THE COUNTER RENAISSANCE

A publication by and for African Youth

Issue 1: January 2001 

“Colonialism imposed its control on the social production of wealth through military conquest and subsequent political dictatorship. But its most important area of domination, was the mental universe of the colonized, the control, through culture, of how perceived themselves and their relationship to the world.”

-Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Why Counter Renaissance ?

The African Renaissance holds a great deal of promise for many of us.  It presents a rare opportunity for Africans to finally confront colonizing frameworks and also create new meanings, symbols, languages and understandings that are relevant to our environments and heritages.

In going about this, it is crucial that the presence of colonialism and the colonizing dispositions in African society is fully acknowledged. Furthermore, any ‘remedies’ that seek to redress these perversions must necessarily centralize the question of African Identity.

Unfortunately, the African Renaissance has been simplified and even distorted! It remains ambiguous on the question of African Identity and in many cases explicitly endorses Western manufactured frameworks as panaceas to the challenges that the African society is faced with. The entire history of oppression, servitude and murder is drowned in mass cheers of Scientific Progress, Economic Development and Modern Rationality. Those who engaged in the ‘lucrative’ slave trade and those who colonized African society also used the same ‘moral’ bases of the European Renaissance to justify their violent actions.

This publication is for those who wish to launch a Counter Renaissance. What it seeks to counter are those colonizing assumptions that still serve to maintain our status as beggars (of Western ideas and money) and which continue to asphyxiate unique spaces, languages, and wisdoms for the generation and expression of liberating frameworks. The Counter Renaissance will work around the three parallel strategies of 1.Decolonization; 2. Resistance; 3.Regeneration.  In terms of Decolonization, this publication sees that after several centuries of being dominated and brutalized by White Masters, African society still has residual aspects and institutions from the colonial experience within it. Meaningful and sustainable ‘solutions’ to current ‘problems’ can emerge only if we sever these colonial strings.

By Resisting, the Counter Renaissance openly rejects those seductive assumptions, plastic language and deficit-thoughts that eternalize the yoke of colonialism by continuing to convince us of our backwardness, savagery and helplessness and that only the West must save us. Through Regeneration, perhaps the most significant of the three strategies spelt out, the Counter Renaissance wants to create and nurture new realities. The spectacular failure of destructive Western paradigms now leaves Africa with the challenging task of redefining and creating its own Identity. To Regenerate, the Counter Renaissance conceives of the recovery and creation of spaces (currently taken over by Dominant voices) for genuine dialogue, reflection and questioning. This publication is a safe learning community for young people – to open themselves up to exploring their feelings, hidden talents and voices (in expressions they can connect with) and to sharing their conceptions about their Identity, their views on Dominant paradigms, and their past experiences and future dreams.

For too long, our society has been suffocated with the notion that ‘experts know-it-all’ and that ‘top ranking personalities’ hold the key to a ‘developed world’. Such grossly simplistic assumptions have had debilitating effects on African society in two ways — as arrows and as shields. As arrows, they viciously attack fresh thought that emanates from the margins of ‘high society’ (read: the youth, the ‘powerless’, the ‘poor’, the ‘illiterate’). As shields, they stubbornly prevent questioning and stunt spiritual, intellectual and societal growth! The Counter Renaissance seeks to do away with these arrows and shields because they have fortified the colonial setting in Africa. The Counter Renaissance aims to break this stranglehold and monopoly on thought. It necessarily enlivens our spirits, challenges our creativities, and connects with the dignity in each of us.

The State/Market-sponsored discussion about African Renaissance addresses these three fundamental aspects very superficially. In fact on the final aspect – Regeneration — it draws a resounding blank. This publication is open to diverse opinions and voices because this diversity provides the only way for meaningful learning. Today, a rabidly greedy culture is placing society within a vortex of highly intolerant assumptions and ‘truths’. Despite all of its hype about ‘choices’, the Market culture actually eliminates alternatives to itself by convincing us that a bright future lies only in increased slavery to consumption. The Counter Renaissance aims to help us unlearn such cancerous lies and create self-organizing alternatives.

