Our Favourite CRT: Steve Biko

by | 29 Oct 2020

Steve Biko, I Write What I Like (A Stubbs. ed) (Heinemann 1978)

Although she was writing about the black existentialist novelist Ralph Ellison, Hortense Spillers could easily have also been referring to Stephen Bantu Biko when she invokes the figure of a Black thinker who revises “’blackness’ into a critical posture” – “a strategy [and] process of culture critique” – and harnesses it to “a symbolic program of philosophical ‘disobedience’” understood as “systematic scepticism and refusal”.[1] This rendering of Biko and Black Consciousness in philosophical terms allows us to overturn a set of distortions and commodifications that would reduce him to empty catchphrases and quotations; exploit his image on T-shirts; falsely associate him with “post”-apartheid rainbowism; and consign him to a deserted past. 

Biko’s search for a liberated future that could turn the tide of racial history begins as a philosophical contestation over the historical interpretation of South Africa’s social reality. Where the dominant analytical and political discourses of the time operated from the premise of juridical and economic apartheid as the central problem, Biko from a long view of history identified white supremacy itself as the much deeper problem. In so doing, he recentres the contradictions of race, conquest and white power as key terms in the theoretical lexicon of South African politics. From this interpretive divergence, Biko develops Black Consciousness as a theory and politics of black liberation composed principally of three acts: (1) Black people’s social awareness of the foundational anti-blackness of the modern world; (2) a psychological recognition and situating of oneself as proudly Black and (3) the re-symbolisation of blackness as a building-block towards the annulment of the anti-black world and the creation of new social reality, a “true humanity” informed by the history, experience and worldview of African peoples here and in diaspora.

The politicisation of the Black condition under colonial-apartheid required Blacks to construct their own universe of experience tied to their own culture and history. This recentring of the Black experience constitutes part of the struggle by the oppressed to reclaim their humanity and political subjectivity – to be people who speak, think and act for and by themselves. Crucially, this process of disalienation mandated the complete repudiation of white influence and involvement of any kind in Black political struggles. Far from its popular depiction as anti-white racial exclusivism, this process has the two-fold implication of eliminating the scorching power of the white gaze and tasking of self-proclaimed white progressives with the political responsibility of educating and proselytising their own communities into anti-racism and democracy. Biko’s attentiveness to the interior life of the Black subject served as a bridge connecting the need for cultural, psychological and intellectual transformation of Black communities to the fashioning of a revolutionary politics of national liberation. South Africa, Biko suggests, will not return to itself and to the African people to whom it belongs, if the concept of reality, knowledge and reason imposed by the white settler-colonialist was not dislodged from epistemic legitimacy and authority.

At the same time as it attends to the psycho-social reorientation of the Black subject, Black Consciousness supplies us with an alternative theory of the South African situation derived from the ontological position of being-black-in-the-world. In Biko’s analysis, the source of racism is traced back to the colonial conquest of what would later be called “South Africa” – a process which introduced a Manichean political ontology meant to secure the material and symbolic interests of whites and to expel Blacks from the very definition of humanity. Through land dispossession, labour exploitation, unequal spatial distribution, economic deprivation, state violence, cultural decimation and psycho-social conditioning, a now almost four-centuries long system of white supremacy was created and reified in South Africa. This “totality of white power” then entrenches itself into both the physical world (as social structure) and in the psychic world (as ideology and consciousness) and then splits in the world into two – the white world of the colonial settler and the black world of the indigenous Africans.  

So historically deep are the markers of race that none can escape or will away the effects of its positionings and the identifications it engenders. In white supremacist South Africa, race as a social identity comes to carry inordinate weight – materially locating us within relations of power as well as shaping how we perceive and understand the world.  Blackness and whiteness on this view are not only products of discourse, ideology and representation but also more significantly the outcome of constitutive historical processes. This makes identity a “real” phenomenon of the social world and thus a site of struggle and contestation.  In Black Consciousness, the rejection of the worldview of the oppressor necessitated the epistemological, cultural and aesthetic affirmation of African and black identity.  This puts an end to the negation of blackness which drives it into disappearance through assimilation and mimesis of whites and instead claims Africanity as a source of difference and resistance. 

The nexus between Biko’s understanding of race and identity revolves around what he deems as the fundamental lack of mutuality that white racism produces between Blacks and whites. The introduction by Europeans of a racial metaphysics based on domination and stratification has, according to Biko, produced such a profound fissure in the moral and political landscape as to threaten the very possibility of a more just and ethical future:

 The whites in this country have placed themselves on a path of no return. So blatantly exploitative in terms of the mind and body is the practice of white racism that one wonders if the interests of blacks and whites in this country have not become so mutually exclusive as to exclude the possibility of there being “room for all of us at the rendezvous of victory”. The white man’s quest for power has led him to destroy with utter ruthlessness whatever has stood in his way. (66) 

Biko’s central protest against settler-colonialism and white racism was after all that it forces Blacks to live in a world that is not of their making, a world designed by their conquerors, and hence a world opposed to their very existence. That world – “South Africa” – must therefore come to an end in order to open the horizon towards a liberatory future. What Biko designates as a two-pronged physical and psychological liberation is a movement to effectively annul relations of conquest and undo the psychological, cultural and social effects of colonial-apartheid.  This is a political aspiration not to be post-apartheid or even post-colonial but to be post-conquest.

[1] H Spillers “Peter’s Pans”: Eating in the Diaspora” in Black, White and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago 2003) 5


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