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Exactly 100 years after Africans were dispossessed of their land and stripped of their identity and heritage, the ANC government has subsidised the opening of the new headquarters for blackness.

This comes in the form of a legacy project worth more than R120 million to promote, protect and preserve the legacy of Black Consciousness visionary leader Steve Bantu Biko.

If alive, Biko would be 66.

This is the biggest amount of money the government has spent in the memory of any single political leader.

At present the government — through the department of arts and culture — had given R5 million to the Nelson Mandela Museum in Mthatha and a mere R4 million to the Luthuli Museum in KwaZulu-Natal, for instance.

It has given R21 million to build a garden of remembrance, rehabilitate the homestead and refurbish the grave of Oliver Tambo. Unlike Biko, Luthuli, Mandela and Tambo are some of the ANC’s greatest leaders.

Unfortunately nothing major except a few street names have been renamed in the memory of Pan Africanist Congress leader Robert Sobukwe. The dormant PAC must surely be sulking.

Since the death of Biko in September 1977, the ANC has been accused of not only killing Black Consciousness exponents and activists in Soweto and Port Elizabeth in the 1980s, but allegedly also ignored and neglected the legacy of Biko, especially since the dawn of uhuru in 1994.

In an unprecedented development, President Jacob Zuma himself led a group of high-level government leaders and officials to open the Steve Biko Heritage Centre in Ginsberg township. This pretty much changes everything not only in terms of the relationship between Black Consciousness exponents and ANC progressives but the philosophical or ideological direction of the country.

Firstly it marks a permanent truce between the rivalry that existed between the ideology of Black Consciousness and progressive non-racism. Secondly this step must ultimately deliver a philosophical foundation for the country to operate from.

In fact it marks the establishment of a permanent headquarters for Black Consciousness (BC), Pan-Africanism and their adherents all over the world. The centre should serve as a nucleus and base for the pro-black philosophies and their movements.

But it remains to be seen how this development will be interpreted, especially by the leadership of the Steve Biko Foundation in unfolding its developmental programmes.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the philosophical foundation and ideological orientation of South Africa as a country on the continent has been wishy-washy except for the values and ideals enshrined in the Constitution. To some BC adherents, the philosophical orientation of the ANC has always been suspect.

Significantly the building of the Biko Centre started under former president Thabo Mbeki, in 2002. It was characteristic of a deep-thinking intellectual leader who not only brought leading elements of BC into his insider group of advisers, but was largely willing to adapt and repackage the philosophy of Black Consciousness as a ticket to take him to great heights of leadership across the continent. It would not be incorrect to see the completion of the project as the culmination of what Mbeki wanted to see happen.

But in a modern South Africa that has, largely, become a satellite of the US in lifestyle, music, speech, culture and values, the launch of the Biko Centre should mean one thing: the validation of BC as a philosophy and its mainstreaming as an instrument of social cohesion and self-empowerment among the indigenous people. Black people are now free to define and love themselves!

Since 2009 the government, through Paul Mashatile, has pursued a new programme not only to unleash the potential economic power of the arts for job creation and self-determination, but rebuild confidence and thus give hope to poor communities.

Ever since he died at the age of 31, Biko has been called everything from a prophetic hero to an agent of change. What he wished for, perhaps more than anything, was to see black people liberate their minds and be able to take full responsibility for what happened to them. In his own way, just like Biko, Mashatile believes black people can make things happen for themselves even if they rely on donor support, including from philanthropic capitalists and government. Thus the creation of the Biko Centre is not only a gesture of material support from government but intended to inspire people to get things done for themselves.

Since 1994 blacks and whites have lived and operated in a society that, in principle, is based on equality and non-racism. But there are very big question marks over whether the constitutional democracy is the same thing as freedom. It is argued in some circles that democracy and freedom cannot be used interchangeably. There is no doubt that a constitutional democracy epitomises what the ANC has, largely, desired and fought for.

In contrast Black Consciousness holds the view that not only must the people be liberated from economic injustice and social inequality but psychological freedom that will, inevitably, see the country assume the character and culture of the majority. What this means is that for black people to “give the world a human face” they must not only practice their own culture but the operations of society must be based on their values, especially Ubuntu which is sense of belonging and ownership among the people and sharing of the wealth of the country.

This is the creative tension that has haunted the relationship between an ANC constitutional democracy and Black Consciousness, for instance. Thus the Biko Centre will provide not only a platform for a healthy exchange of ideas but, hopefully, lead in the national discourse that will restore faith and self-confidence in the emptied cultural heritage and identity of black people.

Critics of democracy complain that not only have black people lost a sense of identity and Afrocentric rootedness but have allowed themselves to be recreated in the image of white people. With the incorporatisation of the struggle into the economic mainstream, blacks cannot even tell who the enemy — if any still exists — is.

At the Biko Centre launch there was widespread acknowledgement that constitutional democracy is a significant achievement. But it was also admitted that there is an urgent need for black people to not only reclaim their heritage and identity but redefine the future in their own terms.

As South Africa has completed the Biko Legacy Project to honour one of its leading visionaries, it remains to be seen if the Biko Centre will revive the philosophy of Black Consciousness and re-ignite a sense of self-pride and independence among black people who have become over-reliant on social grants.

Biko’s death and this heritage site have come at a great cost. It’s long overdue that black people did things for themselves and that what Biko lived and died for became a way of life.

The time is now!

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Sandile Memela

Sandile Memela is a journalist, writer, cultural critic, columnist and civil servant. He lives in Midrand.

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