This issue has two excerpts from Steve Biko’s I WRITE WHAT I LIKE (Randburg: South Africa, 1996 ed). With refreshing unambiguity, the writer delves deep into the essence of Identity and its dimensions. The setting is apartheid South Africa. The message however is relevant unmistakably universal, questioning the premises upon which modern institutions draw their very legitimacy and relevance, as well their role in furthering neo-apartheid.

In the first excerpt “We Blacks”, Biko talks about how the System -itself a ‘white’ creation -- manufactures a poverty more deadly than material poverty: spiritual poverty. Biko expresses the paramount need for African people to define themselves in their own terms, and to remind themselves of “(their) complicity in the crime of allowing themselves to be misused...” In the second excerpt “The Definition of Black Consciousness”, Biko lays out the roots and essence of Black Consciousness.      

- Isaac Ochien’g, Editor

 

Excerpted from “WE BLACKS”   - Steve Biko

“Born shortly before 1948*, I have lived all my conscious life in the framework of institutionalized separate development. My friend­ships, my love, my education, my thinking and every other facet of my life have been carved and shaped within the context of separate development. In stages during my life I have managed to outgrow some of the things the system taught me. Hopefully what I propose to do now is to take a look at those who participate in opposition to the system — not from a detached point of view but from the point of view of a black man, conscious of the urgent need for an understanding of what is involved in the new approach  – ‘black consciousness’.

One needs to understand the basics before setting up a remedy.  A number of organizations now currently fighting against ‘apartheid’ are working on an oversimplified premise. They have taken a brief look at what is, and have diagnosed the problem incorrectly. They have almost completely forgotten about the side effects and have not even considered the root cause. Hence whatever is improvised as a remedy will hardly cure the condition.

Apartheid — both petty and grand — is obviously evil. Nothing can justify the arrogant assumption that a clique of foreigners has the right to decide on the lives of a majority. Hence even carried out faithfully and fairly, the policy of apartheid would merit condemnation and vigorous opposition from the indigenous peoples as well as those who see the problem in its correct perspective. The fact that apartheid has been tied up with white supremacy, capitalist exploit­ation, and deliberate oppression makes the problem much more complex. Material want is bad enough but coupled with spiritual poverty it kills. And this latter effect is probably the one that creates mountains of obstacles in the normal course of emancipation of the black people.

One should not waste time here dealing with manifestations of ma­terial want of the black people. A vast literature has been written on this problem. Possibly a little should be said about spiritual poverty. What makes the black man fail to tick? Is he convinced of his own accord of his inabilities? Does he lack in his genetic make-up that rare quality that makes a man willing to die for the realization of his aspirations? Or is he simply a defeated person? The answer to this is not a clear cut one. It is, however, nearer to the last suggestion than anything else. The logic behind white domination is to prepare the black man for the subservient role in this country. Not so long ago this used to be freely said in parliament even about the educational system of the black people. It is still said even today, although in a much more sophisticated language. To a large extent the evil-doers have succeeded in producing at the output end of their machine a kind of black man who is man only in form. This is the extent to which the process of dehumanization has advanced...

In the home-bound bus or train [the Black man] joins the chorus that roundly condemns the white man but is first to praise the government in the presence of the police or his employers. His heart yearns for the comfort of white society and makes him blame himself for not having been ‘educated’ enough to warrant such luxury. Celebrated achievements by whites in the field of science — which he understands only hazily — serve to make him rather convinced of the futility of resistance and to throw away any hope that change may ever come. All in all the black man has become a shell, a shadow of man, completely defeated, drowning in his own misery, a slave, an ox bearing the yoke of oppression with sheepish timidity...

