Steve Biko once wrote: “Lack of respect for the elders, in the African tradition, is an unforgivable and cardinal sin”, says Xolela Mangcu.
This disrespect was on full display when a group of students at UCT demanded that Ngugi wa Thiong’o should ask whites to leave the hall and called him names when he refused.
It is above my pay grade to say what makes it possible for young people to mount the stage and grab the microphone, just as someone old enough to be your grandfather is about to speak.
They have since called me a “traditionalist” for insisting that they treat older people with respect. Like Biko, I believe disrespecting older people is “an unforgivable and cardinal sin” in the black community.
But here is the irony. These so-called radicals will denigrate African values as “traditionalism”, and describe their own mimicry of European-American jargon as ideology.
With such colonial thinking, who needs decoloniality? This mimicry of Euro-American culture is characteristic of almost everything they do. Europeans put an “-ism” behind a system of ideas, and our fellow “radicals” follow suit with “Biko-ism”, even if Biko would have been appalled by such cultism. What’s wrong with good old Black Consciousness?
Biko tried to explain the lack of respect for elders by our young as follows: “Yet how can one prevent the loss of respect of child for father when the child is actively taught by his white know-all tutor to disregard his family’s teachings? How can an African avoid losing respect for his tradition when in school his whole tradition is summed up in one word: barbarism.”
Just in case you thought he looked to whites for solutions, Biko proposed that we take it upon ourselves as black people to restore the value of ubuntu in our communities.
When the erosion of the distinction between young and old among black elite is transferred to university campuses, you have the makings of a toxic bourgeois radicalism that despises its own African values.
Our generation received an even worse education under apartheid than the current generation. Even though Bantu Education tried to make us hate ourselves it did not succeed because we were part of a broader community that insisted on the observance of respect for elders.
When some of the elders in our townships violated the consumer boycotts, some “comrades” sought to make them drink “Omo” soap as punishment.
I was one of those who stood up to say “No, these were our parents.” As Biko said, if you lose the principle of respect for your elders, you will see yourselves as “barbarians” – just as your conquerors intended.
I have also earned the wrath of these students because I will not go along with their mischaracterisation of Biko as an anti-white bigot. Here they misinterpret the principle of a blacks-only organisation that Biko advocated to mean no co-operation with whites. That was never the case. Biko worked with whites such as Dale White at Wilgerspruit and Beyers Naude at the Christian Institute.
And how many of these “Biko-ists” know that a year after Biko was killed, two white men, Aelred Stubbs and Hugh Lewin, collected his essays and published them as I Write What I Like?
The Biko that I saw every day in my township had white friends coming to his house all the time. Among his very best friends were the likes of Stubbs, Donald Woods, and our local priest David Russell.
When Russell left Ginsberg (King William’s Town), Biko wrote the following about his friend: “David’s going away left a gap which cannot be closed. The evenings we spent together were very good palliatives to the mental decay which so easily sets in. Besides this, he was a person full of life and always with something new to pursue.
“He was strong and reliable and made life purposeful.”
Biko solicited and received money from foreign and local white donors including the University Christian Movement (UCM). If you do not believe me, just go visit the UCM papers at the William Cullen Library at Wits University to see the correspondence between Biko and Colin Collins and Basil Moore about funding for the SA Student Organisation.
While you are there, please ask for the Robert Sobukwe Papers. You will also see Sobukwe’s letters to his many white friends, including Benjamin Pogrund.
I might also add that Frantz Fanon’s articulation of decolonisation did not prevent him from marrying a white woman. Fanon’s widow said he saw no contradiction in that: “It is my opinion, and I believe it was also his – otherwise he would not have contracted or remained in this inter-racial marriage – that there was no contradiction”.
She pointed out that racial identification was necessary for a certain phase of the struggle but was never the end: “Such a situation can have for a time a positive and beneficially unifying effect. However, it remains a limitation. We are not going to limit each other to race. Otherwise where is the revolution?”
Biko similarly cautioned against the obsession with whites as follows: “Blacks have had enough experiences as objects of racism not to wish to turn the tables. While it may be relevant now to speak of black in relation to white, we must not make this our preoccupation, for it can be a negative exercise.
“As we proceed further towards the achievement of our goals let us talk more about ourselves and our struggle and less about whites”.
In other words, free yourselves from mental slavery.
When I told one of the disrupters of Ngugi’s lecture that Fanon was married to a white woman, she did not miss a step in saying, “Well, then, Fanon was a house Negro.”.
That is when you realise this is not serious.
They have ready-made insults that no one can keep up with. But vulgarity is not revolution, it never has been.
Colonialism also injected among us the notion that any measure of success by one black person somehow takes away from another other.
Just like some of the white racists at my university, these “radicals” are troubled by my association with Harvard University. It’s two sides of the same coin, really – white hate and black self-hate. But don’t worry about me. I finished my education a long time ago. It’s you I’m worried about.
And what about this incessant attempt to always pit Mandela against Sobukwe and Biko – this insatiable appetite for tearing down our icons? Biko was very respectful of both Mandela and Sobukwe.
Don’t take my word for it, read his own words: “People like Mandela, Sobukwe, Kathrada, MD Naidoo and many others will always have a place of honour in our minds as the true leaders of the peopleThese were people who acted with a dedication unparalleled in modern times.”
And then most importantly: “We may disagree with some things they did but know that they spoke the language of the people”.
Biko was always respectful and tolerant of difference. He never insulted anybody.
On a more uplifting note, I have just been elected a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton – the home of Albert Einstein, Albert Hirschman, Michael Walzer.
I hope the more serious younger scholars, and that’s the vast majority, will find inspiration in that and do likewise.
They are there throughout the country – smart, courteous, respectful, and still revolutionary, just like Biko and Sobukwe.
Decolonisation that assaults African values is not worth its salt.
* Xolela Mangcu is Professor of Sociology at the University of Cape Town, and has authored or co-authored nine books.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.