Mosibudi Mangena was a contempaorary of Bantu Steve Biko’s, a president of the Azanian People’s Organization, and is one of the foremost intellectuals of Black Consciousness in South Africa today. He served as Minister of Science and Technology in the Thabo Mbeki administration. Looking at the many crises besetting South African society, from healthcare to education, crime and the arts, in We Can Fix Ourselves: Building a Better South Africa through Black Consciousness (Kwela), he analyses each problem and offers solutions based on Black Consciousness, which, as he puts it, “imbues its adherents with love for themselves and their people. It seeks to uphold and respect the worth and dignity of all human beings.” He writes: “Nearly four centuries of racist oppression, denigration, humiliation and social degradation have damaged our psyche and produced a society that is ravaged by inferiority complexes… [Black Consciousness] would facilitate the restoration of our pride and dignity that were eroded by centuries of oppression and denigration.” In this extract from We Can Fix Ourselves, he considers the role of the arts and language.
Pull up your pants and let’s all face reality and understand that a man can’t ride your back unless it’s bent. – From “Yes I’m Black!” by Jermine Hodge
Jermine Hodge wrote his hard-hitting poem during the Black Lives Matter campaigns in the US. He seems to have borrowed and tweaked the words of Martin Luther King Jr, who said: “Whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.” King uttered these words of profound wisdom during an earlier era of the civil rights movement in America. It is an observation that has an inter-generational relevance in the US and is likely to endure for as long as the struggle against oppression and prejudice continues.
This assertion by Hodge is a powerful message for all groups that face oppression, marginalisation, discrimination, prejudice, exploitation or any such phenomenon. It is a mindset that would be advantageous to the struggle for women’s emancipation, the working class against their bosses, or any such group that needs to free itself from hegemony or an oppressive force.
Nowhere is the bent back more evident than in South Africa in the areas of the creative arts, literature and culture. Here, no one is holding a gun to our heads compelling us to do anything, yet we slavishly crowd our spaces with the culture of others at the expense of our own. Our problem is a slave mentality that has our minds in chains. It is a mentality that robs our society of the richness and diversity of our cultural heritage and reduces us to a plastic people that is trying too hard to be who they are not. If we were to free ourselves from the shackles of mental servitude, we could unleash a cultural, literary and linguistic splendour that would make us a very interesting and attractive society indeed.
If a visitor from Mars was parachuted into a hotel room in South Africa and tuned into our free-to-air television channels that serve the majority of our citizens, they could be excused for thinking they were not in a country where black people make up 90% of the population. Of course, the Martian would see some black people reading the news or appearing in some drama, but these isolated faces would not be an accurate reflection of the demographics of the society. What is more, whether some black faces were involved or not, English would be the dominant language the Martian would hear. The vast majority of the offerings, especially films, would be the same as those being aired in Europe or the US. This implies that the vast majority of the population are almost invisible in their own country – as images, in language and in culture.
Those of us who have travelled will have noticed how different other societies in the world are. For instance, during my visits to Libya in the eighties and nineties, Libyan television was completely incomprehensible to me. Everything was in Arabic, and the images, music and presentation reflected that country and its people.
The situation is similar in Indonesia. If you hop from channel to channel, all you will see are Indonesians doing their thing. Indonesians hated their Dutch colonisers so much that at independence, they banned Dutch as an official language and adopted a standardised form of Malay as their official language. They are a country of more than 270-million people, scattered across some 17 000 islands, with about 700 different languages. The country was able to replace a colonial language with Bahasa Indonesia (the language of Indonesia), which is now the Indonesians’ language of commerce, education, law and bureaucracy. Above all, it is their national language – a language of unity and nationhood. So, what you see on television is offerings in Bahasa Indonesia, as well as in many other languages spoken by their various ethnic groups.
The advent of Bahasa Indonesia does not mean the suppression of all the other 300 languages spoken by the different ethnic groups in the country. Through their languages, the various ethnic groups are able to express themselves and practise their cultures; project their identities, values and mores; and transmit these to younger generations.