One writer makes the point that in an effort to destroy completely the structures that had been built up in the African Society and to impose their imperialism with an unnerving totality. The colonialists were not satisfied merely with holding a people in their grip and emptying the Native’s brain of all form and content, they turned to the past of the oppressed people and distorted, disfigured and de­stroyed it. No longer was reference made to African culture, it be­came barbarism. Africa was the ‘dark continent’. Religious practices and customs were referred to as superstition. The history of African Society was reduced to tribal battles and internecine wars. There was no conscious migration by the people from one place of abode to another. No, it was always flight from one tyrant who wanted to defeat the tribe not for any positive reason but merely to wipe them out of the face of this earth.

No wonder the African child learns to hate his heritage in his days at school. So negative is the image presented to him that he finds solace only in close identification white society. No doubt, therefore, part of the approach envisaged in bringing about ‘black consciousness’ has to be directed to the past, to seek to rewrite the history of the black man and to produce in it the heroes who form the core of the African background. To the extent that a vast literature about Gandhi in South Africa is accumulating it can be said that the Indian community already has started in this direction. But only scant reference is made to African heroes. A people without a positive history are like a vehicle without an engine. Their emotions cannot be easily controlled and channeled in a recognizable direction. They always live in the shadow of a more successful society. Hence in a country like ours they are forced to celebrate holidays like Paul Kruger’s day. Heroes’ day, Republic day etc., — all of which are occasions during which the humiliation of defeat is at once revived.

Then too one can extract from our indigenous cultures a lot of positive virtues which should teach the Westerner a lesson or two. The oneness of community for instance is at the heart of our culture. The easiness with which Africans communicate with each other is not forced by authority but is inherent in the make-up of African people. Thus whereas the white family can stay in an area without knowing its neighbours, Africans develop a sense of belonging to the com­munity within a short time of coming together. Many a hospital official has been confounded by the practice of Indians who bring gifts and presents to patients whose names they can hardly recall. Again this is a manifestation of the interrelationship between man and man in the black world as opposed to the highly impersonal world in which Whitey lives. These are characteristics we must not allow ourselves to lose. Their value can only be appreciated by those of us who have not as yet been made slaves to technology and the machine. One can quote a myriad of other examples. Here again ‘black consciousness’ seeks to show the black people the value of their own standards and outlook. It urges black people to judge themselves according to these standards and not to be fooled by white society who have white-washed themselves and made white standards the yardstick by which even black people judge each other.  

It is probably necessary at this stage to warn all and sundry about the limits of endurance of the human mind. This is particularly neces­sary in the case of the African people. Ground for a revolution is always fertile in the presence of absolute destitution. At some stage one can foresee a situation where black people will feel they have nothing to live for and will shout unto their God ‘Thy will be done.’ Indeed His will shall be done but it shall not appeal equally to all mortals for indeed we have different versions of His will. If the white God has been doing the talking all along, at some stage the black God will have to raise His voice and make Himself heard over and above noises from His counterpart. What happens at that stage depends largely on what happens in the intervening period. ‘Black consciousness’ therefore seeks to give positivity in the outlook of the black people to their problems. It works on the knowledge that ‘white hatred’ is negative though understandable and leads to precipitate and shot-gun methods which may be disastrous to blacks and whites alike. It seeks to channel the pent-up forces of black masses to meaningful and directional opposition basing its entire  struggle on realities of the situation. It wants to ensure clarity of purpose in the minds of the black people and possible total involvement of the masses in a struggle essentially theirs...”

 

Interrogating Identity

Over the centuries, the West, through the setting up of imperial frameworks has sought to simplify, distort or else uproot and blot out core aspects of our histories and therefore identities.

Without genuine reference points or symbols (“tools”) with which to reconstruct our own visions and understandings of who we are, the concept of Identity has been totally misconceived and in many instances even trivialized. For example Identity is consistently presented to us a Nationality issue, a Racial issue or as an Ethnic issue. The imposition and continued existence of colonizing institutions has been particularly harmful in our efforts to build an African Identity since we seem unable to unshackle ourselves from the psychological limits foreordained by them. An illustration is the woefully misplaced assumption that the mere existence of political parties and periodic elections is a prerequisite for democracy, or that only  through a (now fatal) Western commodity culture can we demonstrate the extent our ‘development’!

