Biko was honest, brutally soby Prof Allan Boesak
There are reasons why the philosophy of Black Consciousness has resurfaced as such a fascinating subject and the values it espouses are being revalued and once again held up as essential for our public life.
Not only has Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like re-emerged as an eagerly-read text, but recent publications have also reclaimed Black Consciousness and the role it has played in our political history, and in the life of a whole generation of activists. This is a development I applaud wholeheartedly.
We are far more open today about the historic role of Black Consciousness than we were a decade ago, far more critical of the ANC’s deliberate fading of this historic role in its own almost total claim to the history of South Africa’s liberation struggle and its national life. It is far more insistent upon the beneficial impact of the values of the Black Consciousness movement on SA society in its search for an open, nonracial democracy and creating for SA what Biko so earnestly sought and Nelson Mandela finally acknowledged, a “human face”.
It is this human face which has the power to liberate us from the “body of death” and strengthen us in our struggle for a meaningful life together.
I understand meaningful life to mean a life wherein justice, equity and humanity are given room to flourish, a society in which we embrace the rich diversity of this country with respect for the dignity of difference, not as a tool for separation and estrangement, but as an instrument of inclusiveness and mutual affirmation.
That there are serious lessons to be learnt from this renewed Black Consciousness quest is without doubt.
In four points, I shall endeavour to explain what those lessons might be. I shall speak of Black Consciousness as first, a critical consciousness, second as a liberating consciousness, third as an empowering consciousness and fourth as an engaging consciousness.
The first, and perhaps most important reason why the impact of Black Consciousness was so powerful, was because of its relentless honesty and unflinching insistence upon the truth about black people themselves.
Of course the Black Consciousness critique of white racist domination, what we used to call the white power structure was clear.
Biko knew exactly who and what the apartheid regime was, but he also understood clearly that the white (Afrikaner) regime could as easily be used as a scapegoat, a hiding place, an unholy sanctuary for all whites, especially the liberal white who claimed to criticise the apartheid regime but had no qualms soaking up the benefits the white racist structure provided.
So early on, Biko understood Mahmood Mamdani’s later, but most valuable distinction, so crucial to a proper evaluation of our reconciliation process: that it should not so much have been about specific perpetrators of apartheid crimes and specific victims of those crimes – what Mamdani called “fractured minorities”– but rather about beneficiaries and victims of apartheid.
Instead of leading to some regrettable and distorted outcomes, it would have allowed us to confront society as a whole, its systems and structures, with the demands of justice.
Even then Biko had argued that no matter how “sympathetic” liberal whites may be and how much they purportedly despised apartheid, as a group “they are born into privilege and are nourished by and nurtured in the system of ruthless exploitation of black energy. Being white he possesses the natural passport to the exclusive pool of white privilege from which he does not hesitate to extract what suits him”.
The essence of this argument is, within the context of our reconciliation debate today, and within the global imperial context, powerfully relevant.
But that critical stance did not begin to cover what Biko had in mind. The Black Consciousness he proposed was in the first instance a call on black people, had at its core an inescapable self-critical element, and that was Black Consciousness’ main concern.
The white power structure could as easily be a hiding place for black people. The economic exploitation and material want of oppressed people were not to be denied, but Biko insisted this was not the whole truth: “Material want is bad enough, but coupled with spiritual poverty it kills”.
Biko means that spiritual poverty which comes as a result of a life devoid of all meaning, drained of purpose by daily oppression, exploitation and dehumanisation, a mind robbed of all consciousness of the dignified, worthy self, the wretchedness which is emptied of self-belief and therefore completely subjugated to the will of the oppressor.
It does not bring one closer to God: it stands in the way of one’s true liberation. One could not join the struggle for the end of material poverty if one could not overcome the devastation of spiritual poverty.
Economic want and political oppression were the external reality; spiritual poverty was the internal reality, the root of the problem. So, Biko was concerned to get to the issues that really mattered, what he called the “first truth, bitter as it may seem, that we have to acknowledge” and it is the fact that the black person has lost their personhood. He writes:
“Reduced to an obliging shell, the black man looks with awe at the white power structure and accepts what he regards as an inevitable position. Deep inside, his anger mounts at the accumulating insults, but he vents it in the wrong direction – on his fellow man in the township, on the property of black people. His heart yearns for the comfort of white society and makes him blame himself for not being ‘educated’ enough to warrant such luxury (he has become) convinced of the futility of resistance and (has thrown away) any hope that change may ever come.
“All in all the black man has become a shell, a shadow of a man, completely defeated, drowning in his own misery, a slave, an ox bearing the yoke of oppression with sheepish timidity.”
Then Biko observes: “In the privacy of the toilet his face twists in silent condemnation of white society but brightens up in sheepish obedience as he comes out hurrying in response to his master’s impatient call. In the home-bound bus or train he joins the chorus that roundly condemns the white man but is first to praise the government in the presence of police or his employers.”
To hear this was painful, devastating, but it was nonetheless the truth, and those of us who understood and accepted it, (and many couldn’t) knew that we had to do more than just echo St. Paul’s lament, “I do not understand my actions, wretched man that I am!”
We had to see clearly what we had become, what has made us so and, especially, how we were complicit in our own condition. Black christianity, too, did not escape...
Full article: http://www.thenewage.co.za/29930-1007-53-Biko_was_honest,_brutally_so