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15 November 2007

Bhekizizwe Peterson: self-referential filmmaking


Keynote address by Wits University's Prof. Bhekizizwe Peterson at the People to People International Documentary Conference 13 September 2007

The Value of Bantu Steve Biko's Thinking for Self-referential Documentary Filmmaking in the South.*

I would like to start by commending the organisers of the conference for paying tribute to the memory of Bantu Steve Biko in this week when we commemorate 30 years of his brutal murder by the apartheid government. I am particularly pleased by the provocative topic that they set for my talk: The value of Bantu Steve Biko's thinking for self-referential documentary filmmaking in the South. The focus implied in the topic rightly challenges us to approach Biko as a living beacon and to engage with the continued relevance of his life and ideas in ways that include but surpass his status as a martyr in the struggle for liberation in South Africa. It is in this spirit, then, that I will tease out a few provocations from Biko's writings that, I hope, will be engaged with more extensively during the conference.

Biko's speeches and essays were delivered and written between 1969 and 1977 and they were largely concerned with mobilising resistance against the apartheid regime, the politics of race and identity and the creation of social programmes and projects for the development of the black community. Biko's dedication to advocacy and social transformation were informed by his belief that "the system concedes nothing without demand". (I Write, 91) Biko did not write much on the arts apart from a few comments on largely music and dance. He did, however, make substantive observations on the role and value of culture, understood in its broader sense as a "society's composite answer to the varied problems of life" (I Write, 96). He regarded culture as 'a particular way of life' that is organised around the social, spiritual, economic, intellectual and creative development in a group or society. Biko's reflections on the social role of culture are still relevant today, especially with regard to contemporary concerns and understandings of the politics of power, social and individual agency, identity and globalisation.

The first challenge that Biko presents to people - such as ourselves - who consider themselves to be intellectuals, opinion makers and artists is the need to always adopt a critical consciousness and an innovative praxis. Since he shared the view that the dominant ideas in a society are often those of the dominant social groups, he felt that it is incumbent on artists (and all citizens for that matter) to analyze and reflect on their experiences and their world with an interrogative disposition. The critical sense that he advocated, led Biko to consistently recast the ways in which society was apprehended. For Biko, "To get the right answers, we must ask the right questions" (I Write, 27) So, for instance, during his testimony on behalf of comrades who were facing treason charges at the SASO (South African Student's Organisation) / BPC (Black People's Convention) Trial, Biko and the accused, in the tradition of their predecessors, turned the trial on its head and ended up cross examining the prosecutor, insisting that it should be the apartheid state that should be in the dock for the acts of terrorism it had committed against Blacks. (Testimony, 139) In the same vein, in response to the colonial tendency to present the contradictions of colonialism as stemming from a "native problem" or a "black problem", Biko was adamant that "there is nothing the matter with blacks. The problem is White Racism...." (I Write, 76)

Biko felt that we need to question what passes for knowledge; to consider who defines the nature and significances of our experiences, hopes and desires; who controls the means of signification and communication such as the media; from what perspectives and towards what ends are the dominant representations geared? Without a questioning spirit, we will remain mesmerized by the "surfaces" of appearances which we will confuse for "reality". Arguably, the most inspirational quality about Biko's critical orientation is that it was not solely directed at the apartheid state. It was just as much, if not more, directed at the daily conduct and socio-political assumptions of individuals and groups in the black community, including those who were dedicated to the opposition of apartheid and the transformation of South African society. In other words, Biko's was deeply self-reflexive and even questioned his own assumptions and those of his fellow travelers. If we take Biko's critical thought on board, then we would acknowledge that as filmmakers, it is not enough to equate our visions and aesthetics with the task of simply capturing 'the reality out there'.

The perennial struggle of any artist is deciding between the choices (be they aesthetic or thematic) that continuously present themselves to us. We do not simply reflect the societies and cultures that inform our works, we do so in ways in which we consciously or unconsciously, select, foreground, ignore, use and misuse the sights, sounds and smells that make up the social fabric around us. It is therefore, important that we remain mindful of the kinds of agendas and strategies - and even bad habits - that we rely on. Similarly, we need to revisit the mantras that we have now come to take for granted. It is incumbent that we clarify what we mean and understand by the notions of communications, culture, development, transformation and freedom. We are not only reporters but interpreters and social actors as well. What we tend to take for granted as reality, culture, aesthetics, identity, nation, freedom of speech, human rights and patriotism (to select just some of the notions that form part of the popular discourse of documentary filmmakers) are phenomena that are much more constructed (rather than natural or given) and contested than what we would ordinarily like to believe. As a result, all these notions can be put to a range of very different personal and social uses that range from the humane and enriching to the fascist and destructive.

