This year's Steve Biko Memorial Lecture (the fourth in the series) was delivered by the Kenyan professor, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, at the University of Cape Town. Here is an abridged version of his thought provoking paper on "Consciousness and African Renaissance: South Africa in the Black Imagination".
When Vasco da Gama set foot at the Cape in 1498, it was part of the general period of what has come to be known as the European renaissance, the founding moment of capitalist modernity and Western bourgeois ascendancy in the world. It was also the beginning of the wanton destruction of many city civilisations along the coasts of Africa, East Africa in particular.
In 1994, Nelson Mandela, at a meeting of the OAU in Tunis, recalls the destruction of Carthage by the generals of an earlier empire and says: "Where South Africa appears on the agenda again, let it because we want to discuss what its contribution shall be to the making of the new African renaissance. Let it be because we want to discuss what materials it will supply for the rebuilding of the African city of Carthage."
In a way, South Africa has already supplied such material by the men and women whose lives, actions and thought have made South Africa an integral part of the black self-imagination.
Steve Biko, whom we have come to honour, is among this great gallery whose work and devotion have impacted those beyond the native shores and make it possible for us to even talk about the possibilities of a new Africa out of the colonial ashes of the latter day empires.
He combines the cultural, the intellectual and the political in the same person. In one of his interviews reproduced in I Write as I Like, Biko describes a confrontation with his jailers in which he asserts his right to resistance for as long as he is able.
"If you guys want to do this your way", he tells his jailers, "you have got to handcuff me and bind me feet together, so that I can't respond. If you allow me to respond, I'm certainly going to respond. And I'm afraid you may have to kill me in the process even if it's not your intention".
In April 1990, in an article celebrating the release of Nelson Mandela, I claimed that South Africa was a mirror of the emergence of the modern world. I was not saying anything new.
No less a figure than Adam Smith of The Wealth of Nations fame was to cite the discovery of America and that of a passage to the East Indies via the Cape of Good Hope, as the two of the greatest and most important events recorded in human history, a claim repeated in the 19th century by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, where they argue that the consequences of the twin events gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry an impulse never before known, and therefore, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development.
Adam Smith was to wonder about the benefits of misfortunes that could follow those events, but we, having lived through the consequences of those events, know that the benefits went largely to Europe and America, or colonising nations, and the misfortunes to Africa, or colonised peoples.
Where Smith wondered about the possible benefits and misfortunes, Marx and Engels were clear that arising from the dialectically linked benefits and misfortunes of capitalist modernity was the creation of the world that reflected the West.
In making all nations on pain of extinction to partake of that modernity, "it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst ... In one word, it creates a world after its own image."
The creation of a world after the image of the western bourgeoisie was not without resistance as seen in class and national struggles everywhere.
Thus, South Africa as the site of concentration of both domination and resistance was to mirror the worldwide struggles between capital and labour and between the colonising and the colonised. …