Steve Biko lecture by Achille Mbembe

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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Posted on 13 September 2007, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I have to say, that I can not agree with you in 100%, but it’s just my opinion, which could be very wrong.
    p.s. You have a very good template . Where have you got it from?

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