#BlackHistoryMonth

Black Consciousness: an intersection of theory and praxis.

by Youlendree Appasamy

In a South Africa where political machinations are the modus operandi and the political actors are simplified to greedy, corrupt individuals (often for good reason), it is difficult not to think of George Orwell’s political fairy tale: Animal Farm. In response to South Africa’s ambiguous, yet ominous political landscape and the 36th anniversary of Steven Bantu Biko’s assassination, Rhodes University’s Politics and International Relations department held a talk, entitled ‘Marx, Fanon and Biko: Touchstones in a Time of Crisis?’

Sarah middletonBlack Consciousness, for those uninitiated, is a system of thought that purports that white isn’t the norm; that one must be free of psychological oppression before being free from physical forms of oppression. The emphasis is on self-reliance and curiosity. Subjugation, which is inherent in the status quo is always questioned and the theory becomes, or rather, shapes the praxis[1]. The speakers were not only well versed in Black Consciousness and revolutionary literature, but they also practised what they preached. Dr Aubrey Mokoape, the keynote speaker, was arrested at the age of 15 and spent three years in prison, with a strong Numbers[2] Gang presence. Richard Pithouse is both an academic and an activist, associated with the Abahlali baseMjondolo[3], and Dr Nigel Gibson was active in the Miner’s strikes in England in the early 70’s.

Dr Aubrey Mokoape’s life is Black Consciousness. Mokoape was first involved with the Pan-African Congress (PAC) before meeting Steve Biko in university and becoming one of the founding members of the university-driven movement. “I remember drinks with Steve and our arguments and debates about the movement,” Mokoape said.

The state has become so alienated from its people that it will use increasing violence towards its people to maintain power for the elite. Mokoape stated when he was younger, there was a clear enemy – nowadays oppression is felt but the actors are rarely held accountable for their actions because they are protected by their elite position in South African society. The Marikana Massacre was cited by Mokoape as an example of state alienation. “The miners were merely asking for more crumbs from the master’s teeth – they did not ask for land repatriation or for anything else,” he said. His talk was a rousing call-to-arms for the youth in the audience. “History will judge you badly if you don’t stop this rapacious, lying, thieving elite,” he said.

cropped-frantz-fanon-horizontalFranz Fanon – Race GPS – No Right Turn

Notable Fanonian scholar, public intellectual and activist Dr Nigel Gibson, who is also an honorary research fellow at UKZN, spoke of the humanist connection between Franz, Marx and Biko and the implications of this in contemporary South Africa. “Neither of them were Marxist, even Marx himself was not a Marxist. They demonstrate revolutionary Humanism thought, and not in the bourgeois sense of the word,” Gibson said. All these thinkers provided human solutions to societal problems, after thinking and engaging with their respective societies. “Marx was strongly opposed to how the ‘thing’ became humanised and how the worker became alienated,” he said. In the global South, Fanon and Biko were concerned with destroying the cogs of the white worlds they were, and we still are living in.

biko 2“All of these men – Franz, Marx and Biko, were on the cusp of their adult lives and were trying to understand what’s wrong in their society. They were trying to re-think things,”

Pithouse said. All the speakers stressed the importance of not parroting these three great thinkers’ work. Instead, one needs to find one’s own path, moulded by one’s own unique experiences and challenges. “Every generation needs to seize the moment for itself,” concluded Pithouse.


[1] Praxis, in this context, refers to the practise and engaged application of Black Consciousness theories and concepts.

[2] The Number Gang is an infamous prison gang network which spans the entire South African prison network.

[3] Abahlali baseMjondolo (which means shack-dwellers/the community who lives in shacks in English) is a social justice movement based primarily in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa.

Youlendree Appasamy is a South African student at Rhodes University. Budding brown journalist interested in the intersection of post-colonial and feminist literature and politics (in all its vainglorious forms). She has lived in a small Afrikaans town all her life, and her parents are of the strict Hindu variety which has led her to adopt interstitial spaces as her own. She’s passionate and patriotic about Africa and writes what she likes. Find her on twitter @_youlendree

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