NGO’s, Africa and Global Power: Decolonial Meditations

September 15, 2020


This book is a product of many discussions with colleagues in the African network of civil society formations. Portions of it began as papers and presentations in consultative conferences of the African Union platform for NGOs known by the acronym, CIDO, and later those of the Economic and Social Committee of the African Union. Some elements have been presented in the meetings of the SADC Council of NGOs where I have sought to focus on the workings of the NGO environment rather than just the substantive agenda that NGOs pursue. The Trust Africa sponsored continental consultative workshops on the legal framework and civil society as well as one on NGO responses to illicit flow of capital. The ideas have also been refined in several other more academic conferences on the African predicament, the impact of global imperial designs on African civil society, and he question of development in the global south. I would like to acknowledge, therefore, all these networks of NGOs that provided a stimulating environment for me to contribute to creative thinking about how the African civil society ought to response to the shifts in geopolitics and geoeconomics that have a bearing on them, including the question of creative alternative imaginations for NGOs in Africa.

Extensive discussions with the likes of Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, Morgan Ndlovu, Edith Phaswana, William Mpofu, Vusi Gumede, the late Sam Moyo, Jimi Adesina, Candice Moore, Peter Vale, Puleng Segalo, Charles Nyukyonge, Serges Kamga, Kwesi Prah jnr and many others on decolonial perspectives and political questions covered in this book have helped me shape the epistemic orientation embedded in this book. But the errors of thought and approach are fully mine. My family has also encouraged and graciously allowed me time and space to work through this book.

The book is designed to stimulate a debate about the predicament of the NGO and the African condition in the current global climate. It is meant to encourage discussions on African civil society to make connections with the African post-colonial condition and the imperial designs ingrained in the structure of global power. It is an invitation to a brutally honest conversation about the domestic and eternal conditions that explain the deferred dream, shattered expectations and abiding illusions. There is also an interest in contributing to imaginative thinking about possible and decolonial future as represented by the discussion in the last three chapters. It does not exhaust all the angles from this analytical approach could have been conducted.

Reading Biko: Critical and Reflective Essays

September 15, 2020


These reflective essays continue the debate Bantu Biko upheld in his lifetime more than four decades ago. The book is not about the man’s life; it is not a biography but it explores Biko’s ideas and the way they shaped and are continuing to shape South African history and the world. The black experience is discussed and studied phenomenologically and it enhances the understanding of the meanings of the black experience by black people as they live it. In doing this, I use Biko’s spectacles to reflect on his lived experience in South Africa. I have tried to theorise on Biko’s ideas that he captured in practices that were prereflective. Therefore, I have explored Biko’s insights as I endeavoured to enter the Black Consciousness space to understand the man and his epistemic standing hence his philosophy. Scientists refer to this as the epoche, in an attempt to understand Biko’s black experience I unravel his insights before closing in on the meaning of his experience as it reveals itself in our current consciousness – this is what we refer to as reduction. We may like to see phenomenology as a science that makes our work easier and palatable. Yet Martin Heidegger (2000:12) cautions that it “never makes things easier, but only more difficult”.  As we delve into the meaning of Biko in this book, we get to understand the meaning and the essence of Black Consciousness. Biko himself was fascinated and reflected often on people such as Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire, Kwame Nkrumah, Stokely Carmichael and Julius Nyerere. He responds to his world trying to understand his blackness and confronting his suffering through the sober reflection on the works of others. Van Mane (2007:12) describes phenomenology as a project:

[…] that is driven by fascination: being swept up in a spell of wonder, a fascination with meaning. The reward phenomenology offers are the moments of seeing-meaning or “in-seeing” into “the heart of things” as Rilke so felicitously put it. Not unlike the poet, the phenomenologist directs the gaze toward the regions where meaning originates, wells up, percolates through the porous membranes of past sedimentations – and then infuses us, permeates us, infects us, touches us, stirs us, exercises a formative affect.

Whilst the phenomenological approach is not fault free it has immense roles such as adjusting to new ideas as they emerge, contribute to the development of new knowledge, and understanding people’s meanings (among others). Reading Biko: Reflective and Critical Essays came because of reading Biko’s texts through a form of phenomenology referred to as hermeneutic phenomenology. This includes a skill of reading texts and thereafter isolate themes: there are several of these themes; power, history, culture, colonialism and identity are among these. The chapters contain what Sloan and Bowe (2014) refer to as written interpretations of lived experience. These authors cite Van Manen (1997) who points out that in the application of hermeneutic phenomenology the requirement “is to examine the text, to reflect on the content to discover something ‘telling’ something ‘meaningful’, something ‘thematic’ (Sloan and Bowe 2014:1292). In explicating Biko’s philosophy, the chapters critically look into the Black Consciousness Movement’s (BCM’s) role in South Africa.

