When Xolela Mangcu first stepped onto Wits campus in 1983, he swiftly gained a reputation for his undiluted Black Consciousness politics. Three decades later he sticks to his guns.

If South Africa had evolved on Black Consciousness (BC) lines since 1994 under the leadership of a man like Steve Biko, our country would not be in the chaos and confusion it is today. Xolela Mangcu is sure of this.

Now 45 and a successful author, political commentator and Professor of Sociology at the University of Cape Town (a post he takes up this month), Mangcu articulates the divide between the ANC and BC approach to leadership and government. As he speaks, it echoes the straight-talking views he espoused in his student days at Wits when he arrived from King Williamstown in the Eastern Cape to study law.

“What is missing in the ANC today is a self-assured, intellectual leadership that is tolerant of different ideas, capacities, skills and competencies,” says Mangcu. “Instead, we have a ruling party that rewards incompetence and mediocrity because it refuses to reach out to the vast pool of knowledge that exists in South Africa. It is a major problem that is leading us on the road to nowhere.”

In contrast, Mangcu believes a Biko-style leadership would not have degenerated into the “increasingly rudderless political culture” of the ANC because, he explains, the cornerstone of BC philosophy is education, intellectual strength and self-reliance.

“For this reason we were opposed to the school boycotts and the destruction of institutions in the 70s and 80s. We knew we needed all the education we could get,” says Mangcu who matriculated from Nompendulo High School in King Williamstown in 1982.

The principal at the time was his brother Mzwandile Mangcu and the school had an outstanding reputation for its culture of learning, as did other schools in King Williamstown, such as Forbes Grant High School where Biko studied. “Of the 45 learners in my matric class, 43 passed and 25 achieved university entrance passes, many with A grades. That was the environment in which I was educated, but the school has gone down really badly, as has Forbes Grant High School, with hardly any university exemptions today.”

Mangcu is currently writing a book on Biko, who, as the founder of the BC movement in South Africa, would have fought against the decline of education in South Africa. “He constantly emphasised that black South Africans needed education to equip themselves with the intellectual self-assurance required to govern all the people of South Africa, black and white, with competence and authority.”

As part of this philosophy of competence and authority Mangcu maintains that a BC government would never have premised itself on ‘service delivery’ as the ANC government does today. “It goes without saying that government has service responsibilities but the ANC government has created a situation where people no longer feel any sense of responsibility or self-reliance because the government must do it all for them. This perpetuates poverty and inequality,” he says, adding that the only way to overcome poverty and inequality is through education and the expansion of the middle class.

“You cannot overcome the inequalities we face without a foundation in a solid educational system that will lead to a critical mass of a middle class population that can sustain the country. To achieve this, our fate as a society must not lie with the politicians because if we allow this we will see greater and greater anarchy. As citizens, civil society groups and intellectuals, we need to generate new ideas and new ways of doing things in this country, with young people at university taking an active role.”

The post 1994 period at universities has largely been lacking in student political vigour because, as Mangcu puts it, “South Africa became a democracy, which is what we had been fighting for, so there was nothing really to fight for and the passion and vigour of student politics in our day, faded away. It takes a while for the cycle to come full circle and the current generation of young people and students at university are once again ready to take up the battle for a better society.”

So far this battle and the vigour it requires has only been visible amongst those who feel marginalised, such as the ANC Youth League. It provided fertile ground for people like Julius Malema to rise to power, but what is missing, Mangcu once again points out, is intellectual leadership. “Without this, whatever is boiling up is blamed on racism and risks getting out of hand because the leaders are not trained in dialogue. Which is why universities have such an important role to play to provide the space for debate and dialogue.”

This is where Mangcu comes in as an academic. “I want to inspire young people at university to do what we did in our day: actively imagine and fight for a different and better society. I want my students to argue with me and debate their philosophies with me, just as I did with my lecturers. One of my many wonderful lecturers was Raymond Suttner who was jailed for almost ten years for his ANC underground activities. We argued all the time because he was Marxist-ANC-aligned and I was BC.”

Heading back to that time, almost 30 years ago, we find 17-year-old Mangcu insisting on studying law at Wits even though he was supposed to study at Fort Hare. He fought a protracted battle to get a permit to study at Wits, which was required by government until 1984 when the quota system was approved.

Young and full of fighting spirit, no sooner had Mangcu stepped onto campus than he and several likeminded students, including Linda Mtshizana, Mojanku Gumbi and Saths Cooper launched a branch of the Black Consciousness Movement at Wits.

“We only allowed black students to join because we felt we needed to forge our own path and that it could not include white students because they tended to dominate,” Mangcu explains. This led to vigorous, confrontational ideological debates on campus, especially with the formation of the non-racial United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983.

One memorable confrontation was with politics professor, Tom Lodge, who was addressing a mass meeting on campus. “He was regarded as the authority on the liberation movement in South Africa but when he failed to include the Black Consciousness Movement in his address, I raised my hand and confronted him. He acknowledged the omission and I received huge applause from all the black students gathered.”

Mangcu attributes his forthrightness to his upbringing. “I come from a long line of intellectuals and educationists in the Eastern Cape who encouraged me to speak my mind.”

In 1980s South Africa, speaking your mind as a university student attracted the attention and harassment of not only the security police, but also of the ANC underground which was looking for suitable recruits. Mangcu was not interested, despite concerted efforts by the ANC to infiltrate the BC movement on campus.

By the mid-80s a State of Emergency had been declared and Mangcu was preparing to go into exile after completing his BA in 1986. But there was something he felt he had to do before he could leave the country: return to the Eastern Cape and go through the traditional circumcision ceremony. “It’s our cultural initiation into manhood which Xhosa men go through and which I value. I could not leave without doing this,” says Mangcu.

After completing the ceremony he decided he was not leaving the country and would instead return to Wits and register for his LLB. Which he did, but soon changed lanes. “As black students we realised we needed to beef up our policy skills in order to able to assume positions of authority in a future democratic country,” he explains. “Wits had a two-year Masters programme in Development Planning, and to my mother’s eternal chagrin, I deregistered as a law student and signed up.” He completed his Masters in Urban Design in 1988 and pursued a career in city planning for several years.

Johannesburg has since been his second home for many years. Now that he will be exploring the shores of Cape Town, he does not feel dislocated for, as always, he takes with him the books and thoughts of great thinkers.

He picks up a book on Steve Biko lying on top of one of one of the piles of books still to be packed into shelves. The cover offers this quote by Biko whose life on Earth ended in 1977 but whose spirit is alive in the hearts of men like Mangcu: “We have set out on a quest for true humanity, and somewhere on the distant horizon we can see the glittering prize.”

Note: Mangcu’s latest book, which he edited, is titled ‘Becoming Worthy Ancestors’ is published by Wits University Press. It questions what it takes for us to become worthy ancestors to the yet unborn. Mangcu says that in a changed (and, some might say, degraded) environment of public dialogue, he hopes to inspire a re-thinking of the very essence of what it means to be a citizen of South Africa.