The most dangerous thing is many Africans’ inability to separate African culture from systems that oppress the freedoms of African women. It is this inability to see a future where African culture isn’t tinged with patriarchal undertones that is the biggest threat to the Black Consciousness Movement. It is necessary that we disassemble what it means to be African and take a closer look at what customs are merely window dressing and which things define our culture. My hope is to bring an understanding of patriarchy, African culture and the need to separate the two.
Patriarchy has been defined as a gendered power system. It is a network of social, political and economic relationships through which men dominate and control female labour, reproduction and sexuality as well as define women’s status, privileges and rights in a society. It is a successful system because those that gain this privilege are often unaware of it and therefore inadvertently perpetuate the ill treatment of the people in this society whose suffering is the fulcrum upon which this society turns. It is also believed that this social system has managed to survive for so long because its chief psychological weapon is its universality as well as its longevity.
It is difficult for many people to imagine a time when this system did not exist. It is even more difficult for people to imagine a future minus patriarchy. But that has to change. A complete overhaul of our mentalities when it comes to African culture must take place if there is any hope for the Black Consciousness Movement in this century.
But what is African Culture and how is it in danger?
The definition of African culture used here is the one given by Bantu Biko himself in his essay, Some African Cultural Concepts, 1971. In it, he describes various traits that he believes–and I concur—to be common to all Bantu Africans, namely, a close connection with nature, a natural tendency to form group-friendships as age-mates rather than the Western tendency for intimacy to only involve two people, a viewing of people as people rather than the Western tendency to view others as “agents for some particular function either to one’s advantage or disadvantage.” These are all primary elements of African culture that Biko believed to have survived colonial rule and that he believed would live forever in the spirit of all Africans.
But I struggle to imagine that he could foresee what would happen with the arrival of ‘freedom’ in South Africa. Nor could he foresee what would happen with the arrival of commercialised mass media to the world. With the disappearance of the ‘tangible enemy’ –the oppressor that all Africans could rally together to destroy—came the appearance of the subliminal coloniser—the Western corporations using all kinds of media to sell Western concepts and values to African people. This has put African culture as I have just described it in danger.
As technology advances and Western media digs its claws deeper into the global psyche the African person is losing the tools he needs to save his culture. More than that, he is losing his understanding of his culture. This is most frightening because it is illogical to expect a people to fight for something they cannot understand.
If we aim to revive the Black Consciousness Movement to its full pre-‘94 glory we need to understand that it is imperative to rally the people around the goal of preserving African culture in its purest form. I believe that the spirit of solidarity and togetherness that the culture is built around is the key to achieving the goal that all Black Liberation movements have–which is to pry African Resources from the hands of colonisers back into the hands of our people. Without a clear understanding of African culture coupled with a realistic assessment of the obstacles standing between the African and his own resources we cannot expect to do this.
The danger we are facing now is that many people associate African culture with ‘stone-age thinking’ and as a result feel absolutely little need to keep it alive. When one’s understanding of their own culture comes from the coloniser’s media to supplement an education created by said coloniser it is unsurprising that an over-simplified and heavily biased image of that culture deters one from digging deeper into it’s ‘true meaning.’
The longer we allow ourselves to retain a way of thinking that puts our entire culture in a negative light the further we will wander away from all its amazing philosophies. You see this every day in many Africans associating their own cultures with all things ‘back-wards’ and ‘simple-minded’ as though the West has claimed some sort of trade-mark on ‘progress.’ This is precisely how cultures die. If the people that were ‘supposed’ to carry it on believe it to be dark and old-fashioned they doom it to the past. This is what makes Biko’s definition of African Culture is so crucial at this point in African history. In this definition the concerned observer can note the ‘flexibility’ it allows interpreters and practioners of the culture. Knowing the core of a people’s culture allows one to dissemble it and truly understand which things matter and which things don’t.
Having a greater understanding of African culture allows one to see that the customs built around the spirit of Botho can be changed and sculpted over time to accommodate the changing environment. When one accepts this, one can then begin to redefine one’s understanding of one’s self; which is at the core of all cultural concepts—self-understanding.
