Black consciousness: Why it's relevant in today's South Africa

Guest blogger Zama Ndlovu grew up being told that whiteness was the benchmark for success. Now she details how she embraced 'black consciousness,' thanks in part to the writings of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko.

It’s unofficially National Black Consciousness Month, the month when we commemorate the brutal and untimely death of Steve Biko on Sept. 12, 1977, and what an interesting month it has been thus far.

Until Steve Biko’s “I write what I like” landed on my lap, I had been living in oblivion as to how abnormal my normal was. Spending my entire life moving towards what was white to get to what should have been my human right had not struck me as odd.

My mother sent me to a white school, in a white suburb, to get a decent education. My mother moved us to a white suburb to be closer to school and work and to get a decent quality of life. I had to learn a white language to prove that I was intelligent enough to get into a white university.

I, along with my fellow peers, unconsciously and subconsciously labelled and celebrated everything “white” as good for us. We left black to be better; those who could not get out of black schools, black neighbourhoods, and black languages were left worse off.

The damage inflicted on a black child’s mind when an official school rule is “Black children are not allowed to speak their home language amongst themselves during school hours” cannot be quantified.

When I entered into a model-C school – as South Africa’s English-medium schools are called – I was proficient in English, but my teacher found my accent so offensive, she instructed my mother to only speak to me in English so I could improve. My legendary mother discarded the advice, but I spent the rest of my school years quite shy, afraid to speak to my peers. My black accent was not beautiful.

Zama, meet Steve

Stripped almost bare of my heritage and language, my first encounter with Biko’s ideas was a shock to a spiritually empty system. I resisted Biko’s definition that black consciousness “seeks to demonstrate the lie that black is an aberration from the ‘normal’ which is white,” and I branded his ideas borderline. I promptly gave the book back to its dreadlocked owner, vowing never to be that kind of black. I sang the unified rainbow song and carried on with life.

But I was already changed. I began to notice how often I would speak English to my own mother, even as she replied in Zulu. I realized that I had not read a single Zulu book, in all the years I had been in high-school. I knew no Zulu writers, and I did not know a single book store that sold Zulu books. I finally admitted to myself that spent my life being subliminally told that my natural state was not good enough.

It shocked me that the unofficial theme for Black Consciousness Month became: “Is black consciousness still relevant today?” I didn’t know that the relevance of the Black Consciousness Movement was up for discussion. Accusations that black youth were adorning themselves with the image of Biko as a fashion statement while having little or no knowledge of the man were thrown around by those who claim to know the “black youth” so very well. They failed to understand that a person, who had spent his entire lives having his identity affirmed, can never understand the void created by having no real identity.

Black consciousness today

For this, and for many reasons, black consciousness is still relevant today. The process of redefining me within and beyond my blackness is not a political one; it is very much spiritual.

Stating that “black is beautiful” remains an academic exercise for the mind. The real tests are in everyday life. To live consciously as a black person requires more than simply speaking one’s mother tongue and knowing a few things about one’s history. Living consciously requires vigilant patrol over one’s thoughts and feelings on all things black.

The other day I caught myself saying “These BEE [Black Economic Empowerment] companies are all useless!” I had to gently remind myself that all labels I attach to blackness, I attach to myself.

The Black Consciousness Movement’s “obsession” with whiteness can only be understood from the point of view of a black person. I did not spend my life being groomed to chase the life resembling that of Coloured or Indian peers. I spent my life, being told that whiteness was the benchmark, and it is this mental slavery that I must consciously unshackle myself from.

So I cannot take any discussion on the relevance of black consciousness seriously.

I will no longer take the time to apologetically explain myself as a black person, as I have done all these years. The very thought that there’s probability of the movement being found to be irrelevant now would be humorous if it were not so offensive.

-- Zama Ndlovu is a Johannesburg-based writer who blogs at the Mail & Guardian's Thought Leader page.

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