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This month we remember Steve Biko and honour his legacy, the teachings of Black Consciousness. Many mistakenly think that Black Consciousness is about pigmentation, but instead it is about self-love, self-respect, self-reliance and respect for others.
Biko’s Black Consciousness teaching complemented the teachings of other black intellectuals who spoke of the decolonisation of the mind. Biko taught that Black Consciousness should be understood as a mental attitude and the liberation of the mind.
Today our society is not simply suffering under a racial system or an economic system but under our colonised minds. This is a legacy from apartheid, but it is also being reproduced by the way our society operates today.
To honour Biko’s legacy we are holding the 13th annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture by Ben Okri at UCT tonight.
We also have a dance production at Artscape Theatre until Sunday, Biko’s Quest, on which The Steve Biko Centre and Jazzart Dance Theatre have collaborated. The production revisits the relevance of Biko’s teachings for our modern society.
Although Biko may only represent an historical figure to youth today, Jackie Manyaapelo, Jazzart’s artistic director, and I agree that this message must be heard by SA youth right now. Biko was young in the 1970s when he brought the ideology of self-love, self-respect and respect for others. It is as relevant today as it was then.
We have become a passive nation, and our society is fragmented and individualistic. People have stopped conducting dialogues and there are insufficient thought-provoking programmes for young people, and people in our society in general.
Manyaapelo says that since our leaders do not frequently advocate the decolonisation of minds, self-love and respect, it falls on us in the arts to take the responsibility to bring the message.
Her statement reminds me of Okri’s writing in his novel, Starbook, that “bright beings shine in a brief moment of living”.
Biko’s life not only embodied this notion, it also challenges us to shine in our brief moment of living.
In our work we have put this challenge to ourselves, to the youth and to all of society. We have talked in SA about a rainbow nation. I think of a rainbow as a fleeting thing, a symbol of the end of something and the start of something new.
The rainbow is not the end in itself. I like to talk about a rainbow bandage, a bandage used to dress a wound that needs to be opened to heal.
How do we do this? For me, it is through telling untold stories, our own stories. Stories about our heroes, about the black intellectuals and about thought-leaders.
We need these stories to balance the stories about black drunken fathers who rape and then a white person comes in and saves the people in the village. Our stories are needed to affirm that the community can heal itself from within.
We also need to tell these stories to explore, and know our identity and history. We can draw strength from our memory of the mistakes we’ve made and the things we have done. We need to do this for our youth.
If we raise young people without a memory then we grow young people without roots. If we grow young people without roots, then we are building a nation without roots, and a nation without roots has no identity.
This leads to confusion and the appropriation of the identity of others without an appreciation of who we are.
I am not arguing for purity of identity; we cannot resist global influences and the change that comes with it. Rather I believe that a person – and a nation – needs clarity about their identity and roots to guide them.
Through such memories we can start moulding ourselves as a nation. Young people don’t get this, in part because we don’t tell our stories and leave room for others to tell them instead. Consequently, there are many misappropriations.
The oral tradition of story-telling by aunts and grandmothers originates mostly in rural regions. This tradition has directly influenced my interest in theatre making and theatre performance as a vehicle for change.
The Steve Biko Centre embraces this by reclaiming the memory of Biko’s teachings (what he lived and died for) and keeping it alive in contemporary society. These teachings resonate with me as a black South African and a person interested in unearthing and retelling stories that have been buried or archived.
I hope our society can embrace and encourage the telling of our own stories – our nation needs this to heal its wounds and realise all that the rainbow promises us.
l Mbothwe is artistic director of The Steve Biko Centre Performing Arts, an initiative of the Steve Biko Foundation, and director of Biko’s Quest, on at the Artscape Theatre until Sunday.