My friend, a successful and confident academic, found his seven-year-old son standing in front of a mirror, crying.
“Why are you crying?”
“I’ve been talking English at school every day, and I’m still black.”
The railroad of racial consciousness is still with us, still pushing us to be a racial somebody, telling us who we are and who we are not, and, crucially, who is valued and who is not, which raises the question of what would not be a racial consciousness of this kind. I cannot claim I was ever close to Steve Biko, though once I slept in his bed. Before the biographers leap to their laptops, I need to add that he had relinquished his room in the medical school residence to accommodate my twin brother and myself.
As a student at the University of Natal, I had organised a National Union of SA Students (Nusas) seminar in April 1968, and had got a cluster of liberal academics to speak to us. The venue was the Alan Taylor residence in Wentworth, while delegates came from the “white” campuses and from the medical school.
On the second day, however, most of the black delegates were absent, meeting outside with Biko. Not understanding where we were at, the rest continued as if nothing had happened. Perhaps the problem was that the white organisers, like myself, did not know how to use the crisis to enable a productive dialogue.This was a key movement in the development of black consciousness; campuses withdrew from Nusas and set up the South African Students Organisation.
When I returned to Durban from a year’s study overseas, I found an unexpected intellectual ferment I did not expect, clustered around charismatic leaders like Rick Turner, the political scientist at Howard College, and Biko, while the Wages Commission, led by, among others, my older brother, was forming the new trade unions.
I did not see Biko much except for a few visits he made to the home of Rick Turner, where two people with similar values but different analyses would contest the issues. There was then an explosive growth of political activity – the Durban strikes, the banning of people, Soweto in 1976. In September 1977 I was in the office of Paddy Kearney, then director of Diakonia, when the phone rang. He looked shocked, and then said to me: “Steve Biko is dead.”
Apartheid kept claiming lives around us, and one might think that one became stoical about it. I was not stoical about Biko’s death; I had not known I would feel so hurt. Maybe this was because something about what he stood for challenged something important in me.
For Biko, black consciousness was the clearly defined alternative to the racialised consciousness that still afflicts us. It confronted those who experienced racial oppression, reminding them that the first and most important freedom they had was the freedom of being able to think and to value oneself. Even in prison, you retained that power.
In a system that told black people they were of little value, and that white people must lead, many accepted this was just the way things were. In contrast, black consciousness confidently asserted the opposite.
It communicated to those subordinated on the basis of race and culture that they were people of value and intelligence.
The term “black” applied not to a coalition of “races”, but applied to those subject to racial oppression. These ideas were disturbing for many. The apartheid government was naturally threatened by the complete rejection of the racial and ethnic justification for its system. Even in the congress movement, many reacted arrogantly and even violently at this challenge to some of the assumptions of the liberation movement.
Many white people felt that black consciousness was anti-white, failing to understand the need to have a different strategy for those whose racial consciousness was formed from the experience of privilege.
South Africa never took Biko’s message to heart. And so I encounter often the same racial consciousness in business, in sport, in education, with the trotting out of the same weary old stereotypes of race and culture that keep people in their place. South Africa in 2013 is now very different from the late 1960s.
At the time, with the immense racial divide, there was less awareness of the need to address other forms of subordination, such as gender and sexuality, and how a process of liberating consciousness cannot stop at race.
But the key point, about taking responsibility for freeing our thinking and our actions, is needed more than ever.
l Crispin Hemson is the director of the International Centre of Nonviolence, based at the Durban University of Technology.