A man of stature whom many people referred to in various names, some even referring to him as the Father of Black Consciousness in South Africa.  Some may argue though that the latter title may strip Biko of his wisdom and magnanimity because when he is referred to as a father, this may seem that Black Consciousness (BC) in South Africa cannot and should not develop beyond him. Yet BC continued to live and to be interrogated decades after Biko. The essays reflect mainly Biko’s voice; a young man who joins the struggle due to black oppression and imperialism whose consequences he witnessed daily in black communities. They also demonstrate his ideas, the revolutionary who became pragmatic in villages where he sought to liberate the mind of the oppressed. The notions in these essays are also ideas Biko debated with his comrades that include B. Nyameko Pityana, Ranwedzi Nengwekhulu, Strini Moodley, Bokwe Mafuna, Deborah Matshoba, Mamphele Ramphele Motlalepula Kgware, Vuyelwa Mashalaba, Thoko Mbanjwa, Manana Kgware and many others; his ideas were cooked by this collective. Biko shared his revolutionary conceptions with many of his contemporaries as well as those who came before him. He cites Frantz Fanon when he writes about the national consciousness and the consciousness of the self. Biko (1987:69) argues,

National consciousness and its spread in South Africa has to work against a number of factors. First, there are the traditional complexes, then the emptiness of the native’s past and lastly the question of Black-White dependency. The traditional inferior-superior Black-White complexes are deliberate creations of the colonialist…As Fanon puts it: “Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the Native’s brain of all form and content; by a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it.” At the end of it all, the blacks have nothing to learn on, nothing to cheer them up now and very much to be afraid of in the future.

Biko lived and died trying to entrench Black Power and black affirmation in South Africa. He instilled a potent spirit of BC that defied subservience of black people to the white domination. He was in constant search for a non-racial future in South Africa like many other leaders before him. The Pan Africanist Congress of Azania’s leader, Robert Sobukwe stated that the position of the Africanists is that there is only one race that we all belong to, and that is the human race (SAHO, nd). Years later Biko (1987:98-99) echoed this when he pointed that:

Blacks have had enough experience as objects of racism not to wish to turn the tables. While it may be relevant now to talk about black in relation to white, we must not make this our preoccupation, for it can be a negative exercise. As we proceed, further towards the achievement of our goals let us talk more about ourselves and our struggle and less about whites.

We have set out on a quest for true humanity, and somewhere on the distant horizon, we can see the glittering prize. Let us march forth with courage and determination, drawing strength from our common plight and our brotherhood. In time, we shall be in a position to bestow upon South Africa the greatest gift possible—a more human face.

Biko’s thoughts revolved on the restoration of the black people’s perceived sub-human nature back to humanity. No government policies during his day accorded black people with fairness and justice.  Colonialism and racism had robbed the black people of these humane qualities; education, health, housing, employment all justified why black people should have less quality in these. The BCM contended that no black cause sympathisers or liberals can free the black people; black people needed to believe in themselves, love their blackness and transform psychologically so that they could be able to free themselves from bondage. These were philosophies first buttressed by the American sociologist and Pan-Africanist author, WEB Du Bois (2003) who points out that in America of the 1920s people of African origin should be proud of their blackness, which should imbue a psychological strength. Du Bois (2003) was concerned that the Black American had what he termed “double consciousness” that tended to make black people lose their sense of identity. The Black American was confused by an internal conflict; not knowing whether they were Africans or Americans. Many other black Pan-African writers worldwide spoke about the need to intensify black awareness and fight against colonialism and oppression. In fact, Langston Hughes, WEB Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Robert Sobukwe are among the philosophers who highlighted the need for black people to pursue redefinition as they tried to break colonial oppression. Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton (1967:51) emphasise this need of the black individual’s redefinition in America:

Black people must redefine themselves, and only they can do that. Throughout this country, vast segments of the black communities are beginning to recognise the need to assert their own definitions, to reclaim their history, their culture; to create their own sense of community and togetherness…When we begin to define our own image, the stereotypes – that is, lies – that our oppressor has developed will begin in the white community and end there.

As long as black people in the world are oppressed, BC’s existence will make enormous sense. As long as Black children grow up knowing that “white is right and black has a fleck”, the communities will need the instilling of black pride. As long as the derision of black cultures created by colonialism and apartheid, BC should rise. We have a huge challenge when post-apartheid institutions in South Africa have problems with the adoption of black indigenous languages, for example. There is a dilemma when education that is supposed to be the leveller in society shuns the Black culture and identity.

With twelve chapters, the book is divided in to four sections:

  • History, Values and Culture;
  • Black Consciousness Today;
  • Black Consciousness as the National Consciousness and
  • Black Consciousness and the Future.

