Vusi Gumede
Vusi Gumede

Critical consciousness is the answer

There is, increasingly, a common message that is emerging about South Africa 21 years since the formal end of apartheid — things are getting bad. As argued elsewhere, this might not be surprising particularly if we look at the developmental experiences during the first two decades or so for many post-independent countries on our continent. We could have paid more attention to avoid what appears to be the forthcoming ultimate outcome: a new order, if not a disorder, that is plunging the whole of South African society into a crisis if not a civil conflict.

The 16th Steve Biko Memorial Lecture, which coincided with the 40th independence anniversary of the Republic of Mozambique, confirmed that South Africa is at a cross-road again. It was therefore befitting to have former president Joaquim Chissano deliver the lecture – he also got to juxtapose the link between the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) and Black Consciousness Movement as well as reflect on the role and relevance of black consciousness in the liberation struggles in southern Africa.

In Chissano’s words: “The Black Consciousness Movement arose from the necessity to address the injustices inflicted on the black people by colonialism, apartheid, oppression, domination, exploitation and segregation. The philosophy was essentially to raise awareness of these unacceptable injustices, mobilise, galvanise and unite the black people to fight for their right to be treated equally like people of other races.” As such, as he put it, “Frelimo used words like conscientisation because awareness was not enough”. I was reminded of what Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire termed conscientizaçáo — referring to “learning to perceive social, political and economic contradictions and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality”.

Chissano’s lecture made it clear that black consciousness and the Black Consciousness Movement cannot be a myth but a reality in the history of the African continent. He further made the point that: “Black consciousness ideals remain relevant and valid even today as besides the noble goals of rescuing the pride and resolve of the black people, it was also a political philosophy that was and continues to be instrumental in mobilising, galvanising and uniting people to attain a just society. A society in which there is more solidarity amongst the people regardless of race, religious belief and political orientation. A society in which all the people live in harmony, working together to address the imbalances inherited from the horrendous past.”

Black consciousness therefore has an important role to play, more so today, given the volatile and uncertain nature of the unjust world we live in.

Consciousness or conscientizaçáo is undoubtedly critical for many reasons. Frantz Fanon and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, among others, have made it very clear that without critical consciousness Africa, and Africans in particular, will remain the skunk of the world. Part of the challenge we are facing is that our political parties or leaders broadly appear to have lost critical consciousness, if not that they have forgotten the repulsive history we’ve gone through. It is in this context that I was moved by the reminder that Chissano began his lecture with: we are living in an asymmetric world where Africa and its resources continue to be plundered and the plight of the African people continues to be reality.

Our political parties and our leadership are complicit to this unfortunate reality. Part of the major challenge has to do with not only poor critical consciousness but weak thought leadership. As argued elsewhere, thought leadership connotes a leadership orientation underpinned by unconventional ideology, historically nuanced, culturally sensitive and contextually grounded. Thought leadership — far from and more critical than other forms of leadership — has to be about leadership that is based on progressive ideologies, beliefs, orientations with significant pragmatic and impact appeal. Linked to this is the decolonisation of the mind as Ngugi wa Thiong’o argued, and ensuring that consciousness is not rudimentary as Fanon appealed. Another related aspect is knowledge production (and its dissemination).

In the context of South Africa, the country appears to be deteriorating as the opening paragraph opines. The economy is taking a knock as some of us have been arguing. The social sphere is under siege. The political scene is becoming absurd. The protests by students are another case in point that our society is falling apart. South Africa remains far from being a nation that was hoped for. Non-racialism is still a long way away. Socio-economic transformation has been slow. As the late Neville Alexander put it in his last book — published posthumously — “the demise of apartheid did not lead to the kind of society that many of us had imagined a post-apartheid South Africa would be. There was no revolution, at best what we got was no more than a regime change”. The student protests might help ensure that we do not just remain with “regime change” but rather radical change.

With regard to our continent as a whole, as Chissano reminded us, the asymmetric world we live in perpetuates the peripheralisation of the African continent. At issue, essentially, is imperialism. Imperialism is “a system of domination and subordination organised with an imperial centre and a periphery”, as Edward Said put it. It is perhaps in this context that Yash Tandon argues that “if one has not understood imperialism, one has understood nothing about the relationship between the North and the South, or between the West and the rest”. In the 1960s, Kwame Nkrumah wrote that “neo-colonialism of today represents imperialism in its final and perhaps its most dangerous stage”. Today, arguably, imperialism has become even more dangerous as it is being challenged left and right.

It might very well be that black consciousness, as an attitude of the mind and a way of life that was meant to inaugurate a new humanity, is the answer to the global disorder we find ourselves in. It has, however, to start with critical consciousness. Ama Mazama, the president of Afrocentricity International, puts it aptly that we must regain pride in who we are and consciously work to reclaim our lost glory and recover our stolen legacy.

