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President Zuma bows to Biko – a black moment between delinquents

By Athi Mongezeleli Joja

Today, the 12th of September, marks the day the philosopher and leader of the South African chapter of the Black Consciousness Movement, Steve Biko, died at the hands of the apartheid police apparatus. Already, messages and commemorations have been filling social media and other outlets, with open declaratory gestures remembering and saluting him. Over the years, various individuals and groups have been observing 12 September. This date is honored – as is the ritual pertaining to all “important dates” – by the wearing of commemorative gears with Biko’s face or the sharing of dusty biographies and that deep down, in spite of their wayward praxis, knowledge by the observers that they are Biko’s people. During September 12theveryone is Black Conscious! This Biko (or even Africanist) turn, if you will, isn’t in and of itself, a bad turn.

We need Biko for survival. Biko himself optimistically anticipated the symbolic reach of his death and name and its capacity to reignite a revolutionary fervour. But he didn’t perhaps quite foresee how his death would equally be the source of all regressive and consumerist maledictions. In part this cleavage has enabled a contestation of legacies and re-energizing of radical interventions. As decadent as it has been, the Biko industry has by way of populism ushered in pockets of silent explosions and sensibilities which do not yet lend themselves easily to the explanatory protocols of its dominant discourse. But below this prevailing veneer, which Strini Moodley argued was inevitable, is the burning sensation and a true radicalization of Black Consciousness today. Moodley said:

“The ANC has rewritten the whole struggle of this country the way they want it to happen. And the point about it is you go anywhere in the world and you’ll see it like that. From my point of view it’s good BC has been written out of the struggle. Because if it was written in then we’re part of the problem. Now we’re still part of the solution.”
But the project of remembering has gone so far in abetting imperialism, and it has gone so deep in clandestinely using memory to instill amnesia. This paradox isn’t easy to pick up by merely listening to the reproduction of slogans and declarations. As perhaps Biko himself presciently understood, identifying as “black” – one would even say declaring one as Black Conscious – is merely the beginning of the journey. The true event or rupture, as in a self-regulating impulse or spasm, happens as an attitudinal reflex of one’s mind and praxis. The “event” of black consciousness (BC) as political baptism, is seen through its consequences. It is seen through how one begins to think in relation to and against the enemy being White Racism. It is not simply manifested in the grand announcements that we tend to see around this time, nor in the shooting of black power fists or all the other cultural accompaniments that index an identifying with Biko and his ideas. Such commemorative culturalisation of Biko, left to their own devices, easily turns BC in general and Biko specifically, into an aesthetic spectacle. A true Bikoist can be detected by his or her demonstration of attitude towards the malaise of white supremacy and imperialism – attitude not as series of performance of rage, but how such a rage compels us to actively step out of legibility and norms so as to take an active stance against white oppression and institutionalized arrogance.

I am saying this thinking about the currently circulating picture of President Jacob Zuma bowing in front of Biko’s tomb stone. A symbolic moment, if there ever is one. This picture has of course attracted a lot of controversy, but so was the very gesture of Zuma paying tribute to Biko. All the so-called Bikoists rushed to condemnations of the highest kind. Articles far less comprehensive in terms of their political articulation of a black consciousness mode of reasoning, but somewhat in their exterior form and declaratory slogans seeming so, have lamented on the symbolic contradiction – almost as if it is an insult – that this picture represents. Thinking about President Zuma as the most notorious “citizen” – blacks are still tenants under colonial relations – facing the wrath of white capitalism and its civil society, one understands the old man’s gestured respect to Biko. If we are thinking of BC not simply as a rupture in the discursive terms, but expressedly visible through an attitudinal-praxis, then the consequences of Black Consciousness can only, at this present debacle, be locatable in Zuma’s praxis. That is, a thinking that tends to blackness via a combative and delinquent praxis against the order of things. This we certainly don’t find amongst Biko’s contemporaries, literally and ideologically speaking. Today, Biko’s friends are Hellen Zille’s subordinates. They might from time to time vehemently state their oppositional stances against Zille, but their practice has ironically indicated an unambiguous opposition. Some, have gone deep down the recesses of history to dig down the original scenes of black intramural struggle terror, to draw moral content positioned against the unethicality of the pictured gesture.

