Through her activism and scholarship over more than five decades, Angela Davis has been deeply involved in the quest for social justice both in the United States and globally. Her work as an educator – both at the university level and in the larger public sphere – has always emphasized the importance of building communities of struggle for economic, racial, and gender justice.
On September 9, 2016, Davis delivered the 17th annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture at the University of South Africa (UNISA) in Pretoria. The full hour-and-a-half ceremony as broadcast by SABC is available on YouTube.
For a 23-minute video clip from the lecture, view the embedded video to the right, used on this website with the permission of Dr. Davis. The following short excerpts come from that segment of the lecture.
Women in the struggle in South Africa
We know that the first major protests, so to speak–the mother of all protests–had been the Women’s March to Pretoria on August 9, 1956.
So I have kept in my mind the image of that monumental gathering–Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Albertina Sisulu, Fatima Meer, Florence Maphosho, Ruth Mompati, Sophie Williams de Bruyn, and all of the 20,000 women staging a silent protest here in Pretoria in front of Union Buildings. Now, you have touched the women. You have struck a rock. You have dislodged a boulder. You will be crushed.
Women have always been at the heat of antiracist and progressive activism. We thus have to give ourselves permission to honor the women activists as we celebrate the legacies of the men who have come to represent the struggles of the past. And those men who most deserve to be celebrated, men like W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X in the United States–in South Africa, men like Nelson Mandela, Chris Hani, and of course, Steve Biko–as influenced as they may have all been by ideologies of patriarchy, of heteropatriarchy, their work helped to create a discursive arena for the development of Black feminist consciousness. They were also aware that their leadership was precisely enabled by those with whom they struggled, and not only the men, but the women as well.
We are thankful, profoundly thankful, for these legacies, but we do not receive them uncritically. Our understandings of the past are very much determined by our positions in the present and by how we imagine the future. From the perspective of the present, we can apprehend what was hidden behind the restrictive discourses of the past. Steve Biko died so that we would be able to develop these perspectives today.
Knowledge is useless unless it assists us to question habits–social practices, institutions, ideologies, the state. This questioning cannot end even when victories are won–even when victories are won.
Students are now recognizing that the legacies of past struggles are not static. If these legacies mean anything at all, they are mandates to develop new strategies, new technologies of struggle. And these legacies, when they are taken up by new generations, reveal unfulfilled promises of the past and therefore give rise to new activisms.
As an activist of Steve Biko’s generation, I have to constantly remind myself that the struggles of our contemporary times should be thought of as productive contradictions, because they constitute a rupture with past struggles, but at the same time, they reside on a continuum with those struggles, and they have been enabled by activisms of the past. They are unfinished activisms. Activisms enabled by the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, which was at its core a women’s boycott. It was a women’s boycott. By the August 9 Women’s March 60 years ago. By the founding of the Black Panther Party 50 years ago, almost exactly 50 years ago. It will be 50 years in October. By the uprising in Soweto 40 years ago. By the struggles undertaken by Biko and his comrades to create the South African Students’ Organization. By the struggles of Nelson Mandela and the heroic members of the ANC, by uMkhonto we Sizwe. This is the genealogy young activists share across oceans.
The young activists of today stand on our shoulders. And precisely because they stand on our shoulders, they see something of what we have seen, but they also see and understand a great deal more. They are beginning to address unresolved questions and some of the erasures and foreclosures about which I spoke earlier. They stand on our shoulders, but we do not provide a steady foundation, precisely because our questions were questions of a different era.
One of the truly exciting dimensions about the activisms both here in South Africa and in the Black Lives Matter movement in the US is that they are being led by women. I had the honor of meeting Nompendulo Mkhatshwa who is the current president of the Student Representative Council at Wits, and Shaeera Kalla, who is the past president. Under their leadership, the contestation of the fee hikes—#Fees Must Fall—began to resonate across the country and around the world.
There are some who have said that the student demands are unrealistic, especially when students began to call for free education. But the demand for free education is only unrealistic because we continue to live with the mandates of capitalism, and we are compelled to think about education as a commodity. Especially in the aftermath of the global Occupy movement, the thoroughgoing commodification of education under the dictates of capitalism is increasingly viewed by progressive activists as an obscenity. This is not the way things should be. Freedom should mean in the very first place the freedom of education, the freedom to learn. And the prerequisite for enjoying freedom of education should not be the capacity to pay. It should not be the capacity to pay.
The three young women in the US—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi—who first produced the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter in the aftermath of the vigilante, racist killing of Trayvon Martin and then went on to create the network Black Lives Matter as the Ferguson protest erupted two years ago – these young women are collectively striving to remind us of the revolution we need as they try to develop strategies for struggle today.
There has been an uneasy relationship with the veterans of the movement that came before them. The uneasiness emanates from the fact that veterans often take themselves and their knowledges too seriously. Sometimes, we assume that our questions and the tentative answers we provided to those questions deserve to be accorded a preeminence that silences future questions and answers. Sometimes, we look for leadership in the familiar guise – the charismatic male leader who in the US historically has emerged from church communities or religious circles. And when we cannot find that form of leadership, we say their movement has no leaders. But they answer back, our movement is full of leaders. We are not a leaderless movement. We are a leaderful movement.
The Black Lives Matter movement seeks to build new forms of leadership – feminist leadership, leadership whether of women or men, queer, trans, or straight, leadership that is collective, inclusive, and democratic. So perhaps we now need the leadership of those who have been historically barred from leadership positions, those who have been silenced. Perhaps we need leadership that will assist us to develop new vocabularies, vocabularies that encourage inclusiveness and interconnectedness, vocabularies that recognize interdependencies, intersectionalities, and internationalisms of our struggle—in other words, vocabularies that highlight the feminist dimensions of all of our social justice struggles.