The same is true with regard to our commitment to, in the now fashionable phrase, 'speak truth to power'. Biko suggests that in our "continuous struggle for truth, we have to examine and question old concepts, values and systems". (I Write, 92) So if, we are (as we should) compelled to 'speak truth to power' we are equally required to ask ourselves what 'truth'? Whose truth? Directed at which power? Aimed at what audiences? For what purposes? While we would all like to concur that there is truth and untruth, facts and lies, we do not often acknowledge that our understanding, pursuit and championing of our 'truths', 'cultures' and 'rights' is also informed by many other factors, such as the class positions that we occupy, the ideologies that we hold, the ethnicities and nationalities that we are from, the gendered backgrounds that we are socialised under, and so on. Bearing all these variables in mind, then, we, should, as part of our spirit of questioning, take heed of the salutary caution that Biko once expressed: "the biggest mistake the black world ever made was to assume that whoever opposed apartheid was an ally". (I Write, 63). In other words, today, if you hold views that are critical of the post-apartheid South African state it does not necessarily mean that your outlook is informed by a perspective that is also for the poor, the homeless, the refugees and other social groups that are marginalized and subjugated in society.

This tension is regularly apparent in the frequency with which artists - and their colleagues in the Fourth Estate - tend to always emphasise the first generation of human rights (freedom of speech and assembly), while remaining silent about second and third generation human rights (the rights to employment, housing, education, culture, hospitable environment, and so on). I suspect that the reason is that second and third generation human rights challenge us in more uncomfortable ways since, beyond our virtuous and moralistic positions, they demand the consideration of social and economic contradictions that require us to examine our own class privileges and relative access to power. One way in which this tension manifests itself is that when we do undertake work that explores ordinary people's struggles to secure the means of life, we tend to follow too neatly the briefs of the donors and broadcasters who fund or commission our documentaries. It is no wonder than that initiatives and documentaries of this kind have been dismissed as promoting, in Edward Said's words, "the imperialism of virtue"; they are well intentioned 'shock-absorbers' promoted by philanthropic individuals, civic organizations and foundations that, whatever their merits, stop short of deeper analyses and the call for fundamental change. The ideologies espoused are a curious combination of old and new mantras: development and modernization (read westernize and privatize) have now been joined by deregulation, the internet and new media.

If we accept the need to reflect on the complexities of truth, then the same is true for our perceptions of power. We are going through a phase in South Africa where we tend to simplify power as the preserve of the government, power as synonymous with the state. The state is, of course, undoubtedly, the key institution of power within the country but I think it is important that we start to grapple with the nature and intricacies of power in more useful and challenging ways. Again, Biko has much to say on power that is stimulating. Biko was preoccupied with the challenges of how to conscientize and mobilise people so that they - as combative individuals and groups - may actively participate in the changing of South African society into a "completely non-racial and egalitarian society". (I Write, 149) Already aware of the pitfalls of African nationalism, Biko cautioned against "a mere change of face of those in governing positions" that will allow "a few blacks filtering through into the so-called bourgeoisie" while the majority remained poor. (I Write, 149)

A more refined grasp of the workings of power was crucial for Biko because of what he saw as its significance for the nature and demands of personal and social agency or intervention. Consequently, Biko sought to identify the many sites where power is located, the numerous ways in which it manifests itself and the various social groups that wield different kinds of power. Biko did not view power as singular, homogenous or as, inevitably, authoritarian. Instead, he regarded power as a much more complicated and diffuse element of what he called the "system", that is, "those operative forces in society - ...institutionalized and uninstitutionalized...that control your being, guide your behaviour, and generally are an authority over you". (Testimony, 118) Biko's use of the concept of power shares many similarities with Antonio Gramscy's elaboration of hegemony as the "exercise of intellectual and moral leadership". Gramsci regards hegemony as a sophisticated process that involves much more than straight-forward dominance. Whatever the degree of dominance, the authority of the state, for example, is never absolute and complete. As a result, power has to be continuously re-made through the social staging of acts that either rely on the forces of coercion or the construction (and circulation) of consent. This means that the power of the state, considerable and overwhelming as it is may strike us, is never complete or monolithic in its reach and its impact. By extension, the authority and assumptions of the dominant order can be expressed and encountered either as coercion or consent.

