Freedom and Black Consciousness

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“Can we in fact crack this cocoon, you know, to get whites away from the concept of racism, away from the concept of monopolising the privileges and the wealth of the country onto themselves without necessarily being together? Can you preach to them in other words as individuals? Now our belief is that white society will not in fact listen to preaching. They will not listen to their Liberals. The Liberal Party has not grown within white society, and certainly we as black people are unable to stand idle watching the situation.”- Stephen Bantu Biko, Black Consciousness Advocate, giving evidence at the 1976 trial of 9 SASO and BPC activists.

While it was certainly oppressive, the apartheid government was vulnerable to a vote by white adults against it. In fact, since South Africa was then under a system of parliamentary sovereignty, with no constitution mandating that apartheid should be in place, all it would have taken was a simple majority of those who were in parliament to do away with the entire rotten edifice.

Of course, this was not done. Mostly because South Africa has always had an electorate motivated by tribal fears, mainly around race. No one in South Africa wants to be preached to as an individual.

This refusal by most white voters to entertain the possibility of having a government run by black people is reflected in voting patterns from 1910 up until the referendum of 1992. The legislation passed during that era confirms the racist nature of those governments. The 1992 referendum result itself came on the back of a deteriorating economic and foreign relations situation, the Berlin Wall had fallen and Western powers were no longer willing to tolerate the National Party’s brand of racial nationalism.

In virtually every case in which Biko gives a justification for Black Consciousness (BC) as a philosophy, two reasons are given: 1) The presence of an inferiority complex among black people, 2) The abuse of the collective instrument of the vote by white people in order to retain their grip on wealth and power.

Of course, Biko analyses South Africa from a Marxist lens which is inadequate in my view because it assumes collectivism as self-evident, ignoring the thousands of individuals like Alan Paton who vehemently opposed the apartheid system. It also glosses over the intellectual diversity among black people, assuming that all of them will support a wealth redistribution agenda, regardless of how the wealth in question was acquired.

Nevertheless, from his own writing, the implication that one gets is that Biko would have seen a diminished need or would have emphasized the self-reliance, self-love and self-esteem parts of his philosophy were it not for the evident collectivism of whites in general and Afrikaners in particular. This might have given rise to an individualist black consciousness instead of what has become a shelter for exactly the problem it was meant to solve: low self-esteem among blacks.

We see this in how the modern adherents of black consciousness, so-called, at least the loudest ones anyway, are so easily offended. How are we to reconcile this uncompromising philosophy of self-reliance and self-esteem flowing from self-knowledge with individuals who cannot study at UCT until the statue of a long-dead Rhodes is removed?

You might argue that it is unfair to judge modern adherents of BC by social issues alone, surely these people are building businesses and opening clinics in their communities as Biko and other past advocates of the philosophy did? I am sorry to disappoint you, one finds exactly the opposite. Those same people can also be found begging government to tax others in order that the education of these individuals will be paid for. No one is quite able to explain the equivalence between relying on taxes and self-reliance.

The quote at the beginning of this article and the remarks immediately following illustrate that freedom and democracy are not necessarily the same things. After all, even if black people had been allowed the vote but were a minority, the result would have been much the same. The United States after their civil war and the end of slavery would still experience Jim Crow laws meant to segregate blacks and whites.

Freedom necessarily requires individualism, Biko understood this even as he advocated for “black consciousness”. You see this in the many writings where he feels compelled to justify the need for BC and the justification is always located in the embrace of collectivism in the South African political system, with most whites voting as whites to keep black people down. As it turns out, this tribalism would end up harming the group that it was meant to serve.

South Africa has changed in many ways since then, we have justifiably and correctly replaced parliamentary sovereignty with constitutional supremacy. Black people, as voters, have so far resisted the temptation to put into power the most radical anti-white parties (Biko himself during the same court case where he made the statement in the opening quote made it clear that black consciousness was not anti-white). Yet, we still sit with the seemingly intractable problem of black poverty.

How is it, that black people can simultaneously hold all political power since they constitute the bulk of the voting population, while simultaneously being the poorest group in the country? It is patently clear that the economic policies these people are voting for are not making them better off.

The simple and seductive answer is that the negotiated settlement of CODESA as reflected in the constitution is inadequate, I will not dismiss that answer outright, I wouldn’t blame the radicals among us if they were advocating policies that would demonstrably make black people wealthier even if these came at the expense of making white people poorer. That has not been demonstrated to be the case, however.

Let us take EWC for example. Are our revolutionary friends calling for expropriation for the purposes of expanded and more secure tenure for black people? Not at all, you have politicians arguing for state/traditional authority custodianship of land. This principle has already been entrenched when it comes to minerals, the government expropriated all minerals and kept them for themselves and their cronies, these rights were not transferred to individual black people as a property right (not a license from the state).

In fact, it becomes quite clear when one reads documents like the Presidential Land Reform Advisory Panel report which dismisses individual title on one hand (in communal land where the beneficiaries would mostly be black) and praises it on the other (when it comes to commercial farming), that many academics and government officials do not think much of the ability of black people to make their own decisions. It is almost as if these people are scared that any power restored to the black individual will be squandered.

The political function of blackness in modern South Africa is not the empowerment of the individual black person, it seems rather that blackness is used to excuse incompetent politicians, business leaders and academics. Blackness is also, rather perversely, used to justify why individual black people cannot be trusted with autonomy and their rightful exercise of power as individuals over their own property and even their own labour. We are a country supposedly influenced by the ideas of Biko but everywhere the black man is not trusted with the freedom that is his birthright.

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