It will therefore be as well to make clear, first, what identity is not!  Africans have lived under the yoke of imperialism for centuries. The period of the slave trade saw imperialism at its brutal best. For those who profited immensely from this diabolic act one thing became clear. That they could indeed Dominate and exert the limits of brutality to any extent they pleased. In fact, taking a cue from the unqualified success of the slave trade, and their appetites having been whetted by its lucrative results, the white masters embarked on a new mission. Fuelled by the ideological and philosophical assumptions of the European Renaissance, imperial powers saw the conquest of  non-Western lands as ideal petry dishes in which the experimentation of these assumptions could be carried out. The scramble and partition of Africa, and the subsequent creation of modern African nation states, however ‘historic’ this process was, was therefore just a sign post on the long road of imperialism that started with the slave trade and which is today given a deceptively human face (user friendly) called colonialism.

Within the structures of these colonial nation states, have emerged formal institutions/systems that have tended to strengthen and justify the existence of the State. Formal Economic, Socio-Cultural and Political Systems with their highly centralizing/homogenizing tendencies, kill our sense of self identity. This is dehumanizing because, like products on a factory assembly line, we are forced to fit into pre- defined goals of the State. The ideals of Nationalism and Patriotism, often evoking war-like spirits across entire nations are used to manufacture loyalties around exclusionary and artificial Identities. Today, the absurdity of African Nations held captive by Market dominating powers is further complicating our search for and assertion Identity. Ultimately, endeavours to make sense of the world around us, to relate with numerous other aspects of our humanity get frustrated.

The search for an African Renaissance is more than anything else a search for an African Identity. By buying into the assumptions of the European Renaissance such as the Enlightenment, Scientific Progress and Rationality, the African Renaissance, effectively loses its own vision and Identity.  It becomes little more than reactionary drivel, a seductive word that seeks to tighten the yoke of ‘Modernity’ (and other Western manufactured constructs) upon the colonized.

I am an African who refuses to glorify the ‘victories’ against slavery or celebrate the ‘dethronement’ of formal colonial rule because Slavery and Colonial Rule still continue, albeit by other more subtle and sophisticated means.  Throughout my life, I have been both a ‘beneficiary’ and victim of colonizing processes. In school, I went through the dehumanizing effects of colonial (couched as modern) ‘education’. Like everybody else, I was made to rote ‘learn’ meaningless material that had absolutely no connection with my environment or heritage . In an endless succession of contests called tests, I had the privilege of being branded intelligent or unintelligent depending on what tests I passed. In fact, for me life became precisely that-Competition! It mattered little to me that my less ‘intelligent’ friends who constituted well over the four- fifths of the student population were to be condemned to a life of drudgery and degradation upon leaving school. The element of Competition came to characterize every aspect of life I engaged with. The fear of failure became an obsession. The streak of selfishness, hatred, and bitterness towards the Other was ‘inevitable’ because of the inherent requirement, that for me to succeed, Others had to fail. Most damaging however was the fact that in an environment of institutionalized competition, I lost sight of my Identity, my humanness, my social self and the ability to interrogate Life.

Even as I graduated from school and college, I never felt the need to take the initiative and do something that was of my own creation and that mattered to me personally. The underlying rationale for going to school was to get high marks and land a ‘great job’. But what if there was no job? What if I lost my job because the government/organization had to restructure (sack) unwanted employees? Did I have any creativities to fall back on? What vision did I have of myself? Did I have any chance of attaining an envisioned self? Throughout almost twenty years of schooling, what vision do I have for my community and society? Is the government, having existed for numerous decades, the panacea for the inadequacies in society? How can we unlearn our ‘beggar syndrome’ towards the government and formal institutions? Today, to what extent are we responsible for our own fate and destiny?  Should my entire life revolve around a ‘client’ orientation? Must my identity, as indeed my entire view of life stay within narrow, ritualized (System constructed) patterns of perception.