When dealing with repressive regimes, the examples of coercion is everywhere and it can easily be noted. What was less appreciated, Biko felt, was the many ways in which "the system" reproduced itself through the creative construction of consent. Of the numerous methods used, Biko emphasized the strategies that either rationalized racial superiority and inferiority as natural and even 'divinely ordained'; or those that shaped our behaviour through recourse to the politics of desire and pleasure. So, for example, if black people equate beauty with 'looking white' than they will use skin lightening creams as it was common in the past. If, today, one subscribes to the ideas that drive materialism and conspicuous consumption - such as 'survival of the fittest' and 'bigger is better' - then you are not likely to be disturbed by the horrors of capitalism. In both cases, because of compliance and agreement with the prevailing values, one contributes to the continuation of the social order. Consequently, Biko argued that citizens (black and white) were complicit, to varying degrees, in the exercise and maintenance of apartheid oppression and exploitation. Elsewhere, for instance, he observed that the "organisational development amongst blacks has only been low because we have allowed it to be". (I Write, 97) In other words, Biko felt that, willingly or grudgingly, knowingly or unknowingly, through our actions or apathy, silence or limited visions, we enable the reproduction of the status quo. If we do nothing or if our views and acts of protest remain locked within the ideological assumptions and economic interests of the prevailing order, then, in that sense, it can be claimed that, even as activists, we legitimize, or give consent, to the authorities and the society that they are overseeing and continuously reinventing. The tension between consent and coercion is in need of serious consideration in contemporary South Africa which has changed from being a repressive and racist capitalist state to being a democratic constitutional state whose capitalism continues to be structured in racial dominance in many social and economic spheres.

Following on from his argument about the layered nature of power, Biko proceeded to examine where and what other forms of power may be located and exercised outside of the usual parameters of the institutions of government. In order to elucidate the spread of authority, Biko explored how the state, interacts, firstly, with other sites of influence (such as the economy) and, secondly, with the wide range of social relationships that play themselves out between races, genders, religions and so on. He admitted that "the fact that apartheid has been tied up with white supremacy, capitalist exploitation and deliberate oppression makes the problem much more complex". (I Write, 27-28) Today, these intricate networks of power that lie outside the jurisdiction of the new South African state can either consolidate or contest the state's ability to rule effectively to the benefit of the majority of its citizens.

A quick application of Biko's analysis of power in the terrain of culture will attest to the validity of his assertions. For instance, it is commonly accepted that economic power in most countries in the South is controlled by a few wealthy individuals, companies and trans-national corporations that, in their operations, are dedicated to the advance of capitalism and imperialism. In this country, the newspaper, film, publishing, performance and music industries are under the effective control of English and Afrikaner conglomerates that, in line with the pursuit of profit, promote the saliency of whiteness under the banner of 'universality', 'standards' and globalization. Whiteness refers to the promotion of cultural values, aesthetic practices and notions of pleasure that are drawn from the North or the white community and are then presented as the norm that everyone should practice and aspire to. Drawing attention to the perils of whiteness does not absolve us from debating the challenges that we face, not only with regard to content, but to style and aesthetics.

How appealing, effective and informative are the documentaries that we produce, not in terms of their noble themes but with regard to the aesthetic choices made with regards to the use of character, English or indigenous languages, narrative structure, camera work, composition, montage, music, use of human and archival sources, and so on. As some of you are tired of hearing me say, the aesthetic choices that we make are not all predicated on the amount of money or budget that is at our disposal. Money is at the very least useful but is never a creative resource - it will facilitate (and even complicate) the conditions of production but, in my experience, money is not the sole determinant of good production values! Also, as you know, in my opinion it is not only naïve but wrong to try and create a toss up between content and form in terms of which one is "more important". I'll repeat two of my favourite anecdotes with regard to the inextricable link between form and content.: Samora Machel is supposed to have told the National Choir of Mozambique that "to sing badly is to commit a political error" and then there is Bertolt Brecht's sharp observation that "works that are aesthetically defective end up being politically defective".

