Sun Sep 24 07:14:32 SAST 2017

Blacks lag behind because we don't read

By Prince Mashele | 2015-08-16 11:53:59.0

Last week Munghana Lonene FM invited its listeners to reflect on a question that should preoccupy all black people: Why are blacks generally trailing white people?

There are indeed some "clever" blacks who think they are better; but, in reality, they are simply ignorant.

What kind of black person do we generally deem successful in our townships and rural villages?

It is a person who has a big Western-style house; the man who drives a Mercedes Benz, BMW and so on. A truly successful black person wears expensive suits, typically from Italy.

The life of a successful black person follows a particular pattern. From Monday to Friday he goes to work. On Saturday he goes to a funeral, if not to a shopping mall.

On Sunday such a person goes to church, or he polishes his shoes while listening to jazz. A few read newspapers - to learn about latest scandals. These are the sophisticated types.

Successful black people don't buy books. White people know this. When they plan shopping malls for black communities, they do not include book shops.

Go to any mall in any township, or to any rural town, you will not find a book shop. Where there are no whites, there are no book shops.

Exclusive Books at Maponya Mall in Soweto was the first shop to close down. Some ambitious white man had overestimated his capacity to re-engineer black people's cultural life. He was wrong.

Libraries in black communities are generally unoccupied, or used by pupils during exam time. Even teachers don't visit libraries. In some cases they are simply burnt down by black protesters.

Because they don't read, the "clever" blacks who fancy themselves superior to whites are not aware that there is a relationship between the Western-style houses they live in and books.

It is true that the soil used to make the bricks and mortar is African, but the concept of the house is European.

To be proud of the fact that we no longer live in an African rondavel is to acknowledge the superiority of Western ideas. It is to concede that African rondavels are a mark of backwardness.

If the "clever'" blacks are serious about their claim of superiority, why have they accepted Mercedes Benz as a symbol of prestige?

Before it became a car, a BMW was an idea in the head of a European. The idea did not jump into a European's head because he was lucky; it was a result of a very old intellectual tradition - the love of knowledge.

To answer Munghana Lonene's question, let us pose it differently: Why are white people superior to blacks?

In The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama makes the observation that developing countries that are making progress today are those that had developed systems before they came into contact with the West.

These are countries that had a well-developed intellectual culture before they were invaded by Westerners.

China, today the second largest economy in the world, is a perfect example. Ask them, the Chinese will point to Confucius as one who embodies the best of Chinese thought, even though this philosopher died in 479 BC.

Confucius's principles of "personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity" are to this day the dye that gives colour to the character of Chinese society.

Even though the influence of Confucian philosophy was interrupted - particularly during the imposed legalism of the Qin Dynasty - Confucius's ideas did withstand the vicissitudes of Chinese history.

The vaunted professionalisation of the state and the modernisation of the communist party, generally associated with Deng Xiaoping, was in fact an atavistic step towards Confucianism.

In short, the Chinese have a well-established intellectual culture - meaning, a relationship with books.

A people who do not read books are bound to remain backward, not because they are unlucky, or because they were colonised.

Africans are not the only people who were once colonised, and the damage done by colonialism is not predestined to be fixed by the return of Jesus Christ.

We Africans are people of oral traditions, a people who transmit inferior knowledge through word of mouth.

The problem with knowledge that is based on the word of mouth is that, over time, it gets lost in the lies and ego of storytellers.

Eventually, a whole history disappears. The task of searching for African intellectual canon is not as clear-cut as it is for the Chinese, or for Europeans. Our intellectual gods are buried deep in obscurity, far beyond our daily knowledge resources.

Today we are battling to reconstruct Mapungubwe. Even though exhumed artefacts suggest the existence of a hub of scientific activity, there are no books written at that time about the place.

Socrates died in 399 BC, but the speech he delivered on trial has been passed on to us, in written form, by Plato. The now famous idea of "speaking truth to power" was first given practical expression by Socrates himself in classical Athens.

The answer to Munghana Lonene's question is that blacks don't read books - full stop.