A few weeks ago, a student from Wits University came to visit the Steve Biko Foundation (SBF) and learn about the work and programmes of the Foundation. Before I could go into my exposition of the life of Steve Biko and how this influenced the founding of SBF, she interrupted with a very distressed voice and said, “Why are blacks so lazy these days? Where has the spirit of Biko and others gone really? I mean we are so useless and full of complaints, crime and HIV. What are we doing with our freedom?”
I looked at this young girl again and saw a black child whose harrowing cry for help came down to this powerful, yet constantly eluded question: “What has freedom meant for the black society in South Africa?”
Many times has this question been raised and as many times it has been apathetically written off merely as blacks laying a guilt-trip on whites for their own laziness. If given half a thought, this question might pass as a ‘favourite’ tweet and get you a few followers on Facebook but it hardly sinks into the consciousness of that audience. The ostensible truth that blacks are being denied the right to a free life and human dignity by a system that is disguised as their own, is hardly given a second thought – yet it responds to this very question.
Instead, blacks are presented as ‘the problem’ in society and ‘guilty’, simply for being black. The point that blacks are lazy is part of the superficial justification of how much of a problem we are and always will be. This argument comes from those who divert and ignore the contemporary relevance of Black Consciousness and Biko. They will very quickly point out that South Africa is led by a black government and continue to point to corruption, greed, crime, all equated to evidence of failure. Such diversion covers the pertinent discussion of how, 18 years into democracy, the potency of probing into the everyday life of a black community has been avoided. Blacks remain agonized by injustice and oppression, regardless of how much of a ‘democracy’ they are conferred with.
A 17 year old girl was recently gang-raped by 7 boys between the ages of 14 and 20 and suddenly South Africa was totally flabbergasted by this ‘inhuman’ and ‘pathological’ action on the part of the rapists. “How on earth could they?”. The key fact to be contemplated is that we all know that this isn’t an isolated case of evil in black communities. It is yet another aspect of ‘life’ for many blacks in this country. In a country where 30% of men admit to having committed rape, why should we be shocked? If an estimated 48% of the population lives on less than R14 a day in this country why should we be surprised that these boys could give a girl R2 to keep quiet about the rape? My argument is simple. We are busy covering up the symptoms and refusing to deal with the real issue.
Factually, the life of a black person is still worthless, and blacks are still carrying around their own guilt for their circumstances today, almost two decades after their ‘freedom’. Blacks continue to carry with them the historical burden of denigration and subservience, so much that they now again – as in the days of Biko – believe it to be true about themselves. This shocking facade of truth has been sealed with the myth that democracy restored freedom and justice. A facade which constantly serves as a tool to dumb down forces pursuing concrete and genuine change. I defy anyone to tell me honestly that by placing these rapists in jail, residents of Soweto will feel safer the very next hour. We continue to fill our prisons to overflow while ignoring the activation of an economic, social, security, political and legal system designed to make possible the betterment of the lives of blacks.
Based on this perverted idea of freedom, ‘free’ blacks fill stadiums attending commemoration festivals of Freedom Day and add a digit to their count of years of liberty. To thinkers, this word ‘freedom’ has become a recitation for the political arena that harbours the unpleasant truth about the daily lives of this very majority. Being born black still means that your future is determined by external power and this counters Biko’s construct of freedom:“[…] the ability to define oneself, with one’s possibilities held back not by the power of other people […]”. Through a multiplicity of economic, political, legal and social means, the historical system of oppression continues to subjugate and control blacks and in so doing denies their freedom to be.
The conversations between blacks are different because they innately – and incorrectly – believe they are ‘the problem’. On the other hand, the privilege of being white, as stated by Melissa Harris-Perry, “involves the luxury of being able to decide how, in what ways, and under what conditions, you will allow yourself to be uncomfortable”. This advantage for whites extends to the conversations that they have with each other as they don’t have to talk about their daily strive to simply BE in the way that blacks do. This privilege and supremacy manifests itself in many ways and continues to do so unreservedly. As I sat there looking at this young, confused and furious face I asked myself: “Do whites ever sit down and talk about how to BE?”. Well, being black in this anti-black society means you have to! Yet blacks are ‘free’. What a mockery of freedom this is!
The life of a black person has become a constant struggle against every attempt by the system to pierce the paradox of a people steeped in a sense of place, yet ever on the move. Blacks will go on national strikes, use media platforms, sing liberation songs and much else but still remain stuck in a place of servitude. And yes, South Africa celebrates Freedom Day on the 27th of April. While South Africans sing and dance on this day, I will be chanting the words of an American reformer Frederick Douglass when he said;
The relation between the white and coloured (black) people of this country is the great, paramount, imperative, and all commanding question for this age and nation to solve. It is not light that is needed, but fire, it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the nation must be aroused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
Biko. S. (2007). No fears expressed. Mutloatse Arts Heritage Trust.
Harris-Perry, M. (2012). Treyvon Martin: What it’s like to be a problem. The Nation, 28 March 2012.
Heywood, M. (2012). Getting out of the plenty trap. Jay Naidoo – I Am Because We Are blog, 9 March 2012.
More, M.P. (2004). Biko: Africana existentialist philosopher. Durban: University of KwaZulu Natal.
Serialong Kolisang is a MA student in Media Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand and Communications Officer at the Steve Biko Foundation.