We also need to carefully ponder the politics of whiteness with regard to the current celebrations of the notions of identity, hybridity, diversity and globalisation. Biko was adamant that "being black is not a matter of pigmentation" (I Write, 48), "blackness", in opposition to whiteness, was a "reflection of a mental attitude" and its advocacy of ethnic solidarity was based on the common experiences of discrimination and exploitation. (I Write, 48) Before 1994, one of the slogans of resistance was that "apartheid divides" and now we glibly extol the virtues of "managing diversity" while we retreat into ill-defined laagers of what we have come to assume to be our different cultures and identities. Such responses, in my opinion, seem to be rarely motivated by a genuine desire to proclaim and celebrate our specific cultures and identities ('in' and 'for' themselves and with due respect, not just tolerance, for other cultures, as Biko insisted). Instead, identity politics come across as tactical moves, especially amongst the elite, to broker new constituencies of power and access to material resources. One way to measure the faultlines of our 'new' ethnicities is the frequency they are accompanied by the dictates of tribal and political aristocracies and patriarchies that are increasing their violence and subjugation of women, often motivated, they tell us, by their respect and deference to 'culture'.

As far as globalization is concerned, the questions that Biko asked in relation to 'integration' are worthy of serious consideration. Biko felt that "the concept of full of unquestioned assumptions that embrace white values". (I Write, 91) In response to the query whether he was against 'integration' Biko argued that "if by integration you assimilation and acceptance of blacks into an already established set of norms and code of behaviour set up and maintained by whites, then yes I am against it". (I Write, 24) A similar interrogation is required of the unquestioned assumptions that inform the 'integration of economies' and 'cultures' in the current phase of globalization. (I say current since black intellectuals have identified slavery and the 'scramble for Africa' in 1884 as examples of earlier phases of globalization). At any rate, what are the social forces and interests behind globalization? Given its reliance on the intensive and extensive access to capital and technology - as film and media practitioners you know this fact - does globalization make us dependent on those who control access to funding and facilities? Does globalization inscribe us as producers or consumers of other people's products and content? Is it not basically the Americanization of the world with the occasional cut-and-paste of so-called 'foreign' cultures for the exotic desires, effects and consumption, as in the case of 'world music and cinema' by so-called cosmopolitan audiences? We should not, on the general level, ignore the paradox that in as much as the world has become 'smaller' and 'borders porous', the calls for debt relief for economies that are held hostage by the G8, IMF and the World Bank, the increasing numbers of displaced people as a result wars meant to 'defend democracy', the tightening of immigration laws, the proliferation of countries with nuclear capacities, global warming, and many other developments, all these development demand a more sober engagement with the pros and cons of globalization. Biko, on integration on the local and international economic levels, suggested that "if on the other hand by integration you mean there shall be free participation by all members of society, catering for the full expression of the self in a freely changing society as determined by the will of the people, then I am with you." (I Write, 24) There are, then, cultural, economic and political bonds (and responsibilities as I will discuss later), of a global nature, that can bind us in ways that enhance our collective experiences, desires and hopes as humanity.

Biko was aware that culture, like power, also required a considered and multi-pronged analytical approach because of the historical intricacies that inform the particular development of any culture. In response, Biko's analysis relied on a dual emphasis. On the one hand, Biko highlighted that colonisation involved the distortion, disfiguring and denigration of indigenous cultures together with the creation of "a bastardised culture that can only thrive at the rate and pace allowed it by the dominant culture". (I Write 29, 46) On the other hand, Biko maintained that despite its impact, colonialism did not amount to the total obliteration of indigenous culture and we can still find "fundamental aspects" of African culture. (I Write, 41) One such "fundamental aspect" that Biko was at pains to highlight again and again was that African society was "Man-centred" and premised on "the inherent goodness of man"; it promoted the "sacred tradition of sharing" and living in community as brothers and sisters. These qualities, for Biko, were in stark contrast to the promotion of individualism, competition, materialism and the "triumph of technology over man" that he associated with Western societies. (I Write, 41-42, 70) Given the convoluted history and social imperatives (with their attendant tendencies to either disparage or romanticise African culture), Biko insisted that African culture "must be defined in concrete terms. We must relate the past to the present and demonstrate an historical evolution of the modern Africa". (I Write, 70) Furthermore, we must "reject the attempts of the powers that be to project an arrested image of our culture" (I Write, 70) because "Black culture implies above all freedom on our part to innovate without recourse to white values. This innovation is part of the natural development of any culture". (I Write, 96)