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    • Zingisa Mqalo Nkosinkulu

      Thanks Prof Vusi Gumede very insightful. But I feel the “crisis” and “conflict” is already taking place in the mind while “Critical consciousness” is directed to the wrong side. More to the side of Self Criticism towards the “zone of nonbeing”. In order to “critic” we need to know what other models are there so that we have constructive criticism. Criticism is the ability to think and apply knowledge accordingly. To apply knowledge accordingly we need to know even the “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns”. Einstein argues that “you can never solve a problem from the level on which it was created”. If are talking of Black Consciousness maybe we are trying to solve a problem in a level on which it was created. How about African Consciousness as a GPS? At least it tells us where we come from, our current location and our dream destination. While Black Consciousness might look like a coordinate in the geography of human history. “Critical consciousness is the answer” but we need the ability to think critical. In a book called The Miss-education of a Negro Carter G. Woodson argues that “when you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his “proper place” and will stay in it”. “Critical consciousness is the answer” to find a “proper place”. In one of his YOUTUBE Video titled Ask to know better and walk faster on African Provers. Dr Zondi argues “It is very important for us to ask in order to find out things we do not know. It is very important to pose a question from those who may know what we do not know. It is also important to ask question from people who may not even know more than we know because when he give us their perspective on things it enriches what we also thought we knew”. In short “Critical consciousness is the answer” but first we need to know and ask questions to “reclaim our lost glory and recover our stolen legacy” towards an African “new order”. #IngcingazeZizi

    • Rusty Bedsprings

      Interesting analogy using the GPS. If this were applied, what do you think your destination would look like, and how far away would it be?

    • Rusty Bedsprings

      If you were able to propose a language concept for the country, based on your points above, what would it be?

    • Zingisa Mqalo Nkosinkulu

      The eminent Dr John Henrik Clarke always argued
      that “the proper name of any people must relate to land, history and culture”.
      And he further argued that “History is not everything, but it is a starting point. History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day. It is a compass they use to find themselves on the map of human geography. It tells them where they are but, more importantly, what they must be.”(Read more at:
      If we apply the notion of a GPS we have to remember that it works with current location, direction and destination. But the disadvantage with GPS is that it does not focus on where you come from but start on the current location. A proper destination therefore, would be determined by considering the previous location, current location, directions and destination. According to Dr Clarke history can be deployed as a GPS to tell people “what they must be”. In the case of Africa, our destination would be based on the Africa we currently have (colonial values) and the Africa we once had (traditional values) towards the Africa we
      want (humane values). And it’s not that far because it’s not a physical concept but a conscious one. As we know all physical matters begins in the mind in the spirit or consciousness as ideas and thoughts. Amos Wilson once said “To manipulate history is to manipulate consciousness: to manipulate consciousness
      is to manipulate possibilities; and to manipulate possibilities is to
      manipulate power”. The destination will be a constant cogent wrestle with these concepts as mentioned by Wilson, manipulating them towards new possible “human room” as experience by Gregor in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.

    • Barry Saayman

      >>”If you were able to propose a language concept for the country, based on your points above, what would it be?”

      I am satisfied that the various language and cultural clauses in the Constitution, 1996 such as sections 6(2), 13, 15, 16, 30, 31, 143(1)(b), 211, 212, 219(1)(a) and 235 are progressive and duly recognise South African diversity and the need for self-determination of “any community sharing a common cultural and language heritage” free from intimidation, abuse of power and the domination of one group over others which incidentally is a main element of the crime against humanity of apartheid in terms of the Rome Statute of the ICC.

    • Rusty Bedsprings

      With the diversity in language and culture in South Africa, how do you propose unifying the country in order to pursue a common national agenda, or do you think each culture should stand independently?

    • Barry Saayman

      >>”With the diversity in language and culture in South Africa, how do you propose unifying the country in order to pursue a common national agenda…”

      Are you intolerant of diversity and therefore propose the Anglo-American model of monoglottism for South Africa and if so are you willing to subject yourself to African culture assimilation or do you expect all other South Africans to forfeit their local vernaculars and to become clones of your good selves to be acceptable to you?

      Do you propose any amendments to the sections of Constitution, 1996 that I mentioned in my previous post?

      My impression is that many people misunderstand the objectives of national liberation. Africa is intolerant of European colonists because the latter disrespect their right to self-determination and disregard local cultures and traditional leaders with contempt . Are you one of them?

      >>”………or do you think each culture should stand independently?”

      South Africa is not unique. Take a good look at the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Russian Federation, EU, Canada and China if you wish to figure out how people from diverse backgrounds coexist in harmony and pursue common interests. People have a right to be who they are and to be respected for who they are.

      Africa’s Plea by Roland Tombekai Dempster

      I am not you –
      but you will not
      give me a chance
      will not let me be me

      ‘If I were you’ –
      but you know
      I am not you,
      yet you will not
      let me be me.

      You meddle, interfere
      in my affairs
      as if they were yours
      and you were me.

      You are unfair, unwise,
      foolish to think
      that I can be you,
      talk, act
      and think like you.

      God made me me.
      He made you you.
      For God’s sake
      Let me be me.

    • Rusty Bedsprings

      I was asking your opinion about the trade off between diversity and commonality. I did not ask you to try guess my opinion. I did not attempt to give you my opinion either. Read again if you are interested.

      If you take a closer look at these countries you mention, you will find that the different sub cultures struggle to maintain a single national opinion. Diversity of culture means diversity in agenda.

      Economic woes show exactly how the EU do not stand harmoniously, and a closer look at Russia and Ukraine to see how culture has a direct impact on their national agendas. Switzerland’s direct democracy constantly shows the difference of opinion between the German speaking majority, and the Italian South and French West.

      So, my question again, how would you propose unifying the nation when there is such a diverse cultural base?