Achille Mbembe’s lecture, “Black Intellectual Traditions and Democratic Thought” delivered on the 30th anniversary of Steve Biko’s death, delivered as part of Xolela Mangcu’s Platform for Public Deliberation programme for the year took place at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Great Hall. It also formed part of a larger programme by Wits to mark the historic day. It was quite an audience, as anything to do with Biko really draws an audience – hopefully for some interesting reasons as well. But Achille Mbembe is also quite a crowd puller, so I expected the hall to be quite full.
Mbembe chose to do a close reading of Biko’s _I write what I like_ and to also use the ideas of several other thinkers from the Black world – or more specifically the African world – to do this. So, he spoke partly through Du Bois, Garvey and Fanon, but also others which he did not always mention by name – there was a suggestion on Equiano and Cugoano, for example in Mbembe’s lecture. This was interesting enough. However, as two of us from the audience pointed out, there was an unacceptable erasure of Black women’s voices and agency as contributors – at all – to Black intellectual written thought from the mid-19th century. Mbembe defended himself by noting that Black feminist work would have added much value and nuance, but he had been speaking about Biko mainly. The linked points that Bunie M Matlanyane Sexwale and I had made about the erasure of writing and thinking by Black women as a way to reflect on Blackness transhistorically and of Black feminist work specifically for Matlanyane-Sexwale, nonetheless remained. It is clear to me that several women could have been made to work in similar ways as Du Bois, Garvey, Fanon, Equiano, etc.
The more interesting points by Mbembe for me included the following (with my comments in brackets following):
1. Breaking his body as they killed Biko was meant to be humiliating and objectifying in the manner of lynching specifically and slave death more broadly
(I find this reading quite compelling. It is also clear that the apartheid policemen who killed Biko did not succeed in achieving this. By this I mean that breaking Biko would mean so much more than breaking his body. Indeed, it is a strange irony that Biko was so concerned with interiority of Black people and how this was affected by how we are treated as a result of how our bodies are read and yet the state imagined that his broken body would undo Biko’s work. In other words, bodies were not the be all and end all of who we are/were or even where our Blackness and power resided. Of course, breaking Biko’s body would not break his allure or power then or today.)
2. Mbembe also noted that Biko could ask the following questions today:
a) What is the place and role of BC today?
b) What place and shape Black solidarity today given the stratification among Black people in SA due to class, etc?
c) How could we re-invigorate racial reconciliation in favour of a colour blind society?
(The comment I offered from the floor: I wonder whether two of the ways in which we might continue to find resonance with Biko’s thought today a) have less to do with the disappearance of difference per se, but rather the fundamental altering of what differences mean and how they work (a sentiment we see also in some of the more exciting throught of the Black world from the nineneteenth century onwards, and which includes Black women thinkers, something Achille seems to have temporarily forgotten today). Mary Prince writing in the 1830s speaks very powerfully to this notion of shifting meanings of Blackness, as do many women from the Caribbean in the 20th Century among others;
b) and have more to do with the need for us to stop thinking of Biko’s work as a mere response to white supremacy (or even liberalism), but also as an invitation to embrace a different kind of Black self-hood that is creative, radical, and varied even in a post-racist society – which surely cannot be the same thing as a colour-blind society)
3. It is important to reject “communal nationalism”, which Mbembe identified as residing in the works of people like Christine Qunta, and which he defined as “an authoritarian collectivism that holds that all Black people should act under the guidance of one ‘big man’”.
(I also have reservations about Qunta’s recent writing, but found it rather unfortunate that the only time a Black woman writer and public thinker was mentioned was to show what can go really “wrong” if we don’t heed Biko. This is particularly the case given that Qunta’s earlier work, including her first book, were explicitly BC)
Another important point from the floor came from Gillian Marcelle, PhD, who cautioned against reading Black/African subjectivity only in terms of the US situation. She argued that such approaches were limited because there were fundamental differences between the strategies available to a numerical and legal minority than were available from Black people on the African continent who were in the position of majority. Therefore what we can offer the world is a redefinition of self-hood that is quite important and world-altering. And we could start this by not assuming that all Black agency needs to be read against imperialism and histories of white supremacy from the “West”.