To this day, I wonder what ‘real’ learning opportunities existed in school. I had the experience of working (and learning) with African college students in Udaipur, India on self-sponsored publication titled 21st Century Africa. In it, were articles from the students themselves expressing what visions they had for a future Africa. It was amazing that despite almost twenty years of social conditioning (in school and college), resistance towards Dominant paradigms was so strong. The students had the opportunity to express what they understood by phrases such as Development, Democracy, Power, Progress.  Rarely did anyone ascribe to the uni-linear vision that Schooling associates these terms with. In this I also saw an attempt at constructing own senses of Identity. A sense of Identity is not necessarily articulated through mass movements and high sounding political rhetoric. It can happen, as it did via this small publication, within communities sharing some common objects, dreams, ideals.

Formal systems of education, by thriving on competition, make us ever more apprehensive and fearful of the world around us. Consciously or otherwise, ‘learners’ ingest this spirit and this apprehension and fear gets reinforced by other equally oppressive colonial frameworks in society. For example, exploitative economic systems create economic classes/entities fighting for larger shares of an ever dwindling pie. The result is that in this rat race, we lose track of who we really are and what connects us as human beings. Even when we do try to connect with our identity, it is often done for us by external authority.

It became clear to me that my entire experience with formal education alienated me not only from my environment, by forcing me to see it as backward but also from real people. Within an environment of competition, I lost sight of my Identity and even when I did engage with the question of Identity, I did so within the ridiculously narrow confines of “My Country”, “My Religion”, “My Economic status”. The desire to compare, classify and ‘conquer’ was an inherent character in my efforts to identify myself.

But I am seeking to connect with and establish my identity.  Identity, for me, would include those thoughts, actions, statements, assumptions, ideas that would help me recognize my “being”. Identity would help me break through artificial institutional identifiers.  Most importantly, it would foster the spirit of conscientious learning in me, never ascribing to rabid exclusionary tendencies. I refuse to let formal institutions shape my conceptions of identity because they do not only disempower me and thereby limit my understanding of Identity, but they also legitimize the debauchery and brutality that took place at different times in history.  By perpetuating the oppressive tendencies of existing neo-colonial frameworks, formal institutions lay the ground for further conflict and violence.

Through this publication and through constant dialogues with people, I intend to resist colonizing assumptions, explore fresh initiatives and build visions that are free of decadent colonial jargon. It is a magazine that intends to resist the colonizing assumptions of the Dominant language, the language of Power, Development, Progress, Success, Economics. This Dominant language has not only mystified reality but has also alienated us from “our” environment and from ourselves. Is this The Language that we must construct our Identity from? A new language that emerges from personal reflections, experiences, statements and conscious learning is the need of the moment. This new language must seek to break the monopoly by default given to the Dominant language as well as express our need and efforts to regenerate new frameworks, understandings and meanings.

Why it is crucial for Africa that we interrogate Identity? As long as long the lives of ordinary people the 99% of us who do not wield formal power) remain captive to colonial constructs, and as long the social fabric of “our” society continues to define itself via exclusive identities, any initiatives that intend to redress the imbalances in society are likely to remain weak and very vulnerable. A Counter Renaissance (the theme this magazine works around) is crucial in our efforts to liberating identities.

- Isaac

 

Excerpted “The Definition of Black Consciousness” - Steve Biko

“We have in our policy manifesto defined blacks as those who are by law or tradition politically, economically and socially discriminated against as a group in the South African society and identifying them­selves as a unit in the struggle towards the realization of their aspir­ations. This definition illustrates to us a number of things:

(most important) being black is not a matter of pigmentation — being black is a reflection of a mental attitude and by describing yourself as black you have started on a road towards emancipation.

From the above observations therefore, we can see that the term black is not necessarily all-inclusive; i.e., the fact we are all not white does not necessarily mean that we are all black. Non-whites do exist and will continue to exist for quite a long time.

Blacks no longer seek to reform the system because so doing implies acceptance of the major points around which the system revolves. Blacks are out to completely transform the system and to make of it what they wish. Such a major undertaking can only be realized in an atmosphere where people are convinced of the truth inherent in their stand. Liberation therefore is of paramount importance in the concept of Black Consciousness, for we cannot be conscious of our­selves and yet remain in bondage....

