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Biko lives but transformation suffers

As we commemorate the brutal and barbaric killing of Stephen Bantu Biko this time of the year we are once again forced to reflect on where we are as a country against the ideals that Biko died for. South Africa is also marking 20 years of political independence. It is fitting, indeed, to ask and answer the question: how far is South Africa in the journey to true liberation?

Barney Pityana, at the debate that commemorated Biko at the University of South Africa, appealed to us, as Africans, to confront the question of what is wrong with us. Pityana, among many important points made during his reflections on Biko and South Africa, argued that Biko cherished dialogue and that we must discuss what is going on in South Africa. He reminded us of one of Biko’s most powerful and timeless essay, “We Blacks”, which was directed to Africans in an appeal that Africans must have a dialogue among themselves as a step towards decolonising the mind and being proud in being African. There have been similar calls and similar commemorative discussions across the country, as we remember Biko.

Pityana’s call is, in my view, the most important because it is specific to Africans in South Africa. There are, I think, many discussions that are taking place that are not taking the country forward. Even the National Development Plan (NDP), though a step at the right direction, has not been helpful in ensuring a dialogue that can take our country forward as we appear to find ourselves at the crossroads. The NDP and associated discussions are oblivious to the fundamental point that the ramifications of apartheid colonialism are the main Achilles heel for the African in South Africa.

As we know, apartheid colonialism created racialised categories in order to enslave Africans. I tend to classify human beings into two categories: African and non-African. Africans are those that have endured the historical experience of colonialism and other forms of enslavement. In the case of South Africa, I use the category of “African” to refer to South Africans who have, or their earlier generations, experienced the evils of apartheid colonialism — the people who once lived well, in the most southern tip of the African continent, until the colonialists rudely interrupted their lives. I say this because Kwesi Kwaa Prah emphasises that Africans existed far before slavery — Prah also insists that “if everybody is an African, then nobody is an African”.

It might be ideal to examine the state of our country, 20 years on, by looking at the extent to which the goal of a developmental state is being pursued. The plan of creating a (democratic) developmental state in South Africa features in many policy documents of the government and the ruling African National Congress. The notion of a developmental state is, arguably, all-encompassing in a sense that the vision of what post-apartheid South Africa was envisaged to be effectively encapsulated in the developmental state framework.

Thandika Mkandawire defines a developmental state as a “state which is able to set developmental goals and willing to create and sustain a policy climate and an institutional structure that promotes development”. The main attributes of what could be characterised as a developmental state include: determined developmental elite, relative autonomy of the state from outside influences, effective management of non-state economic interests, legitimacy, developmental ideology, meritocratic recruitments, sufficient requisite capacities to determine and implement a long-term developmental plan as well as insulated/”neutral” public servants.

It would seem that South Africa has lost track, or is off-tracking in all these areas. At a more empirical level, poverty and inequality remain very high while the level of human development is stagnant — all this in a context of an economy that has performed below and an economy that is entering a recession, if not already in a recession. South Africa is speedily drifting away from becoming a developmental state.

As South Africa drifts further away from the developmental state ideal, a corporatist state appears to be emerging. A corporatist state, as I use the term, broadly refers to the state that is influenced, if not captured, by business interests. It is a state that is not (sufficiently) concerned with socio-economic transformation. It is almost a given that a corporatist state functions within the neo-liberal principles, but it is not necessarily a neo-liberal regime. The notion of a corporatist state is useful, in my view, because it distinguishes the character of the post-apartheid state and disagrees with the notion of a neo-apartheid state as some have characterised South Africa lately.

South Africa’s democratic state is increasingly an ineffective or weak state, captured by capital. As such, for South Africa to be (ultimately) a democratic developmental state, the government would have to take control of the socio-economic transformation programme at the very least. In the main, or fundamentally, South Africa requires a profound restructuring of state-capital relations, if not the complete restructuring of the society itself. Anything else would simply scratch the surface and the developmental state dream would remain deferred, so long as Africans remain worse off in important socio-economic development aspects.

