When 18 Black Consciousness organisations, along with Percy Qoboza’s World newspapers and the Christian Institute of Southern Africa’s Pro Veritate magazine, were outlawed by the John Vorster apartheid government on October 19 1977, it signalled Black Wednesday. And maybe, surprisingly, I would suggest that it was Black Wednesday in a good sense.
Of course, it has been dubbed Black Wednesday in a negative sense because of the gloom of these bannings and the detention of activists that morning – a whole crowd of us at Modderbee Prison in Benoni and others jailed countrywide.
I make the case for a positive interpretation of the “black” in Black Wednesday. It was black in the positive sense of the black fist, indicating the triumph of Black Solidarity over the divisive designs of apartheid.
This was what Black Wednesday meant:
- . It was a day of the triumph of Black Solidarity in Black Consciousness – the idea that so-called Africans, coloureds and Indians were conceptually one Black Solidarity political force in the struggle for a new society not defined by racial divisions, and that what kept whites from being part of this was their own political design of apartheid and the privileges they had arrogated to themselves in a legislative system they alone enjoyed.
- . It was a day of triumph for Black Solidarity in struggle, when the concept of solidarity in struggle had proved – despite the bannings – to spell fear in the apartheid regime, who feared the effects of solidarity and unity among the oppressed.
- . It was a day of triumph for Black Consciousness that inspired an “ambassadorial” spirit of black excellence and a high standard of professionalism in every sector. Black Consciousness meant the consciousness of self-reliance and the responsibility to be excellent in all we did for the sake of all of black society.
It is 41 years later, and October 19 2018 has signalled Black Friday, where the essence of Black Solidarity is lamentably lost. We have lost the emancipatory unity of Blacks: coloureds, Indians and Africans with no tribal or ethnic differentiation.
This is what Black Friday means:
- It marks a day of loss rather than triumph. The so-called coloured community find themselves abandoned, as articulated to veteran author Don Mattera: “Under apartheid we were not white enough; under democracy we are not black enough. We are abandoned!” The shutdown movement – spearheaded by great struggle communities in Bonteheuwel in Cape Town, as well as in Westbury, Newclare, Ennerdale and Eldorado Park in Gauteng – is a protest by coloured people against their marginalisation economically and socially, both during and post apartheid. The faith leaders need to work together to address this pain, identify with it, and – together with civil society and government – find meaningful ways of responding to the cry of racial exclusion.
- It is a day of loss when, reminiscent of the apartheid ideology of ethnically dividing Africans, we see the ascendancy of the political exploitation of tribal identities – 100% Zulu, 100% Venda, etc. The violent protests in Vuwani have to do with the politics of ethnic identity, also perceived within the governing party. It harks back to the apartheid mind-set of the ethnic Bantustanisation of our society. These examples are a serious retrogression and serve as a blow to the Black Consciousness principle of Black Solidarity.
- It is a day of loss when a significant political party like the Economic Freedom Fighters can attack South Africans who are classified as Indian almost en masse, as a racial group.
- It is a day of loss when struggle veterans Pravin Gordhan and Ismail Momoniat are singled out and targeted as Indians and demonised as the “Indian cabal”.
- It is a day of loss when, instead of excellence, we see the solidarity of black mediocrity.
- It is a day of loss when a government minister is racially attacked for shaking the rich fruit tree of corruption in state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in the name of defending black executives because they are Africans. Thus, blackness becomes a protective bulwark instead of a proud symbol of celebrated excellence.
- It is, indeed, a Black Friday of loss of direction for the black community. Lost is an appreciation of what struggle icon Steve Biko meant when he wrote: “Black Consciousness seeks to show black people the value of their own standards and outlook.”
- These standards and outlook demonstrated that being black is no badge of inferiority or inadequacy. To protect mediocrity, corruption and poor performance in the name of Black Solidarity is to distort Biko’s Black Consciousness.
- The essence of Black Solidarity in the Black Consciousness philosophy was, and remains, the teaching that reversing the apartheid mind-set requires the following three-step process:
- Members of the historically oppressed communities are conscientised to recognise the fullness and equal value of their humanity against the dehumanising jackboot of racial oppression.
- Apartheid historically addressed black people as “non-whites”, presuming that whiteness was the norm. Non-white meant denying people their basic human rights. Black Consciousness calls for the positive embracing of “black” to replace “non-white” – if anything, whites who embraced and benefited from apartheid were, in fact, non-black. In this regard, the more the concept of black becomes entrenched in the solidarity of those previously defined as non-white, the greater is the prospect of success in the struggle for a non-racial society. Biko wrote: “We are looking forward to a non-racial, just and egalitarian society in which colour, creed and race shall form no point of reference.”
- White South Africans are to acknowledge the impropriety of white social, political and economic privilege at the expense of those they dismissed as “non-whites”, and who, for their liberating self-definition, present themselves as black people. In this instance, “black” includes all those who – by law or tradition – were socially, politically and economically marginalised. This is referred to as White Consciousness – the consciousness by whites of the need to shed their superiority complex. With this, the political ferment of Black Consciousness gives birth to the national consciousness of racial equality – the foundation of a non-racial society.
The question to ask today is: Can we afford, through our short-sighted actions, to unravel rather than cultivate solidarity and the promotion of a united society, where the historically oppressed blacks are encouraged to build on the common need for a reparatory agenda, while at the same time enabling whites to come to terms with the need for socioeconomic power relations?
Black Consciousness is not white hatred. Instead, as Biko writes, it “gives positivity in the outlook of the black people to their problems. It works on the knowledge that ‘white hatred’ is negative though understandable, and leads to ... methods which may be disastrous for black and white alike. It seeks to channel the pent-up forces of the angry black masses to meaningful and directional opposition, basing the entire struggle on realities of the situation.”
One such reality is that the African component of South African blacks are in the majority, and so, they have the greatest responsibility for nation building for the good of the whole nation.
In that context, the responsibility lies with this political majority to show that a diverse society can succeed in Africa. Our economy can be transformed and advanced through black excellence, leading the country through an ethos that overturns the stereotypes of our beloved continent – of African corruption in business and government, and of political and ethnic killing fields.
Our Constitution demands of us to “heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights”. Reconciliation and healing are organic processes which cannot be legislated. Bringing them to fruition depends on organised communities, such as churches, and on society at large challenging themselves to address the cultural causes of injustice. This is to counter the “can’t we just move on” narrative. It must include the recognition of the social capital of white skin, maleness and the socioeconomic disadvantage of being black, female, disabled and a foreign African.
It depends also on black politicians knowing that our future is joined at the hip. It is about the Black Consciousness vision of translating a healthy black solidarity into a healthy national consciousness based on mutual respect. In Biko’s words: “In time, we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift – a more human face.” The time is now. Ke nako.
Mpumlwana is general secretary of the SA Council of Churches.
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