Wednesday, 19 September 2012

What would Biko have done?

by Imraan Buccus, The Mercury, 19 September 2012

SOUTH Africa is going through a tough time politically. Having commemorated the anniversary of Steve Biko’s death last week, I thought it appropriate to dwell on the reflections around Biko and what this means for the crisis of leadership that we face in SA. Important I think, especially in a city central to the Biko story.

September 12 has become something of an unofficial day of remembering Steve Biko and reflecting on his legacy. Amidst growing anger in activist circles about attempts to “privatise” the right to remember Biko it is pleasing to note the diversity of speakers and events. Barney Pityana, Biko’s close comrade and the man who actually coined the phrase “black man, you’re on your own”, spoke in Pretoria. Here in Durban the eminent philosopher Dr Percy More spoke to my students and in Cape Town the great Nigerian writer, Ben Okri, spoke.

There are new books out on Biko by Daniel Magaziner and Xolela Mangcu; and Nigel Gibson’s new book on Frantz Fanon also deals extensively with Biko. While the various political groups that emerged from the Black Consciousness Movement are all tiny, intellectually moribund and lacking in any real popular support Biko himself has become an iconic figure in intellectual circles.

Biko and Rick Turner, a philosopher teaching at Howard College, were the leading intellectuals of the 1970s. They both came to prominence here in Durban and were both murdered by the state. The two men, who were good friends, became the leading figures in what is now known as “The Durban Moment”, a brief period in which Durban became the centre of radical intellectual and political life in SA.

Although Biko inspired the Black Consciousness Movement, which was largely a movement of black intellectuals, and Turner was a key figure in the emergence of the black trade union movement, they shared an interest in cutting edge international thinkers of the day like Jean-Paul Sartre and Paulo Freire. This placed their thought and activism firmly in the camp of the more democratic forms of radical thought that emerged  round the world under the banner of “the new left” in the wake of the struggles that emerged around the world in 1968. In a country where the left had long been dominated by the twin authoritarianisms of Stalinism and Trotskyism this was a real breakthrough.

Local figures like the late Strini Moodley and Bishop Rubin Phillip, who were both very close to Biko, as well as my postgraduate teacher, David Hemson, who worked closely with Turner, have provided a living link to this great moment in our city’s history for new generations of intellectuals and activists. But in all of the new books about Biko, as well as the various talks that were given around the country on September 12, the stress has been laid not so much on paying tribute to heroes of the past but on finding ways to meet the intellectual and political challenges of the present.

In Cape Town Okri said that people get the leaders that they deserved. And in Pretoria Pityana stressed the gross failures of leadership that have come to typify our country. Even leading figures in the ANC, like Jay Naidoo, Pallo Jordan and Ronnie Kasrils have been publicly expressing their serious concern about the failures of leadership that we see all around us.

The groundswell of public anger at corrupt and incompetent leaders has now reached crisis proportions.
Now that the rebellion of the poor, which has been growing since 2004, has exploded across the platinum
belt our leaders have realised that they can’t carry on as usual. But instead of an attempt to resolve the crisis by taking public participation and negotiation seriously our leaders are trying to resolve it with coercion and violence. There is a witch-hunt on to find the “third force” behind the insurrectionary mood sweeping the country.

Some have pointed to Malema, others to Britain. Some have even spoken of a “counter-revolutionary”
force like Renamo emerging. We should remember that in the 1970s the national liberation movement
denounced Biko as a CIA agent. The authoritarian left in and out of the national liberation movement has never been able to understand that people are perfectly capable of exercising political agency on their own.We have seen this during the apartheid era and in the democratic era. When people have organised themselves on their own rather than under the authority of the official left this has constantly been responded to with conspiracy theories centring around evil agitators and wild slander rather than attempts to understand why it is that people have organised themselves.

Biko stressed that it was the mind of the oppressed that was the most important terrain of struggle. If today’s protesters were engaged as people with minds instead of with witch-hunts for imagined agitators and conspiracies, our democracy would be a lot stronger.

What would Biko have done?