The surge towards Black Consciousness is a phenomenon that has manifested itself through out the so-called Third World. There is no doubt that discrimination against the black man the world over fetches its origin from the exploitative attitude of the white man. It is true that the history of weaker nations is shaped by bigger nations, but nowhere in the world today do we see whites exploiting whites on a scale even remotely similar to what is happening in South Africa. Hence, one is forced to conclude that it is not coincidence that black people are ex­ploited. It was a deliberate plan which has culminated in even so called black independent countries not attaining any real indepen­dence....

It should therefore be accepted that an analysis of our situation in terms of one’s colour at once takes care of the greatest single determinant for political action — i.e. colour — while also validly describing the blacks as the only real workers in South Africa. It immediately kills all suggestions that there could ever be effective rapport between the real workers, i.e. blacks, and the privileged white workers since we have shown that the latter are the greatest supporters of the system.

In terms of the Black Consciousness approach we recognize the existence of one major force in South Africa. This is White Racism. It works with unnerving totality, featuring both on the offensive and in our defence. Its greatest ally to date has been the refusal by us to club to­gether as blacks because we are told to do so would be racialist. So, while we progressively lose ourselves in a world of colourlessness and amorphous common humanity, whites are deriving pleasure and security in entrenching white racism and further exploiting the minds and bodies of the unsuspecting black masses. Their agents are ever present amongst us, telling us that it is immoral to withdraw into a cocoon, that dialogue is the answer to our problem and that it is un­fortunate that there is white racism in some quarters but you must understand that things are changing. These in fact are the greatest racists for they refuse to credit us with any intelligence to know what we want. Their intentions are obvious; they want to be barometers by which the rest of the white society can measure feelings in the black world. This then is what makes us believe that white power pres­ents its self as a totality not only provoking us but also controlling our response to the provocation. This is an important point to note because it is often missed by those who believe that there are a few good whites. Sure there are a few good whites just as much as there are a few bad blacks.

One must immediately dispel the thought that Black Con­sciousness is merely a methodology or a means towards an end. What Black Consciousness seeks to do is to produce at the output end of the process real black people who do not regard themselves as appendages to white society. This truth cannot be reversed. We do not need to apologize for this because it is true that the white systems have produced through the world a number of people who are not aware that they too are people. Our adherence to values that we set for ourselves can also not be reversed because it will always be a lie to accept white values as necessarily the best. The fact that a synthesis may be attained only relates to adherence to power politics. Some one somewhere along the line will be forced to accept the truth...The importance of black solidarity to the various segments of the black community must not be understated. There have been in the past a lot of suggestions that there can be no viable unity amongst blacks because they hold each other in contempt. Coloureds despise Africans because they, (the former) by their proximity to the Afri­cans, may lose the chances of assimilation into the white world. Africans despise the Coloureds and Indians for a variety of reasons. Indians not only despise Africans but in many instances also exploit the Africans in job and shop situations. All these stereotype attitudes have led to mountainous inter-group suspicions amongst the blacks.

What we should at all times look at is the fact that:

1. We are all oppressed by the same system.

2. That we are oppressed to varying degrees is a deliberate design to stratify us not only socially but also in terms of aspirations...

3. That we should go on with our programme, attracting to it only committed people and not just those eager to see an equitable dis­tribution of groups amongst our ranks. This is a game common amongst liberals. The one criterion that must govern all our action is commitment.

Further implications of Black Consciousness are to do with correcting false images of ourselves in terms of Culture, Education, Religion, Economics. The importance of this also must not be understated. There is always an interplay between the history of a people i.e. the past, and their faith in themselves and hope for their future. We are aware of the terrible role played by our education and religion in creating amongst us a false understanding of ourselves. We must therefore work out schemes not only to correct this, but further to be our own authorities rather than wait to be interpreted by others. Whites can only see us from the outside and as such can never extract and analyse the ethos in the black community...”