Mabogo More reflects on being Black in South Africa

What began as a narrative for his daughter to better learn about her father became Looking Through Philosophy in Black, South African philosopher Mabogo More’s memoirs.

Mabogo More, winner of the 2015 Frantz Fanon Lifetime Achievement Award, in interview with Brazilian philosopher Rosemere Ferreira da Silva.

Why did you decide to offer your philosophical reflections in the form of a memoir? Do you consider your book a narrative that has previously been untold by Black philosophers?

To answer this important question, let me say that, first and foremost, my book is an attempt – to use Simone de Beauvoir’s phrase – “to conserve, to save the past”. After all, the narrative in my book is spread out over a lot of years, approximating over 40 years. I sought to recount my past. But I have also attempted, in what I considered to be simple language divorced from heavy sounding philosophical jargon, to describe the society in which many others and I lived as Black people, a society around and outside of me; in other words, to give a phenomenological description of how things were, how they have changed and how they still are in the present. Put differently, the memoirs were an attempt to describe the world as I see it, as I grasped it. In this way I hoped that the text would provide Black people with a mirror in which they could look at themselves and hopefully change their perspectives by opening their minds to the realities of our situation.

The idea of writing my memoirs was initially as a narrative specifically intended for my daughter, who, because she was brought up without me in the immediacy of her life, did not, in my view, have sufficient knowledge of who I was as a person. I initially wrote a 20-page narrative for her, which with time gradually took on a life of its own. It progressively grew under my pen as I searched the depth of my memory for the significant events in my life that would be of value to her.

Another method I resorted to in an attempt to let her in my life was to have her accompany me to overseas conferences of philosophy I attended. As the story to her grew, becoming a narrative about philosophy itself, especially philosophy in South Africa, I realised that given the paucity of Black philosophers in the country, young Black women and men aspiring to become future philosophers, or those who had no intentions for that, could be persuaded to follow that path. Because many young people are persuaded to take disciplines that guarantee them economic security and often celebrity status, part of my choice of memoirs was to indicate that philosophy can also be counted among those disciplines that can guarantee that sought-after – shall I say – “high-status” life.

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Since memoir as a genre is not a search for or a portrait of the deep inner self of the author but simply the record or description of what happened to and around the self, I found it appropriate as a means of communicating not only with my daughter but also with a greater number of young Black women and men who wished to take philosophy as a career.

I was not searching for an inner self at all. I was merely recording what happened to me and around me. In that way, I hoped to reach those who also shared these experiences and recognised the events that happened around them. Without indulging in the self-portrait of autobiography, I simply tried to present a story so that the reader may come to her or his own interpretations of the person I am. There are many young men and women who will be seduced by philosophy as an academic discipline. My book is intended to cast some light to what it means to be a Black philosopher in South Africa, yesterday, today and possibly tomorrow if things do not radically change.

In putting my philosophical reflections in the form of a memoir, I was motivated by the desire to put my ideas within the grasp of a wider audience than one solely of philosophers and intellectuals. The aim here, given that the book was part biography and part philosophy, was to avoid speaking with the abstract voice of speculative philosophy. As an out of the closet existentialist in an age in which this tradition is considered passé, I tried to bring out the concrete situation of lived experiences. Most existentialists have used literary imagination as a tool to expound their ideas.

As a Black writer with existentialist commitments, I also decided to follow in the footsteps of leading European existentialists such as Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre and Black philosophers such as Lucius Outlaw, George Yancy and Lewis Gordon. For example, Beauvoir articulated her existentialist categories and theories through the medium of autobiography and memoirs, for example, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, The Prime of Life, The Force of Circumstance, She Came to Stay, All Said and Done. Sartre did the same in his classic texts The Words and Nausea.

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To answer the second part of your question, let me say that as a matter of fact, a large number of Black philosophers have written narratives about their lives. I think here of George Yancy’s two books, African-American Philosophers: 17 Conversations (1998) and to an extent his The Philosophical I: Personal Reflections on Life in Philosophy (2002). Black philosophers have also written about their personal lives in the prefaces of their books; for example, Lucius Outlaw Jr in his book On Race and Philosophy (1996), Lewis Gordon’s introduction in his Her Majesty’s Other Children (1997) and Charles W Mills’ preface in his Radical Theory, Caribbean Reality (2010).

So, my narrative in my book is not unique or something that has not been done by other Black philosophers before. What is unique, though, is the fact that no Black philosopher from South Africa has ever done this kind of project. In this sense, my book is a narrative that has not been told by any other Black philosopher in my country.

