Steve Biko Memorial Lecture, Europe, 2012

Black Consciousness, Black Theology, Student Activism and the Shaping of the New South Africa: by Barney Pityana

Any study of Steve Biko can never be complete without a reference to his approach to religion and the role of the church. What Steve Biko had to say about the church’s role in colonization was not new. Neither was his critique of the church during white minority rule and apartheid. It was at best hesitant but most likely implicit. He therefore sought to understand how Black people themselves could overwhelmingly advance a religious consciousness that was undermining their human dignity or that as not able to practice what it teaches. His approach was not a wholesale condemnation of religion and the church. Instead he drew from a long history of Christian resistance by Black post-missionary Christians to the hegemony and control of the church by European missionaries.

 For that he had some powerful examples in Nehemiah Tile and the Ethiopian Movement, in the apocalyptic millenarian movements of the Mgijimas and the Nazarites in Bullhoek, in John Colenso and the challenge of cultural interpretation of the Bible among the Zulus, and of the more contemporary mass indigenous churches of Shembe and Lekganyane, even to the manifestations of independent theological thought of the African indigenous churches of the Zionists, charismatic and healing churches.

It was evident that for many Africans the option was not to turn their backs on Christianity but to re-interpret and practice the Christian faith by taking account of African cultures, assert independence to and leadership by Africans and express the freedom to syncretise Christian practices with African culture and rituals. There was, therefore, a view that to attack Christianity especially and the church was bound to be alienating and would be counter-productive. Besides, it was understood that with the demise of the church a whole set of values and ethical positions necessary for constructing an ethic of resistance would be gone. A process of critical reconstruction of religion was then obvious. The effect was to build on the compelling nature of religion, but undergird it with an equally compelling culture that is of the essence of being African. This process produced a sensitive and respectful understanding of the beliefs and practices of others, and drew them into the liberatory circle.

In summary then, Steve Biko and Black Consciousness began from a curiosity about human experience,raised questions that had no answers, and perhaps would never have satisfactory finite answers. Next they had a theoretical foundation for their ntellectual quest, and finally they sought a liberatory praxis that gave effect to their ideals. What is clear is that Black Consciousness drew ideas from a wide spectrum of thought and practice: from African culture and traditions to European philosophy and modern revolutionary practice. The radical effect of drawing on the language of consciousness could easily be lost sight of. It was radical in that none of South Africa's liberation formations had used that language even though black consciousness could be traced back to the 1930s. It was radical in that it sought to find explanation for the pathetic state of resignation after conquest that was evident in the early 1960s. It was to give new life to the quest for liberation.

The 2014 Steve Biko Memorial Lecture, Europe, will be delivered by Mr. Hugh Masekela at the London School of Economics on the 23rd of October 2014.

The above was extracted from Barney Pityana's 2012, Steve Biko Memorial Lecture, Europe, address.

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