Loyalty to country ALWAYS. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.
― Mark Twain
DIANE DE BEER
The Black Consciousness Reader written and compiled by Baldwin Ndaba, Therese Owen, Masego Panyane, Rabbie Serumula and Janet Smith with photography and videography by Paballo Thekiso (Jacana):
This one truly caught me unawares. At first glance, I thought it was more than anything else an academic presentation and one I would dip into simply to write something about it.
But as I started with the topics that interested me, like the arts and women, for example, I was completely drawn into a story about our country that I lived through and thus knew something about. But there was so much that I didn’t know or needed reminding about or simply had to be informed about by someone who had the facts.
Because of the world we live in now, one that is much more inclusive of all the people who are part of this country, many more players are familiar to me, which they wouldn’t have been in the past. We are also looking at events and people through a different prism as we look back as well as focussing on where we are right now. The stories are new and fascinating and further enhance and colour the intricate quilt that is South Africa.
Steve Biko is probably the name most South Africans associate with the Black Consciousness Movement in this country and much of what we knew and read at the time has been overtaken by his horrific death. We need to be reminded time and again about our heroes, often living all too short lives because of our violent past, but we also need to review their lives and why they were viewed with such fear by the Apartheid order.
There is a current revival of Black Consciousness in our country as political and student movements reconfigure the continued struggle for socio-economic revolution with this ideology at the forefront. It is also finding solidarity with similar movements around the world (the Fallists for example with #BlackLivesMatter from the US).
But the authors believe there’s still not enough known about the history of Black Consciousness in South Africa and having read the book and discovered how much I didn’t know, I can underline that belief fully.
The book was published in the year of the 40th anniversary of Biko’s murder which is already a startling fact. So much time has passed so quickly? The book is described as an essential collection of history, culture, philosophy and meaning through the voices, art, religion, writing, music, politics, solidarity and dreams of some of those who developed it in order to finally bring revolution to South Africa.
And with the backdrop of what we have just been living through this past decade, it is so important to take cognisance and to know about our past, the dedication and determination, and the sacrifices people make to find and further solutions of the best way for South Africans to live as a people. If we don’t investigate and interrogate our past, how can we find a way to move more effortlessly and with some equality into the future?
“The decision to do the book came out of a group of us wanting to commemorate the 40th year after Steve Biko’s murder by examining the philosophy that underpinned his life. Not only that, Black Consciousness was the philosophy that was deemed so dangerous by the apartheid state that it had to be cut off at the knees and disabled.
“And, to some extent, this might also have suited the liberation movement in exile, predominantly the ANC, which was somewhat threatened by the rise of BC. The ANC, as we know more and more today, was not a supreme revolutionary movement catering to the rise of the black majority in every frame of South African life. It was an often-compromised, divided organisation containing some individuals driving their own interests.
“Its ideology was a bit messy and confused and it didn’t have this kind of fundamental philosophy even if the Freedom Charter was invoked. So, Biko’s death fascinated us from that perspective too.
“What was Black Consciousness that it was such a threat? Why did it – and has it continued – to grow around the world in different ways to the point that today, a movie like Black Panther can have a massive opening even as it celebrates the dominance, power and excellence of black life.
“We wanted to try and be an additional set of voices in the ever-expanding archive of blackness – not for the sake of it, but to really attempt to make a proper contribution,” writes Janet Smith, one of the contributors.
Although Biko is a strong and arguably the most recognisable figure in BC history, they also document many other significant Black Consciousness personalities and write about Robert Sobukwe, for example, who introduced a new style of leadership.
“True leadership demands complete subjugation of self, absolute honesty, integrity and uprightness of character, courage and fearlessness, above all a consuming love for one’s people.” How relevant does that sentence sound at this time, given what we have been through as a country and a people this last decade?
The book also points out that he refused to compromise the birth right of his people – land repossession. That was then…
Those two sentences reverberate in our current political landscape and point to everything that has been missing and what went wrong. It also captures in essence why this kind of book is so important and why it becomes much more than an academic treatise.
It held my attention throughout; I was fascinated with the people and the movement, felt I understood so much more about our past and what is currently happening, especially with young people who seem driven by the status quo, the adults speaking rather than taking action.
As as with so many movements around the world, it’s time.