We cannot unite around a culture that we perceive to be dark and backwards. And we certainly cannot unite around a culture that we perceive to be oppressive to us on a personal level. This is why it is important to separate oppressive systems from African culture.
The most threatening thing to the sustenance of African culture and subsequently the forwarding of the Black Consciousness Movement is Patriarchy. As I said, it is difficult for people to rally around preserving a culture they feel to be oppressive. And the longer we refuse to think of African culture without patriarchy the longer ‘modern’ African women will feel that the culture is not worth preserving. And this is the danger. It is our responsibility as Pan-Africanists, Black Liberation Advocates and members of the Black Consciousness Movement to fight for equality in African culture. How can we expect women to fight whole-heartedly for the perseverance of African culture if they continue to feel marginalised by its many, many sexist practices? It is imperative that we dig deeper into our culture and recognise that patriarchy is an aspect of it that is deterring a huge part of the movements mentioned above from investing itself fully in the protection of our culture.
It is important that we say to all Africans, “our culture is not about loin-cloths, mud-huts, hunting or farming; it’s not about public beatings or maize-meal; being African is not about paying bogadi (lobola) or going for initiation ceremonies in remote mountains. Being African is about thinking, feeling and living as a community—keeping up the spirit of Botho. That’s all. Everything else is simply trimmings.”
It is imperative that we stress that patriarchy was simply a system of customs that our ancestors believed would promote Botho and work in the best interests of our people as a whole. I believe that at some point it was for a good reason that many patriarchial practises were created. (Not all—just many.) An example is the practice of bogadi—when upon a couple’s engagement to marry the man offers livestock to the woman’s family as a means of showing gratitude to the woman’s family for having raised her to be a ‘fine woman.’ Looking at this practice now as a hardened feminist I cannot help but find myself repulsed by the out-right sexism that such a custom promotes. But my understanding of my culture makes it possible for me to imagine a time when such an idea may have seemed noble. I imagine that when our ancestors developed Bogadi they did so with the hope that sharing livestock across two families would promote unity in the community. I completely understand this.
But today, in a world where men and women have relatively equal opportunities in the workplace and some countries in Africa even have a higher number of educated women than men, this tradition is starting to seem slightly out of place. With women having equal earning power and with that a thirst for equality it is becoming more and more clear that we can no longer expect women to simply accept that African culture must be ‘saved’ in its present state. It must be looked at critically and customs that are oppressive to women discarded immediately. It is dangerous for Pan-Africanism, Black Consciousness or any other Black Liberation struggle to be something which feminists—arguably the most politically active women—shy away from in fear of persecution.
We must begin to look critically at the customs that perpetuate patriarchy in African culture. We cannot rest until we have a future in which no-one associates African culture with patriarchy. We must not rest until we have a future where no-one can say ‘feminism is un-African.’ A proper, universal and progressive understanding of our culture is the only way that this can be achieved.
Until we begin to see that patriarchy is a completely unnecessary aspect of African culture and that sexism has absolutely no place in liberation movements then we cannot expect any of those liberation movements to survive. How can we be comfortable with a situation where a woman feels that she cannot be both a feminist and a part of the Black Consciousness Movement? How can it be helpful for African culture if I think in a way that dictates that if I want freedom as a woman then I must completely dissociate from my culture? We have to progress.
By dooming women to submissive roles we are dooming our culture to the past. We are dooming it to a swift and quiet death. I say this because, it is becoming clear to me that the factory that creates submissive women is no longer in full production. I’m guessing single-parent homes with women as the ‘head’ of the family are no longer interested in producing submissive women—nor do they know how to. And if the number of women that are comfortable with submission is declining then it follows that the number of women willing to uphold the patriarchal image of African culture will also decline.
This is why it is important that we remove patriarchy from our understanding of our culture. It is imperative. Until then, Patriarchy will act as the parasite that brings the Black Consciousness Movement to its knees.