The Durban University of Technology in collaboration with the UMTAPO Centre hosted the 2021 Annual Steve Biko Seminar on Thursday, 9 September 2021, via Microsoft Teams.
UMTAPO is a social justice non-profit organisation holistically engaged in promoting anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-corruption, peace and socio-economic justice through popular education. Its philosophical framework is based on an ethical African humanism (Ubuntu).
The topic of discussion was on Racism, Tribalism and Violence: The Incomplete Decolonial Project.
Officially welcoming the guest speakers and attendees to the event was Professor Sibusiso Moyo, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Engagement at DUT.
“The role of the University is to really try to create these platforms where we can have conversations about some of the critical issues which affect us, as a civil society whether it’s a local or a global society and what contributes we can make out of it, and really trying to find practical solutions on how we can transform in whatever sectors we find ourselves in whether it’s in our region that we are based,” said Prof Moyo in her opening remarks.
She also stressed that just as the advancement in technology has taken place, and having assessed the humanity aspect, people are sort of losing it somewhere along the way and they need to really think about how to bring that back.
“I am really excited about this lecture and guest speakers and look forward to the sessions as well,” she said.
The Programme Director of the much-anticipated event was Dr Sarifa Moola, an Academic, African feminist, Ubuntu Life Coach, and UMTAPO Board Member
“Last year we gathered to commemorate and remember Steve Biko. We gathered amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the increase in Gender-Based Violence (GBV), mental health problems, police brutality, the Black Lives Matter Movement and increasing corruption and greed; which Biko would have referred to as spiritual poverty. This year. we meet again in the middle of the pandemic, misinformation, disinformation, fake news, distraction and manipulation, which deteriorated into the recent looting, violence and death,” she commented.
In addition, she said that this spiritual poverty evidenced an incomplete decolonial project and a sense of urgency that racism and patriarchy, tribalism and violence needed to be unpacked, discussed, to develop new ways of thinking, and unlearning from the youth and allowing them to lead the way.
“Thank you to the UMTAPO Centre together with DUT for creating another opportunity for us to reflect on our actions, how we will relate to each other, look at ways of healing from past traumas, find shared meaning and embark on this journey in the quest to retrieve humanity and Ubuntu-which prioritises the human being and not class or social stratification as mentioned by our youth,” she added.
She introduced the first speaker of the event, Prof Keolebogile Motaung, a Biomedical Scientist and Director of the Technology, Transfer and Innovation at the DUT with more than 23 years’ experience in Higher Education.
Her presentation delved into the politics of fear and its resultant tribalism and violence, (A South African Perspective).
“It is a norm we are always in fear. We fear questioning established thoughts, which may come in various ways or forms. We fear to question religion or belief systems. Christianity as an example was fed to us by missionaries who introduced the Bible to us as Africans. Today, we respect who is a pastor at church than an ordinary traditional healer who may be receiving his or her guidance from his ancestors,” she said.
Prof Motaung said that if a person goes back to Steve Biko; he was concerned that Christianity continued to be preached in a way that does not address the context in which the Black people found themselves in the country.
“We visit our traditional healers at night, afraid that we may be linked to using umuthi and go to church in broad daylight, for all to see that we are paving our way to heaven. We fear to own our African heritage and spirituality in broad daylight as we may be called ‘names’, Uyathakatha or if you have an ancestral calling, there’s something worn with you,” she explained.
Prof Motaung spoke on politics, saying that people fear to question politics, corruption, knowledge or rather what is factual or not factual from the history books. She addressed the subject of looting, relaying that the recent events of looting had affected the KwaZulu-Natal province at the most, brought severe economic costs in South Africa as a whole.
“As South Africans, we had actually forgotten where and why we would quickly jump to such a conclusion-that the looting and the skirmish, violent acts that came from those events were related to tribalism,” she said.
With regards to education and research, Prof Motaung said that Steve Biko’s ideologies in seeking liberation, wished for Africans to decolonise their thinking and not be fearful to probe.
“The Black Consciousness and its relevance to Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), and curriculum today, urges us to prod and probe what has been deliberately hidden from us as Africans. HEIs in South Africa have been under enormous strain to conform to the decoloniality of the curriculum in the past few years,” she said.
Further into her discussion she indicated that HEIs need to reclaim the memories of Africans that were deliberately hidden, in order to rebuild an African modernity which will be strong in scholarship.