There is a role for every African in efforts to undo the ramifications of apartheid colonialism. The psychosocial damage that the brutal discriminatory system visited on an African requires robust conversations among Africans, at the very least towards regaining our lost glory and dignity. While government gets its act together, hopefully soon, Africans must answer for themselves what is to be done. Africans, as Biko argued, “set out on a quest for true humanity, and somewhere on the distant horizon we can see the glittering prize. In time we shall be in a position to bestow upon South Africa the greatest gift possible — a more human face … as we proceed further towards the achievement of our goals let us talk more about ourselves and our struggle and less about whites”.

Biko’s thoughts and struggle remain valid today because vestiges of apartheid colonialism remain rampant in our psychology, economic structure and educational system. As an academic, I suppose, my major concern should be in the area of education and the overall effect that a colonised curricula continue to have on our African students. But the issues are inextricably connected and interlinked. Biko alerted us on the need to decolonise our mind, like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Frantz Fanon, Mangaliso Sobukwe, Chinweizu Ibekwe and others. Biko appealed on an African to reject racist ideologies that reinforce inferiorisation of Africans by the whites. Biko, a fighter, as characterised by Andile Mngxitama, would want Africans to reject servitude and subservience to the white establishment as well as to confront fear and feelings of powerlessness. Mngxitama, in his Wits university lecture on Biko, also reminds us again that it was Pityana who coined “black man you are on your own”.

In conclusion, Africans have reason to remain optimistic. Recognising the challenges that they face and that their country, South Africa, faces is a good starting point. As argued elsewhere, the (South African) post-apartheid development experience, 20 years since political independence, is not dissimilar to what can be observed regarding post-colonial Africa’s development experience. The 1960s, in particular, and parts of the 1970s in post-independent Africa showed many signs of hope. The 1980s were, however, declared the “lost decade”. South Africa, 20 years since the end of formal apartheid, could be experiencing, increasingly, its “lost decade”. This can be reversed, as many African countries or a myriad of countries in the developing world were able to change their fortunes.


  • Vusi Gumede is a professor at the University of South Africa, also with the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute. He was previously an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg and he has also lectured public policy at the Graduate School of Public and Development Management (now the School of Governance) at the University of Witwatersrand. He worked for the South African government, in various capacities, for about twelve years. He serves on various boards and committees, including the Presidential Economic Advisory Council, the International Preparatory Committee of the Pan-African Federalist Movement and the National Council of the South African Association of Political Studies. He holds postgraduate qualifications in economics and policy studies, including a Ph.D in Economics (2003) from the erstwhile University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal). He has been Distinguished Africanist Scholar at Cornell University and Yale World Fellow at Yale University, among other fellowships. He was in the boards of Southern Africa Trust and ActionAid South Africa and he is the former coordinator of Afrocentricity International for the South African chapter. He currently also holds an Honorary Professorship at the University of Cape Town. He has published 14 books and numerous journal papers & book chapters as well as written many essays and opinion articles and blogs. He is Editor-in-Chief for Africanus & Africa Insight as well as serving in various Editorial Boards/Committees.


  1. Bill Bill 22 September 2014

    Stopped reading after you noted that apartheid put people into categories (Bad), but that you are putting them into two new categories………..(Good?)

  2. Heinrich Heinrich 22 September 2014

    I would rather see social transformation along the lines of quality – not race.

    As long as we have people looking backward through the narrow angle lens of racist bias and hatred, the developmental goal posts will remain elusive. Perhaps that is what the authors of such crehative ( deliberate ) concepts like “inferiorisation of Africans by Whites” have in mind:

    Just be blind to the social realities of Africa and continue hating, killing and burning. After all, that is what we did ‘”until the colonialists rudely interrupted their lives”.