The first section History, Values and Culture centres on various angles how the BCM views issues of values and culture. Chapter one, Black Consciousness and History examines the past that is the idea of decolonising African historiography. Tracing history of Black Consciousness in South Africa the discussion examines what was central in the formation of Black Consciousness and how Biko and his comrades were influenced by ideas from outside South Africa.  Biko was concerned about the absence of black heroes in history and how the colonial narrative had twisted the black perspective. Generally, Black Consciousness seeks to address the “theft of history” if one were to borrow the phrase from Jack Goody (2006). Biko iterates the role of Africans in resisting colonial advancement and subsequent oppression. History is critical to Black Consciousness and the formation of the South African Student Organisation (SASO) itself came because of peering into history. It was vital for black people building theory and solidarity in resistance to oppression to understand the origins of black people. Black Consciousness adherents refer to the Promised Land, South Africa as Azania – the chapter looks at this concept as well. Where is the word coming from?

The second chapter, Of Culture and Language: A Question of Human Rights looks at the origins of strife for black people. It follows history of colonial wars, oppression and the struggle to decolonise blackness.  Over the years black people lost a number of human rights; the Western philosophies and the domination of whiteness brought with them linguicides (killing of indigenous languages), historicides (killing of history), culturecides (killing of history) and epistemicides (killing and disregard of indigenous knowledges). All these have misplaced the black people and made them to be doubtful about their identity and consciousness.

The 2015 rise of the students at higher education institutions in South Africa made the society see how crucial the decolonisation of culture and language had become. The #RhodesMustFall Movement for example, has been a move for black people in particular to unravel the dominant culture as they asserted the black identities.  The chapter also focuses on the importance of language in decolonising knowledge and shirking off oppression.  The Black Consciousness Movement was always concerned that it was only English and Afrikaans that dominated in South Africa. The freeing of the black person would be incomplete without the realisation of human rights that would make them be whole and be human again.

Then chapter three, Black Consciousness and the Arts: Appraising ingoapele madingoane’s Black trial shifts towards the arts. Many artists in the late 1960s and 1970s were inspired by Black Consciousness and with their creativity pumped much into the life of BC. In fact there was a realisation in the 70s that black art had been in the hands of whites who had determined the kind of art that black people should consume. But black artists began organising themselves and expressing themselves in works that were unapologetic thus expressing black pain. Artist made art a vehicle of societal and environmental change (Black Community Programmes, 1972). This chapter specifically focuses on the work of the “BC poet” Ingoapele Madingoane’s two epic poems; black trial and africa my beginning. Madingoane’s anthology was published in 1979 but was banned immediately after its publication. Yet poets around the country throughout the early 1980s defiantly recited the work. The work was in support of the struggle of the BCM. Madingoane included the themes of history and culture in these two epic poems, elements that demonstrated his allegiance to the ideology and belief in black pride. There is also mention of various other “Black Consciousness” poets such as Mongane Serote, Mafika Gwala, Mbuyiseni Mtshali, Mafika Mbuli, Sipho Sepamla and Mandlenkosi Langa.  The work of all these artists is traced from the work of Black Renaissance artists of America in the 1920s. The chapter also briefly discusses the negritude poets and their philosophy and how it can be linked to Black Consciousness.

The second section entitled, Black Consciousness Today has three chapters. Chapter five explores the concept of barbarism as a concept that refers to demeaning blackness. Some black people can hate themselves and seek to distance themselves from blackness and this too is barbarism. Whiteness with its privileged position is opposed to blackness and whites who support colonialism have reverted to barbarism. The denial of the existence of white privilege is barbarism.

The fifth chapter looks at The Luister incident at Stellenbosch University in 2015. Entitled, Higher Education and Student Consciousness: the Luister Experience, the chapter sheds light on what happened at the University of Stellenbosch when a group of activist students referring to themselves as Open Stellenbosch shot a video that recorded their negative experiences as black students at the University. The chapter reflects on the students’ harrowing experiences and their desperation in finding a voice in an environment that does not seem to care about the lives of black students. The discussions examine ways of using Black Consciousness philosophy to empower black people in similar position. The chapter also sheds light on the incident at the Free State University, Bloemfontein in 2014 when Black workers were forced to drink urine-soaked meat by white students. The questions is in such circumstances how do black people affirm their identity and embrace self-assertion.

Chapter six is entitled, The Relevance of Black Consciousness Today, and it examines the relevance of Black Consciousness now. The question posed is why black people should be still looking at Black Consciousness for answers. The chapter explores the theories of Black Power movement in America and the philosophies of great African leaders who inspired Biko and his associates. It is an important question to examine the relevance of Black Consciousness in a free South Africa, under a black government.