Again, memory becomes an instrument of facilitating sanctuary for white racism. In fact this cannibalistic peculiarity extends beyond the ANC attacking the PAC and the BCM, by pointing to a deeper destructive impulse even inside the ANC itself. But what the BC archivist of imperialism tends to bypass in the denunctions, is the painful extension of this cannibalism even within the Africanists and the BC bloc. The nightmarish dimension that leads to this aversion is that it helps deflate the over-investments in the narrative coherence of this blame game and also helps to constantly shift our gaze from white people – such that to remember the heinous crimes of intramural conflicts helps hide not only the invisible hand that constructs black discords within partisinal spaces, but also the external forces of the wholesale white supremacist enterprise and how it structures the permanency of terror within. Isn’t this precisely the logic of the EFF, Kilombo, Azapo and so many other groups, which have comprehensively taken the stance to directly or indirectly collaborate with the DA against Zuma? Kilombo, which sees itself outside the debacle has pathetically resigned itself to social media pictures of three members going around the country burning the national flag. The sad inverse of this is that, these postures have equally been political pastimes of the far-right wing Afrikaner groups. These somnambulist activities of the black bloc, due to their inexpressible cowardliness, have coaxed them back on white people’s laps.

Together with white liberals and leftist, already expelled by Biko from the black agenda, the black bloc has found itself numerously agreeing, more so in their denunciation of Zuma’s visit to Biko’s grave. The picture with all its splendid suggestive power is punctuated at every moment of reaching out, with the incompatibility that Biko’s ideas appeared to the white political thought. But the picture begs of us to reflect differently about our rhetorical and interpretative structures of thinking. And maybe in its own selfish way, it also wants us to reflect critically about pictorial regimes – that is, how pictures themselves demand of us, seduce us or plead with us to look at them and whilst looking, think critically. Thinking critically, demands of us to remember, to historicize or to think “in” the historical worlds which we incommensurably experience. It is to apply thoughts or ideas from the vantage point of that concrete reality towards changing it, as Marx “instructed” philosophy. Criticality is both necessary in the making and the reception of or looking at pictures. If indeed, there’s a causal connection between seeing and action, then images like words – of course if our departure point is “change” – must always assume a revolutionary posture. Seeing is never innocent, but mired by all sorts of ideological interruptions. We know this in colonial “acts” of seeing a la Fanon, where blackness is paradoxically seen through a militant racist gaze, that constantly reduces it into less than nothing.

The picture demands us to take notice of this denied symbolic moment. It projects the impossible as the site of black redemption. To rejoice in its specular iconicity. It’s a moment of salutation as it is also of mourning and atavistically reaching out to our ancestors. It stands against the currencies of history, of internal turmoil and small mindedness, with the arrogance of black nationalistic pride. Seeing it invites far more than temporary recognitions for aluta continua, but reflections on failures and the need to rethink radical alternatives. At this point, the picture reaches out to blacks as a site of trans-ideological affirmation, that is a moment where ideology pales off in the face of blackness. On the other hand, this transcendental gesture isn’t devoid of ideology qua black power, but rather a return, triumph or an affirmation of the Africanist and Black Power projects. In this sense, the ideological overcoming of the white liberal and leftist sponsored sectarian impulse amongst blacks, returns us back to Black Radical Nationalism. If as Moodley says, BC is our national solution, then Zuma’s bow should make sense.

To see the picture, therefore, it is not to bear witness to an appropriation, as those who have reduced Biko into a pop cultural item rather than a revolutionary, proclaim. These are not Bikoists. They are demagogues with no possibility of entering the black heavens. If Biko teaches us that black consciousness is an attitudinal or a practice based philosophy of liberation, then Zuma’s recent gestures on land, the political economy and other matters that have rattled the cage of white supremacy – at this specific juncture are its embodiment. His gesture of respect moves beyond black liberal proclamations and atavistic solidarity with BC that in action are circumscribed by white concerns. So this, in so far as the current turn of phrase is concerned and how through its consequences, enables a revolutionary situation, it is not an appropriation as a negative term, but an affirmation. His bowing to the holy tomb of Biko, performs if you like, a sacred return to Biko’s work as also prophesied by Moodley, through an actioned affirmation. After all, real fidelity to the almighty isn’t merely expressed through declarations but actions. And if faith without action is sacrilege, then BC without a black orientated praxis is liberalism.

From this view, the picture is itself a visual record or staging of a black moment in South Africa history. A moment in which photography has always rendered out of frame, uncapturable or unrecognizable. To capture a black moment, more so visually, has meant to capture it as a moment of subjection, dramatizing the ideological order of white supremacy. Or to capture black as a palatable item drowning in the kaleidoscope of multiplicity, commons, civility and colorblindness – an object whose objectivity is retained even amongst subjects. After all, capturing black has always meant to freeze one in a perspective that Frantz Fanon has said overdetermines us from without. Here, in a true symbolic moment of performative solidarity – a meeting between delinquents – unfolds with the rigour whose current visibility, invites us to relish in the rattling sounds of forthcoming revolutionary destruction. A breach not only between the living and the dead, but a breach by way of acknowledging the need to insist on black ill-discipline – a need to be undisciplined – as a method to revolutionary stimulation.

A picture might be worth a thousand words, but a revolutionary invocation is not yet calculable and even legible in colonial paradigms. Come down let’s fight!

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