Let’s do it for ourselves

2014-08-06 06:45

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Steve Biko wanted black people to be self-reliant. Xolela Mangcu examines how we can apply Biko’s philosophy to our modern lives

The murder of Steve Biko by the apartheid security police in 1977 may have been the most consequential political development in the black community since the Rivonia Trial 50 years ago.

While the effects of the Rivonia Trial were somehow mitigated by the rise of black consciousness, nothing emerged to mitigate the effects of Biko’s death and the demise of black consciousness.

Yes, we had a period of mass mobilisation in the 1980s, which led to the 1994 elections. However, there was nothing equivalent to the consciousness raising and organisation building that was undertaken by the black consciousness movement.

And so we inherited political freedom in the context of an organisational vacuum within our communities.

The existence of democracy notwithstanding, black people have never been as disorganised as they are today.

Steve Biko wanted black people to be self-reliant.

When white people have a policy issue to raise, they have AfriForum to articulate it – and to articulate it effectively. Although AfriForum does not speak for all white people, the issues it picks up resonate with even those white people who will not raise their voices.

In that sense, AfriForum does for opponents of transformation what the National Party did for the opponents to black freedom in the English-speaking white community under apartheid.

Black people have no institutions such as AfriForum because they mistakenly think power lies with political parties. But power is more diffuse than that. Power lies with whoever is able to shape the public agenda, shape the way an entire society thinks about itself and its priorities.

That work is done in the universities, the media, the courts and by organisations such as AfriForum.

Where is the equivalent of that in the black community?

Let us leave organisations like AfriForum alone for a moment and consider how the black community is self-destructing. It used to be that the education of our children was not just government’s responsibility.

The government was giving us bad education anyway. And so educated black individuals went out into the communities to work with schools during winter or summer breaks. Educational initiatives were spurred by Biko’s concept of self-reliance.

Biko died and we were left with trade unions that are actively destroying the educational future of black children.

And then there is the ritualised mass consumption of alcohol on weekends. In the white community, you don’t see the mass consumption of alcohol one finds in black communities.

I may sound preachy, but show me one suburb that is overflowing with hundreds of people openly drinking like there is no tomorrow – which there isn’t for many of them because of their drinking.

And we wonder why black children lag behind all other communities in all the social indicators – health, education, etc.

To be sure, apartheid gave rise to some of these cultures, but we also have the capacity to reorganise social life in our communities and fill it with more meaningful activities for our children. Booze cannot be for them what reading and playing is for children in other communities. We can start by strictly enforcing who comes into the shebeens and placing shebeens away from schools. We can also bring more literary activities into these spaces. That is how Biko used shebeens – to organise the community to take more responsibility for its social life.

In today’s newspapers, black people speak openly about lightening their skin to make themselves “attractive”. That can only be the language of deeply insecure people. It is when such insecurity and self-hate is paraded as fashion that you know you have reached the bottom of your consciousness.

But we also see this running away from ourselves in the fake Americanism of some of our radio announcers, and nobody dares to protest. I would not mind if these announcers and DJs were mimicking the best that America has to offer.

No, it’s about bling and money and alcohol, and not about building our own Harvards and MITs, which are the institutions that shape the future.

It drives me nuts! I often wonder what intellectual creativity Biko would bring to the media infrastructure that is in the hands of black people in South Africa today – the radio stations, the newspapers, the TV networks, the social media.

This is what Biko said about the failure of black people to develop their own intellectual and media institutions: “We have felt and observed in the past the existence of a great vacuum in our literary and newspaper culture. So many things are said so often to us, about us and for us, but seldom by us. This has created a dependency mood among us which has given rise to the present tendency to look at ourselves in terms of how we are interpreted by the white press.”

It is this wholesale culture of dependence that has defined black politics over the past 20 years. The agency has been replaced by an electoral politics and a service-delivery culture that makes us and our children passive spectators in a world we should be shaping.

In recent years, I have been writing about the absence of black people at our universities.

But I do so also knowing what Biko said about blaming whites for things we should be doing ourselves: “One must quickly add that the moral of the story is not that we must therefore castigate the white society and its newspapers. Any group of people who identify as a unit through shared interests and aspirations needs to protect those interests they share.

“The white press is therefore regarded by whites as doing a good service when it sensitises its own community to the ‘dangers’ of Black Power. The real moral of the story can only be that we blacks must on our own develop those agencies that we need, and not look up to unsympathetic and often hostile quarters to offer these to us.”

As black people, we cannot keep on holding on to the excuse that we cannot develop black academics because we have to support families. There is nothing new about supporting families in black history.

But that never stopped individuals from making sacrifices for the long term. Many of the people who joined the struggle could easily have said they could not become activists because they needed to get jobs to support their families.

That is not what they did. They sacrificed, and the result is our freedom. We cannot abdicate the responsibility for the education of black children to others – whether at primary school or at university.

We need a community revival that can never come from political parties. Political parties are interested only in the votes of adults. We need organisations that are interested in the future of our children.

A Constitution is as good as you are able to interpret it for your interests. And for that you need smart, capable individuals and organisations – not “amandla functionaries” with no qualifications other than to steal public funds.

» Mangcu is an associate professor at the University of Cape Town and Oppenheimer Fellow at the Hutchins Center, Harvard University

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