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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