What would Biko say?

2011-09-17 09:26

It has become something of a ritual. Every year at this time, many institutions and individuals across the world take a moment to pause and reflect on the life and contribution of that giant of a man called Steve Biko.

He was not just a selfless patriot and indefatigable organiser, he was also a serious thinker and prolific writer whose contribution to the development of black political thought remains profoundly immeasurable.

Using his philosophical prism, I wish to resurrect Biko and examine the following question: what kind of society have we become?

Biko would find it disturbing that since the dawn of formal democracy we have never had an honest reflection on the poverty and landlessness of the majority, and have conveniently chosen to preoccupy ourselves with assuaging the fears of the minorities while holding together an illusive and wobbly Rainbow Nation project.

He would be disheartened by the fact that, despite being the majority in our higher education system, black students remain embarrassingly under-represented in the science and commerce graduate outputs, particularly at post-graduate level.

In fact, of our 23 universities, only six account for the bulk of our research and development output. Interestingly, these six are historically white.

He would regard it as a paradox that we were able, in a very short space of time, to build world-class stadiums for a once-off sporting event but have failed for almost 17 years to build houses, schools and clinics for our own kind.

He would find it morally repugnant that we have turned party membership into a prerequisite for securing a job or business from the state.

He would find it odd that we have made it something of a norm to disregard individuals who possess the skills and rather appoint those who lack the skills – purely because they are politically connected.

And when the public institutions they manage collapse, not only do we act surprised, but we redeploy them or place them on some kind of bizarre leave.

He would find it baffling that we are prepared to halt service delivery only to go and give dubious support to those who use their political connectivity and struggle credentials to enrich themselves.

Biko would want us to explain how all this enhances our collective dignity.

What would hurt Biko most about the kind of society we have become would be the fact that some of our public institutions and historians continue to tell the story of our liberation struggle in a manner that diminishes the role of other freedom fighters.

This should perhaps explain why many of our country’s young people seem to know very little about the contribution of people like Thekisho Plaatje, Mangaliso Sobukwe, Zephaniah Mothopeng, Jeff Masemola, Sabelo Ntwasa, Onkgopotse Tiro, Mthuli ka Shezi, Muntu Myeza, Kalushi Mahlangu, Teboho Mashinini and Khotso Seatlholo.

Because he was also a Pan-Africanist in his outlook, Biko’s heart would bleed at the realisation that some of today’s African leaders are not just perpetuating the colonial practice of looting our continent’s wealth, but in order to entrench themselves in power, they use the state to ferment deadly ethnic and political conflict among their own people.

For Biko, a true African leader is someone who remains true to the vision of Haile Selassie, Kambarage Nyerere, Patrice Lumumba, Amilca Cabral, Samora Machel, Thomas Sankara, and who refuses to auction their soul to the imperialists only to become a slavish instrument in the recolonisation of the African continent in the name of “foreign investment” and the “maintenance of world peace”.

He would be candid and tell us that it doesn’t matter what parties we support or what our ethnic affiliation is, the reality of our situation is that, as Africans, not only is our continent home to the poorest countries in the world, but we are also the only people in the world who, despite our rich mineral wealth, continue to be a charity case of the West.

And in the South African context, while we are free to vote like everybody else and now manage the state, many of our people continue to be the kitchen girls, garden boys and mantshingilanes of the minorities.

This is what Biko would expect to be the primary concern of those who lead us.We live in treacherous times where the mere act of expressing a view can be dismissed with unthinking loutishness as counter-revolutionary or even unpatriotic.

In my view, if there is anything that’s more counter-revolutionary and unpatriotic than the intolerance of diverse views, it is our inclination to recoil into moral cowardice at the slightest intimidation.

Regardless of the consequences, we must never shirk our moral and intellectual duty to critically engage one another, including those who rule over us.

This means that we must respect the right of others to hold and express a point of view even if it’s different to our own.

We must, however, never acquiesce to the prevailing culture of blind obedience and anti-thinking. As Margaret Chase Smith once observed: “The moral cowardice that keeps us from speaking our minds is as dangerous as irresponsible talk.

The right way is not always the popular and easy way and standing for what’s right when it is unpopular is the true test of moral character.”

We have sadly degenerated into a society of kleptomaniacs and cowards who sheepishly suppress what we really feel and only express those views that we believe won’t jeopardise our employment or business prospects.

We must never forget that we earn the right to associate with the name “Biko” not merely because we have the same skin colour, but in essence because we share in his values and vision of humanity.

» Mbele is president of the Azanian Youth Organisation 

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