The third section is Black Consciousness and the National Consciousness comprises of three chapters, which draw much of their content from the question of the national consciousness. Chapter seven, One Nation! One Azania! Blacks, History and Nationhood, focuses on the idea of history and nationhood. The complex question of what is a nation and what does it mean to have one Azania is discussed as a few theories are examined including Neville Alexander’s idea of One nation! One Azania! The issues of nationhood raised critical questions after the outlawing of apartheid in South Africa in 1994. Yet more than two decades later South Africans still struggle to explicate what nationhood means.

Chapter eight, Poverty and Black Liberation looks at the question of poverty and how it seems to determine the condition of black people in South Africa. Poverty retards growth, self-determination and affirmation. Black Consciousness seeks to respond to the challenge posed by poverty in black communities. The chapter also explores how poverty can be a conscientising factor; to make black poor realise their conditions and why they need to take charge. The chapter draws from the beliefs of several thinkers such as Stokely Carmichael, Moeletsi Mbeki and Steve Biko himself. The discussion also navigates as to how black people can and should take charge of their own lives despite the uneven power relations in their society. Moreover, many arguments show how the black people of the world share the struggles to live in a free society.

The ninth chapter focuses on the film Cry Freedom starring Denzel Washington as Biko. The chapter is entitled, Cry Freedom: The Politics of a Struggle Film. The major discussions in the chapter focus on the theme of the white saviour or the white saviour trope in Hollywood films where a white character speaks on behalf of black people. In Cry Freedom, the character of Donald Woods (a white character) takes centre stage instead of Biko as he stands for black people and Black Consciousness. When Biko dies in the middle of the film, Woods takes over and becomes the hero of the story.

The last section is Black Consciousness and the Future and it has three chapters.  Chapter ten, Biko and Youth Conscientisation looks at how SASO started organising young people to be able to understand the black struggle. Established during a time when all the political organisations such as the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania and the African National Congress were banned and many of its leaders in exile, the young people played a crucial role in politicising otherwise fearful and timid communities. Apartheid government’s heavy handedness was felt all over the country as a culture of silence reigned throughout the country. The youth took up arms literally and figuratively to shake Pretoria. Of course, this would culminate in the telling event that changed the course of the struggle in the country, June 1976 when hundreds died in Soweto and later blood would flow generously in many other townships where bullets killed young people.

Pedagogy in Basic Education is chapter eleven, which looks at how Black Consciousness addressed the legacy of apartheid education. It highlights the constraining nature of Bantu Education and why Paulo Freire could be relevant in addressing apartheid education’s ills. The chapter also examines ways in which education demeaned black identity and ways in which it separated white children from black children. Black Consciousness seeks to decolonise education and bring forth cognitive justice.

The twelfth and the last chapter of the book, Searching for Freedom: The Question of Global Blackism examines the possibility of creating a global black unity. It explores whether blacks around the world can be brought together by history, culture, identity and suffering. The chapter starts with the 2020 murder of George Perry Floyd and the reaction of the black world around the world. Yet, the chapter explicates how over the decades differences existed between African and Western blacks with some writers pointing out that Arabs cannot be classified black because they are colonisers in Africa. The question of who is black and who is African also forms a crucial part of the chapter.

All the themes discussed in this book have been raised in several ways in BC debates. In his collection of essays I Write What I Like, Biko (1987:69) cites Fanon when he declares, “Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content: by a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it.” There needs to be a form of empowerment where black people are taught not to be intimidated by future and that they become aware of ways in which they can confront the society’s injustices. The national consciousness also connotes the need not to cower to the superiority complex and the distortion emitted by apartheid legacy. One would like to see Black Consciousness as part of the future as the country tries to plan a new system of education. The black struggles continue in schools and young people get so many challenges in schools in a democratic South Africa. In 2017, a white teacher in a prestigious school in Johannesburg told a black boy that the reason that he is doing well in class is that white peers surround him. Black Consciousness should shout out loud that it is not a sickness to be a black kid and that black children too have brains.  Education needs to empower black students who should see the emancipation in liberatory curricula. It should be the role of education to ensure that it leads young people to revolutionise education, as they become critical thinkers.

These reflective essays continue where many still deliberating and where others have left off. These are a tribute to the role of BC in society in the past and in the present. The unique struggles of black people continue. Black people live in a world where they are always made aware of the colour of their skin. Black children have come to realise that even when they are in the same schools with white children, they come back home with stories of shock and surprise; stories that remind them that they are black. Nevertheless, not all this means that they need to grow with the feeling of inadequacy – this is the struggle that Biko stood up for and died for. I remember listening to Curtis Nkondo (then a president of Azanian People’s Organisation – AZAPO) in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth (1979), when he referred to the Black Consciousness as “a wonderful inspiration”. This is the inspiration, a revelation that the growing black child should embrace and the adult not to eschew.

