September 12 marked 46 years since Stephen Bantu Biko was beaten and murdered by the police under the apartheid government. The murder only served to amplify his stature, historical significance and message.
This is neither an analysis or critique of his politics, but rather what it means for me. I also want to reflect on why I believe we will be well served as a society to always consider the meaning of black consciousness politics as we fight for a better future.
Steve Biko’s black consciousness politics was fundamentally about placing at the centre the restoration of a sense of and actual dignity for black people as a foundation of how we understood the struggle for freedom. This was a far-sighted response to hundreds of years of colonial and racist, systematic oppression that went far beyond common notions of liberation and freedom.
The struggle for real freedom in South Africa continues, although following the attainment of the right to vote in 1994, it has taken on new and additional layers and dimensions.
I have many reasons for thinking that black consciousness politics should continue to have a place in our political conversation and activism.
First, colonialism and apartheid resulted in a centuries-long effort to break up black families and communities, which largely succeeded. Let me hasten to say that I am using the word “black” in its broad sense to include all victims of racist oppression.
The resultant disarray continues to this day for, even without forced removals, it is often black people who have to make a choice between keeping their families intact and earning an income to put food on the table.
From as long ago as the 1800s, men and later women had to leave home to work as migrant workers in far-off lands. Even when townships were eventually constructed, they were so far from where people worked that parents spent most of the day away from home. This trend continues to this day.
I cannot see how we can talk about social cohesion and development without consciously thinking about how our politics is about enabling the reconstruction of meaningful family life. It is equally difficult to see how we can eventually become a nation when focusing on the affairs of the community is a luxury many people can ill afford despite their desire to do so.
It is when we begin to reimagine black family and community life as safe and prosperous that non-racialism becomes a reality. If we fail to specifically identify this as a political and moral imperative, then we participate in verbal gymnastics to try to solve a problem we refuse to name.
I also believe that such a change in outlook would positively influence how we understand solutions to housing and public infrastructure. We would probably cease constructing public and hybrid housing developments devoid of cultural, sporting, public transport and other facilities. In a way, we still construct glorified hostels whose fundamental purpose is to provide decent accommodation from which people should provide their labours, rather than to construct a balanced, meaningful life.
Second, we have an opportunity to interrogate common and destructive notions of what it means to be black. These include a disturbing tendency by some to try to make every black person feel obliged to support deeply problematic characters on the basis that they are black.
This argument goes as far as pointing to white corruption and incompetence as a basis for deciding that those black people who fall foul of our justified expectations of public officials should effectively be exempt from accountability. When we understand black ethical foundations in the context of a hard-won democracy, juxtaposing our expectations against colonial and apartheid standards should be a grave insult.
It has happened far too often for comfort that people who are caught falling short in their responsibilities attempt to get black people to close ranks on the basis that it is, for instance, the “racist media” or “captured judiciary”. These people have no sense of solidarity with black people. Instead, they attempt to abuse black solidarity to protect their ill-gotten gains, or to explain away their abuses of public trust and power.
Third, we have as black people a collective responsibility to be especially tough on ourselves as we construct successful democracies and post-colonial states. There appears to be little sense of purpose to build states that demonstrate our inventiveness, our ability to reshape them for black communal reconstruction and prosperity. We must imagine a world in which the narrative of Africa is not one of destruction of institutions and undermining of democracy by corrupt incumbents.
In this context, political environments such as we have in Zimbabwe must shame all of us across the African continent. Zimbabwe was undemocratic long before some of its elites were sanctioned by the European Union and United States. These sanctions, which are not blanket sanctions on every Zimbabwean, are now used as a pathetic cover to explain why its economy is a closed crony economy that has continued to collapse over the years.
We should be able to engage without difficulty in two important conversations about the attitudes and actions of Western countries towards their former colonies while holding corrupt, undemocratic African elites accountable. This would be an act of self-love and compassion, where we do not tolerate that our African brethren must suffer from a second wave of family and community destruction as they emigrate to once again forage for a living.
There is no glory, none whatsoever, in hordes of talented Africans leaving their families, communities and homes to try to survive in Western countries. It is a perverse, reverse colonial migration where once more, the African loses the right and opportunity to be rooted in their own lands.
It is only when we are rooted properly in a cohesive community, regardless of where we live, that economic and social justice become possible. It is when black children are born into families that have a meaningful chance to spend time together, and get nurtured at home and in the community, that they can move from surviving to thriving.
I also see no contradiction between this view and the creation of a non-racial society. It is our collective mission as South Africans to fight for a future in which black communities are fully restored so we no longer have the inequities that frustrate our efforts to become a nation.
The mutual suspicion, the racial reasoning and closing of ranks even when we need to make clear, ethical choices happens partly because deep down we know the oppressions and inequities continue. I do not believe we can solve problems without calling them by their name, and a politics that recognises the reconstruction of black family and community life remains central.
I grew up in a village in the former Transkei where I learned the concepts of collective responsibility for public assets, decision-making by consensus and that authority does not always depend on statutory powers. I learned about ethical norms and the importance of public trust to community cohesion and prosperity.
I believe that it is these same norms and ethos that can help us build a new nation in which we see a victory for ourselves when those that do not look like us prosper. Heaven knows the women’s struggle would benefit much from men seeing their prosperity as our own.
Steve Biko may not have expressed himself exactly in this way, but it is from reflecting about his legacy that I continue to question ways in which we can all become better.
This article was first published by the Mail & Guardian.