, Africa, must be
regenerated. The project of African redemption and restoration has been
at the core of black thought since 1860.
Biko himself believed that a "great gift" was still to come
from Africa. "The great powers of the world may have done wonders in
giving the world an industrial and military look, but the great gift
still has to come from Africa - giving the world a more human face".
Because of its history, South Africa has the unique opportunity
in the history of humankind to be the first nation on Earth to finally
untie the knot of race.
By untying the knot of race, this nation will open the door for
a politics of life. And at last, Africa will give the world the human
face the world deserves.