Angela Davis pays homage to Fees Must Fall movement, female activists

Davis delivered the annual Steve Biko Lecture in Pretoria last night.

CEO of the Steve Biko Foundation Obenewa Amponsah, Professor Angela Davis and Vice Chancellor of Unisa Mandla Makhanya. Picture: Neo Koza/EWN.

JOHANNESBURG - US author, academic scholar and activist Angela Davis says a call by South African students for free education is a realistic demand that should be addressed.

Davis delivered a keynote speech in Pretoria last night to commemorate the 39th anniversary of the murder of Black Consciousness leader Bantu Stephen Biko.

Her lecture spoke to what she has termed as "unfinished activism led by youth" and the "continued political struggles faced by marginalised groups," especially black communities.

She says education should not be a commodity. "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.

"If students are calling for free education they are reminding us how retrograde our social priorities have become."

She has praised students of the Fees Must Fall movement, and pupils from Pretoria High School for Girls.

"Critical thinking, learning how to question things as they are and learning how to imagine the possibility of something different is the very essence of education. If these legacies mean anything at all, they are mandates to develop new strategies and new technologies of struggle.

"These legacies, when they are taken up by new generations, reveal unfulfilled promises of the past and therefore give rise to new activism."

Mentioning the women's march to the Union Buildings in 1956 Davis said, "Women have always been at the heart of anti-racist and progressive activism. We thus have to give ourselves permission to honour the women activist's as we celebrate the legacies of the men who have come to present the struggles of the past. And those men who most deserve to be celebrated.

"As influenced as they may have all been by ideologies of patriarchy, of hetero patriarchy, 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."

Alluding to the use of police force on protesters in South Africa, Davis said "The release of Mandela in 1990, the victorious election in 1994 brought a collective euphoria to black communities and anti-racist struggles everywhere. Here at last was the path to freedom. I would not have been able to imagine then, that two decades after the defeat of apartheid, we would be confronted with militaristic responses to people's protests."

Speaking in a post-lecture briefing with media, the 72-year-old elaborated on Biko's ideology of black consciousness, encouraging others to engage critically with his teachings.

"I actually like to think of Black Consciousness as political consciousness. So that it is not so securely attached to bodies we define as black. There are many black people who might consider themselves conscious, but who are participating the whole technology of oppression. For me the core of black consciousness is the struggle for freedom. This is the meaning of the black presence on this earth. If this is the heart of black consciousness then everyone who truly believes in the progress of freedom can identify with that consciousness."