Biko’s archetype: Are you a ‘real black’?

by The Editor

InsidePoliticsFEATURE: We are currently involved, as ever, in an intense discussion about identity. On the one hand we have a series of prejudiced comments about sexual orientation (Mulholland), race (Schutte), culture and gender (Zuma); on the other, the various responses to them. But such debates are nothing new, especially when it comes to race and culture. The debate addressing what it is to be a ‘real black’ or ‘African’, for example, is far older than South Africa’s new democracy. And so it is worth returning to its origins. In the article below I look at the writings of one of the key thinkers behind Black Consciousness – Steve Biko – and his views on the subject, before concluding they are no different from or less problematic than those more recent comments about which so many are rightfully outraged.

Biko’s archetype: Are you a ‘real black’?

By: Gareth van Onselen

7 January 2013


I wrote this piece some time ago but three recent events make it relevant today.

First, Jacob Zuma’s suggestion that black South Africans stop adopting the habits of other cultures. Much has been made of his comment about dogs, curiously less of this, equally wrongheaded remark: “Even if you apply any kind of lotion and straighten your hair you will never be white.” It is one of several such disparging comments about women and African culture made by the President. In August last year he said it was “not right” for women to be single, and that having children is “extra training for a woman”.

Second, a moralising rant from Gillian Schutte (self-described as a ‘sister settler’), imploring “white people” to “wake up and smell Africa with a fresh white nose”.

Third, a column by Stephen Mulholland, in which he wrote that gay marriage was “neither the norm nor ultimately desirable”.

All three events have at their core the same impulse: the belief that identity is homogenous; whether it is race, sexual orientation or gender, that each of these elements of one’s identity are both defining and absolute – and can be mapped precisely. They are however, collectively and individually, bigotted; each an attempt to reduce human nature to a single set of defining characteristics, seemingly good or bad, and all are wrong.

Generally this impulse enjoys the greatest amount of public space where race is concerned – South Africa’s favourite pastime. And much time and effort is devoted by many to try and determine what it is to be ‘black’, to be ‘African’ or, indeed, to be a ‘real black’. Against this background, it is worth returning to the main architect behind much of this thinking in South Africa – Steve Biko – and his writings on the subject.

Below I have set out some thoughts on Biko’s particular form of Black Consciousness and why it is problematic.


What, according to Steve Biko, was ‘African’ or ‘black’ culture?

One can paint by a composite picture by going through his various writings and distilling from them those instances where he describes ‘African’ or ‘black’ culture, or the nature of ‘blackness’ or ‘black’ identity. By pulling them together, one can identify what Biko calls a “real Black”. Below is a selection of those instances.

Why was this important to Biko?

Biko argues that the purpose of Black Consciousness was to “ensure a singularity of purpose in the minds of black people…” because black Africans don’t want merely to be people “living in Africa.” Instead, he says: “We want to be called complete Africans”. For Biko that involved identifying the core attributes of ‘African’ culture, taking pride in them and fighting for them to be recognised as the defining nature of black Africans. Put another way, for Biko, a single racial identity was the cornerstone on which mental and physical liberation should be built.

He thus placed much emphasis on defining what a ‘true’ black person was or is – the attributes they would exemplify. By going through his various writings, one can pull some of them together, in an attempt to get a overall picture of what he meant.

Here, then, are some of his various descriptions:

