An edited version of this appeared in this weekend’s City Press Voices:
Before Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Dias navigated the southernmost tip of the African continent in 1488, alerting Europeans to the bountiful fresh water and food here, blackness as an identity did not exist. Said in another way, blackness, having had no need to exist before, arose as a response to and is defined by opposition to colonialism, oppression and apartheid.
“(The essence of black consciousness) is the realisation by the black man of the need to rally together with his brothers around the cause of their oppression – the blackness of their skin – and to operate as a group to rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude,” Steve Biko said in a speech in 1971.
In his song ‘Blacks Are Fools’ and an op-ed in this publication, rapper Siyabonga ‘Slikour’ Metane touches Biko’s definition of the essence of black consciousness by suggesting that black men and women have, since gaining a semblence of independence from the oppressor, failed to work together as a group to attain economic and social emancipation for all of black-kind. Metane’s argument is that blacks are seen as fools for this failure and for loving Western goods at the expense of local production.
However you may feel of the merits and originality of Metane’s argument, the relevance of blackness to social activism in post-apartheid South Africa is one of the great questions of our time. And what better time to take stock than in the month where we celebrate 18 years since black consciousness’ greatest victory: the political emancipation of the black man.
You are viewed dimly in this country for not acknowledging how much has been achieved since 1994 – the houses provided to the poor, the jobs created, the schools built and the list goes on. The transition to democracy was relatively peaceful, with the world heaping praise on the oppressor and oppressed for choosing reconciliation over retribution. You’d be considered remiss for not mentioning that, too. But as much as has been achieved, much is yet to be done.
Looking at poverty nearly two decades later, you can hardly be blamed for wondering, what exactly happened to the freedom 1994 promised? Poverty still binds millions of black men and women to lives of enduring servitude. For this reason Metane and others continue to appeal for blacks to operate in unison to emulate Jewish, expat Somali and other communities in sticking close and doing for their own.
But given that blackness was a response to oppression, if you follow the essence of black consciousness though to its stated aim of ending that oppression, one question becomes inevitable. What happens to blackness when the source of its genesis is taken away?
Blackness becomes a weaker identity, I say. It can no longer be as easily used to rally people behind a cause. This adds another layer of meaning to Biko’s slogan, “Black man, you are on your own”.
At the peak of blackness’s strength, before apartheid’s end, you could look at another with a shade of skin similar to yours and feel a sense of comraderie knowing that you shared a common enemy, an oppresive system. If they asked you to join an activity against that enemy, the answer would have been definitive, yes. With that system gone, black men and women look upon each other and see strangers. That affinity black had to black has faded. Or maybe, in a way, black’s obliviousness to itself that existed before 1488 is returning, slowly.
This is similar in much of the rest of Africa, too, post colonialism.
Of course while the oppressive system may be gone, its effects continue to mark this country’s economic and social structures. Again, the face of poverty and servitude remains overwhelmingly black. Blacks still own little of the country of their ancestors, and what ownership there is is grossly unequal.
The implications of this are two fold. First it necessitates finding new ways of advocating and organising for redress, social justice and mutual prosperity. Second, it means relooking at what blackness means today for it is not what it was in 1994 nor is it what it was in 1488. One view of the latter is that blacks are fools. What are the others?