  3. Kgositsile Mokgosi Kgositsile Mokgosi 23 September 2014

    I hope Prof Gumede’s meaning of the word ‘transformation’ is not the colloquial one found in most of the media these days. The clear context of the word as it is popularly used in SA is ‘invasion’ by blacks of institutions created by whites which would be an antithesis of Black Consciousness and what Biko stood and died for- dignity of Africans. BC is about black people being on their own in charting the roadmap of their own progress. It is not about UCT, Wits, Rhodes etc having black academic staff, but about Africans creating universities of the highest international standards. It is not about white firms employing black people but about black people creating their own firms. It is not about rugby or cricket qoutas but blacks excelling in what they do to the extent that they get into positions because they are the best to be considered for such positions not because the institution requires to have blacks.
    Once it is understood in the Biko context we can face up to the lack of transformation evidenced by the recent Department of Statistics report which indicates Africans to have regressed in number of youth acquiring skills. Townships which were meant to be labour reservoirs becoming grazing fields for established business where you find first world shopping complexes owned by big white property corporates with white business as tenants while the old functional schools have become a sorry sight and no attempt is made to correct the malady despite having control of the…

  4. X X 25 September 2014

    This is quite a good analytical piece coming from an established academic. I do agree that Biko finds relevance in contemporary neo-colonial South African society especially within the tertiary education system. I will give an example of the university of Cape Town which is dominated by Euro-centric views and interests. The students are not being couched or encouraged to think critically of their situation especially the African students. By Africans I mean, borrowing from the esteemed professor “refer to South Africans who have, or their earlier generations, experienced the evils of apartheid colonialism — the people who once lived well, in the most southern tip of the African continent, until the colonialists rudely interrupted their lives”. There is an atmosphere of subtle racism within the Faculty corridors of the university. White interests are the only interests protected and promoted. They is no space for African academics or African students to promote their interests. The recent article by the Vice Chancellor of the university Dr. Price on transformation is one recent example of how racist chauvinism is deeply entrenched in the university society. He argues that UCT has few African Professors because it does not lower its standards on recruitment of qualified unlike other South African university with quite a number of African Professors. The point he is trying to drive is that he believes very few African academics deserve to be appointed Professors.

  5. Wake up! Wake up! 28 September 2014

    I agree: “Black man you are on your own.” The white man cannot and should not solve Africa’s problems. But where is the “more human face” that Biko spoke of? Do we Africans treat one another any better than Kruger’s thugs treated Biko? What of the Malawian dragged behind a police car and then dying in his cell?. What of Andries Tatane? Are we any better than the apartheid regime in our treatment of our own? As Barney Pityana said correctly, we have to start asking ourselves questions. It has become too easy to point at others when we demonstrate that same lack of humanity – sometimes even worse! Why have we turned on ourselves? What is wrong with us?

  6. Paul Kearney Paul Kearney 29 September 2014

    Trying to eliminate the effects of the racism of apartheid by being racist won’t work. Recognise that whites do not have a real role in SA, or Africa, except as scapegoats and red herrings. Africans DO control their own destinies so don’t try and blame others (whites) when they make poor choices (Mugabe & Zuma). Remember also that numbers and money have no colour (see the African rush for Chinese loot). So rather direct your intellect at what is wrong with SA today (mainly incompetence and corruption, in my view) than trying to dig up the past as an excuse for today. Focus on honesty, quality, ability and effort rather than always seeing skin colour. That is apartheid thinking.

  7. Shibu Shibu 29 September 2014

    This is an important contribution in that it acknowledges that the black(african) emancipatory project must include both a critical reflection and interrogation of self as well as an antagonistic engagement with institutions that continue to perpetuate white racism.

    We must indeed, in the black community, spend more time, effort and debate on understanding the manner in which hundreds of years of oppression have shaped our understanding of being. This is a distinct project from dismantling white racism and privilege.

    The past shapes the present and the present represents the manner in which we have effectively shaped the future. Therefore, abandoning racial categories on which the wealth of an entire white intergenerational nation has been built serves only to absolve those guilty of racial crimes of responsibility. Those commenting on this piece must be open to acknowledging that the black colonial subject knows no being outside of the oppressively prescribed viewpoint of the oppressor.

    We must kill, destroy and dismantle the mental chains of oppression that continue to constrain black agency. I don’t necessarily see the ways in which a developmental state project aids this agenda.

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