Black consciousness - Life after death?

Political analyst, William Mervin Gumede, shows that Black Consciousness resonates strongly within the ANC.

The traditional inheritors of Steve Biko's black consciousness philosophy may be languishing in the doldrums but his legacy, especially the "black leadership" doctrine, is flourishing in the ANC under President Thabo Mbeki.

Black consciousness sought to develop the self-esteem, pride, confidence and solidarity of the oppressed black people and contribute to their psychological liberation. It popularised the clenched fist black power salute and the slogan black is beautiful. It put strong emphasis on black leadership, in all areas.

The Azanian Peoples' Organisation (Azapo), claiming to be one of the post-apartheid heirs of black consciousness or BC, suffered a debilitating split in August, when dissidents broke away to form the rival Black Consciousness Forum.

Mbeki's wooing of Azapo and, more particularly, the appointment of Azapo president Mosibudi Mangena as deputy education minister last year, outraged the dissidents.

Confronted with Mangena's acceptance of the deputy ministership, they felt they had no option but to form a new organisation. Those who left felt uncomfortable that the price that Azapo paid by participating in the ANC-led government - that of being an uncritical government partner - was too high.

Mzukisi Madlavu, the former Azapo Gauteng deputy chairperson who is part of the breakaway group, says: "We have rejected the notion that public criticism of the (ANC) government's policies is unAfrican and unpatriotic (which has been the line adopted by Azapo since it joined the ANC government as a junior partner)".

Another party claiming to be the legitimate custodian of BC, the Socialist Party of Azania (Sopa), was formed earlier. It, too, was an offshoot of Azapo, having broken away in March 1998.

Merger talks between the various remnants of BC, the Pan Africanist Congress, Azapo and Sopa have repeatedly broken down, even though their real differences are so miniscule that their arguments amount to little more than ideological hair splitting.

While these arcane disputes continue, the ANC, ironically, is now the political home of an impressive array of men and women who cut their political teeth in the BC movement. The names of former BC adherents, now in the ANC, reads like a who's who of ANC personalities.

To mention a few of the more prominent: immediate past ANC secretary-general Cyril Ramaphosa, ANC national chairperson Mosioua Lekota, foreign affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, former ANC acting general secretary Cheryl Carolus, North West premier Popo Molefe, CEO of the Government Communications and Information System (GCIS) Joel Netshitenzhe, director-general in the presidency Frank Chikane, and Financial and Fiscal Commission (FCC) chairman Murphy Morobe. Mojanku Gumbi, Mbeki's legal advisor, and a very strong influence on him, is still an Azapo member.

BC's influence is not only limited to the ANC and government, however. Barney Pityana, principal of the University of South Africa and former Human Rights Commission chair, comes to mind when one talks of ex-BC leaders in top positions in the new democracy. He is one of many past or present BC adherents who occupy powerful positions in society, from the media to universities.

Another is Mathatha Tsedu, the recently appointed editor of the Sunday Times. Yet another is former president of Azapo, Itumeleng Mosala, who is principal of the Technikon NorthWest. Mosala is currently being punted by the ANC provincial administration in the Eastern Cape as a person they would like to employ as provincial director-general of education to try to rescue the province's ailing education department.

A third BC protagonist in a prominent position is the novelist and writer Njabulo Ndebele. He is principal of Cape Town University. In the church circles the vocal SA Council of Churches general secretary Molefe Tsele gained his political colours in the BC student movement.

In the late 1970s, BC provided a moribund ANC with much-needed fresh blood, as former BC student activists joined the ANC in exile or in prison.

Novelist Mongane Wally Serote says: "It gave to the ANC oxygen and new life, which the movement desperately needed, the youth of the South African people, tempered in defiance in action".

The new BC recruits brought to the ANC an emphasis on a much more consultative style of decision-making. The ANC during its exile was a more hierarchical and centrally controlled organisation, partly necessitated by the demands of facing a brutal and ruthless enemy in the apartheid government.

Lindy Wilson writes in Bantu Stephen Biko: A Life that with (BC) came a particular style of leadership which recognised the enormous advantage of widespread consultation. "(It) did not only mean consultation to win over (support for) a proposal but the creation of an atmosphere where individual opinions were considered and taken seriously," she records. "They were valued equally."

Saleem Badat, in his book, Black Student Politics: From Saso to Sansco 1968-1990, makes the same point. "Its organisational culture and internal working was fundamentally democratic and, to a large degree, characterised by freedom of expression, the right to dissent, a consultative style of leadership, an adherence to rules and norms established by its constitution, regular elections, continuous turnover and rotation of leading officials and the avoidance of a leadership cult."

There has been increasing concern within and outside the ANC that the highly consultative and democratic style emphasised by BC (and, for that matter, the United Democratic Front and the trade union movement) appears to be under threat by the centralising modus operandi of the ANC under Mbeki.

