Ebrahim Harvey’s critique of Black Consciousness is yet another premature autopsy

Immortal: The legacy of Steve Biko and Black Consciousness has not died, and its current manifestations lay in the sociocultural realm.

Immortal: The legacy of Steve Biko and Black Consciousness has not died, and its current manifestations lay in the sociocultural realm.

Reading Ebrahim Harvey’s piece “Shadow of Black Consciousness” (June 17) invoked the sounds of Wynton Marsalis, on his 1989 album Majesty of the Blues. In the three-part New Orleans Funeral, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr delivers a sermon over the sounds of a New Orleans funeral march. 

“Though we are told to mourn it, we must know it was a noble sound. It had majesty … Like a knight wrapped in the glistening armour of invention, of creativity, of integrity, of grace, of sophistication, of soul, this sound took the field. It arrived when the heart was like a percussively throbbing community suffering the despair imposed by dragons …”

Just when you think Wright will end with mourning, he intones: “I am here to tell you that there are some who do not accept the premature autopsy of a noble art form. There are some of us out here who are on a quest. There are some of us out here who believe that the majesty of human life demands an accurate rendition in rhythm and tune.” 

Harvey’s premature autopsy joins a large heap of such autopsies that began as early as 1968, when the Black Consciousness (BC) movement was launched. At that time, people from the banned older liberation movements said these young people did not know what they were doing, that the apartheid state would crush them like it had crushed their movements. 

When the BC movement grew stronger, a premature autopsy emerged from Robben Island, asking: “Whither the Black Consciousness Movement?” 

When the prophesied death of the BC movement failed to materialise, a call to wipe BC off the face of the earth came from the deep recesses of Kabwe in Zambia. That call found expression in a feud that saw hundreds of Black Consciousness activists killed in the 1980s. 

Harvey admonishes the Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo) for having made a political and strategic error by not participating in the 1994 elections. Logically, Harvey should have also admonished Azapo for not participating in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa because the 1994 elections were a realisation of the Codesa agreements. 

The prescience of Azapo, which decried the Codesa agreements as a betrayal of the genuine aspirations of our people, is now echoed across South Africa. Twenty-two years after the birth of the “new South Africa”, black people are still at the bottom of whatever measure one can think of. 

Statistics South Africa recently revealed that the percentage of black African professional, managerial and technical workers aged 25 to 34 has dropped by 2% over the past 20 years, leaving that generation less skilled than previous ones — and less skilled than every other race and age group. 

This finding led statistician general Pali Lehohla to observe: “When parents are better equipped than the children, it’s a sign of regression.”

Instead of the ideal of social and economic justice that was central to the struggle, South Africa is now characterised by a high level of inequality, a tidal wave of unemployment and evidence that, not only are the patterns of apartheid being replicated, the policies of the ruling party have also failed to transcend the structural and systemic fault lines created by apartheid.

Where Harvey is correct is in pointing out the poor electoral performance of Azapo. Indeed, bourgeois elections, in which parties rely on cosy relationships with capital to gain funds for their campaigns, have proven difficult for Azapo. Unlike other parties, Azapo is not in the pockets of corporations or wealthy benefactors who are then able to influence policies and party conduct. 

Today we speak of state capture, but the rot starts with party capture. It is party capture that leads parties to campaign on the basis of satisfying the people’s needs but to govern to satisfy the needs of capital and the plutocrats.

Where Harvey is once again wrong is in using electoral performance to draw conclusions about the relevance of a philosophy and a movement. His deduction is particularly egregious in that the BC movement is insurgent by character and aspiration. Clearly the BC movement did not reach its zenith in the 1970s on the basis of electoral performance, but on the strength of its analysis, the foresight of its programme and the relevance of its ideology to real material conditions. 

Today, these real material conditions are attracting more and more people to BC. For now, this is happening in the student movements. Tomorrow the growth in consciousness will be in the political sphere. Then there will be the possibility of a true revolution in this country.  

Professor Itumeleng Mosala is the president of Azapo.



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