Has white capital co-opted liberation?

2012-09-15 10:41

The only thing that differentiates our struggle leaders from the masses is the size of their cars

A key feature of Steve Biko’s philosophy of black consciousness was his warning of the dangers of the black ­oppressed being assimilated into and uncritically embracing the ­value system of the oppressor.

As we remember Biko this month, it is ironic that this issue of the assimilation is one of the questions surrounding the Marikana crisis.

Part of the inquiry involves ­gauging the extent to which trade unions and the liberation movement assimilated themselves into the values and interests of capital.

Stories of the wealth accumulation forays of the trade union investment companies, and the salaries earned by officials, are not only a damnation against the ­images of the living conditions of the Marikana workers that we no longer enjoy watching on TV.

What is worrying is that the justifications from the National Union of Mineworkers sounds so chillingly like what one used to hear from the system of the past.

Are we that assimilated into the lifestyle, and the existential concerns of the rich and powerful, that we cannot help but think, talk and live like them?

Do we find ­ourselves looking down, from some distance, people who could be our uncles and nieces? Is black solidarity out of fashion?

In 1972, exactly forty years ago, Biko wrote in Black Consciousness and the Quest for True Humanity that blacks have been made to feel inferior for so long that “it is comforting to drink tea or beer with whites who seem to treat them as equals”.

This comfort, in turn, boosts the ego of these few “acceptable” blacks to the extent that they feel slightly superior to other blacks who do not get similar treatment from white people.

Taken at an institutional level, this psychosis eventuates in black political and intellectual leaders, thus accepted by white capital, ­developing elitist self-images which alienate them from their own people.

Biko rejected this assimilation “in which black man will have to prove himself in terms of white values before meriting acceptance and ultimate assimilation, and which the poor will grow poorer, while the rich richer in a country where the poor have always been black”.

It is Paulo Freire who historically cautioned how the oppressed during their oppression develop an admiration and envy for the power and luxuries that the oppressor enjoys and how, when they get “freedom”, they quickly slip into these value systems and apparatus of oppressive power and privilege.

With the same refrain, Biko ­foresaw how the lack of a rigorous questioning of an invitation by the white liberal system to blacks to embrace racial integration on the terms equivalent to assuming white culture and social interests, will catch up against a future ­­­­­South Africa.

He considered it a necessary first step of a freedom process that the oppressor must question the assumptions of the culture of the oppressor, and reject all its elitist, and exploitative values.

We are today caught up in a cult of the ascendance of the black ­middle class. Acquisition of ­appearances of wealth, and whiteness, like the use of language, is ­the order of the day. The only thing that differentiates our struggle leaders from the masses is the size of their cars.

We are consumed by the cult of the VIP, of insisting on being seen as more important than other members of our community, even at ­funerals.

This is now so pervasive that every black person with a government job insists on being a VIP with the result that a new higher class has been created, the VVIP.

We all aspire to be seen and ­treated as VVIPs, as the Bantustan ­elites of the apartheid days did.

The sad fact is the masters of this frenzy of integration into the ­social status similar to that of the oppressor are trade union leaders, municipal councillors, and lousy branch executives of the liberation movement.

“It is an integration in which black will compete with black, ­using each other as rungs up a ladder leading them to white values.”

Sadly, an ordinary member of an ANC branch, of which most of the Marikana members possibly are, do not need to have read Machiavelli to appreciate what Biko is ­saying.

» Lamola teaches philosophy at the ­University of Fort Hare 

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