Acting out ideas: Performative citizenship in the Black Consciousness Movement
Abstract: The research leading to these results has received funding from a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship, the Isaac Newton Trust, and the European Union Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under Grant Agreement no319974 (INTERCO-SSH).
Summary (2 min read)
- The paper makes an argument about the performance of counter-power, showing how whilst the apartheid complex retained its command over economic, military, and political power, it struggled to control the social drama that was unfolding on the cultural plane, therefore losing its grip on one key element of ideological power.
- Before the authors begin their analysis however, they will first elaborate a little more clearly what they mean by ‘performative citizenship’.
- In fact, on one level the BCM can be understood as a direct effort towards reshaping the habitus of Black political subjects so that the acts that sprung (rather than creatively broke) from such embodied structures, were not only perceived by those that witnessed them as authentic and spontaneous, but in a sense actually became such.
From Philosophy to Politics via Performance
- The BCM was a characteristically philosophical resistance movement that emerged out of the lull in anti-apartheid activism following the banning of the ANC and PAC, and the arrest, imprisonment, or exile of their main leadership in the aftermath of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre.
- According to the BCM, under apartheid Blacks experienced what Du Bois ( 1996) had famously called ‘double-consciousness’.
- Nevertheless, Biko was extraordinarily influential in both the founding and early development of the movement, and whilst in reality he may have done so imperfectly, his public persona symbolically personified (both at the time, and certainly in memory and myth) the principles of BC more fully than any other individual activist.
- In general, treating court testimony as reflective of underlying realities should of course be conducted with care, since in a trial situation immediate tactical concerns often trump transparency.
- Another way in which a relatively abstract philosophy was linked to the concrete concerns of the people to whom it aspired to speak, was through actual artistic performances.
- In the case of BC, this included ‘relevant theatre’ (Kavanagh, 1985: 145-196; Desai, 2013; Wilson, 2011: 45; Kruger, 1999: 129-154) and poetry performances by evocative troubadours such as Ingoapele Madingoane, Lefifi Tladi, and Mafika Gwala, held in the universities, or later the YMCAs, community centres, or church halls scattered throughout the townships.
- Such images drew strongly yet innovatively upon pre-existent socialist and Black Power symbolism, such as the pervasive image of the single darkskinned fist, or the two raised fists breaking the shackles that bind them.
- It is also important to note that the most popular forms of artistic endeavour within the BCM were collective ones.
- PET’s leader, Sadecque Variava, recalls for instance entering busses with a co-actor under the pretence that they were strangers to one another.
Embodied Performativity: I Act How I Like
- The title that Biko used for his pseudonymous column in the newsletter of the South African Student Organisation (SASO)—‘I Write What I Like’—perfectly captures the spirit of embodied performative citizenship that the authors wish to identify here.
- Whilst these formation schools and training seminars may have helped shape an emboldened cadre of young Black leaders (many of whom now hold prominent leadership roles in post-apartheid South Africa), parrhesia appears to be a slightly ill-fitting concept for capturing the nature of Biko and his fellow activists’ public performances of confidence.
- 20 Wilson reminds us that whether ‘Biko defended himself with the chair on which he sat without permission—if this was not itself a fabrication […] is not of major significance in the face of the violence of his death’ (Wilson, 2011: 139-140).
- Performativity was also at the heart of the BCM’s terminological innovations.
- The terminological redefinition of the category ‘Black’ to include all those ‘discriminated against as a group in South African society’ was therefore performatively aimed at the goal of drawing non-White audiences ‘out of demographic and subcultural niches’ (Alexander, 2004: 565) and into a more unified collective identity and subjectivity.
- Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly in terms of constructing a compelling script for the BCM’s political role, adopting the term ‘Black’ and opposing it not only to ‘White’, but also to ‘nonWhite’ (which will be explained below), allowed for the performative enactment of symbolic polarisation.
- Not dissimilar to French anti-fascists during WWII, Biko himself was confronted with a situation where it was illegal for him to speak out, hence his writing in the SASO newsletter under the pseudonym ‘Frank Talk’.
- In this paper the authors have used the historical case of the Black Consciousness Movement to reveal a mode of citizenship they believe has too often been neglected in the literature.
- Performative citizenship can, and usually does, exist alongside formal recognition of citizenship, yet in contexts where formal recognition is denied (such as 1970s South Africa), the acting out of performative citizenship automatically becomes a mode of social protest.
- The authors have shown how within the BCM performance acted as a vehicle to link the abstract philosophy initially developed by the movement’s early leadership with the concrete political praxis that was necessary for initiating social change.
- This matter of cultural reiteration taking place from a pre-existent reservoir of symbolic forms is also linked to the relative lack of boundedness in social drama.
- The authors agree with other studies that have highlighted the centrality of social movements in providing the context for innovations of thought and ideas (Eyerman & Jamison, 1991), but in studying both the circulation and development of ideas, sociologists must expand their gaze beyond the written and spoken word.
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Cites background from "Acting out ideas: Performative citi..."
...Leaving aside the more general performative means through which members of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) enacted forms of citizenship formally denied them under apartheid (Morgan and Baert, 2017), this article focuses on a particular dramatic scene in the biography of the BCM’s most celebrated charismatic leader, and one of its eventual martyrs, Steve Biko....
...…means through which members of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) enacted forms of citizenship formally denied them under apartheid (Morgan and Baert, 2017), this article focuses on a particular dramatic scene in the biography of the BCM’s most celebrated charismatic leader, and…...
Cites background from "Acting out ideas: Performative citi..."
...…the engendering of this psychological and political awareness – as opposed to the unrealistic task of reversing the overwhelming nationwide material underdevelopment of Black communities – was the primary, and more profound goal of their activities (Khoapa, 2017; Morgan & Baert, 2017, p. 481)....
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Frequently Asked Questions (2)
Q1. What are the contributions in this paper?
This paper introduces the concept of ‘ performative citizenship ’ to account for the manner in which the Black Consciousness Movement ( BCM ), and in particular its charismatic leader Steve Biko, transformed a collection of relatively abstract philosophical ideas into concrete political practice. The authors outline how the BCM challenged the psychological internalisation of white supremacy and asserted citizenship claims through a variety of performative techniques, many of which explicitly and implicitly reiterated earlier rights-based claims both in South Africa and abroad. The authors show how this took place within a remarkably restrictive context, which on the one hand constrained performances, but on the other augmented their dramatic efficacy. The paper makes an argument about the performance of counter-power, showing how whilst the apartheid complex retained its command over economic, military, and political power, it struggled to control the social drama that was unfolding on the cultural plane, therefore losing its grip on one key element of ideological power. Finally, the paper also makes a methodological contribution to reception studies by showing how researching the reception of ideas exclusively through the spoken or written word neglects other modes through which ideas might find expression, especially in contexts of pervasive censorship and political repression.
Q2. What are the future works in this paper?
Social dramas, including those found in ritual, extend back into the past through fashioning their own scripts from preceding cultural forms and stretch forward into an unknown future in which they may be resurrected long after their original actors have died, and often after extended periods of dormancy. Understanding the way in which words and speech do things is therefore certainly key ( Austin, 1962 ; Butler, 1997 ), but if reception studies neglects the power of ideas in their non-verbal and non-written performative manifestation, it will fail to detect large elements of its purported object of study.