Dear Biko, we black South Africans have a problem
I write to you out of desperation, for I am not sure whether it's wise to burden you with my cry. But I hope you will understand.
I write in keeping with the African tradition of ancestral worship in terms of which those considered dead on earth can have their spirits invoked by the living in times of celebration and crisis.
You are a national ancestor and we are in deep crisis. The manner of your departure on earth on this day 40 years ago was in itself a crisis of the human race.
The crisis is not over. The blood that you shed in the apartheid security police cell in Port Elizabeth where you were stripped, chained to a grille and tortured, should have propelled us to live up to the philosophy of Black Consciousness.
Through this philosophy you and your contemporaries taught the importance of self-reliance, pride and the duty that we have to each other as human beings.
Such humanistic teachings obviously went against the very basis of the inhumane system of apartheid you fought.
I am sad to report that not much progress has been achieved on the Black Consciousness front since your soul escaped the tormented body no longer capable of holding it because of the severe wounds of the flesh.
I was born a month after your death, and I discovered your legacy on my own some 16 years later while browsing at the library at Turfloop, where you had come to mobilise students as leader of the South African Students Organisation (SASO) in the late 1960s. SASO helped to fill the void left by banned liberation movements.
Once I learned about your teachings, it became clear to me that blacks cannot progress and offer anything to others unless they understand the importance of freeing themselves from inferiority. Nor would they relate on a naturally equal basis with whites who have had the distinct advantage of state-sponsored privilege and supremacy.
Equal rations with others would only be possible if we were able to dig deep into our souls, to unleash our self-worth. Your appeal to the human being's most sacred part – the conscience – was compelling.
Need I say, it is the most compelling political philosophy both in times of oppression and freedom. In times of oppression it seeks to liberate. In times of freedom it urges responsibility to safeguard liberation.
But today, I'm embarrassed to report to you that four decades since your soul escaped your tortured body, there is a dispute among black people about whether we have a conscience to speak of.
Those who assert their conscience, like you did, are being subjected to persecutions in a manner reminiscent of how the apartheid regime tried to break your conscience. The difference, though, is that today the suppression and repudiation of conscience is being executed by blacks.
This is not to say racism has ended. It continues. Unlike during the time of your torture, however, racism is no longer sponsored by the state. This is no doubt an improvement. But there is a huge regression at the level of consciousness.
You might be wondering what kind of freedom we have achieved long after your soul escaped your tormented body if such freedom didn't mean freeing up the conscience of the black person.
There can be no substantive freedom of anything without freedom of conscience.
Our Constitution lists among other rights that we are supposed to enjoy, the right to freedom of conscience. The test of the will to exercise this important freedom often comes during moments of threats of deprivation of access to material luxuries, times when life and limb are at risk.
You endured the pain when an attempt was made by those who were against your birth right to freedom of conscience to deprive you of it. You kept your conscience intact regardless of the rupturing of your flesh at the hands of those who clearly lacked conscience of their own.
It is said that you were no longer physically conscious after the evil men overpowered you. Even under those unbearable circumstances, your consciousness remained intact.
It is for this reason that I believe you are better placed to hear my cry. You didn't sell your soul. They broke your body, but couldn't break your conscience.
It goes without saying that if we repudiate the mere existence of conscience, as we are currently doing, under conditions relatively better than when your body was tortured, it would be too much to expect us to live up to the dictates of the high philosophy of Black Consciousness.
Dear Biko, we black people in South Africa have a problem. We have put our consciences to the guillotine of material possessions, raw political power and money. It is true that we were deprived of many of the material necessities after colonial dispossessions. There was hunger to catch up.
But the sudden mad rush for material accumulation, crushing our souls in the process, has given black leaders the cover of wealth, while they are morally bankrupt. We have hollow black people in shiny suits wielding the enormous power of the state. Due to their hollowness, they exercise power for the benefit of their immediate friends, relatives and comrades. Our freedom has been denuded of moral anchor.
When we achieved political freedom in 1994, it was assumed we had reached the goal you would have desired for us. Alas, the freedoms we achieved were incomplete because we forgot about the basics: the realisation of who we are and the historic duty to restore our pride. We are missing out on unleashing a humane civilisation for which our Constitution sets the framework.
