Steve Biko

In his article published in the Cape Times of 7 July 2015, Dr. Wahbie Long, Senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town wonders if Black Consciousness is still relevant in a post-apartheid polity that is twenty-one years in the making. Dr. Long writes, “convinced that they have been betrayed, young people are looking elsewhere for a moral compass – in the past, to be exact – and for that, they can hardly do better than Fanon and Biko.” Perhaps the students that Dr. Long assails for clinging to the past understand Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop’s belief that to chart the future we must reconcile the past with the present. And in The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon approves of Diop’s approach to history and language. Diop is one of African intellectuals who was critical of white supremacy but embraced non-racialism.

I also noted that Dr. Long didn’t mention another champion of non-racialism, PAC founding President Robert Sobukwe, whom Steve Biko had a lot of respect for if one reads Biko’s 1972 interview. Those students perhaps understand that Black Consciousness is as relevant today as it was during the time of Biko and before the emergence of the South African Student Organisation (SASO) which espoused Black Consciousness.

Black Consciousness is not and has never been a race based philosophy. SASO defined Black Consciousness as an attitude of mind, a way of life. The basic tenet of Black Consciousness is that the black man must reject all value systems that seek to make him a foreigner in the country of his birth and reduce his basic human dignity. The concept of Black Consciousness implies the awareness by black people of the power they wield as a group, both economically and politically, hence group cohesion and solidarity are important facets of black consciousness.

On the concept of integration, black consciousness proclaims that integration cannot be realized in an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust. Integration does not mean an assimilation of blacks into an already established set of norms drawn up and motivated by white society. Integration implies free participation by individuals in a given society and proportionate contribution to the joint culture of the society by all constituent groups. One can’t quote the entire SASO manifesto, those who want to read further can google the manifesto of SASO or the Black Students’ manifesto.

Have the material conditions of Africans or blacks, if you like, changed before and after the Black Consciousness Movement came into existence? Doesn’t the working conditions at the mines and the killing of Marikana miners reduce their human dignity? What about the predominant value systems that are extant in this country? There is a place called Orania which is a state within a state where some white people have their currency and flag etc. This is where Nelson Mandela visited the wife of Hendrik Verwoerd and also went to pay his respects at Verwoerd’s grave. For the record, Mandela died without having been injected with a heavy dose of Black Consciousness. So how can Black Consciousness cease to be relevant? It should be borne in mind that revolutionaries like Biko said substituting whites with blacks or replacing whites with blacks is not the answer to this country’s socio-economic woes. Those students Dr. Long criticizes are resisting to be assimilated into white society.

Dr Long continued, stating that “indeed, what seems to have flown under the radar is that both Fanon and Biko endorsed the vision of a non-racial future”. As I have explained in the foregoing lines, black consciousness is never and has never been a racist ideology. What was supposed to be the effect of the quote in the article from Fanon’s Black skin white Masks that Dr. Long quoted? Quoting selectively from Black Skin white Masks doesn’t do justice to Fanon and the topic on the relevance of Black Consciousness in South Africa today. Dr. Long quoted from Chapter six whose title is “The Negro and Psychopathology”, (pages 157 – 158).

Allow me to indulge you with a quote from the entire passage to show how Dr. Long quoted selectively and demonstrate the questionable relevance of the quote to the point he/she attempts to put across. It goes like this: “The Negro problem does not resolve itself into the problem of Negroes living among white men but rather of Negroes exploited, enslaved, despised by a colonialist, capitalist society that is only accidentally white.

You wonder, M. Salomon, what you would do “if you had 800,000 Negroes in France”; because for you there is a problem, the problem of the increase of Negroes, the problem of the Black Peril. The Martinican is a French-man, he wants to remain part of the French Union, he asks only one thing, he wants the idiots and the exploiters to give him the chance to live like a human being. I can imagine myself lost, submerged in a white flood composed of men like Sartre or Aragon, I should like nothing better. You say, M. Salomon, that there is nothing to be gained by caution, and I share your view. But I do not feel that I should be abandoning my personality by marrying a European, whoever she might be; I can tell you that I am making no “fool’s bargains.” If my children are suspected, if the crescents of their fingernails are inspected, it will be simply because society will not have changed, because, as you so well put it, society will have kept its mythology intact. For my part, I refuse to consider the problem from the standpoint of either-or. . .. What is all this talk of a black people, of a Negro nationality? I am a Frenchman. I am interested in French culture, French civilization, the French people.

