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The politics of Mbeki vs Biko

“MAN is born free; and everywhere he is in chains……common liberty results from the nature of man. His first law is to provide for his own preservation, his first cares are those which he owes to himself; and, as soon as he reaches years of discretion, he is the sole judge of the proper means of preserving himself, and consequently becomes his own master.” – Jean Jacques Rousseau

While the roaring 60s can be remembered for loose morality, rock & roll, drugs and abundance of sex; for the black man it summons the painful memory of relentless activity among black activists in Africa and across the Pacific. Martin Luther King had a dream and saw the Promised Land, and Minister Malcolm X wanted a black man freed “by any means necessary”. Across Africa, the black man was fighting for liberation from colonialism; and to assert himself among nations, “preserving himself and consequently becoming his own master.” While Africa was freeing itself from the thuggery of colonialism, down south the black man remained in chains.

No magic bullet existed on how the cancer of racism could be cured; but it arouses interest to examine and interrogate the ideological contradictions between Bantu Steve Biko of the Black Consciousness Movement and Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki of the African National Congress.

It was clear according to Biko that a white man had no business in the black man’s struggle to liberate himself from apartheid and racism. According to Biko, “The problem is white racism and it rests squarely on the laps of the white society. The sooner the liberals realise this, the better for us blacks. Their presence among us is irksome and of nuisance value. It removes the focus of attention from essentials and shifts it to ill-defined philosophical concepts that are both irrelevant to the black man and merely a red herring across the track. White liberals must leave blacks to take care of their own business while they concern themselves with the real evil in our society — white racism.”

However, according to Mbeki, informed by the non-racist ideals of the ANC, “The struggle waged by the black majority against colonialism and apartheid, supported by some principled white compatriots and the rest of the world, as, in first instance, been aimed at ending the relationship of dominant-and-dominated, as between white and black, and achieving equality among all South Africans, in all spheres of human life and activity … the very act of coming together in pursuit of a common cause would both reduce the fears and remove any confrontational attitude attaching to the expectations.”

“My wish before I die, is to see blacks and whites living harmoniously in a united South Africa.” — Mrs Nokukhanya Luthuli, wife of Chief Albert Luthuli.

The narrow mindedness of black consciousness ideology radiates from Biko’s approach to dealing with and eradicating the scourge of racism. He advocated that a black man must first assert himself in a society where he is treated as a perpetual under 16, and out of such assertion, mutual respect and self-determination is loosely assumed. This almost seeks to endorse Hendrik Verwoerd’s policy of “good neighbourliness”,where separate development is a means to a racist end. Biko was flirting with danger; but again like the rest everywhere else, his followers were seduced by the revolutionary euphoria of the time, and perhaps followed like sheep after a commanding shepherd. The black consciousness ideology first dismisses unapologetically the notion of a black man and a white man integrating, which is a necessary prerequisite for any reconciliation and nation building. Strong parallels can be drawn between what Minister Malcolm advocated under the banner of the Nation of Islam and influences of the teachings of Elijah Mohammed; that was before sense prevailed preceding his untimely elimination by his own. It is evident from Biko’s claptrap that he may have drawn unfortunate inspiration from the misguided drivel often spewed by Malcolm X.

“South Africa belongs to all who live in it.” – The Freedom Charter.

It would be naïve to attempt to wish away the presence of the white man in our society and his participation on noble attempts by the black man to bridge the racial divides. After all, the white man must dirty his hands with the rest of us to clean the mess those before him engineered into being. Mbeki’s pursuit of non-racialism and inclusivity, which informed the success of a negotiated settlement to end the evil that apartheid was, became evident during his exile years in England.

According to Biko, “Black-white mixed circles are static circles with neither direction nor programme … the real concern of the group is to keep the group going rather than being useful … (blacks) have been made to feel inferior for so long that for them it is comforting to drink tea, wine or beer with whites who seem to treat them as equals. This serves to boost their ego to the extent of making them feel slightly superior to those blacks who do not get similar treatment from whites. These are the sort of black who are danger to the community.”

It is such thinking among ANC cadres undergoing training in Moscow in the 60s that influenced and fanned the flames of loath against Mbeki when he was sent to study in Sussex; and was recklessly accused of being a sell-out and collaborator with racist Nationalist regime. It was constructive engagement by Mbeki with the white government that paved the way for CODESA and transition to a new democratic dispensation; while militant loose mouths were stubbornly insisting on the armed struggle, which never took any form or shape besides blowing a few power stations and innocent white women and children.

While still there is a yawning gap between black and white communities, we hear the ANCYL, obviously inspired by the fruitless militancy of yesteryears, proclaiming themselves to be revolutionaries, perhaps peacetime revolutionaries with no purposeful cause. They claim “to be defending the gains of the revolutions”; and I wonder what revolution. This revolutionary claptrap is not helpful to progress and gains of reconciliation. But then again, the current ANCYL is no cheerleader of Mbeki; it would be unfair to expect them to espouse his ideals. And I am still trying to reconcile Biko’s ideology with the current state of affairs.


  • Sentletse Diakanyo

    Sentletse Diakanyo's blogs may contain views on any subject which may upset sensitive readers. Parental guidance is strongly advised.