Life is full of ironies, and I think not everything in life will always be as purely black and white as we would want it to be. I have also grown old enough to know that I will have to embrace some of the contradictions that come with life.
History has it that Mamphela Ramphele knew the late Steve Biko very well, as they worked as close colleagues and comrades, and they were also romantic partners. It is also recorded that they, together with a couple of other friends, where the founding figures of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) in the 1970’s.
The BCM was a Black protest movement against a racist apartheid regime, which at its centre sort to and eventually did challenge the cherished apartheid and colonial ideal of white supremacy. Steve Biko chiselled (and continues to do so today) into the heads of African masses the fact that the very concept of white supremacy is in the highest order of irrationality.
Black consciousness, as Biko defined it, is an attitude of the mind and a way of life. The BCM understood that the oppressed African people needed a radical shift in their thinking in order for them to obtain and enjoy true freedom. It also understood that the deepest problem of racism was not merely in the interactions of the individual African and White bodies, but rather in the overarching system that assumed and then elevated a White body as superior.
This is why Steve Biko said this:
“So as a prelude, whites must be made to realise that they are only human, not superior. Same with Blacks, they must be made to realise that they are also human, not inferior.”
Steve Biko and the BCM also understood that the problem of racism was primarily in the material conditions. A Black body was over the years forcefully dispossessed of its land and economy, resulting in poverty and landlessness. Without an economy and the means of production, Blacks were disadvantaged and set aback, and eventually made to be subservient.
A White body on the other hand, simply because of the colour of skin, was at an advantage to progress and create wealth. This system of white privilege (which has continued to this day) over the years created in whites a sense of superiority and in most blacks a sense of inferiority. So therefore, the main problem was and is a system which has created different material conditions for different groups, which eventually gave rise to certain mental attitudes.
Steve Biko’s argument was that if we will eventually enjoy a non-racial, egalitarian South Africa, we will have to first deal with the material conditions that divide us. We will have to TOTALLY COLLAPSE this racist system that advantages a white body, by disadvantaging a black body. In other words, we will have to put in place a Political and Economic system that works for all people, Black and White.
This is then the context in which Mamphela Ramphele was ‘introduced’ to me. I had never really encountered her on any meaningful level before, until in 2011 when I came across one of her books at the bookstore, ‘Conversations with my Sons and Daughters’. I was very impressed with her intellect and how informed she was, I basically ‘fell in love with her’. In the book she basically diagnosed many of the chronic failures of our current government, and how continuing in this path will eventually be tragic for us.
I totally agreed with her, and I couldn’t have met her at a better time. I was so excited that I did a little research on her, and when I found out she was a close comrade of Steve Biko it was like I had just found a pearl. I assumed she upheld Biko’s values and believes, and therefore would launch us on a road of radical change towards full equality. When I heard she is launching a new party I was even more excited and was one of her first supporters, I even went to the launch in Pretoria. I was waiting excitably to finally hear her policy perspectives and so on.
The more I listened to her, and read her articles, the more disappointed I became. What she was basically telling me was that there is really nothing wrong with the ANC in terms of ideology and policy perspective, but the problem was just implementation. In order words, her main agenda is to reform, and not to agitate for radical change. I was thoroughly crushed, and I abandoned her and her party.
You see, Steve Biko warned us that Political Freedom without the Economic emancipation of the general and majority Black population is meaningless. What he envisioned was the end of apartheid both politically and economically. He also warned us that simply reforming the colonial and apartheid structures will not lead to any meaningful freedom for Black people. He put it like this;
“Our attitude here is that you cannot in pursuing the aspirations of Black people achieve them from a platform which is meant for the oppression of Black people.”
In other words, you don’t reform a system of oppression; you collapse, and get rid of it. Reform, which is what the ANC has been doing in the past 20 years without any meaningful results, that is what Mamphela promises, although more effectively. Great philosophers have already warned us that it is pure foolishness to do the same things over and over and expecting a different outcome.
Steve Biko also warned us against Black people who call for reforms of a system that continues to oppress and disadvantage Black people. We must refuse reforms and call for a radical change in both the economic ownership and property relations in our country, so that Black people can meaningfully participate in the economy of their country, and create their own wealth.
Let me conclude with Steve Biko:
“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.”
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