The strongest black consciousness current coursing through the ANC is the notion of black leadership, a component that is emphatically endorsed by Mbeki. The concept has been particularly promoted by the Africanist wing of the ANC and has coalesced around Mbeki. Ironically, given his impeccable ANC and Freedom Charter (or Charterist) credentials, Mbeki is seen as a staunch proponent of BC, in essence if not in name.

Another sign of BC influence is evident in the adoption or re-adoption by ANC notables of their black or African names (and the dispensing of their white or Caucasian names). Thus Terror Lekota is now Mosioua Lekota, Arnold Stofile is Makhenkesi Stofile, Sam Shilowa is Mbhazima Shilowa, and so on.

The Africanist current under Mbeki's tutelage is clearly dominant, reducing, in the view of some, even the Charterist and Marxist currents to minor eddies. The SACP, an avowed exponent of Marxism, acknowledges, in the June edition of its publication, Bua Kominisi, that the "Afro-American, Pan-Africanist, BC traditions have tended to be most influential among certain strata of the (ANC) black intelligentsia".

Netshitenzhe however, says BC added a fresh intellectual dimension to the ANC by bringing it new contacts inside the country, infusing new elements of militancy, and giving it a better appreciation of the relationship between the masses and it military wing.

Morobe, of the FCC maintains, though, that BC has had a lasting influence through its insistence on the importance of debate and discussion. He adds that BC has given present and former adherents an intellectual independence and confidence.

Morobe adds, though, that the ANC believed in African leadership even before BC arrived on the scene. "African leaders (in the ANC) had to be in the forefront, and not only lead, but be seen to be at the helm, " he states.

Mosala says Mbeki looks more and more BC as time goes on. "His home should have been the BC movement, rather than the ANC," Mosala reckons. He says the realities of South Africa today - widespread black poverty and unemployment - have pushed Mbeki and the ANC along a BC path, especially on the question of African leadership.

Ironically, Mosala continues, it's a good time for BC ideas. Unfortunately the parties promoting BC, such as Sopa and Azapo have been unable to get their houses in order, to exploit favourable political conditions, he observes.

Xolela Mangcu, head of the Steve Biko Foundation says Mbeki, by adopting BC positions, has in a sense taken away the raison d' etre of the traditional BC organisations. It is ironic that the ANC became the dominant organisational political force, only for BC ideas to assume such central importance in the ruling ANC. Mangcu says Mbeki has been using BC language to push for faster transformation by bringing more blacks into the economy, and all spheres of South African society.

"Mbeki took BC ideas in the context of weak BC organisations," Mangcu observes. He argues that BC has become quite handy for political leaders in and beyond government in the light of the apparent inadequacy of post-apartheid's non-racial approach, when it comes to transformation.

Black business leaders and the black elite in general frequently fall back to BC jargon to defend black economic empowerment (BEE) or why they should get lucrative business deals or promotions. Mangcu says many black business leaders selectively appropriate BC concepts to argue for BEE. He says in the 1970s, BC movements organised community development programmes aimed at fundamentally uplifting impoverished black communities - not narrow or individual empowerment, at the expense of the majority black poor.

Mosala echoes Mangcu's sentiments. "The problem with black economic empowerment is that it purports to be a BC thing, yet it has not theoretically connected with BC," says Mosala. "People abuse BC ideas to secure business contracts, or to explain away why they, as blacks, should make money," says Mosala. "In the end they sound more and more like black racists, playing the race card when it suits them or their pockets," adds Mosala.

Adam Habib, head of the Centre for Civil Society at the University of Natal says the influence of BC on the ANC must not be overemphasised. However, he continues, Mbeki's current concern with race, especially his two-nations theory - the belief that SA consists of two societies living in uneasy juxtaposition, one poor and black and one rich and white - is reminiscent of black consciousness thinking.

Habib argues further that BC envisaged a much broader black economic empowerment than the current BEE initiatives where a few seem to become super-rich while the majority remains poor.

Sopa president Lybon Mabasa, says a lot of people within the ANC and government acknowledge the value of BC and its contribution to their ideological views. He reckons that the BC movement has been the training ground of a lot of independent-minded thinkers both in the ANC government and outside.

He states: "BC was built on the fact that South Africa must be built by black people. Black people should take responsibility for everything themselves."

Pandelani Nefolovhodwe, deputy president of Azapo, says while BC organisations don't seem to get the vote, their influence on South Africa's political landscape can be seen on the ANC and in society generally. He says Mbeki and the ANC have come to accept what BC preached: the need for black leadership is the route to the future.

"As Azapo we are happy," he remarks. "Although we might not be winning elections in the traditional sense of the word, our influence is growing."