Biko’s Black Con­scious­ness had a defin­ing role in SA’s lib­er­a­tion strug­gle his­tory,writes

The Sunday Independent - - DISPATCHES -

STEVE BIKO: A De­fence is po­ten­tially an ex­plo­sive in­tel­lec­tual and aca­demic study that would be a fit­ting trib­ute on the oc­ca­sion of the 40th an­niver­sary of his death. A de­fence of his phi­los­o­phy and how it was enriched by those who em­braced it and dis­torted by those it im­per­illed is long over­due.

Re­flect­ing on the black ex­pe­ri­ence since his death, an op­por­tu­nity arises for ex­ca­vat­ing the defin­ing and crit­i­cal el­e­ments of Biko’s legacy de­lib­er­ately and with ma­li­cious in­tent, air­brushed out of the his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive.

This ar­ti­cle ex­plores el­e­ments of the black rad­i­cal tra­di­tion and par­a­digm that de­fined Biko’s BC and why their sup­pres­sion has im­pov­er­ished emerg­ing stud­ies in black rad­i­cal thought.

The Soweto Re­volt was the cru­cible of Biko’s BC phi­los­o­phy ar­tic­u­lat­ing a black rad­i­cal­ism. Stretch­ing for 16 months from June 16, 1976 to Oc­to­ber 1977, the Soweto re­volt’s defin­ing mo­ment, and a defin­ing mo­ment for black rad­i­cal­ism in lib­er­a­tion strug­gle his­to­ri­og­ra­phy, was a cam­paign be­gun on Au­gust 4, 1976. The stay­away on Au­gust 4-6, 1976, and the stu­dent march to down­town Johannesburg alarmed the ex­iled ANC, PAC and the Non-Euro­pean Unity Move­ment (NEUM). Un­able to claim the re­volt as their own, the ex­iled move­ments were ex­posed for their paral­y­sis and help­less­ness in the con­text of deep­en­ing racism.

The Au­gust 4 cam­paign was or­gan­ised. It in­volved a process of ex­hor­ta­tion un­der­taken mainly by stu­dents, ap­peal­ing to the work­ing pop­u­la­tion to sup­port what had as­sumed a po­lit­i­cal move­ment tran­scend­ing school bound­aries.

So­ci­ety was mo­bilised as a race, a black race, de­lib­er­ately sup­plant­ing and dis­solv­ing the eth­nic iden­ti­ties thrust upon them.

Black­ness as a cat­e­gory of mass mo­bil­i­sa­tion was a re­flec­tion of a shared his­tor­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence ac­cen­tu­ated and given mean­ing by a shared racial iden­tity. It is this re­al­i­sa­tion that en­gen­dered a sense “of a car­ing for each other” as black peo­ple.

It is a con­junc­ture best ar­tic­u­lated in Barney Pityana’s fa­mous re­mark, “black man, you are on your own”.

News­pa­per re­ports es­ti­mated that 85% to 90% of Soweto’s work­ing pop­u­la­tion heeded the stay­away ap­peal, paralysing Johannesburg. Typ­i­cally, and his­tor­i­cally, stay­away cam­paigns and bus boy­cotts were char­ac­terised by vi­o­lence against those who de­fied the ap­peal. With no threat of vi­o­lent re­crim­i­na­tions and in a show of over­whelm­ing black sol­i­dar­ity, the Au­gust 4 cam­paign alarmed the regime and at­tracted the at­ten­tion of the ex­iled move­ment.

Ruth First and Archie Mafeje lam­basted the re­volt for not be­ing work­ing class in its char­ac­ter. Both failed to ap­pre­ci­ate and recog­nise the re­al­ity that it was not work­ing class pre­cisely be­cause it was in­spired by BC’s black rad­i­cal­ism, lo­cat­ing black suf­fer­ing in white supremacy and not in the po­lit­i­cal econ­omy.

It did not re­quire the guid­ance of “friends of the na­tives” in the tra­di­tion of the ANC nor the nu­ance and so­phis­ti­cated anal­y­sis of the white left ex­plain­ing why black suf­fer­ing is to be lo­cated in the po­lit­i­cal econ­omy. In both these his­tor­i­cal mo­ments the strug­gle was char­ac­terised by “black as ab­sence”.

The black rad­i­cal­ism forged around the Au­gust 4 cam­paign did not dis­si­pate fol­low­ing the vi­o­lent re­ac­tion of the racist state. It deep­ened, dif­fused and spread across South Africa and was car­ried into neigh­bour­ing Botswana, Le­sotho and Swazi­land.