Your teachings were meant to counter the deeply entrenched stereotypes of black inferiority and white superiority complexes. You advocated that blacks and whites should walk together hand in hand under conditions of equality. Needless to say, your soul was forced to escape your tormented body precisely because you dared speak the truth.
What is holding back black people now is the dispute about their consciousness. Until such time we have dealt with this crisis of consciousness, only a small population of our country will walk together equalised by material possessions. But even among those equalised by material possessions, inferiority and superiority complexes will continue to stalk them.
I'm sad to report to you today that some among us black people are doing everything we can to sustain the stereotypes that you paid dearly to erase. Today we find ourselves with black leaders who do their best to undermine the dignity of black people. These leaders are denying future generations of the power of example in leadership. They are setting us back centuries in the unfinished struggle to destroy racism.
Biko my ancestor, these black leaders have no conscience. I'm not making this up. They are proud of the fact that they have no inner self to speak of. They say so themselves. They say so publicly, in front of children.
The consequences are and will be tragic. The struggle for self-respect and self-pride has been reversed dramatically. Black people have taken over the levers of political power. But the poorest of the poor are still black. The victims of corruption were black during apartheid. They are black under a black-led democratic government.
Those who received inferior education were black during apartheid. They are black under a black-led democratically elected government. The majority of the unemployed were black during apartheid. They are black under a black-led democratically elected government.
Poor black people destroy public property such as schools and libraries, the ladders that should help them escape poverty. Only lack self-pride can drive people to such suicidal extremes. This is evidence of how far we have strayed from your teachings.
You worked hard to lead community development projects such as the building of clinics. I'm sad to report to you that 40 years after the tragic events, we are battling to understand the importance of looking after our schools and clinics. There's this belief that someone else out there should do it for us.
Those who destroy schools, libraries and laboratories are not different to the corrupt leaders who steal resources from the poor through state capture and other sophisticated strategies.
Ironically, those who destroy public property do so to teach those who steal public money a lesson. Such is the extent of the self-degradation of our pride. I’m shuddering to mention that some among us eat human flesh. Not to mention the continuing politically motivated killings.
Black people are executing fellow black people for holding different political views on corruption and leadership preferences. A black miner's strike for a decent wage can cost him his life.
Biko, I'm dismayed to report that black people have the political power which they use not for the advancement of an important objective to offer a morally compelling alternative system of government. The betrayal of conscience has rendered them incapable of injecting in governance the essence of your teachings.
The result is that the formal political system has all the technical necessities, checks and balances for a properly functioning constitutional democracy, but lacks the moral content. So, the corruptible are the heroes, the non-corruptible the villains.
Biko, we have a problem. Foreigners are taking advantage of our lack of self-respect and pride in ourselves as individuals and as a nation. It is deeply disturbing that, at the invitation and encouragement of our leaders, foreigners use the historic wealth disparities between blacks and whites to divide the nation and disadvantage blacks even further.
Unlike during the colonial conquest where the European gun subjugated us, this time around the weapon of the foreigners is our lust for short-term material benefit for friends and immediate family members at the expense of the majority.
We have become a joke because we have forsaken Black Consciousness. Our priorities are not guided by the need to fix the deprivation of dignity we suffered under colonialism and apartheid.
Dignity is exclusively about material things these days. That's why even some whites have the courage to suggest that not everything about colonialism was bad. They point to material things to support their argument. This is so because they have realised that we have attached our pride to material things and forgot the inner self-worth.
Material things are obviously important: after all, deprivation of dignity of Africans started with land dispossessions. But the inner part of the self, consciousness, the existence of which is being questioned by our current political leadership, yearns to be rediscovered.
Biko, I know you would ask what the enlightened among us are doing about the problem. Rest assured, we are trying our best. But we are swimming against a massive tide. You have done your part and we need not place any more burden on you.
Whatever you can do to assist, we would appreciate. Black people need to unleash their self-worth. We need Black Consciousness. Not in the form of a political party. Not in the form of a narrow ethnic creed. But as a guiding, equalising philosophy in whatever we do in families, schools, places of worship, Parliament, government, business and relations with the rest of the world.
We need to rediscover our worth.
- Mkhabela is a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation (GovInn) at the University of Pretoria.
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