This article is occasioned by provocations raised by two students in my sociology class.
Their questions have a relevance that goes beyond my class. The resurgence of a virulent racism in this country, particularly on social media, requires that we redouble our efforts to combat this evil before it devours us. Allowing it to continue is a mockery of the struggle we spent our lives fighting.
One of the students wanted to know what my contemporary definition of black consciousness was. He was not particularly impressed by the fact that I was inviting white people to become part of the discourse on black consciousness, which I view as a necessity if they are to develop the capacity to respect black people and stop the abuse. Unless that happens, this country is headed for a confrontation that will make Syria look like a Sunday picnic. His objection was a reflection of the bitterness of young people because of their daily experiences of racism.
As this student went on, I remembered I was once that angry – during apartheid. Surely, one would imagine there should be no such feelings in a democratic South Africa. But that is what makes this generation even angrier than ours – they were brought up with the lie that apartheid’s demise meant the end of racism. Those who told them that forgot to mention that apartheid was only adopted in 1948 by the National Party, long after black people were first subjugated under colonial rule.
If the anger of my generation was a response to apartheid oppression, the anger of the current generation is a response to post-apartheid racism.
To some of these students, I sound like a tamed “old-timer” – so much for the whites who see me as a flaming radical. Well, wait until you have come face to face with this anger, which you must if you are going to be part of the journey of defining a new future for our society.
My student described my conception of black consciousness as neoliberal. I am not sure about neoliberal, but it is certainly liberal in not only inviting whites to the discourse but in defining blackness as a cultural identity that some may choose to identify with and others may turn their backs on.
I personally choose this identity because, in the words of Eskia Mphahlele, it continues to be my anchor against the vicissitudes of racism. But more than an anchor or shield, blackness is also my moral compass. The black struggle generated definitions of what it means to be human in the midst of relentless dehumanisation. I would forget that history only at the risk of jettisoning those values and losing my compass.
My other student was not particularly happy that I always fell back on Biko in talking about blackness. Would it not be better if I spent more time developing Biko’s ideas instead of using them as if they were cast in stone?
That is what I like about my students – they’re cheeky in an intellectually invigorating way, which is often lost on critics who label them “thugs” or “spoilt brats”. As Steven Friedman said to me the other day, “there is nothing like student protest to separate the democrats among us from the others”.
If the naysayers listened a little more, they might appreciate the epistemological revolution happening under their noses. If they read a little more history, they would realise that students have been at the forefront of social change, from the first student uprising at the University of Paris in 1220 – when they fought against local townsmen over the price of beer – to the group Karl Marx joined at the University of Berlin, right up to the student movements of 1968 in Paris, Tokyo, Mexico, Madrid and Chicago.
In South Africa, this was the moment when Biko and fellow students launched the SA Students’ Organisation, leading to the political and intellectual dynamism of the black renaissance of the 1970s. Threatened by this dynamism, the National Party government killed Biko in September 1977 and later banned all black consciousness organisations, black newspapers and imprisoned black journalists. That day, October 19 1977, was called Black Wednesday for the pall it cast on our communities throughout the country.
We never regained our intellectual vigour – which partly explains the trouble we found ourselves in over the past 20 years. For the intellect is not only about solving problems but understanding the historical creation of the present. A sense of what is right and wrong can only come out of an understanding of historical experiences. As the historian Niall Ferguson put it recently, “history is to nations what character is to individuals”.
Like their black consciousness predecessors, the current generation of students rejects the intellectually vacuous argument that race is merely skin-deep. Like Biko, they understand that blackness is about consciousness of the past to solve the problems of the present. They are also beginning to understand that all political identities – including racial ones – are politically constructed, for better or worse.
Exactly which way those processes of construction turn will depend on the quality of the youth’s ideas and the character of its leadership.
Notwithstanding disagreements among themselves and with their professors, there is no mistaking that young people are yearning for a world beyond the one they have inherited. They are angered by the resurgence of white racism and feel betrayed by the corruption of the black political class.
In perhaps the greatest book on the subject of nations, Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson argues that nation entities are not God-created or natural phenomena. Nations are “cultural artefacts of a particular kind” that are always given shape politically.
That political creation has often been violent but we were lucky to avoid that path. We have come to yet another fork in the road. Deciding which way to go will require political courage and intellectual imagination. It is also what makes the transformation of universities an urgent imperative. But we additionally need investment in all kinds of other national institutions that can inspire the imaginations of young people.
The Americans created the Smithsonian – wherein is located the National Museum of American History, The Native History Museum, The Museum of African American History and Culture, and more. The French have the Institut de France.
I don’t care what we call it or what model we adapt to our context, our present moment calls for the collective institutional imagination we last saw with the black renaissance of the 1970s and which other nations undertake as a matter of course.
That is perhaps the best tribute we can pay to the victims of Black Wednesday, whose writings became our anchor and compass.
Mangcu is an associate professor at the University of Cape Town and an author