Mandisi Majavu and the Unemployed People's Movement on the degeneration of the black consciousness tradition in South Africa

Steve Biko

South African anarchist Mandisi Majavu responds to a critique of the degeneration of the Black Consciousness Movement by three activists in the Unemployed People's Movement.

Revitalizing the Black Consciousness Tradition

We are lifelong activists in the Black Consciousness Movement. We have noted the press statement announcing the merger of AZAPO and SOPA. We are committed to the unity of all BC organisations and individuals committed to the BC project. However we have concerns about the way that this merger has been planned and the content of the announcements surrounding it.

There have been serious disagreements within BC since the death of Biko. Since 1998 there have been a number of splits in the BC movement. There have been constant talks about unity but they have always failed. During these years many BC stalwarts have been operating independently, some pushing the question of unity and some getting involved in the new generation of popular struggles.

The politics of BC used to be a politics of dignity. It used to be entrenched within communities. You would have black students working in community programmes. You would have black lawyers who were not divorced from the people's struggles. Activists were right there in the struggles and the day to day lives of black people. They were not taking decisions for the people from an ivory tower. This has really been missing for many years. What we have had in recent years are small sects that are alienated from the people and from their struggles and have not been able to rethink BC politics for a new situation. They tend to just recycle the old dogmas and slogans of the past. Every new statement looks like a repeat of the Azanian Manifesto. Those that know the old dogmas and slogans are taken as the experts that must lead the people. Often there has been real authoritarianism in these organisations and a tendency to use slander and intimidation to shut down debate. There are sober people in these organisations. But if anyone is critical these organisations will send out their own Malemas to bark at their critics and to impugn their integrity. Critics have been called agent provocateurs, traitors, lumpens etc. But the record of these organisations is one of on-going political failure. They have not succeeded in elections and they have not succeeded in linking to popular struggles. The sclerosis of the BC tradition, once a politics rooted in the real lives and struggles of black people, has become clear.

The politics of the media manufactured celebrity with no support on the ground are not a real alternative to this. Real politics is not conducted on Facebook. And when the reduction of BC to celebrity culture is accompanied by the gutter politics of slander and threats to people that question the authority of the self-appointed leader it is nothing but an insult to the memory of Biko. BC needs to become rooted in the lives and struggles of black people once more. It needs to become a space for free and open discussion once more.

We know that criticisms of the organisations and people that have tried to capture the BC legacy for themselves will always result in attempts to assassinate the characters of the critics. There are many sober people in the various BC organisations but they often feel too scared to speak and debate freely. There are lots of discussions off the record but people do not want to go public. Even some of the real stalwarts do not want to go on the record with their concerns. However we remember that Che Guevara always used to quote Jose Marti on this point: “A sad thing it is to not have friends, but even sadder must it be not having any enemies; that a man should have no enemies is a sign that he has no talent to outshine others, nor character that inspires, nor valour that is feared, nor honour to be rumoured.”

We are concerned that it seems that the process leading to this merger between AZAPO and SOPA was carried out behind closed doors. It was not an open and democratic process. In fact it seems to us that it is just a marriage of convenience aimed at the 2014 elections. There is also a worrying authoritarianism in the statements that have been made. People who have genuine concerns about this merger are already being painted as 'immature', 'reckless' and 'power-mongers'. And there is no new political vision at all in the statements that have made. All we see are the old slogans. We can all agree that the ruling party has failed the black masses in occupied Azania. But just repeating the same old slogans that have never succeeded to capture the imagination of the people is not going to help.

If BC is to be made relevant on the ground it needs to connect to the everyday lives and struggles of black people. It will need to think seriously about the global crisis of capitalism, the new struggles that are emerging around the world, and the new struggles on the mines, on the farms and in the squatter camps in South Africa. It will need to think seriously about the crisis of unemployment, education and housing faced by the majority of black people under a black government. It will need to think seriously about the emergence of popular organisations like Abahlali baseMijondolo and AMCU that are independent of the ANC. It will need to think seriously about the brutal repression of new struggles by a black government. It will need to think seriously about xenophobia and rape. It will need to think seriously about moving out of the small, backward looking, introverted and divided spaces in which the remains of the BC tradition survive today and towards building a broad based left project rooted in popular struggles.

Karl Marx warned that the “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” He stressed that “We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things”. In the same spirit Frantz Fanon insisted that "Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it." Biko, Cooper, Ngwenkulu, Moodley, Mokoape, Ndebele, Philip, Pityana, Tiro and many others developed an explosive new politics for their time. We must do the same for our time. We cannot continue to think that just repeating the old slogans to ourselves is the same thing as making a serious political intervention.

If a genuine unity of all forces committed to the BC vision is to be achieved, and if this is going to be a new political force that can really make a difference, it will have to be based on an open and democratic process and it will have to be rooted in the lives and struggles of our people. This unity cannot come from a few leaders having discussions behind closed doors. It cannot come from leaders trying to protect their power and positions. If BC is to become revitalised and a real force in the politics of our country it must be returned to the people. We need a BC that will be able to capture the imagination of our people and that will only happen once we realise that the so-called masses are full blown political subjects. It will only happen once the urgency of the crisis faced by our people has been realised. It will only happen once we realise that our people are already in struggle and that we must join them in that struggle.

