Present-day university students might do well to remember that Robert Sobukwe and Steve Biko did not see insulting the elderly as being radical. Picture Cindy Waxa
Present-day university students might do well to remember that Robert Sobukwe and Steve Biko did not see insulting the elderly as being radical. Picture Cindy Waxa

Civil radicalism would befit youth

By OPINION Time of article published Jun 5, 2016

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Rejecting Africa’s principle of inhlonipho is informed by Western concepts, writes Xolela Mangcu.

Black people have rightly been up in arms over a decision by television broadcaster eNCA to remove a feature because the presenter was wearing a “doek”.

To be sure, the “doek” is of course not the traditional piece of headgear that African women wear, which is referred to as iqhiya. “Doek” itself is an Afrikaans word.

Take as yet another example what is commonly seen as traditional African bride-wear, which is also known as ama-Jamani.

This attire takes its name from the fact that it was brought here by the Germans (ama-Jamani) in the 19th century.

There is nothing traditional about it.

However, what matters is the signification of these items to black people as an approximation of cultural artefacts that disappeared with colonialism.

Under the weight of Western cultural domination, black people adapted the materials of the Western world to hold on to traces of African culture.

This improvisation has resulted in the emergence of syncretic African cultures. These are cultures that are European in form, but African in meaning and substance.

The defence of the “doek” as an approximation of African culture, which I support, raises questions about which African cultures are to be defended and which to be jettisoned.

Take, for example, the African cultural principle of inhlonipho. Last week, I was insulted by a group of black students at the University of the Western Cape because I objected to their conduct. I have since been told they also called me a “house nigger”.

Now I am not writing this to justify my political position to them. Nor am I interested in a tit-for-tat with them. I am 50 years old. I have neither the inclination nor the stamina.

I am writing this to ask what happens to the African concept of inhlonipho when 20-year-olds can hurl insults at a 50-year-old man without any restraint.

What has made me unpopular with some of them is that I have spoken out against the violence and the disrespect shown to older people, whether it was their conduct towards Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane or Max Price, with whom I have disagreed.

Disagreement does not require disrespect. In politics it is important to always leave the humanity of your opponents intact if you are to create a humane society.

I was absolutely scandalised when a young man walked into the meeting at University of the Western Cape and insulted everyone in the room as useless intellectuals who never do anything to effect change. Did we really have to genuflect to this young person and say what we had done for the struggle?

The students are not convinced by my arguments. They say the presumption that I can tell them what to do is a form of age-ism. I plead guilty as charged. I was brought up by age-ists in age-ist African culture.

If an older person asked me to walk all the way from Ginsberg to King William’s Town to buy them the newspaper, I did not ask why they could not do it themselves, given that they were just as able-bodied as I was.

I just assumed that this was what young people did.

For a long time I could not bring myself to call Steve Biko by his name. And that is because I grew up calling him “*-bhut’ Bantu”.

I am 50 years old but I cannot bring myself to call Barney Pityana by his first name.

He will always be “bhut Barney”, whether I agree with him politically or not. Nor can I call Mamphela Ramphele by her first name. She will always be “*-Sisi”, whether I agree with her politically or not.

I hosted an international conference in Italy some years ago with the late Aggrey Klaaste in attendance.

As chairperson of the session I would go around the table calling everybody by their names until I got to him, and I simply had to say “bhut Aggrey”.

Because I grew up in this age-ist culture, I recently assumed that I could ask a student activist to go and get me some water. I figured that as a 50-year-old professor I could make such a request of a 20-year-old. The young student did oblige but I was later informed that she described my conduct as “violent” and “patriarchal”.

Clearly, my cultural expectations and those of many of our young people are not the same, which is why hurling an insult at me can come so easily to them.

It would have been unthinkable when I was growing up. But as they urge us to abandon age-ism, I would also implore the students to tell us what cultural principle must replace it. However, here is the irony. As they go about their critique of African cultural principles such as inhlonipho, they must also acknowledge that they are indebted to concepts learned in the Western academy to critisise African culture.

They would have to acknowledge that some of these concepts were generated by some of the radical Euro-American white scholars that they would like to chase out of meetings.

They would have to acknowledge that their conception of decolonisation is still rooted in a middle class Western culture.

The decolonial subject will have to take African culture seriously before he or she is taken seriouly. As they go about critiquing age-ism I would also like them to ponder another way of thinking about how old and young should relate with each other.

The very first thing that Steve Biko and his colleagues did after they formed the Black Consciousness movement was to consult with older people in two organisations.

One was called the Interdenominational Association of South Africa, which was led by older people such as Reverend Lebamang Sebidi. The other was AISECCA, which was led by people such as MT Moerane and PQ Vundla.

In fact, when they wanted to form a political movement, Biko and his colleagues went to the community in Orlando in Soweto where they held a dialogue with people such as Winnie Kgware and Drake Koka.

It was one of the greatest and most consequential intergenerational collaborations of our struggle.

However, older people did not have to tip-toe around the young radicals, afraid of holding them to account where necessary.

Robert Sobukwe lambasted Biko and the students when he heard they were behaving badly. They did not respond by insulting “Prof” - that is how Sobukwe was venerably called. Biko’s closest friend, an elderly priest from England, Aelred Stubbs, also criticised him for his relationships with women.

Biko first wrote an angry letter in which he accused Stubbs of interfering in his private life. Soon thereafter, Biko wrote a letter apologising to Stubbs for the language he had used in his letter. And that was because a younger person did not address an older person in the manner he had done.

For Sobukwe and Biko, radicalism was not insulting people who are old enough to be your parents. Both Sobukwe and Biko modelled and embodied a civil radicalism that transformed the consciousness of an entire generation.

Look at every picture of Sobukwe and Biko and you will find one thing in common: that irresistible, magnetic smile.

That is what Biko meant when he said that Africa’s gift to the world would be to give it a more human face.

He wore that gift on his face as a reminder that radicalism is about being what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our selves”.

* Mangcu is Professor of Sociology at the University of Cape Town

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Sunday Independent

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