Culture and African Personality: Commemorating 43rd Anniversary Of Biko’s Death

By Sam Ditshego

“It becomes more necessary to see the truth as it is if you realise that the only vehicle for change are these people who have lost their personality. The first step therefore is to make the black man come to himself; to pump back life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity, to remind him of his complicity in the crime of allowing himself to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of his birth,” Bantu Steve Biko.

In his two 1959 speeches, Sobukwe mentioned the phrase ‘African personality’ about four times. What is this African personality? According to another great African thinker and Pan Africanist Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop, African personality is a cultural identity which relates an individual to his people. Diop says there are three factors that go to make up the collective personality of a people. They are the historical factor, linguistic factor and psychological factor. These factors, particularly the psychological aspects, go through constant change, while the linguistic and historic aspects provide coordination of relationships.

He pointed out that the Blacks in the Diaspora have had the linguistic ties cut but the historic factor remains as strong as ever, perpetuated by memory. Similarly, the cultural heritage of Africa is obvious in the African Americans and attests to the continuity of cultural customs. The historic factor is the cultural cement which unites the disparate elements of a people to make a whole. Historical consciousness is the most solid rampart of the cultural security of a people. Historical continuity is the effective arm of a people against outside cultural aggression. A people without an historical consciousness is just a population. The loss of historical continuity can lead to stagnation and retrogression.

The mission of culture

Dr Diop was once asked about the actual mission of culture. He responded that it was survival and creativity. Man must create to survive. To create he must ensure his survival. Collective historical consciousness is one of man’s chief means of survival and a source of creation. Destroy or stifle it and the chances for the survival of a people become questionable.

The linguistic factor is important in cultural identity. Africans should seek the unifying elements of their many languages. According to Diop, there is a total incompatibility between the formal defence of African culture on the one hand, and the systematic refusal on the other to adopt concrete measures to develop our national languages. Those who are incapable of solving this problem can do nothing for African culture. They merely embrace African culture to better smother it. Diop singles out former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere whose attitude he described as consequential because he elevated Kiswahili to the status of a national and government language. Diop says flight from one’s own language is the quickest shortcut to cultural alienation.

What is Culture?

Culture is a set of beliefs and practices which govern the life of a society. Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth as well as Black Skin White Masks observes that it is hardly justifiable to try to find cultural expression for and to give new values to native culture within the framework of colonial domination. Culture is the first expression of a nation, the expression of its preferences, of its taboos and of its patterns. It is at every stage of the whole of society that other taboos, values and patterns are formed.

A national culture is the sum total of all these appraisals. It is the result of internal and external extensions exerted over society as a whole and also at every level of that society. Fanon probed the relation between the freedom struggle – whether political or military – and culture. Is there a suspension of culture during the conflict? Is the national struggle an expression of culture? Is the struggle for liberation a cultural phenomenon?

The conscious and organised undertaking by a colonized people to re-establish the sovereignty of their nation constitutes the most complete and obvious cultural manifestation that exists. It is not the ensuing success of the struggle alone that gives validity and vigour to culture. Culture is not put into cold storage during the conflict.

Culture and National Liberation

Amilcar Cabral in Culture and National Liberation opines that the value of culture as an element of resistance to foreign domination lies in the fact that culture is the vigorous manifestation on the ideological or idealist plane of the physical and historical reality of the society that is dominated or to be dominated. Culture is simultaneously the fruit of a people’s history and a determinant of history, by the positive or negative influence which it exerts on the evolution of relationships between man and his environment, among men or groups of men within a society, as well as among different societies. The ignorance of this fact may explain the failure of several attempts at foreign domination–as well as the failure of some international liberation movements.

Let us examine the nature of national liberation. We shall consider this historical phenomenon in its contemporary context, that is, national liberation in opposition to imperialist domination. The latter is, as we know, distinct both in form and in content from preceding types of foreign domination (tribal, military-aristocratic, feudal, and capitalist domination in time free competition era).

The principal characteristic, common to every kind of imperialist domination, is the negation of the historical process of the dominated people by means of violently usurping the free operation of the process of development of the productive forces. In any given society, the level of development of the productive forces and the system for social utilisation of these forces (the ownership system) determine the mode of production. The mode of production whose contradictions are manifested with more or less intensity through the class struggle is the principal factor in the history of any human group, the level of the productive forces being the true and permanent driving power of history.

Culture is an essential element of the history of a people. Culture is, perhaps, the product of this history just as the flower is the product of a plant. Like history, or because it is history, culture has as its material base the level of the productive forces and the mode of production. Culture plunges its roots into the physical reality of the environmental humus in which it develops, and it reflects the organic nature of the society, which may be more or less influenced by external factors. While history allows us to know the nature and extent of the imbalance and conflicts (economic, political and social) which characterise the evolution of a society; culture allows us to know the dynamic syntheses which have been developed and established by social conscience to resolve these conflicts at each stage of its evolution, in the search for survival and progress.

In the 1970’s, Biko decried the fact that the personality of the African people has been lost. Has is it been restored? The discussion on culture was never part of the agenda of those who have been anointed as the ruling party in South Africa. Instead it is the culture of white supremacy that guides the ruling party. The best gift to Biko the ANC can give is to embody the ideals he stood and died for rather than to sanctimoniously celebrate his legacy.

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