How were your options and the resulting narrative of your life as a Black person and Black philosopher limited by being in a white-dominant world?

Race has always been a deep, characteristically South African problem, and I am a product of that racist environment. In a race-conscious society such as South Africa – Brazil and the United States as well – it is difficult if not impossible, as Chabani Manganyi observed, for individuals and groups to develop ways of action, feeling and thinking which transcend the categorical relationships involved in the “Us” and “Them” groups.  Like Steve Biko and many others of my age, I lived and still live all my life conscious of my racial situation. My friendships, my education, my thinking, my relations with other people, as a matter of fact, every facet of my life has been carved and shaped within the context of apartheid racial existence.

Apartheid as an oppressive system was predicated on the number of options it made available to whites and Blacks. As Lewis Gordon argues, if a set of options is considered necessary for social wellbeing in a society, trouble starts when such options are denied a section of the society as such. What becomes available to one if the options are limited then what one chooses is affected and restricted by those very options available. As a Black philosopher in an antiblack society, my options were curtailed by my situation and had a tremendous impact on what I can and cannot achieve.

Given the myriad of disenabling conditions under which I grew up and lived, I think I have done pretty well for myself considering that a lot of Black people much more intelligent than myself have not survived the realities of being-Black-in-apartheid South Africa. Every moment of my life in South Africa and elsewhere has been penetrated by the social, economic, political and intellectual consciousness of being Black, by a consciousness of a white world whose leitmotif is not only to question my humanity but also to demand that I justify my very existence. Having said this, I cannot help thinking how I would have turned out had the conditions been like those enjoyed by some African American philosophers, let alone white philosophers globally.

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When I read the autobiographies and narratives of some Black philosophers in the US, I wondered how I would have turned out if I had some of the relatively different conditions and options they had. For example, Angela Davis, Lewis Gordon, George Yancy, Lucius Outlaw, etc. all started reading philosophy even before they went to college and had mentors and enjoyed, even though limited, exposure to fantastic resources.

These are some of the options Apartheid South Africa denied me; the privilege to have mentors, to have libraries where I could have access to philosophical literature, to read philosophical texts in my mother tongue, to be taught philosophy by people who are prominent philosophers in their own right and who were not racists, to have my life-world not invisible, etc. Yet, through the love of philosophy and what it offered me intellectually, and through resilience and purposefulness, I continued on the philosophical path in the heart of the apartheid nihilism and oppression.

What does it mean to be an intellectual and an intellectual engaged with the lived realities of the poor and the oppressed in South Africa and the rest of the world?

Let me immediately declare that I do not consider myself as purely an intellectual and/or public intellectual, for that matter. If I am considered an intellectual at all, by virtue of using my intellectual capacities to engage and understand the world, I’d rather see myself as an academic intellectual. To be a Black academic intellectual in a country such as South Africa is wrought with social expectations and involves the experience of intense anguish.

Let me explain this anguish in terms of the geography of apartheid and the leitmotif of every attempt at political liberation: land. Black and white South Africans in particular (as a matter of fact, all South Africans – Black, white, Indian and Coloured peoples) live in four completely different worlds. Apartheid geography (“apartheid” means “apartness”) consists of separate everything – most importantly, separate residential areas enforced by legislation such as “Group Areas Act” or the policy of “separate development”.

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According to this ideology, which dates back to British colonisation of South Africa, Blacks were restricted residentially to “locations” or “townships” at the urban edge, areas “reserved” for us as reservoirs of guaranteed cheap labour. According to the fundamental principles of apartheid, the culture, customs, values, purity of blood and daily life of the white race must be protected and preserved against contamination from African people who are believed to be alien savages, biologically and mentally inferior, undeveloped and dangerous.

In his first visit to South Africa, Cornel West made the following observation about apartheid South Africa’s residential areas: “The pretty green grass in front of the spacious homes with luxurious swimming pools in the white urban areas appear like a fantasy against the backdrop of dirt and mud surrounding the tiny boxlike houses in the overcrowded black townships.” (Prophetic Fragments, 1988). This observation echoes Frantz Fanon’s assertion that “the colonial world is a world cut into two” in The Wretched of the Earth.

When the Nelson Mandela government took over, the Group Areas Act was repealed, allowing Blacks to reside wherever we wanted. This then brings me to the dilemma of the committed Black intellectual in “post-apartheid” South Africa. The issues became and still are: post-apartheid South Africa did not abolish the structural geography of apartheid.