“As HEIs, we are responsible to teach the younger regeneration the truth, in order for them to take over knowing that resources have been forcefully taken from us and that we need to have them returned, for example, land and mines,” she said.
In relation to tribalism she said that although tribalism is not only a South African problem but also a worldwide challenge; she stressed that it becomes impossible to deny that tribalism is an enemy of democracy, particularly in South Africa.
“If we adhere to some of Biko’s core values and basic principles we can take South Africa to a higher level,” relayed Prof Motaung.
Giving more insight into the politics of fear and its resultant tribalism and violence was Prof Arash Javanbakht MD, a psychiatrist and Director of the Stress, Trauma, and Anxiety Research Clinic (STARC) at Wayne State University. Prof Javanbakht and his work have been featured on the National Geographic, The Atlantic, CNN, Aljazeera, NPR, Washington Post, Smithsonian, PBS, American Psychiatric Association, Anxiety and Depression Association of America, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and an array of other media.
His clinical work is mainly focused on anxiety and trauma related disorders, and PTSD in civilians, first responders, law enforcement, and refugees and victims of torture and human trafficking.
He also explained further on the role of STARC, saying that it looks at the impact of exposure to war trauma in adults and children, Syrian and Iraqi refugees in the US, and biological and psychological factors of risk and resilience.
“This research examines genetic, environmental, and inflammation correlates of trauma as well. The use of art, dance and movement, and yoga and mindfulness in helping refugee families overcome stress,” he said.
Prof Javanbakht said one has to understand the context of how fear had evolved, explaining that fear is the psychological response of all of a person’s being to a personal threat which includes mental and physical components.
“The function of fear prepares you for not being killed by that predator, angry warrior or falling rock. Fear also has an evolutionary function. Very often fear is illogical, it is not very reasonable. If a predator had to attack us 50 000 years ago, it would not make sense to stand there and think psychologically, logically or philosophically about the nature of this animal. We had to act fast and very quickly run away or attack and then we had time to think about it. So, when there is danger we had to be fast and not very logical,” he said.
He also focused on how individuals learn fear and the politics of fear. He stressed that fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate and hate leads to suffering.
Prof Javanbakht conveyed that fear has a very strong link with the tribes, saying that people are tribal species, and inherently are linked to tribes.
“We have countries, we have religious, academic, sports, recreational affirmations that get very strong. In a lot of symbolic ways, we fight other groups of people in a tribe which is a fun form of this. We have always engaged in group competitions in different ways and with different faces from brutal nationalistic wars to stop strong sports competitions,” he added.
Prof Javanbakht said that basically people are more tribal when scared; and trust threat related warnings from tribemates more.
“This has an evolutionary advantage and enhances group cohesion. It helps us to ‘fend off’ the others whether predators or the other tribe are coming for our lives, resources, land, bodies, guns,” he stressed.
He also explained the politics of fear cookbook and the concept pertaining to less humanising others, as well as elaborating that fear is often uninformed.
“It’s easier to fear, hurt, destroy what we don’t know,” he said.
Another powerful speaker was Nelvis Qekema, the Director of Research and Content Development at the Department of Science and Technology. He is also the National Chairperson of the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO). He focused his talk on: How far are we from Fanon & Biko’s quest for a politics of solidarity, a new humanism, and mental liberation. His talk centred on the importance of being truthful about the current situation and working towards changing peoples’ mind-sets, going forward.
The final speaker at the seminar was Ms Kekeletso Khena, a social entrepreneur, whose presentation was titled: Does the media play a role as watchdog to protect democracy or a tool to foment discord and violence? Where do you draw the line between ethical reporting and sensationalism?
She shared more on the power that media has on the mind-set and what one can do to influence people and society.
The event ended with a question and answer session with the attendees and the closing remarks given by the various speakers and DUT’s Prof Sibusiso Moyo.
“From my takeaway it is that humanity is important. Humans need to care about others, our value system is also important. Having respect, caring, integrity. Integrity comes with having enough knowledge so that when you representing something and sharing information you have this evidence-based information that can help people to transform their lives, and social entrepreneurship, we cannot over-emphasise that. Caring about our communities, educating our people, even in terms of politics, who they elect, even that has ramifications later on in relation to our socio economic status. Thanks for a very thought-provoking session, thanks to our UMTAPO colleagues, DUT team who helped prepare for this event, and I do hope that we can engage even further after this,” she added.
Pictured: Prof Keolebogile Motaung
Pictured: Prof Arash Javanbakht