By Andile Mngxitama
Often I underestimate the role of mentors. I find it too elitist. Truth is, I had mentors guiding my understanding of Black Consciousnes (BC). They didn’t call themselves mentors. They were my comrades. But now when I see the mistakes and egoistical over-indulgence of people who come to radical black thought through “self education”, I can see why mentors are so important.
The autodidact (self educator) suffers from a lack of structure and knowledge of the history of the idea. So for instance after reading one thing on Steve Biko, which you really like, you declare him the master of masters. But you really only read on the surface. Then you read something criticizing Christianity and you become a critic of the religion. You subsequently discover that Biko was actually a Christian and consequently denounce him and proclaim yourself a follower of Marcus Garvey. But because you read without guidance you actually don’t know until later that Garvey was a worse Christian than Biko. At this stage you curse both Biko and Garvey and proclaim yourself the new philosopher of black liberation. You still don’t realise how ignorant you are.
Mentors help because they have made all those mistakes, maybe 20 or 40 years before. They have come to understand things a little deeper and in more complex ways. They can hold your hand and point to where you should search and how to evaluate text and data. So you build on your knowledge and understanding cumulatively. You don’t jump around into extreme contradictions.
The second aspect of knowledge development is to be part of a community of thinkers and seekers. So you bounce ideas off, get critical feedback and grow in the process. Without this you end up making big mistakes. When I get a bright idea, I generally pass it through a few people that I know take thinking seriously to get feedback. See what I’m saying? It’s a community!
The late Bassie Gugushe boot camped me into BC through an intense 12 months process. I was an High School kid then. Every Sunday we would meet and he would give me a piece of literature or a paper to read. When we met the next Sunday he would ask me to summarize the main argument of what I read; and tell him what I thought are the weaknesses. He would then give me a detailed response that would touch on the larger context of the document and who the players are – so that I don’t read a dead document. Bassie had a curriculum and outcomes in his mind. This happened weekly. By the time he gave me the Freedom Charter I could develop my criticism because I had accumulated a perspective.
Bassie also added practice. He would stop and provoke an African National Congress (ANC) leader in the township and say, for instance, that non-racialism is bullshit and what we need is anti-racism. He would then remain silent and leave me to wrestle with the ANC leader. I’m an High School kid remember? On a few occasions he let me loose on the current Mayor of Potchefstroom, Khotso Khumalo.
I raise all this because some comrades make serious honest mistakes. They think that Biko didn’t study the classics and they can therefore throw cheap shots at him.
I encourage everyone to cultivate themselves intellectually but advise that mentorship and a community that takes thinking seriously may just help you from shooting yourself in the foot.
I must add that during my last year of High School, Bassie was assassinated in Potch. I then came to live in Soweto in the same house with Khotso Seatlholo and Khethani Nkabinde, both former Robben Islanders and South African Youth Revolutionary Council (SAYRCO) leaders. These ones threw bombs and had no time for small detail. I read even more in a community of thinkers. I’m grateful.
Andile Mngxitama is the President of Black First Land First (BLF), a radical black consciousness organization.