Biko would cringe at our return to 1960s

2012-12-02 10:00

There are some interesting parallels between South African politics now and in the late 1960s, just before Steve Biko came up with the idea of black consciousness.

This may seem a startling observation given that we now live in a democratic order.

However, political transitions do not necessarily translate into changes in cultural behaviour, hence the need for a change in consciousness.

What then, are these parallels?

First, as in the 1960s, the black community is for all intents and purposes, leaderless.

True, we do elect parties that in turn choose their own preferred individuals to represent us in Parliament.

Those individuals take their instructions from party bosses and, more often than not, these instructions have to do with protecting the leadership.

One only needs to look at how members of Parliament acted on HIV/Aids, the arms deal, and now the secrecy bill.

They vote pretty much the same way the National Party MPs used to do – like a herd.

Second, as in the 1960s, they preside over ghettoised homelands called provinces in which they pilfer the state with abandon.

Sure, they speak a different language, sing revolutionary songs, wear different badges and carry differently coloured flags but their behaviour is no different from that of the former homeland leaders.

The situation is even worse in the municipalities, where there is a symbiotic, “generally corrupt relationship” between branch leaders and ward councillors.

Their slogan is “it’s our turn to eat”.

Third, while black politicians, like the homeland leaders of yore, bury their heads in the excrement of black people’s misery, the public domain has been captured by the white left and liberal pressure and lobby groups.

Some time ago I described this as the knowledge-ideas complex that defines the moral and intellectual temper of the times, whether in the media, the universities or in civil society.

Look around and almost every major instance of constitutional protection of people’s rights has been brought about by white-led civic groups.

There’s nothing wrong with that, save to say, as Biko did, that once other people articulate your rights on your behalf then you cannot blame them when they claim the right to lead, as the Democratic Alliance is beginning to do.

As a result there is an overall schizophrenia about race and any expression of race consciousness is immediately dismissed as backward with no place in a non-racial society.

This is because those who define race now do so purely in terms of skin colour – the opposite of Biko’s conception of race as a way of life.

The fourth similarity with the 1960s is the rise of ethnic and tribal identities as part of the internecine competition for resources.

Suddenly Indians, coloureds and Africans have found that their interests are mutually exclusive.

Biko would cringe at these developments.

The concomitant rise of tribalism can be seen in the unanimous support for Jacob Zuma in KwaZulu-Natal.

I can understand Zuma winning over the majority of delegates but how is it possible for a man who has shown such flawed leadership to win unanimous support?

There is no other province in which there is such unanimity.

Fifth, the overall effect is that what was once a black struggle infused with themes of pan-Africanism, cultural pride and self-reliance has all but disappeared under an amorphous procedural democracy in which politics has been reduced to arriving at the polls every five years and hoping things will turn out just fine.

Some years ago, I was invited to address the central committee of my old comrades in the Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo).

My central point was that Azapo should deregister as a political party. I suggested that Azapo return to the voice of conscience it once was in the black community before it degenerated into multiple socialist factions.

If it did that, it might fill the civic vacuum in the black community – and indeed cooperate with the white-led civil society organisations – and its days of going it alone would be over.

While these organisations are well-resourced enough to mount legal challenges against government, no one will solve the crisis of black education except black people themselves who go out there and teach our children themselves when teachers walk out on them.

Biko’s view on black consciousness was that it should be a cultural movement. He was defeated in this by his more radical comrades who wanted a political organisation, which then became the Black People’s Convention and later the Azanian People’s Organisation.

Maybe the time has come to go back to Biko’s original idea of a cultural movement whose main idea was to create a new way of life in our communities.

If Kwame Nkrumah said: “Seek ye first the political kingdom and the rest will follow,” I say, “Grab ye first the cultural initiative and the politics will follow”.

As Biko said, it might take 20 years for cultural organising to translate into a political movement but that may well be the best our generation can do for those who come after us.

Like Biko, we must lay the groundwork through consciousness raising, and hope future generations will reap the benefits.

We do not all have to be parliamentarians to begin the process to repair what is a badly damaged political culture.

» Mangcu is the author of the recently published Biko: A Biography

- City Press

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