• “The oneness of community for instance is at the heart of our culture.” [‘We Blacks’, Frank Talk]
• The easiness with which Africans communicate with each other is not forced by authority, but is inherent in the make up of African people.” [‘We Blacks’, Frank Talk]
• “Africans develop a sense of belonging to the community within a short time of coming together.” [‘We Blacks’, Frank Talk]
• “One of the most fundamental aspects of our culture is the importance we attach to Man. Ours has always been a Man-centred society.” [‘Some African Cultural Concepts’, 1971]
• “We believe in the inherent goodness of man.” [‘Some African Cultural Concepts’, 1971]
• “We regard our living together not as an unfortunate mishap warranting endless competition among us but as a deliberate act of God to make us a community…” [‘Some African Cultural Concepts’, 1971]
• “We always refrain from using people as stepping stones.” [‘Some African Cultural Concepts’, 1971]
• “Nothing dramatizes the eagerness of the African to communicate with each other more than their love for song and rhythm.” [‘Some African Cultural Concepts’, 1971]
• “Music in the African culture features in all emotional states.” [‘Some African Cultural Concepts’, 1971]
• “The major thing to note about our songs is that they were never songs for individuals. All African songs are group songs.” [‘Some African Cultural Concepts’, 1971]
• “Whereas the Westerner is geared to use a problem-solving approach following very trenchant analyses, our approach is that of situation-experiencing.” [‘Some African Cultural Concepts’, 1971]
• “We as a community are prepared to accept that nature will have its enigmas which are beyond our powers to solve.” [‘Some African Cultural Concepts’, 1971]
• “All people are agreed that Africans are a deeply religious race.” [‘Some African Cultural Concepts’, 1971]
• “We must seek to restore to the black people a sense of the great stress we used to lay on the value of human relationships; to highlight the fact that in pre-Van Riebeek days we had a high regard for the people, their property and life in general; to reduce the hold of technology over man and to reduce the materialistic element that is slowly creeping into the African character.” [‘White Racism and Black Consciousness’ 1972]
• “Ours is a true man-centred society who sacred tradition is that of sharing.” [‘Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity’]
• “Now in African society it is a cardinal sin for a child to lose respect for his parent.” [‘Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity’]
• “…we regard [black magic] as part of the mystery of our cultural heritage…” [‘What is Black Consciousness?’ 1976]
• “We do not accept superstition. We do not accept witchcraft…” [‘What is Black Consciousness?’ 1976]

In summary, then, how might one describe the archetypal black African – someone who embodies ‘authentic’ African culture and whose behaviours and attitudes are a consequence of ‘true’ African tradition, according to Biko?

Such a person would be an excellent communicator. They would be gregarious and social, disinclined to keep to themselves or to enjoy solitude. They would thrive among other people, even if in a new environment and quickly establish friendships. They would be inherently optimistic. They would be religious, but in a particular way: they would be Christian. They would be noble, never taking advantage of others. They would love music and dance but, again, in a specific way: only music that celebrated community and sharing. They would not be analytically minded, relying rather on experience to engage with the world and its challenges. They would not be inquisitive, or seek answers to the natural world that surrounds them. They would shun new technology and not pursue the materialistic trappings of modern culture. They would respect their parents.

And remember, that represents merely a selection of attributes and attitudes. Biko provides many more in his various writings.

The problem is I know of no such black person in the real world. True, I know many who, by coincidence, embody one or two maybe even four or five of those characteristics, but no one who embodies them all. In the other direction, I know some white South Africans who fit much in that description, does that mean they are, in fact, ‘black’?

I know black people who love all kinds of music and I know black people who don’t like music at all; black people who celebrate and advocate individualism; who are pessimistic; black people who do not respect their parents; black people who are reclusive and do not enjoy the company of others; black people who are not religious, in fact, who find religion ridiculous; black people who are profoundly analytically-minded, rational and insightful and who constantly seek out evidence-based answers to the mystery of the world around them; black people who embrace and love modern technology; who are capitalists, entrepreneurs and industry leaders; and black people who are selfish and manipulative and take advantage of others.

Indeed, I know many people, of many different racial persuasions, to whom those things are applicable. I know such people because what I am describing is humanity, in all its messy glory; what Biko was describing is an imagined and subjective racial ideal. And one insists on the latter over the former to one’s peril.

The point is: the minute you attach a racial qualification to any idea you warp its true nature. And the problem with any archetype is that it only has to fail in one of its characteristics to fail completely. Today, no doubt due in part to Biko’s legacy, South Africa is awash with such things: ‘black businessmen’, ‘black professionals’, ‘black lawyers’, ‘black editors’ – every single one an artificial construct that, on closer inspection, is no more coherent nor consistent than the idea of ‘white businessmen’ or ‘white lawyers’.