We sign off with a quotation from Steve Biko: "We have set on a quest for true humanity, and somewhere on the distant horizon we can see the glittering prize. Let us march forth with courage and determination, drawing strength from our common plight and brotherhood. In time we shall be in a position to bestow upon South Africa the greatest gift possible - a more human face".

Bheki Buthelezi – 072 639 9893
Ayanda Kota – 078 625 6462
Xola Mali – 072 299 5253

10 June 2013

Is Black Consciousness Still Relevant?

By Mandisi Majavu

Although recent newspaper reports that the Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo) and the Socialist Party of Azania (Sopa) are to merge ought to be welcomed by those of Black Consciousness (BC) tradition, the fact of the matter is that the BC tradition in South Africa is intellectually stuck in the 20th century. According to the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM), proponents of the BC tradition have not been able to rethink BC politics for a new situation. The new situation being the 21st century, which requires this tradition to articulate a coherent alternative political and economic vision for a better South Africa, a challenge that the BC tradition is yet to take up

It is not enough to keep highlighting the legacy of racism without proposing alternative socio-economic institutions that aim to overcome racism in all its expression. Instead of political slogans, political and economic programmes that speak to the post-apartheid cultural and material conditions have to be developed.

The post-apartheid South African government has, among other things, “democratised materialism”; and that has cultivated affluent aspirations in many black South Africans rather than deepen black consciousness. The concept of “black diamonds” has more social meaning to the post-apartheid black generation than black consciousness. Academics point out that the black youth in post-apartheid South Africa generally share the consumerism of South Africa’s wealthy classes. Generally, the post-apartheid material culture compels many South Africans to live beyond their means. Research shows that South Africans are currently over-indebted by R106bn.

For many black South Africans the consumer culture promises a post-colonial society in which blacks can counter white privilege through personal enrichment. Historically, blackness has been associated with poverty and limited life chances, while, on the other hand, whiteness means wealth and high social status in the imagination of the mainstream society. Hence, as American economic justice blogger, Imara Jones notes, we are surprised by the economic success of blacks “and more unassuming about the wealth of whites.” It is in this context, with all its colonial baggage, that many blacks see personal enrichment as a subversive act. Additionally, materialism in this context, not black consciousness, becomes a revolutionary concept due to its potential to mediate racist assumptions and due to its underlying promises to bring about a unifying mass consumer culture in a postcolonial society that has no clear racial status ranking, to echo Paul Mullins, American academic that teaches material culture.

While black consciousness has largely remained an abstract philosophy many black South Africans place material consumption at the centre of their vision of postcolonial citizenship. This is partly because mass consumer culture provides some black South Africans with a concrete strategy to counter the legacies of the apartheid system. To use Mullins’ insight, many black South Africans utilize material consumer culture to imagine new social possibilities, to mediate racist assumptions, and to pose new societal relationships that communicate their desire to escape the historical construction of blackness.

Instead of engaging with these post-apartheid political realities, political commissars, who view their primary task as one of upholding BC’s “doctrinal truths”, have yet to talk in a convincing manner to these issues. According to the UPM, BC political commissars are not in touch with the realities of the people partly because they are alienated from people’s struggles. The UPM further points out that the political record of BC organisations in post-apartheid South Africa is one of on-going political failure. “They have not succeeded in elections and they have not succeeded in linking to popular struggles,” argues the UPM. In short, BC organisations have failed to develop and articulate a new polity.

The UPM is of the view that a new BC polity would have to take into consideration the global crisis of capitalism, as well as the new struggles that are emerging around the world.

My argument is that in addition to struggling against negative social realities, 21st century BC ought to work towards developing a set of proposals for post-apartheid societal institutions. Merely criticising rampant material consumption in post-apartheid South Africa without conceptualising and implementing liberatory political programmes that actually make a positive difference in people’s lives is not a good political strategy.

Similarly, if the BC tradition is going to grow intellectually, then it has to value criticism rather than sectarianism. According to the UPM, in post-apartheid South Africa, BC organisations have often been characterised by authoritarianism and a tendency to use slander and intimidation to shut down debate. “Critics have been called agent provocateurs, traitors, lumpens etc,” points out the UPM. The departure point for 21st century BC ought to be the acknowledgement that even the best social theories have flaws. Accordingly, this has to be our mental attitude towards BC. Equally important is the realisation that treating political ideas as part of our personal identities tends to lead to sectarianism.

My view is that we should regard political theories as intellectual tools to assist us understand social reality, and we ought to value the usefulness of intellectual ideas based on whether or not they help us achieve our social and political goals. I personally would like to see 21st century BC take these simple truths seriously.

21 June 2013