We refuse to be considered “outsiders,” we have full part in the French drama. When men who were not basically bad, only deluded, invaded France in order to subjugate her, my position as a Frenchman made it plain to me that my place was not outside but in the very heart of the problem. I am personally interested in the future of France, in French values, in the French nation. What have I to do with a black empire? Georges Mounin, Dermenghem, Howlett, Salomon have all tried to find answers to the question of the origin of the myth of the Negro. All of them have convinced us of one thing, it is that an authentic grasp of the reality of the Negro could be achieved only to the detriment of the cultural crystallization. Recently, in a children’s paper, I read a caption to a picture in which a young black Boy Scout was showing a Negro village to three or four white scouts: “This is the kettle where my ancestors cooked yours.” One will gladly concede that there are no more Negro cannibals, but we should not allow ourselves to forget. . . . Quite seriously, however, I think that the writer of that caption has done a genuine service to Negroes without knowing it. For the white child who reads it will not form a mental picture of the Negro in the act of eating the white man, but rather as having eaten him. Unquestionably, this is progress.”

The words written in bold are those Dr. Long left out. Moreover, the chapter from which he/she quoted presents a brief, deep psychoanalysis of colonised black people and thus proposes the inability of black people to fit into the norms (social, cultural, and racial) established by white society. That a normal black child, having grown up in a normal black family, will become abnormal on the slightest contact with the white world. That in a white society, such an extreme psychological response originates from the unconscious and unnatural training of black people, from an early childhood to associate “blackness” with “wrongness”. That such unconscious mental training of black children is effected with comic books and cartoons, which are cultural media that instill and affix, in the mind of the white child, the society’s cultural representations of black people and villains. Moreover, when black children are exposed to such images of villainous black people, the children will experience a psychopathology (psychological trauma), which mental wound becomes inherent to their individual behavioural make-up; a part of his and her personality. That the early-life suffering of the said psychopathology – black skin associated with villainy – creates a collective nature among the men and women who were reduced to colonised populations. In short, this chapter discusses problems black people experienced and the literature that caricatures black people and creates stereotypes of them. It does not in anyway demonstrate the irrelevance of black consciousness. On the contrary, it reinforces black consciousness. Dear Dr. Long, wil I be stretching the discussion a bit far were I to suggest that you be charged with intellectual dishonesty?

Dr. Long writes that the debate about transformation at the University of Cape Town – within which the voices of Black Consciousness advocates feature prominently – has been the foregrounding of race and racism to the virtual exclusion of economic consideration. He/she gives an example the May 2015 issue of Monday Monthly – a UCT newspaper – in which discussions of class, the market, capitalism or economics in general are relatively absent in the course of nineteen reflections on the meaning of transformation at the university. Many African people argue that a class analysis of capitalism is not relevant to black people because they are oppressed as a race. White supremacy is a global power system. The surface has barely been scratched on addressing the psychological, physical and economic effects of almost four centuries of colonialism on the majority of the African people of this country. The West has installed a neocolonial ANC government whose leaders are tinkering on the edges of what plagues our country. It was as if Kwame Nkrumah had the ANC in mind when he wrote his book “Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism” published in 1965 in which he describe neocolonialism as a condition whereby a state possesses all the outward trappings of international sovereignty, but in reality its economy and, consequently, its political policies are controlled and directed by external capitalist forces working in close collaboration with internal elites, especially those in control of the state apparatus. The ANC government has the outward trappings of a government in power but in reality it has nominal independence – a flag, a concocted national anthem and a parliament.

Fanon’s theory of colonial identity cannot be reduced to the superficial doctrine of class struggles. Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement has resolved the issue of race and class more than forty years ago and reached the same conclusion as that of Fanon or they adopted Fanon’s analysis of placing race analysis over class. Africans cannot be accused of racism since they don’t have power. Psychological scars of colonialism on the African people, twenty-one years after the ANC government assumed office, are palpable. All the ANC leaders are preoccupied with is to waste an inordinate amount of time on Mandela Day, confusing the African masses even more. Under such circumstances, how can Black Consciousness cease to be relevant? Black consciousness and Pan Africanism have always been relevant and are as relevant today as they were many years ago.

By Sam Ditshego
The writer is a fellow at the Pan Africanist Research Institute (PARI). He can be contacted on 0718407417.