Hun­dreds of Soweto stu­dents, prob­a­bly a few thou­sand, fled South Africa in the days and weeks fol­low­ing Au­gust 4. The events in Soweto from June 16, 1976 to Au­gust 4 de­fined the mass mo­bil­i­sa­tion of the 1970s.

The Au­gust 4 cam­paign was an ar­tic­u­la­tion of BC, yet Biko’s in­ter­ven­tion is re­stricted to men­tal slav­ery and eman­ci­pa­tion from it. The Soweto Re­volt looms large as an ex­pres­sion of Biko’s BC and a rare mo­ment in re­sis­tance pol­i­tics when black rad­i­cal­ism was in the main­stream; young men and women thrown up by the events of Au­gust 4 in which state vi­o­lence, re­act­ing to the stay­away and the march, in­creased vis­i­bly.

It height­ened the rage these young men and women felt to­wards “white­ness” and to white peo­ple as a race. War songs they sang were laced with phrases such as “sen­zeni na? izono zethu ubu mnyama. Amab­hunu hi zinja”, which trans­lates as “what have we done? Our sin is be­ing black. The boers are dogs”.

This was the po­lit­i­cal out­look that these ex­iled stu­dents had when drafted into the ANC’s armed for­ma­tion, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). Named the June 16 De­tach­ment (and not the Au­gust 4 De­tach­ment) they were re­de­ployed into the coun­try between 1977 and 1981 as part of the “armed pro­pa­ganda cam­paign”.

This in­volved a sus­tained at­tack on key in­stal­la­tions in­clud­ing power sta­tions, re­finer­ies and se­cu­rity in­stal­la­tions. These tar­gets were said to be the lifeblood of South African cap­i­tal­ism that the cam­paign was meant to paral­yse.

Cadres of the June 16 De­tach­ment were as­signed to po­lit­i­cal com­mis­sars to in­struct them on Marx­ist-Lenin­ist rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory. The Cen­tre for African Stud­ies (CAS) or Cen­tro de Es­tu­dos Africanos (CEA), a brain­child of First, was the key re­search cen­tre pro­vid­ing po­lit­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion to re­cruits. They were dis­abused of the be­lief that black suf­fer­ing was lo­cated in white­ness, white supremacy and had their rage di­rected there­from.

Some in the June 16 De­tach­ment, un­de­terred in their con­vic­tion that vi­o­lence had to be ex­tended to white lo­ca­tions, grudg­ingly em­braced the new par­a­digm.

Others ap­pear to have gone through the mo­tions of in­ter­nal­is­ing the new par­a­digm while se­cretly in­tend­ing to di­rect vi­o­lence against white so­ci­ety.

In Jan­uary 1980 three cadres of the June 16 De­tach­ment, Stephen Mafoko, Humphrey Makhubo and Wil­fred Madela, headed to the Sanlam build­ing in Sil­ver­ton’s main street.

There they held 25 staff mem­bers, mainly white and Afrikaner, hostage in a siege that lasted seven hours.

The siege ended when Mafoko, see­ing po­lice storm the build­ing, opened fire with a ri­fle and det­o­nated an ex­plo­sive. A hostage died on the scene and another in hos­pi­tal.

The rest were rushed to hos­pi­tal with life-threat­en­ing in­juries.

In Soweto, the black sol­i­dar­ity forged dur­ing the Au­gust 4 cam­paign, and the dis­tinctly black rad­i­cal char­ac­ter it as­sumed, en­dured.

These at­tributes be­came ev­i­dent dur­ing another stay­away by Soweto’s work­ing pop­u­la­tion and a very suc­cess­ful stu­dent march into Johannesburg on Septem­ber 22, 1976. Both events deep­ened the fear in white so­ci­ety over the pos­si­bil­ity of a black re­bel­lion. The black sub­ject typ­i­cally con­tort­ing his face in rage at white­ness in the pri­vacy of his toi­let was em­bold­ened, emerg­ing from the toi­let com­bat-ready.

It was not only in re­spect of black-white re­la­tions that there were sig­nif­i­cant changes.

There was also a marked dif­fer­ence in black-black re­la­tions.

The com­mu­nity in Soweto bonded as they had never done be­fore. This con­trasted sharply with events a decade later when black so­ci­ety prac­ti­cally con­sumed it­self in the black-on-black vi­o­lence that de­fined that his­tor­i­cal mo­ment.

Be­cause “black life mat­tered… and mat­tered” for real, there was an un­der­stand­ing that no po­lit­i­cal ob­jec­tive or out­come jus­ti­fied the bru­tal mur­der of black peo­ple.

If BC taught black so­ci­ety noth­ing else, it was that “black life mat­tered”. Le­belo is an au­thor and his­to­rian.

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