Race, class and gender: A new call to consciousness

POWER American human rights activist Angela Davis will deliver the 17th annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture at Unisa. Picture: Getty images
POWER American human rights activist Angela Davis will deliver the 17th annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture at Unisa. Picture: Getty images

Every year, as the anniversary of Steve Biko’s death in detention on September 12 approaches, the nation turns its attention to the legacy of the late anti-apartheid activist and what lessons he still teaches us today.

Among those who will pay homage to Biko this year is Professor Angela Davis – the former Black Panther, Communist Party USA leader and feminist scholar – who on September 9 will deliver the 17th annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture at Unisa.

Long before the term ‘intersectional’ became common parlance, Davis was “woke”.

In fact, it was she who, through her work on race, class and gender, awakened many of us.

Yet, beyond her intellectual labour, Davis was catapulted into the international spotlight after becoming the third woman in US history to be on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

Her alleged crimes: murder, kidnapping and conspiracy, all of which were punishable by death.

Yet, through her incarceration and beyond, she remained steadfast in her commitment to racial and gender equality.

The iconic image of her with her fist raised and trademark Afro remains the reference point for many young black activists of her generation and those who came after.

Not only did Davis embody the substance of the movement, but also the style.

Four decades after she came to international prominence, Davis’ work remains excruciatingly relevant.

Excruciating because in the 1960s and 1970s, in the wake of the passage of the American Civil Rights Act and the “winds of change” that heralded the success of African liberation movements, it seemed as if a revolution that would ensure racial equality was imminent.

Yet, this was not the case. Today, Davis’ work remains relevant in the debates about the interface of race, gender and class that have come to dominate discourse.

Given Davis’ work, it’s apt that she will visit South Africa as Women’s Month comes to a close and “Biko month” begins.

Historically, in South Africa and abroad, black women in social movements often had to prioritise their struggles.

The quest for gender equity was often overridden by the fight for political freedom. Black men were often at the forefront, and lauded as the impetus behind social movements.

Within the black consciousness movement, this tension between race and gender was paradoxically present.

“Black man, you are on your own”, a rallying cry coined by Barney Pityana and popularised by Steve Biko, used the gendered language of the time; while the Black People’s Convention, established in 1972, elected Winnie Kgware as its inaugural president.

Other leading South African women, such as ambassador Thenjiwe Mtintso and gender commissioner Thoko Mpumlwana, were involved in leadership roles within various black consciousness movement structures, yet various women have also spoken about gender relations within the movement and how in some ways they had to choose between addressing racism or sexism.

This tension between racial and gender justice continues to challenge us today, with some asking why young black South African women deem it necessary to have a black-girls-only gathering amid the narrative of the rainbow nation.

Or why the growth of the Black Girls Rock movement in the US happened during the era of Barack Obama?

These interventions, and many others, are critical because exclusion and poverty remain racialised and gendered, with black women bearing the brunt.

Globally, women of African descent have higher HIV-infection rates, are more likely to live in poverty and have less access to neonatal healthcare than their counterparts; all of which have implications not only for women, but for development at large.

This reality is perhaps best described by Thomas Sankara, the assassinated president of Burkina Faso, when he said:

“The revolution and women’s liberation go together. We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or out of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the revolution to triumph. Women hold up the other half of the sky.”

As long as we separate the issues of race and gender, and until we examine the specific ways in which black women experience oppression, we will never be able to foster equitable development.

The liberation of black women is critical in and of itself because – to borrow from the US social movement – Black Women’s Lives Matter.

What is remarkable about the activism of black women is that, in the tradition of individuals such as Davis, Audre Lorde, Sojourner Truth and Yaa Asantewaa, the fight to liberate black women has not only been about liberating themselves, but societies as a whole.

This aspect of black women’s activism was evident in #FeesMustFall protests; where many young black women were visibly leading on the front line, working for free education and forcing the nation to reconsider the bounds of what is possible.

While the fight for accessible education is being waged by young women and men, women have not allowed gender-related issues to fade into the background.

Rather, alongside poverty and racism, patriarchy, rape and homophobia have been at the forefront of discourse.

While there are many visible manifestations of black women’s activism across the country, the continent and the diaspora, there are many more quiet revolutions under way, not only to foster equitable development for black women, but for marginalised people at large.

Whether in relation to race, gender or economic justice, 39 years after his death, Biko continues to instruct us, reminding us that, “as people existing in a continuous struggle for truth, we have to examine and question old values, concepts and systems.

Having found the right answers, we shall then work for consciousness among all people to make it possible for us to proceed towards putting these answers into effect.”

Amponsah is the CEO of the Steve Biko Foundation

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