Lewis R. Gordon argues why phenomenology as an approach makes us understand Biko’s Black Consciousness in an intensive way. “That Black Consciousness refers to a form of consciousness already calls for a phenomenological analysis. Biko is explicit about its inclusiveness, that Black Consciousness is not premised upon biology or birth but social and political location” (Gordon, 2008:86).


As a young adolescent, on September 25, 1977 we travelled on the road for over 250 kilometres from Port Elizabeth with my other precocious teenager friends, to Steve Biko’s funeral in King Williams Town. The air was turned into dust as people trampled the soil to lay a patriot and a martyr to rest. The dingy air was intermittently punctuated by the shouts of “Black Power”! and “One Nation”! As young boys, we might not have fully understood what Biko stood for. Yet certainly, we knew there was something illustrious about this man in the struggle for black liberation. More than forty years later Biko’s legacy lives on, probably not fully understood still. In fact, that had been the challenge of his philosophy, which was in its incipient stages never understood well, as people labelled it as some form of black racism. However, as they frequently say, Biko was a young man ahead of his times. It is always amazing to think of how a young person was changing the course of history in South Africa. Remembering Biko in 2020, forty-three years after his death, one cannot help but ruminate on some of Biko’s ideals.

Our current government in South Africa continues to do much for the people as it tries to improve the lives of thousands. Nevertheless, people will strike as long as their children go to mud schools and to dirty lakes to fetch water. People have a right to ask for government help. Yet they should not forget that Biko preached self-reliance of the people in the Freirean sense; that they should learn to depend upon themselves, hence the Black Community Programmes (BCP) that ensured that the people, despite their poverty were able to bring a better life to their villages. The Zanempilo Clinic he ran with Dr Mamphela Ramphele and other compatriots is a great example of a successful project run by black people with no government help. How wonderful it would be if our communities could replicate similar projects as people rely on themselves to better their lives. In a country where unemployment is rife, people should empower themselves to be self-reliant as they engender entrepreneurial acumen in their communities.

Looking at formal education much has changed although we are continuing to address major challenges since the 1970s. Biko talked about the need to address several pertinent issues in South Africa’s apartheid education system then. His ideas have become so relevant in education transformation even today. As we embrace globalisation, the current system of education still needs to open up for the accommodation of aspects such as heritage. Biko lamented that formal education made the African child to have a negative image of herself because it forced her to identify with the Western society only. Education forced a certain ideology that was alienating black culture and identity. The tragedy of June 1976 was one reaction to this. Biko would find solace though to find that the history syllabus for example, has begun including African heroes, including himself. This is an aspect of the need to portray a positive history of the erstwhile-marginalised people.

Many themes we are searching for today were propounded by the young Biko decades ago and these include Ubuntu roughly translated as African humanism. Biko was preaching this long before it became such a fashion concept abused and misused today. He espoused the need for Africans to demonstrate African values and strive to be truly African in style. He stood for Africans to develop a sense of community needed to build a nation through the enhancement of values. South Africa needs these values so intensely today. The decline in morality might indeed require people to revert to the original values of Ubuntu as well as living supported by similar principles. The society is failing; our schools are terrains of violence, the society has ills such as xenophobia and child molestation. As values dwindle, so does the moral fibre of society hence the corruption in government and other state institutions. The African values that Biko underscored are waning.

The recurrent debates on mother tongue use in society were also among the topics that Biko raised before. He argued for the use of black indigenous languages. Today, our Constitution, probably among the best in the world accommodates 11 languages as well as sign language. This is commendable considering the past marginalisation of black indigenous languages in particular. Yet we rarely hear the use of these indigenous languages. English and Afrikaans continue to dominate in the South African society. Biko magnified the role of language for indigenous language speakers as he argued that at university for example, speaking in another language made students to feel a sense of inadequacy. He declared that when students cannot express themselves in a second or third language – they tend to judge themselves negatively. “You tend to feel that, that guy is better equipped than you mentally” (Biko 1987:108), he pointed out. This language issue has never been as relevant as it is today in South Africa. This is an issue that appears to be somewhat treated as insignificant by higher education institutions even today.  It has become very sad to see such a crucial issue being flippantly addressed. Numerous critics in education for example, contend that the majority of our pupils who fail matric it is all because of writing examinations in a language other than their mother tongue. The language challenge is also said as the main reason why many people are not able to access help immediately from government departments. The government systems still speak in English and in Afrikaans.

Arguably, at universities we do not have many postgraduate students completing their studies because students are not allowed to write theses in their own mother tongues.  Language is a tool of control as Biko noted; that apart from making second language speakers to feel inferior, black people tended to become less articulate and inward looking due to lack of the necessary linguistic skills. To Biko, language was about consciousness. It defined a person’s identity. It has become so crucial today that the majority of South Africa’s people should regain this identity.