Now Biko's premises on the layered-nature of power, led him to analyse not only the structures of society but also the equally significant role of consciousness in hindering or aiding our abilities to become active agents in the our personal and social lives. Biko argued that "the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed". (I Write, 68) As a result, Biko was fascinated with the need to overcome 'the psychology of oppression' or what he called "the roots of self-negation" (Testimony, 19, I Write, 21) Biko felt that black people had "developed a ...state of alienation" because of their internalization of the structural (economic), psychological and cultural violence of whiteness. The acceptance of whiteness led black and white South Africans to associate "all that is good" (in terms culture, progress and civilization) with the West (Testimony, 22-23) and, in contrast, to associate African history and culture with all that is superstitious, 'primitive' and 'uncivilized'. If blacks did not subscribe to the false values of whiteness, then the constant subjection of blacks to experiences of repression and violence served to make them acquiesce to the authorities and their condition. The logic was simple: "if you cannot make a man respect you, then make him fear you". (I Write, 31) What was troubling to Biko was that if blacks suffered "from an inferiority complex" then "they will be useless as co-architects of a normal society". In order for blacks to "learn to assert themselves" (I Write, 21), to regain their dignity, self-respect and social agency, "the first to pump back life into an empty shell" (I Write, 29) and "infuse the black community with a new-found pride in themselves, their efforts, their value systems, their culture, their religion and their outlook to life". (I Write, 49") Biko advocated a "modern culture. A culture of defiance, self-assertion and group pride and solidarity". (I Write, 46)

Now self-definition, assertion and pride also require that in as much as we must defy whiteness, our defiance should not be at the expense of making work that adds to the knowledge and celebrations of ourselves. Too often we are more preoccupied with unmasking the 'west' than engaging in the processes of retrieving, reconstruction, acknowledging and charting the immense indigenous knowledge, cultural repertoires and artistic traditions that can enrich our work, senses of self and cultures.

In a sense, then, and in line with his elaboration of coercion and consent, Biko challenges us to realise that we do have power as individuals, as groups and as communities. However limited the choices and power that we may have, it is crucial that we acknowledge that there is a measure of power that we can and do deploy in our domestic and public spheres. With regards to all the oppression and exploitation that we face, Biko insists that "we must accept that the limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress". (I Write, 90) As far as our visions are concerned, we have the power to instill compassionate and progressive human values in our homes, communities and the world at large; and to conduct ourselves and our relationships in ways that are not racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic. If we do not actively strive towards the meaningful betterment of life for all then Biko is adamant that we should be reminded of our "complicity" in allowing authority to "misuse" us and "letting evil reign supreme". (I Write, 29)

Biko goes further and uses Karl Jasper notion of metaphysical guilt to argue that we have an ethical responsibility to each other in the world, that we cannot remain ignorant or indifferent to other people's suffering; that "there exists amongst men, because they are men, a solidarity through which each shares responsibility for every injustice and every wrong committed in the world and especially for crimes that are committed in his presence or of which he cannot be ignorant. If I do not do what ever I can to prevent them, I am in accomplice with them...." (I Write, 78) In line with our responsibilities to each other Biko encouraged the development of "a solid base for meaningful the larger battle of the Third World against the rich nations". (I Write, 71) He observed that "we rely on not only on our own strength but also on the belief that the rest of the world views the oppression and blatant exploitation of the black majority by a minority as an unforgiveable sin that cannot be pardoned by civilised societies". (I Write, 71-72)

Biko, as we know, lived by his principles to the full. He said that "we must remove from our vocabulary completely the concept of fear" (I Write, 35), whether it be the "fear of authority" (Testimony, 290) or the fear of death. He felt that "a struggle without casualties is no struggle (I Write, 97) and that "you are either alive and proud or you are dead, and when you are dead, you can't care anyway". (I Write, 152) Of the many gifts that he left us, I would like to conclude by reminding you of a task that he championed repeatedly and one that we are still to fulfill. Biko crystallized and, in a sense, summarized, all his hopes in the following call for equality, justice and compassion: "Let us march forward with courage and determination, drawing strength from our common plight and our brotherhood [and sisterhood]. In time we shall be in a position to bestow upon South Africa [and the world] the greatest gift possible - a more human face". (I Write, 98, 47)

Bhekizizwe Peterson
Professor of African Literature
School of Literature and Language Studies
Private Bag 3

* The quotations from Biko are drawn from the following texts: Steve Biko, edited by Aelred Stubbs C.R., I Write What I Like (London: Heinemann, 1984) and Steve Biko, edited by Millard Arnold, The Testimony of Steve Biko: Black Consciousness in South Africa (London: Panther Books, 1979).

1 comment:

helge said...

This is an utterly brilliant article.
Thank you.
It is inspiring to know that there are such luminaries out there who are helping to make a difference. All the more pity then, that such people are not more prominent.