The white suburbs remain and are accessible to those of the middle class who have economic wherewithal. As most intellectuals basically belong to the middle class, the dilemma is whether to move to the well-taken-care-of previously white suburbs or stay with the poor in the dungeons of township geography and existence. To migrate to the formerly white suburbs would mean abandoning the poor, black working class and thereby depriving them of people with the knowhow and ability to fight for better living conditions and improvement of the necessary resources such as better schools, parks for children to play, public swimming pools, better tarred roads, improved service delivery processes, libraries, etc.

On the other hand, by opting to stay in the townships, refusing to relocate to the former white suburbs, would be to cement and reproduce apartheid ideology of separate areas, thereby in effect saying certain parts of the country fundamentally belong only to certain racial groups and not others. But also, by refusing to occupy those spaces previously reserved for whites, one would be risking the imminent possibility of endangering not only one’s life but also one’s family in the violence of township conditions. As Steve Biko had remarked: “Township life alone makes it a miracle for anyone to live up to adulthood.” (I Write What I Like, 2002).

The question then becomes: Where would one be more effective in the attempt to fight continuing “post-apartheid” neoliberal injustices? In one’s hazardous and dangerous township environment with an internal relation to the Black community but possibly end up prematurely dead, or in the far-off safety of formerly white secure suburbs with an external relation to the poor Black community? This is the uniqueness of the Black intellectual predicament in “post-apartheid” South Africa.

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Apartheid education for Blacks was meant not to produce intellectuals or critical thinkers but cheap manual labourers. Unfortunately, in post-apartheid South Africa, a growing anti-intellectualism under the presidency of Jacob Zuma took root. Within this scenario, to be an intellectual engaged with lived realities of the poor and oppressed in post-apartheid, “New Apartheid” South Africa means annoying those in power. Those who, impatient to be in government, abandoned or conveniently ignored the most important issue of all political revolutions – the land question.

The ruling party in South Africa adopted a Constitution which, all things being equal, would have been an ideal Constitution but which, because things were not and still are not equal, robbed Black people of the very means through which they could bring about some semblance of freedom. The Bill of Rights enshrined in the South African Constitution guaranteed 87% of the land to whites and denied Blacks the opportunity to own land as a means of production, the 87% which was originally stolen by white colonialists from Black people.

The land issue for the poor is one of the main issues that has preoccupied my intellectual work. I have as a consequence written extensively on the land question applying the insights of Frantz Fanon to articulate the idea that without land there is simply no real freedom from apartheid but simply “Flag Freedom”.

Almost all my work directly or indirectly deals with the problem of racism, a defining feature of the South African landscape, before and after Mandela. The leitmotif of my intellectual and academic work is to engage the suffering brought about by apartheid racism and the consequent misery and wretchedness it visited on Black people in my country and the world. In other words, my aim, as the Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement would say, is to “conscientise” Black people about their condition or bring to critical consciousness the hidden truth of their wretched condition.

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As Brazil, in my opinion, is in almost every way similar to Apartheid South Africa, I think the same may be true of Brazilian activists such as React or Die! co-founder Hamilton Borges dos Santos or academic intellectuals such as Abdias do Nascimento. Their aim, as Paulo Freire had advised, is to “conscientise” Black people to the truth of their oppressed, or, as Bob Marley would say, “Downpressed” condition.

In my book Biko: Philosophy, Identity and Liberation (2017), I discuss how Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy influenced the philosophy of Black Consciousness led by Steve Biko. I personally have drawn inspiration from Freire’s book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, originally published in 1968, which was, incidentally, banned during Apartheid South Africa. I constantly consciously tried to employ his pedagogical methodology in my teaching career.

One last observation which some may consider involvement in the life of a public intellectual. I have over the years been involved in workers’ struggle as an instructor at the Workers’ College in Durban, South Africa. South Africa has a vibrant working-class trade unionism. My participation in the Workers’ College (without remuneration) involved, as I always do in my formal academic practices, the conscientisation of the workers about trade unionism, working-class theories such as Marxism and capitalist theories such as colonialism, liberalism and economic theories that constitute the foundations of capitalism. Not only did I participate in the worker’s struggle, I also participated in community projects teaching critical thinking skills to non-governmental organisations and community organisations such as the shack dwellers and rural projects.

This is an excerpt from a longer interview first published in Black Issues in Philosophy.

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