(The irony of dividing black people up by profession in this way, lost on those whom advocate such things – is that, presumably, a ‘black’ lawyer is different from a ‘black editor’, or why distinguish between the two in the first place. Biko himself would have disapproved. His understanding at least was generic, to be applied to all Black Africans.)

In short, Biko’s archetype is a fiction.

Indeed, the very attempt to racially categorise black people in this way is no different from Afrikaner nationalism’s attempt to define white people as particular and homogenous. And, the more radical the nationalism, the more radical the attempt to define the race group at its core. The AWB, for example, could go into great detail about ‘die Volk’, who they were and who they were not. By taking the exercise to extremes, you can reveal its inherent silliness: what, I wonder, does a ‘real’ Afrikaner have for breakfast, or what colour socks does a ‘real’ black wear? Do they wear socks at all? Trust me, somewhere out there is a person with serious answers to those questions. Or, at least, answers they think are serious.

And so Biko’s attempt at social engineering is revealed to be little more than a racial stereotype, romanticized but unreal. Importantly, if taken seriously, it is also dangerous (because that is what it is to try and impose on a people a single, definitive identity). The difference between the archetype Biko describes and the reality I describe is a simple one: Biko’s is a racial fiction, mine is a description that could be applied to any race, because there no such thing as a homogenous or absolute culture or race and to try and impose one on the world is a totalitarian idea.

It represents a regressive attempt to control behaviour and, in truth, is insulting to many black South Africans who do not see themselves as ‘black’ but rather define themselves by a range of other traits and characteristics particular to them as individuals.

Perhaps more to the point, the broader implications inherent to Biko’s description are backward, run against progress and stand in conflict to many of the civil liberties and freedoms we enjoy under a modern democracy; the most important being: the right to be who you want.

Here are two examples:

One can never demand respect, it must be earned (Biko describes a child’s possible lack of respect for their parents as “a cardinal sin”, presumably the same status murder enjoys; certainly it is the cardinal sin). No doubt there are many parents who deserve respect – who are caring, wise and protective; at the same time, no doubt, there are many who do not – who are abusive, callous or indifferent. To impose respect upon a child – indeed, upon anyone – is to demand unthinking deference and excuses those demanding it from their responsibility. But the idea is more subjective still – even if someone is deserving of respect, it needn’t be forthcoming. What one respects says much about them, their values and principles, but it is one’s to give and cannot be insisted upon regardless of behaviour, merely engendered and encouraged through good deeds. To divorce the idea from those necessary good deeds and attitudes is to denude it of its value. Certainly one’s race is entirely irrelevant to the issue.

Likewise, rationality and evidence-based thinking is a necessary component in order that knowledge, progress and scientific advancement thrive. Anyone interested in the betterment of the human condition needs to try and understand it and its effect. To shun intellectual curiosity is to retard education and rational thought. Democracy demands something else, primarily an emphasis in the other direction. In turn, it undermines freedom. If “situational experience” is an allusion to emotion rather than rationality well, emotion has its place, but it is of little help in determining right from wrong. For that you need principles, more often than not an exercise in counter-intuition.

Biko’s argument detracts from basic human rights as the fundamental cornerstone of equality. Because if you agree that people, on the basis of nothing more than their race, are different – if a group mentality is hard-wired into them – then on what basis do you argue we are all equal before the law? If certain people are inherently communal, for example, surely it is unfair to expect them to uphold every individual civil liberty?

The problem with Biko, a man as brave as he was ideologically misguided, is that he was on the side of the angels. In the big picture he dedicated himself to overthrowing the evils of apartheid and liberating South Africa and black South Africans from racial oppression, the price for which he paid with his own life. There can be no greater sacrifice. And for that he deserves much praise and recognition. His death was a powerful metaphor for a just fight and the inhumanity of what he stood in opposition to. That alone had a powerful effect, at home and abroad, on the struggle against apartheid. But the result is that his ideology enjoys far more legitimacy than it should. And, in reflecting on his death, one shouldn’t make the mistake of endorsing everything he stood for. In truth, he tried to beat Afrikaner nationalism at its own game: by advocating Black Consciousness – an attempt to create a strong, homogenous black identity in the other direction.

