Reclaiming blackness

2012-12-09 10:00

Steve Biko’s vision was not for black people to emulate white individualism.

Last week, City Press published an intriguing piece by Xolela Mangcu, titled “Biko would cringe at our return to 1960s”, in which he suggests that the time had come to return to Steve Bantu Biko’s idea of a cultural movement in the face of the crises confronting black people in this country.

For those who have witnessed how African culture has been invoked by politicians for their selfish interests, Mangcu’s call can easily be dismissed as ludicrous.

But those who have read Biko and understand how he regarded culture as a weapon that could restore self-respect for Africans and humanity in general, his call is refreshing. It is a challenge to us to interrogate Biko’s vision.

Biko’s vision for a free South Africa was that “a country in Africa, in which the people are African, must inevitably exhibit African values and be truly African in style”.

He defined culture as “society’s composite answer to the varied problems of life”.

He did not regard culture as something static but as a dynamic feature of life.

“There is a tendency to think of our culture as a static culture that was arrested in 1652 and has never developed since.

The ‘return to the bush’ concept suggests that we have nothing to boast of except lions, sex and drink.”

In calling for an African cultural reclamation, Biko urged us to “reject, as we have been doing, the individualistic cold approach to life that is the cornerstone of Anglo-Boer culture”.

Reminding us that African traditional life comprised a true people-centred society “whose sacred tradition is that of sharing,” Biko urged us to restore to Africans “the regard for people and their property, and for life in general”.

He taught us that in traditional Africa, “poverty was a foreign concept” that “could only be really brought about to the entire community by an

adverse climate during a particular season”.

Biko was not alone in making this claim.

The great African revolutionary and martyr, Walter Rodney, in his book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, observed that in traditional communal Africa “no one starved while others stuffed themselves and threw away the excess”.

Stephen Ellis’ observations in his book, External Mission: The ANC in Exile, brings to the fore the urgency of Biko’s call for a cultural movement.

He notes that our liberation struggle has become “largely reduced to its crudest material aspect.

For many South Africans, it came to mean aspiring to the standard of living that was formerly the preserve of whites”.

Mimicking white people’s standards is a negation of Black Consciousness which, according to Biko, was based on self-examination and led black people “to believe that by seeking to run away from themselves and emulat(ing) the white man, they are insulting the intelligence of whoever created them black”.

Preoccupation with material gain among some black elites after a long and painful people’s struggle is not uniquely South African.

Basil Davidson reveals in Black Star: A View of the Life and Times of Kwame Nkrumah, that for the emerging African elite in Ghana soon after independence, “the size of a man’s motor car was beginning to be the measure of his social prestige”.

Biko anticipated that the “assimilation”, mistaken for “integration”, of Africans into individualistic lifestyles would take place, and rejected it: “If by integration you understand a breakthrough into white society by blacks, an assimilation and acceptance of blacks into an already-established set of norms and code of behaviour set up and maintained by whites, then YES, I am against it.”

His call for a cultural movement was informed by an awareness that Africans were subjected to miseducation, which taught them that “their indigenous clothing, their customs, their beliefs ... were ... pagan and barbaric”.

Preoccupation with expensive cars and Western suits is a consequence of this miseducation.

The cultural movement should restore pride in things African, and reclaim values that would bring about not just political but social and economic freedom as well.

This will happen if the cultural movement teaches our children that in traditional Africa, “there was no such thing as individual land ownership. The land belonged to the people and was merely under the control of the local chief on behalf of the people”.

If this happens, there shall be no more Marikanas and exploitation of farm workers in the land of their ancestors.

»Sesanti is a senior lecturer at Stellenbosch University’s journalism department. He writes in his personal capacity.

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