Revisiting black consciousness

While trying to make sense of the “new” South Africa, the born-free generation is constantly being accused of being ignorant of South Africa’s history. My mother always laments “Anazi nto nina...kudala kwasokolwa ngumntu omnyama” (You kids know people have suffered for many years”). In spite of my ambivalence about being part of the born-free generation, I acutely relate to this accusation. So in trying to educate myself I recently revisited Steve Biko’s writing, I write what I like, which I came across in my 2nd year at university along with Franz Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks, Du Bois and Satre, thanks to a course in African Philosophy. Before this, my knowledge of “Black” politics and the liberation struggle was what I had watched in Sarafina, read in The Long Walk to Freedom, heard in Letta Mbulu’s lyrics to Not yet uhuru and what I was taught at school (neutral history considering the gaps I discovered when I started reading outside the curriculum) and various documentaries on television.

I had been warned against reading Steve Biko as his writing was dubbed as “too angry”, but in reading it again I have been at odds with his writing as someone living and interacting with a diverse group of people on a daily basis. I do however relate to experiences of averse racism, but in seeking to understand non-racialism in the new South Africa I can’t help but wonder if Black consciousness should be revisited. In spite of the wording, Black Consciousness, by definition has little to do with one’s race but everything to do with a “mental attitude” that seeks to understand emancipation from inferiority and superiority complexes on any grounds and because of the context of apartheid, race was the focus. In my mind this simply suggests a new consciousness pursuing the fundamental freedoms and human rights that every person deserves. Looking at the context in South Africa today, this is very worrying given that there are many people in our country who did not vote last month; not because they did not wish to, but because 5 million people have become invisible as they are without an identity document and live within contexts where access to getting one renders them invisible. These are mostly poor women living in remote areas where service delivery is a myth. This is also happening in the same country where some people are amassing obscene wealth before the ripe age of 30, especially if one is affiliated to the correct political party.

Where black consciousness was central to mobilising against racial oppression, I suspect a class consciousness needs to be considered in addressing the grave inequalities amongst rich and poor people in South Africa. Where black consciousness allowed people to identify with being ‘black’ as a state of mind and denounce the privileges of white superiority by joining in the struggle against racial discrimination, could the same be possible with the class struggle we face? Would people be willing to denounce their privilege and middle class concerns in order to stand in solidarity with poor people where service delivery is not something that people in townships rally over, but South Africans as whole are enraged by—the same way people rallied against racism in spite of the colour of their skin? In trying to move away from the limitations of racial identities, we cannot run away from the class stratification and the consequences of the great divide in the standards of living amongst South Africans.

This requires a little more imagination: can we imagine a South Africa without the class divisions we see? At the moment, civic organisations are building strength in communities across South Africa and attempting to mobilise civic action against the social injustice in our communities. Often the debate about finding African solutions to African problems, fingers are pointed to either big business or the corrupt government or apathy and entitlement people have because of the social welfare system. Whether we understand what causes the inequalities or not, the social injustice in South Africa should offend us all and galvanise us into action. But what does this mean though?

The social movements are critical to this transformation, but those in privileged and influential positions need to start asking questions about their involvement in social injustice and becoming part of a consciousness that seeks to eradicate the challenges we face in the not-so-new South Africa. Where racial markers are still being flippantly or aggressively evoked by leaders such as Julius Malema, attention really ought to be focusing on the underlying issues in the obsession with race, which is the question of poverty. I’m not making light of the racial tensions that still exist in South Africa, but while we worry that white South Africans are becoming alienated because of songs such as “kill the boer”, have we considered millions of South Africans who are alienated without access to basic amenities and basic services that will ensure that they can have the opportunity of becoming citizens rather than subjects in South Africa 17 years after democracy?

(i think this appeared in the Daily Dispatch as my last column...)


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