The Guyanese intellectual and illustrious Pan Africanist, Walter Rodney (1973:26) in his seminal work, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, he summarises the issue of colonial languages as he contends:

Something as basic as language has come to serve as one of the mechanisms of integration and dependence. The French and English that is so widely used in Africa is more for the purpose of African communicating with the exploiters rather than African with African. Actually, it would be difficult to find sphere, which did not reflect the economic dependence and structural integration. At a glance, nothing could be less harmful and more entertaining than music, and yet this too is used as a weapon of cultural domination.

All these are issues that the young Biko shed light on. He lived with his people who suffered the consequences of colonialism every day. To be black was to suffer. To be black was to be inadequate. However, his philosophy confronted these anomalies.

When as teenagers we witnessed the comrades lay Biko to rest we did not know that even when he was in repose, history would be reawakened. We hardly knew that a philosophy that he proliferated was to be so necessary four decades later. His death conscientised many.   Biko was a young man when he died and again, South Africa needs many youths who like Biko will be fearless but great thinkers as well. It requires many youths who will advocate for justice but be conscientious and sober-minded. Unbridled, wanton youth will not build the country. Yet as Biko stated, we will need to engender culture and identity in society. These are the values we need to instil constantly in our youth. We need a society where all are indeed equal and all are part of the true humanity that young Biko so dearly talked about.

The chapters in Reading Biko: Critical and Reflective Essays focus on the general BCM’s ideology as well as Bantu Biko’s personal reflections and frank arguments. The BC’s thoughts could have been relevant years before Biko, Du Bois and other intellectuals as history shows. Black history in South Africa started long before 1652, the arrival of the Dutch people led by Jan Van Riebeeck. History books though have been misleading pupils over the years, making them believe that nothing happened in South Africa before the arrival of the Dromedaris, Reijger and Goedehoop on the shores of Cape Town on 6 April 1652. Nevertheless, that history is momentous. It takes us back to the heroes of the African kingdoms, to men and women who wanted to defend the suffering of the black person from colonialist. Nothing might have been written before the coming of the colonists, but black history predates this. Long before 1652, there were civilizations in various parts of the African Continent, including Southern Africa. As soon as the white man arrived in South Africa, the indigenous people such as the San, Khoi and various indigenous people wandered in the forests and plains retreating from white colonialists who mercilessly raided their abodes in search of slaves and other forms of labour. The indigenes lost their livestock hundreds by hundreds as the colonists seized these in plundering wars.

The Mutapa Empire frequently referred to as Empire of Great Zimbabwe was in existence around the 1400s. The exact location is believed to have been between the present day Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Near the Lake Mutirkwe in Zimbabwe, we find the Great Zimbabwe ruins. Great Zimbabwe was a source of gold and the royals lived in opulence. Then there was also the Kingdom of Mapungubwe before and this is arguably the first state in Southern Africa. By 12th century, this place was already thriving from abundant wealth it generated from ivory trade as well as copper.

When people such as Biko talk about the great black history in South Africa, they talk about some of these positive origins. Black people are a people with rich history that began long before the colonists invaded their space. Biko reaffirmed the greatness of his forebears who tried to survive as hatred and guns decimated them. The decades of oppression and white domination created a psychological inferiority complex in the black mind and Biko found this as a starting point; for liberation to be effected, the black mind needed to be emancipated. The oppressor utilised the mind of the oppressed. The oppressed tended to despise themselves. The white society over decades had made them to be suspicious of their own. To free the black nation in every sphere, citizens needed to look closely at believing in themselves. These essays also focus on the relevance of Biko in several aspects of present day South Africa. It is so amazing that forty years after Biko’s unfortunate and gruesome death at the hands of the apartheid police, his ideas linger on. Our South African society has been facing a number of challenges in the past years and the articulations and writings of Biko appear to have answers to the riddles of today’s society. In 2015 we saw the biggest student upheaval since the late 1970s where students started by demanding, “Rhodes must fall” in all institutions of higher learning. This developed to another huge debate of “Fees must fall” which in turn led to the calls for a decolonised system of education – a struggle higher than mere educational transformation in South Africa. Soon, many of the debates resonated various aspects of what Bantu Biko stood for. This book reflects on some of these. It is crucial also to note that Biko not only makes sense to black people in South Africa but his voice and thinking resonates with black people and white people around the world.

The art of waiting for tales: A collection of poems found in Grace: A Novel, by Barbara Boswell

September 15, 2020


These poems emanate from a challenge to my writerly self. After submitting six poems found in Lauretta Ngcobo’s novel, And They Didn’t Die, Barbara Boswell – the co-editor of Scrutiny 2: issues in english studies in southern africa, volume 22 (1) 2017, a special issue commemorating the novelist Lauretta Ngcobo’s life and writings – asked me to write notes on my finding and writing process. I did. And then I wondered if I would be able to repeat the process and if so, how different it would be. Then I waited for the novel that would urge me to repeat this process.