We are a country of just under 60-million people (the estimate for mid-2020 was 59.62-million) who speak only eleven languages that we characterise as official languages in South Africa, even though everyone knows it is a sham in real life. English trumps all the other languages, making them distant cousins of the queen’s language. Yet English is the home language of a small percentage of the population.
So, compared to Indonesia, we have a much smaller linguistic and ethnic phenomenon to deal with. To make matters even easier for us, many of our languages are closely related. If you understand one of the Nguni languages, say isiNdebele, you will be able to understand the others, which are isiXhosa, isiSwati and isiZulu. The same applies to the Sotho languages, Setswana, Sepedi and Sesotho. A soapie or film in one language can be easily understood by other language speakers in that group of languages.
One is often struck by our ability, with a straight face, to mouth things we don’t mean. We keep on saying South Africa has eleven official languages when we know we are not living that reality, nor doing anything to actualise it.
No one in full command of his or her faculties would suggest that we ban English or any other language in South Africa. Apart from our excessive love for our former colonialists, their language, culture and mannerisms, the historical context would make such a step very difficult. But what we should demand emphatically is the meaningful presence of our languages in our spaces, such as school, university, television and radio.
Our visitor from Mars should be in no doubt, while exploring television channels, that the hotel is situated in a country where the majority of the population is black. The only reason this is not plain to see is that we lack feelings of dignity, worthiness and respect for ourselves.
We are 27 years into our democracy and things are getting worse with regard to depicting the black majority on television and radio. We should be seeing the opposite: the flourishing of our cultural and linguistic expression in tandem with the discernible evolvement of a South African identity.
It is absurd that we should even find ourselves debating what percentage of local music should be played on our radio and television stations. I am not aware of any other country in the world that does this. It should be a matter of course that local and African continental music dominates our airwaves – and that any station deviating from this would find its market share limited. The tastes and natural inclination of society would see to that.
However, we have to acknowledge that we are not born with tastes; they are acquired. So, if we feed the population music and films from elsewhere, they develop a taste for it, just as feeding ourselves with too much junk food whets our appetite for it.
As it turns out, we are consuming so much junk food that too many of us are unhealthy, and in the process we are opening ourselves up to associated diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, kidney failure, stroke and cancer. We have developed such a big appetite for junk food that we are passing it on to our children, exposing them to lifestyle diseases in later life.
With the blessing of so many cultural and linguistic groups, all with their own music and dance styles, imagine what cultural splendour we would be able to unleash on our airwaves. In addition to, say, pure Xitsonga, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Afrikaans, Tshivenda, Setswana, English, Sepedi, isiNdebele, isiSwati and Sesotho songs, we might have some artists combining these in their performances, enhancing the richness of their artistic expression at the same time as they help in the mutual learning of one another’s languages. There is something of that in Johnny Clegg’s music that tugs at our heartstrings.
Some of us have noticed with dismay how many people, especially in the news, are forced by reporters to express themselves in English even when it is patently clear that they struggle with the language. Those people would have been able to put their case eloquently and clearly if they spoke in their own languages, or in another language they understand and speak better than English.
When it comes to black culture, the dramas on television simply fall short. On the rare occasions that they have a storyline that includes cultural practices, such as lobola and traditional healing, they caricature and demean these practices in a disrespectful manner. How many times have some of us winced at how these dramas ridicule their own heritage? And these dramas are commissioned, written, performed and broadcast by black people themselves. It is as if we are zealously trying to alienate ourselves from ourselves.
No other population group has its ways of doing things questioned, doubted and ridiculed as much as black people doubt and ridicule themselves. There is never an occasion where the buying of rings, blessings in church or mosque, or weddings along those lines are ridiculed or doubted – neither by black nor white people.
If the contention is that belief in the relevance of ancestors is superstition, so are the many other religious beliefs in the world. No one can prove to you that God or Allah or Buddha or any other supernatural being that is worshipped actually exists. It is simply a matter of whether you believe or not. So, playing holier-or-mightier-than-thou games in the sphere of faith is illogical. No one religion is or more authentic than another.