Consider, for example, these descriptions of black South Africans from apartheid (‘bantus’ in apartheid jargon):

• “The bantu is not lacking in intelligence; what he lacks chiefly is ambition.” [The Dean of Bloenfontein, the Very Reverend CC Tugman]
• “They are by nature a cheerful race; if you make their souls happy, they are a dancing, singing, happy race.” [Mr C E de Wet Nel, National Party Wonderbloem, House of Assembly]
• “The difference between these two races (Negros and Caucasoids [whites]) is so great that ethnologists no longer regard them as members of the same species.” [Mr Ron Stevenson, National Forum]
• “You have to know a black to realise that he wants someone to be his boss. They can’t think quickly.” [Mr Arrie Paulus, Chief Secretary of the all-white Mineworkers’ Union]
• “Time and distance mean nothing to blacks. They only know two times and that is that the sun will rise and the sun will set.” [Regional Magistrate Mr M S Knox]*


The very essence of apartheid racism was that it attached to black South Africans a series of pejorative, degrading and artificially homogenous attributes, which it often tried to legislate for. Essentially, and as horrific, demeaning and dehumanising as they were, what Biko was arguing is that the problem wasn’t the act of stereotyping, it was the type of stereotyping used. Thus he set about providing his own set of ostensibly empowering characteristics that defined a “real black”. But labeling is labeling. Good or bad, both denude the individual of their unique wonder – and repress more than liberate.

The phrase ‘real black’ is deeply ironic, for it holds within it an admission of failure, of difference and diversity. If there is such a thing as a ‘real black’ then, at the same time, there must exist such a thing as a ‘unreal black’. The abstract undermined by the actual. Likewise, it necessitates a debate about who, exactly, has the authority precisely to determine such parameters. Is Zuma’s description definitive? I know of many black South Africans who disagree with it. Is Biko’s? Who are the gatekeepers of cultural identity? (They are highly contested, and that tells you everything.) You will be surprised how often they are those in positions of power, and to whom that power has afforded their insecurity enough egoism to project onto the world their own private moral code.

If one buys into Black Consciousness, just as if someone buys into Afrikaner nationalism or white superiority, one sees the world in racial stereotypes and individuals reduced down to replicas of some ideological factory model – all the same, indistinguishable and homogenous. And that is to strip every person of the many and varied wonders that define each of us for who we are. If that is the game you wish to play, the trappings are many and varied. For who, really, is ‘black’, after all?


Returning briefly to those three recent examples cited in the background to this piece, each is an illustration of exactly the kind of bias Biko advocates: the idea that race or gender or homosexuality – even culture for that matter – is in itself a defining feature of identity; against which a set characteristics (often prejudiced) can be ascribed and people judged. There is no difference between Biko trying to define a ‘real black’ and Mulholland the ‘real’ nature of marriage. Both are born of the same wrongheaded attitude. And both of them, profoundly problematic.

Just like Biko, one could produce a list of attributes according to Zuma, or Schutte or Mulholland about what it is or is not to be gay, African, a woman, white, or black; an archetype for each. And, just like Biko, each would be a fiction. Only when we begin to understand that each person is different and, therefore, unique, will we begin to appreciate that those generalisations that are culture, race, gender and sexual orientation are merely a broad set of influences on one’s character and by no means defining. More importantly, that acting like they are is anathema to individual liberty and, ultimately, freedom itself.

* Drawn from Ben Maclennan’s ‘Apartheid: The lighter side’.

  • Gareth van Onselen (@GvanOnselen) is the Editor of Inside Politics (@insidepols), Winner: Best Political Blog 2012.

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