A few months later in early 2017 Barbara asked me to write a back cover blurb to her then manuscript, Grace: A Novel, I read the manuscript and wrote the three sentence blurb. I promised myself I would read the novel when it comes out, this time, for sheer pleasure.

It was during this reading in August that the words began to reveal themselves as they jumped off the pages and demanded my attention. At first I thought it was because the words were just beautiful. I continued to read determined not to read Grace for the second time aiming for a tangible outcome beyond the sheer pleasure of reading. In time, further along the chapters, I realized that these words were in fact formatting themselves into poems somewhere in an unknown part of my brain. I started paying attention. Then I remembered the vague wonderings I had had the year before, about whether a whole collection of poems from one source was possible.

I was reading chapter five when it became clear to me that I could no longer ignore the poems screaming away pleadingly at me. I decided then to return to the beginning of the book and be deliberate about my watching the words, just as I had done while reading Lauretta Ngcobo’s novel.

Why did Grace: The Novel, urge me to repeat the process? Because, I think, it is exquisite. In its exquisiteness, it opens up avenues and villas – avenues to stride through with confidence and villas to luxuriate in, gratified. It allows and welcomes exhilarating literary endeavours. This is how I felt as I worked through “finding” these poems. In fact, I did not do much finding work, the words found me, lifted off the page, screamed poetically at me, welcomed me and let me be – with them, among them. At times it felt as if the words were daring me to find the unique combination of mystery and beauty they possessed so I could have fun playing this literary game with them. So I played. In this game there is no better fun than the type I had while reading Grace, rereading it, watching words pop and speak to one another further down the pages, creating a new and unique unity.

In November 2017 when I realized that I was indeed going to be able to create a poem per chapter as per my challenge-to-self, I decided to share the draft manuscript with Barbara over coffee, just to see her response to it. I was affirmed and assured that the project was worth pursuing to the end.

My poem-finding journey with Boswell’s, Grace, was similar to Ngcobo’s, And They Didn’t Die because of the creative energy both journeys generated and the persuasive urgency with which the words lifted from the page, surprised and delighted me. Working on Grace took a much longer time once I accepted the challenge to find at least one poem from each chapter of the novel. And, the process became a tad daunting. My notes on the finding and writing process appear at the end of these poems, followed by Boswell’s Afterword.

The novel, Grace, and the characters Barbara created: Mary and Patrick, Johnny and David, Sindi, Grace (the central character) and Aunty Joan, accompanied me during this joyous journey of a yet unfamiliar form of creativity, creativity akin to the surreal, albeit confusingly, this experiment in imagination, this unknowing-waiting-and-seeing-and-trusting-and-recreating. These characters have been a gift of grace and as I finalise the collection I feel a special kind of intimacy with them. Barbara’s descriptive narration is drenched in cinematic images that provided me with landscapes, sea and mountain views I could see, smell and touch. It evoked memories particularly those of the southeaster, in unique ways. During all my visits to Cape Town I endured the perennial, menacing southeaster. In Barbara’s writing via the many mentions and descriptions of the southeaster I felt connected me to her the characters. We shared the wind. The most surprising aspect of this journey was the urgency with which the work needed to be begun, pursued and completed.

I am eternally grateful to Barbara for her elegant text of twenty-two chapters that has made possible this collection of forty-three poems. The art of waiting for tales is a manifestation of what it means to show up for one another as Black women writers. It is a product of a political imagination. This is the kind of imagination that has a higher purpose than an individualised creativity and focus on oneself; it reaches out and pays tribute to the community of writers and readers and therefore it is a political initiative. It is political-and-feminist because it prioritizes another woman’s writing and consequently builds a text-founded bridge of a feminist sisterhood and solidarity.

To my surprise in December of 2017 when I was devouring my to-do reading list, I was sitting with Mohale Mashigo’s novel, The Yearning when the words began lifting off the pages. By now I felt well practiced. I allowed the urge to write these poems. Only three seemed to want to be written. I submitted them to the editor of the online literary journal The Johannesburg Review of Books and they were published on 15 January 2018 with these accompanying words: “As part of our January Conversation Issue, we present new found poetry by The JRB Patron Makhosazana Xaba, a creative effort that creates a dialogue between two literary imaginations.”  The titles of the three poems are: “Yearning”; “This togetherness”; and, “To necklace”. I also indicated the chapters, pages and line number where I found the words in the novel.

I also shared the complete submission-ready, draft manuscript with Barbara, who after reading it sent me a long affirming email on 16 February 2018. In this email she mentioned her favourite poems, commented on the process notes as well as the feelings she had while reading The Art. The final sentence in this email reads as follows, ”…It is something larger than both of us and it’s a testament to the utterly amazing healing power of creativity and black feminist imagination.”

