Dashiki Dialogues: Penis saga lays bare the right to dignity

2012-05-25 12:38

Biko is dead! screams a poster from the window of a gallery in big-money Rosebank.

It jumped out at me as I got off a minibus taxi with people who exist to make the comforts of that neighbourhood possible.

The poster forms part of the body of work that includes the now infamous representation of the presidential privates.

Seeing it, I wonder if we missed an important debate about Steve Biko and the legacy of the Black Consciousness Movement in a South Africa that calls itself free.

Maybe the great penis debate was a tragic decoy.

The poster raised questions like, what does the act of saying Biko is dead mean?

Especially in this type of cultural institution, a white cube gallery.

And what is the meaning of his death?

It was after all Biko who wrote that before going into the bargaining process that’ll produce a new South Africa, we must strip the table of all European cloth and dress it in true African style.

This is why others believe Nelson Mandela should have been inaugurated in Tshwane and not Pretoria.
The delay has created an atmosphere where many feel the rehabilitation of our collective public memory is not so important any more.

For example, look at the debate around the renaming and transformation of our shared spaces like streets.

However, I’d be the first to agree that renaming a street with a dead black man’s name alone won’t cut it.

Especially in an age when young black girls like Mshoza believe that to be loved by the South African public they need to bleach themselves and so lighten their complexions, to be nearer to whiteness.
For me Mshoza’s case speaks neatly to a shift in our socio-psychological priorities and perhaps health as darkies.

In the great debate about the president’s genitalia, a reader told me that, “presidents are not entitled to respect. This is a liberal democracy”.

I felt otherwise.

Human beings and state presidents alike are entitled to dignity, even if I personally hate them.

This is why I accepted, though with a bitten lower lip, that former president Thabo Mbeki honoured PW Botha’s family by attending his funeral.

You see, I was raised to believe part of the liberation and democratisation project was to restore the dignity of African personhood.

I felt Brett Murray’s penis poster went against this.

When we speak of an African experimentation with democracy, we should be seeking to infuse our moment of freedom with what E’skia Mphahlele would have called an African humanism.

Hence as I dialogue with that poster that says Biko Is Dead, I wonder what type of dashiki is appropriate as his martyrdom calls for a meaning.

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