As a seven-year-old child living in a township in Cape Town called Gugulethu, on a street called NY 108, I was confronted with a lesson in how philosophy can lead to shifting identities that in turn shape political action. The “NY” in NY 108 stands for Native Yard.
Indigenous South Africans under British colonial rule were all referred to as “natives”. As the policy of apartheid crystallised, “Bantu” became the term specifically meant to refer to indigenous people and the term “nonwhite” became the blanket classification for South Africans of colour. Black Consciousness blossomed in the 1970s largely in opposition to the indignities of the apartheid laws, the derogatory connotation of the nonwhite classification and its dehumanising intent.
This set off a chain of events that led to the radicalisation of young indigenous people in South Africa. The mobilisation of like-minded anti-apartheid activists triggered an existential fear in the apartheid government that led to the killing of my father, the banning of my mother and her placement under house arrest far away from the Eastern Cape province (where she and some of the Black Consciousness leadership were operating from), and our family’s eventual migration from the beautiful but unbearably hot Tzaneen to Cape Town eight years later.
From the vantage point of the pavement just in front of our home, I witnessed weekly displays of protest, sacrifice, brutality and death. The death was typically the instigator of it all. This was because, at the time, we lived about half a kilometre from a cemetery. Many African freedom fighters were buried there. Each week, hundreds or sometimes thousands of people would gather to mourn the death of a loved one, passing our house in a huge procession, which some of us children typically joined.
This right to gather and mourn was contested by the South African Police. What the police feared most was the symbolic meaning of indigenous people’s protest action and specifically the way the mourners glorified the death of the freedom fighter they were burying. Without fail, the tension in the air would be ignited by a rubber bullet fired, a stone thrown or a petrol bomb tossed. This pattern of protest, police brutality and killing, followed by funeral processions, which were themselves a protest action, was sparked in 1976.
From 1974 to 1976 a groundswell of resentment formed among African school pupils against being forced to learn Afrikaans, which was regarded as the language of their oppressors. On June 16 1976, pupils in Soweto refused to go to school as part of their peaceful protest against the mandatory teaching of Afrikaans. This protest included the mobilisation of between 10 000 and 20 000 pupils, supported by the Black Consciousness Movement, to participate in a peaceful march to Orlando Stadium.
The peace was broken when police sent a dog into the crowd to disperse the protesters, and the crowd responded by killing the dog. Police responded by opening fire with live ammunition, killing up to 700 pupils. That day, it was clear to all that the value of a so-called nonwhite life was deemed worthless. One dog’s life equalled that of 700 children. This event changed the nature of protest action in South Africa forever.
In an interview a few months before his death, describing the change in philosophy from nonviolent peaceful protest to confrontational protest, Steve Biko put it as follows: “And of course, you see, the dramatic thing about the bravery of these youths is that they have now discovered, or accepted, what everybody knows, that the bond between life and death is absolute. You are either alive and proud or you are dead, and when you are dead, you don’t care anyway. And your method of death can be a politicising thing.”
By putting into context the value of life, the importance of human dignity and the martyrdom of death, Steve Biko’s philosophy, and later his actions, compelled millions of South Africans to risk all for freedom.
This is how, more than nine years later, I learned the lesson from my father, indirectly, that philosophy is a powerful thing. Watching protesters, both young and old, die for a cause they felt to be sacrosanct was sad and awe-inspiring. As a form of active resistance to tyranny, it was a validation of the internalisation of the philosophy of Black Consciousness.
It is unusual for philosophers to both have to and want to give up their life for a cause. Most philosophers have made their contribution to society purely in the arena of ideas, which were the result of accumulated wisdom turned into usable insights.
Much of the world’s knowledge has been put into context by great philosophers. The Ancient Greeks defined philosophy as the love of wisdom. For them, knowledge creation and accumulation was a deeply personal experience that liberated the student of philosophy from the tyranny of ignorance. It was also something to be shared among interested students.
In Western culture, philosophy has been framed as an individual scholarly endeavour to contemplate, meditate upon and come up with original thinking that contributes to how humans approach particular problems. This was not always the case in ancient society.
The ancient Egyptians, who invented philosophy, saw knowledge and the contemplation of wisdom as activities conducted by a small segment of the population assigned to understand the mysteries of the universe. According to historian George James: “The Egyptian Mystery System had as its most important object the deification of man, and taught that the soul of man if liberated from its bodily fetters, could enable him to become godlike and see the Gods in this life and attain the beatific vision and hold communion with the Immortals.”
The Egyptians believed that man was different from a god because of ignorance. They were convinced that godliness was attainable through the mastery of old wisdom.
Ancient Egyptians saw the sharing of knowledge as an “invitation-only” process whereby teachers, who were usually Egyptian priests, instructed students and imparted to them, through theories and heuristics, wisdom learned by the Egyptian intelligentsia. For them, the body of knowledge and its deciphering was a collective privilege of the privileged few.
Egyptians viewed all things associated with knowledge creation, accumulation and dissemination as sacred work that fulfilled a divine destiny. They viewed wisdom as part of a journey towards immortality. This somewhat elitist concept of philosophy discouraged writing and encouraged learning in secret, both of which would prove to be the undoing of Egypt’s natural legacy as the cradle of ancient philosophy. Historian Chancellor Williams explains this phenomenon: “The most important fact to keep in mind, however, is that we are considering the early age when relatively only a few people could write — a small professional class, the scribes. All books, scrolls, inscriptions, letters, etc, were written by them. Therefore in any society where the scribes were either captured or disappeared from it for whatever reason, the art of writing in that society died.”
The Egyptians restricted education to a select few within the society, and their approach to knowledge accumulation was characterised by secrecy. This sowed the seeds for the eventual destruction of their civilisation. It was because of this secrecy that the Greeks were able to appropriate Egyptian knowledge systems when Alexander the Great invaded Egypt in 332 BCE and took most of the works in Egypt’s secret library. Many scholars to this day view much of Greek philosophy as a plagiarised body of Egyptian knowledge.
This is an edited extract from Africa Reimagined by Hlumelo Biko (Jonathan Ball Publishers)