A journey that began with a challenge to my imaginative-yet-unsure self, shifted to an experiment in creativity, and moved to an engagement with poetry as a genre in ways I had not done before. The process ended as an even higher honour and regard for Boswell. Dear reader, here then is, The art of waiting for tales.

The Widow’s Room: A Journey from Cultural Oppression to Freedom

September 15, 2020


The purpose of the book is to highlight the plight of widowhood among women. It is a memoir reflecting personal experience by the author, a widow for 33 tears. The book seeks to expose ill cultural practices, myths, tradition, beliefs and societal expectation towards women widows.

Harmful-cultural practices highlighted by the author include imposed cleansing rituals before and after the burial of her late husband, the ill- treatment she received in the so called ‘widow’s room, the isolation from family members, exclusion from the funeral arrangements of her husband, imposed wearing of black attire for one year as a sign for mourning and grieving her husband,  property grabbing by the members of the husband’s family, gross violation of her human rights; cutting of the private parts as a ritual in preparation of the prospective husband, the shaving of the hair, imposed cleansing of the house to dispel the spirit of the dead husband, arranged marriage,  and the fights over her husband’s estate by the in-laws.

Furthermore, the book highlights the gross violation and abuse of women by women in the name of culture and religion. It shows that the crafters and implanters of the ill cultural practices are women, most of them coming from different religions. The author shows how powerful, how ruthless and merciless these women can be. She went through it all for the duration of twelve months.

The book also shows the silence engraved in the minds of widows. The author was groomed to keep the secret of the harmful rituals to herself, the secret she kept for 33 years until the present moment when she decided to break the silence.

The author warns women of all colours, level of education and class that the harmful cultural practices knows no colour, class, nor respect of one’s education. In her personal narrative she highlights her level of education and class at the time of her ordeal, she holds a degree in Nursing, a working-class lecturer, yet she regrettably submitted to the ill-cultural practices.

The last aspect of the book is to empower women, married, single and elderly women to become aware of the torment, cruelty, violation of rights and abuse of widows in the name of culture and religion. Women are encouraged to stand united against the scourge of abuse of widows and to break the silence.

Thirty-Five Poems

September 15, 2020


The collection is clearly aware of its place in South African contemporary politics. There are references to Marikana, to the so-called ‘poo protesters’ and to service delivery protests in a poem like ‘Time Warp’. While ‘At Sea’ is equally concerned with delivering a political message, but chooses to do so in the form of an allegory – rather than in direct reference.

The collection also demonstrates an awareness of socio-cultural ills such as the sexual abuse of young girls in ‘Peek-a-boo’ and social inequality in ‘Grahamstown 2001’. In this sense, then, the collection is decidedly topical and current. It also addresses the reader directly, with clear and simplified language that is immediately accessible.

The poems in the first section, “Political reflection”, very stirring – strong, relevant and powerful in the snapshots they convey of where we are. These poems are strong in their women’s voice, speaking to a place that many of us are feeling right now, of betrayal, disillusion, difficulty, yet defiant hope.

“The Handover”: is very strong.

“At Sea”: is a lovely poem.

“I Call It Home”: Another winner. I love the final line that delivers such an indictment on those who don’t get it – ‘I live here where Africa mixes with itself’.

“Fyah”: has strong (though uncomfortable) things to say.

“Dear Daughter”:  It is clear that this poem has arisen out of a sincere relationship, and out of a strong feeling for the author’s daughter.

“Peek a boo”: Chillingly relevant.

“I call it home”:  Now this poem works and works very well. Why? Precisely because the writer has based her expression, her imagery, on the senses, and on observable detail. She uses observation and memory combined to create small stories and pictures that are alive and evocative.

“Sunday Flight”:  A poem that is very powerful, evocative and rich.

“Car Watcher”: Powerful poem! Beautiful combination of line phrasing, strong effective imagery, and a message that resonates with the reader, and makes the reader think differently about an event and about the world. Excellent poem!

“Oriental Plaza”:  Another extremely effective poem. It works very well. It reminds us of Mzi Mahola and Ayanda Billie locally. And Charles Reznikoff abroad.

“Piano man”:  An effective poem. It works.

“A Builder”:  Excellent poem! Now here the writer comes into her own. Powerfully. Here she reaches her audience and makes them see her father and makes her audience think differently about fathers and daughters. Very good.

“Blood Bond”:   Excellent. This is real writing. This is a real poem. This is the kind of depth and strength that is rare to find in poetry. It is here in front of us. The poet has stopped thinking about the market and readership (and what they want) and focused on the words in front of her. This is excellent. The poet has listened more to the voices inside her. This is the kind of poem that makes a reader sit up and pay attention.  It is real!