A friend recently posted rare footage of Steve Biko in an interview on German TV on his blog. The week of the 35th anniversary of Biko’s murder was a difficult one for South Africa. In a hard-hitting op-ed for the Mail&Guardian, Andile Mngxitama argues that we are not talking about a dream deferred, but a dream defiled. In Mngxitama’s words “blacks have no sense of themselves as a majority in power” (Mail&Guardian, 14-20 September 2012: 18).
The irony of the German interviewer’s questions in the video clip is hard to miss. The journalist asks whether Biko’s vision of a non-racial South Africa can ever be realised, given that black South African thoughts would presumably turn to revenge in a free South Africa. There is nothing new about white fears of revenge in post-apartheid South Africa. These fears were voiced often enough.
The irony of this interview is that we seem to have come full circle. It is the poorest of the poor who have faced the wrath of state violence in our post-liberation era: forceful evictions of landless people, the ill-treatment of African foreigners, a failing healthcare system in townships, poorly managed schools and, to crown it all, the Marikana massacre – along with the deployment of the army in the neighbourhood surrounding Lonmin mine. We now hear keywords that we assumed died with apartheid; words like “illegal gathering”.
What can Biko teach us in these difficult times – a time in which many of our civil liberties are being eroded by a state that is willing to deploy the army in the township against its own people when the sovereignty of the country is not under threat, a time when the state has made attempts to restrict media freedoms, a time in which failures of the state are often met with personal attacks against its critics and the key issues are not addressed constructively?
I am reminded of a line by Tumi and the Volume: “My black president does me wrong / He wears the mask of Fanon.” Ironically, Tumi performed this verse when Thabo Mbeki was the president of South Africa. When you watch this clip, what should be abundantly clear is that the non-racial South Africa that Biko was working towards has not been realised. What does a non-racial South Africa look like? One in which race no longer matters, you might say. When will race no longer matter? One response to this question is that race will no longer matter when the notion of race, as a social construct, has been taken apart. But, in order for this construct to be taken apart, you need to produce a society that does not feed off racialised class inequalities – a society that does not perpetuate the exploitative, racist practices of the apartheid state.
The prevailing black and white elite interests that have been threatened by the lengthy mine strike is a reminder that the ruling black elite has really just been positioned to protect elite, minority interests and that we have not seen an equitable distribution of wealth and resources in our democratic dispensation. To paraphrase Frantz Fanon, the new black elites have become the servants of big capital at the expense of its people.
When the ANC was engaged in negotiations during the late 1980s and early 1990s, it did not make use of its moral high ground and “Madiba magic” to push for a corporate TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission). It did not push corporations to answer for their sins and so these sins continue, unchecked.
If Archbishop Desmond Tutu could prompt Winnie Mandela to offer an apology, why could we not expect an apology from De Beers, Anglo American, SAB and countless other corporate players who profited from apartheid on a large scale? Why could we not place the moral imperative on them to make amends? We need a corporate TRC.
* An earlier version of this op-ed appeared on www.staticphlow.com.