Friday, 21 June 2013

Is Black Consciousness Still Relevant?

by Mandisi Majavu, SACSIS

Although recent newspaper reports that the Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo) and the Socialist Party of Azania (Sopa) are to merge ought to be welcomed by those of Black Consciousness (BC) tradition, the fact of the matter is that the BC tradition in South Africa is intellectually stuck in the 20th century. According to the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM), proponents of the BC tradition have not been able to rethink BC politics for a new situation. The new situation being the 21st century, which requires this tradition to articulate a coherent alternative political and economic vision for a better South Africa, a challenge that the BC tradition is yet to take up.

It is not enough to keep highlighting the legacy of racism without proposing alternative socio-economic institutions that aim to overcome racism in all its expression. Instead of political slogans, political and economic programmes that speak to the post-apartheid cultural and material conditions have to be developed.

The post-apartheid South African government has, among other things, “democratised materialism”; and that has cultivated affluent aspirations in many black South Africans rather than deepen black consciousness. The concept of “black diamonds” has more social meaning to the post-apartheid black generation than black consciousness. Academics point out that the black youth in post-apartheid South Africa generally share the consumerism of South Africa’s wealthy classes. Generally, the post-apartheid material culture compels many South Africans to live beyond their means. Research shows that South Africans are currently over-indebted by R106bn.

For many black South Africans the consumer culture promises a post-colonial society in which blacks can counter white privilege through personal enrichment. Historically, blackness has been associated with poverty and limited life chances, while, on the other hand, whiteness means wealth and high social status in the imagination of the mainstream society. Hence, as American economic justice blogger, Imara Jones notes, we are surprised by the economic success of blacks “and more unassuming about the wealth of whites.” It is in this context, with all its colonial baggage, that many blacks see personal enrichment as a subversive act. Additionally, materialism in this context, not black consciousness, becomes a revolutionary concept due to its potential to mediate racist assumptions and due to its underlying promises to bring about a unifying mass consumer culture in a postcolonial society that has no clear racial status ranking, to echo Paul Mullins, American academic that teaches material culture.

While black consciousness has largely remained an abstract philosophy many black South Africans place material consumption at the centre of their vision of postcolonial citizenship. This is partly because mass consumer culture provides some black South Africans with a concrete strategy to counter the legacies of the apartheid system. To use Mullins’ insight, many black South Africans utilize material consumer culture to imagine new social possibilities, to mediate racist assumptions, and to pose new societal relationships that communicate their desire to escape the historical construction of blackness.

Instead of engaging with these post-apartheid political realities, political commissars, who view their primary task as one of upholding BC’s “doctrinal truths”, have yet to talk in a convincing manner to these issues. According to the UPM, BC political commissars are not in touch with the realities of the people partly because they are alienated from people’s struggles. The UPM further points out that the political record of BC organisations in post-apartheid South Africa is one of on-going political failure. “They have not succeeded in elections and they have not succeeded in linking to popular struggles,” argues the UPM. In short, BC organisations have failed to develop and articulate a new polity.

The UPM is of the view that a new BC polity would have to take into consideration the global crisis of capitalism, as well as the new struggles that are emerging around the world.

My argument is that in addition to struggling against negative social realities, 21st century BC ought to work towards developing a set of proposals for post-apartheid societal institutions. Merely criticising rampant material consumption in post-apartheid South Africa without conceptualising and implementing liberatory political programmes that actually make a positive difference in people’s lives is not a good political strategy.

Similarly, if the BC tradition is going to grow intellectually, then it has to value criticism rather than sectarianism. According to the UPM, in post-apartheid South Africa, BC organisations have often been characterised by authoritarianism and a tendency to use slander and intimidation to shut down debate. “Critics have been called agent provocateurs, traitors, lumpens etc,” points out the UPM. The departure point for 21st century BC ought to be the acknowledgement that even the best social theories have flaws. Accordingly, this has to be our mental attitude towards BC. Equally important is the realisation that treating political ideas as part of our personal identities tends to lead to sectarianism.

My view is that we should regard political theories as intellectual tools to assist us understand social reality, and we ought to value the usefulness of intellectual ideas based on whether or not they help us achieve our social and political goals. I personally would like to see 21st century BC take these simple truths seriously.