I don’t know if Xolela Mangcu was agreeing with Marcelle later on when he evoked Biko’s caution about the dangers of Black obsession with white people (p 108 of _I write what I like_). He seemed to be doing so to me
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12 September 2007 is exactly thirty years after Bantu Steve Biko, revolutionary, founder of the Black Consciousness movement and genius was killed in detention by the apartheid state. Apart from the many events that are scheduled to mark the thirtieth anniversary of his death at the age of thirty, his words and life remain with us even if we never knew him personally.
I was four years old when he died, so I cannot claim to remember anything about him as a concrete historical being. However, I know that his thinking, life and writing continue to shape my life three decades after apartheid forces killed him. I know that much of how I feel about the world and my place in it owes much to the thinking that went into the Black Consciousness movement (BCM). I do remember all those black fists on white walls at the historic Black university that my father taught organic chemistry at. I do remember my parents’ amusement that even though I spoke no English then, I would repeat “Black power”, having heard the Fort Hare students repeat it.
Biko’s words that survive offered me a skin that I can hug, a voice that I am not apologetic about and confidence to claim the world as mine too. His thinking of psychological liberation – obviously also thought through in conversation with his comrades and co-founders of the BCM -were nothing short of world-altering. Unlike Bessie Head who prefered a comfortable skin offered by Pan Africanism over the proud one offered by Black Consciousness, I like that I can live within a skin shaped by both. Of course, it helps tremensdously that I was raised by a man who embraced BC and a woman who is an unwavering Pan Africanist – they would choose belong to the same organisation later on, but ideologically these stances did not change. I am glad I do not have to choose between the two because they offer me freedoms that I allow me to love my various selves in infinite ways.
And it is hard not to love Steve Biko, a man that left behind such a beautiful gift of love. bell hooks says loving blackness is a revolutionary act because Black people still have to learn to love ourselves. In other words, loving self for Black subjects is a process rather than a given. Biko left us a way to walk that journey to self-love and his vision remains more than relevant today.
Once, when Kimberley A Yates and I interviewed Mamphela Ramphele, co-founder of the BCM, feminist, academic and leader, who was at the time in office as the first Black and woman (and therefore first Blackwoman) Rector (Vice-Chancellor) of the University of Cape Town, she said one of her biggest sources of sadness was that “Steve’s voice had not left a larger imprint on the South African landscape” noting that it was always so hard to get him to write. Kim and I were graduate students both writing dissertations on aspects of Black Consciousness inspired South African literature published in English. I was working on Staffrider literature and she on political biography. That interview was included in the appendices to both our dissertations, and also published as Yates, Kimberley A., and Gqola, Pumla Dineo. 1998. ‘Some kind of madness: Mamphela Ramphele on being Black, female and transgressive’, in
Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity
, no. 37, pp. 90—95.
This is amazing to me considering how much that young man was able to achieve in just three decades of his life, and how powerful the “little” that he wrote continues to be thirty years on. Biko’s wisdom and insight was far-reaching because it allowed us – Black people – to locate ourselves at the centre of our own lives, thinking, love, politics, stories and spirituality. This is why his thought had as much relevance as an affirming place of resistance against oppression and erasure, as it does for how we chose to treat ourselves and other Black people. It reminds us that love is political, and in a world that continues to devalue Black people’s lives, that how we relate to ourselves and each other matters in profoundly political ways.
Biko’s vision also is the embodiment of hope and joy in discovery, in communion. It reminds us that we are not just Black because white racism exists in the world, that we are never “non-white”. It also reminds us that the most sophisticated intellectual enterprise is political and livable, one day at a time.