The Legacy of Bantu Steven Biko in Brazil – Ambassador Vusi Mavimbela
On the 19th of November 2021, I was led up a flight of black staircases into a building and then into a classroom whose wall is emblazoned with Steven Biko’s pensive big graphic face. I had arrived at the Instituto Cultural Steve Biko (ICSB – Steve Biko Cultural Institute). The institute is located along cobbled black narrow streets in an UN-declared heritage precinct called Pelourinho. Pelourinho means ‘pillory’ and it takes its name from an awful practice during slavery. Slaves who were condemned to be pilloried by their slave masters were taken to an open square in this part of old Salvador where they were sjamboked or guillotined in full view of the public.
Just like the way the Dutch came to colonise South Africa, the Portuguese found Brazil on the road to the East Indies. At first the Portuguese had little interest in the immediate development of Brazil except for the exportation of tropical products like dyewoods that were not available in Europe. Of greater interest to them was to open routes to the riches of the islands of Indonesia as well as to India, Japan and China. The interest of the Portuguese in Brazil however changed when the French and the British merchants started to dispatch their ships to Brazilian waters and attacked Portuguese East Indies fleet in the South Atlantic.
Salvador is today the capital city of the state of Bahia in Brazil. It sits on the northeast coast of the country. The first Portuguese explorer reached Bahia in 1501. By 1549 it had turned Salvador into a Portuguese settler fortress. سباق الأحصنة That marked Salvador as the first transatlantic slave port in South America.
Brazil received the largest number of African slaves during the entire time of the slave trade, well beyond those who were shipped to North America. It is estimated that between 1520 and 1850, of the number of 10,7 million African slaves who safely crossed the Atlantic, the number that reached Brazil is in the range of 4,4 million. There is a close correlation between the intensity of this slave trade and the expansion of the Brazilian economy and its exports to Europe at the time. Brazilian slave economies were to become the major influence and the gold standard of how the economies of slavery were to be organised throughout the Americas. One central influence in that form of organisation was the domination of slaves as agricultural workers in the production of goods for the international market. There are several factors that made African slaves a preferred commodity in the Brazilian economy. It is important to understand these factors because they explain that, the origin of racism that later associated Africans with inferiority, is explained primarily by economic factors. In that context, it is important to underline that the first slaves in the Americas were Europeans who had been imported as prisoners or as indentured labour. The second group of slaves were the indigenous populations like the Amerindians. The increasing cost to pay for the slaves from Europe made it unprofitable to continue to import them. Besides the escalating costs, the rapid expansion of the economy needed more labour that the European supply could not meet. The Amerindians became the second option. They were however unwilling to abandon their semi-nomadic ways and their simple village structures. They also continued to wage mobile frontier skirmishes against the settlers who had occupied their territories. Amerindians were also highly susceptible to the diseases that the slave masters had imported into Brazil. For example, around 1560, a smallpox epidemic killed in excess of thirty thousand Amerindians. All these factors ensured a declining supply of Amerindians as slaves. Most of the African slaves in Brazil came from the regions of Angola, Central Africa, West Africa and the East African region of Mozambique. Most of these African slaves came from agricultural and iron-making societies in Africa and thus they were better equipped than the Amerindians to work in the plantations and the mines. African slaves also had already been exposed to the imported diseases by colonisers and therefore more resistant than the Amerindians to pandemics Europeans brought with them. African slaves were therefore, in economic terms, evaluated higher than the Brazilian Indians to the extent that there was a three-to-one price differential between the two categories that the slave buyer was prepared to pay.
It is therefore not singularly the black colour of African slaves that bred racism in the Americas. It is intrinsically the economic factor; it is the slave economies fuelled by black African slave labour that bred the attitude of inferiority towards the African slaves both among the slave owners and the slaves themselves. Subjugation as a slave came to equal black and inferiority.
The commodity shifts and change in production patterns in Brazil also had a great impact in the expansion, intensification and dispersal of slavery in the country. As soon as the Portuguese had decided to colonise Brazil, they had to find a more powerful export product than dyewood. The production of sugar in other South American regions had proven the potential for sugar export. Portugal’s domination of the Atlantic slave trade during this time ensured a swift and cheap importation of African slaves from West Africa to labour in the sugar plantations. The proximity of West Africa to Bahia and Salvador reduced the financial cost of the exercise tremendously. Brazil immediately became the dominant sugar production and export country in the Americas. In 1689-90, Brazil unearthed significant alluvial deposits of gold in the region that today is called Minas Gerais (General Mines) roughly 320 km from Rio de Jeneiro. Firstly, because of gold and then diamond in this region, a new slave mining economy would then emerge in Brazil. There was a huge expansion of African slave presence in Minas Gerais and they came straight from Africa. By this time Minas Gerais became the largest African slave concentration in Brazil.
By the 19th Century, the economy had further evolved and added other export crops like coffee and cotton. The expansion of all these new crops, in addition to sugar, ensured that African slave trade in Brazil reached its peak in the third decade of the 19th Century. At this time the Brazilian African slave trade had also come to play a significant role in the production of rice, poultry, pigs, and other grains. Portuguese settler slave culture was tolerant to miscegenation among slave owners, slaves and the indigenous population. This settler slave culture was engendered by the fact that most settlers who came to Brazil were males. They did not travel with their families and others had come earlier as prisoners or indentured labour. That led to a phenomenal growth of what came to be called mulattos, those who were considered neither white nor black by the Portuguese slave masters. By the middle of the 19th Century, Africans and mulattos constituted the majority population in Brazil. By 1872, Afro-Brazilians had outnumbered white people by two to one and had also outnumbered the indigenous Indian population. As Portuguese slave settlements grew in the country, and as the mining and crop industries expanded, internal slave trade spread from the northeast to the south. The official abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888 did not result in a radical change in the status of Blacks in the country largely because they did not have access to any land, they had no formal education and they had no political representation in the governance of the country. Nonetheless, the Portuguese white colonial regime remained gravely concerned that the dominant complexion in the population of the country had become the shade of ‘black’ and ‘brown’. The Portuguese had largely exterminated the aboriginal Indian population through war and imported diseases but Brazil had become black in colour. The dominant pigmentation had become that of Blacks and mulattos, people who traced their blood back to what the white order considered the dark African continent of slaves and savages.
To reverse what they saw as the stigma of black colouring in the population, they introduced the policy and practice of embraquencimento (whitening the population). To put this into practice, Brazil directly and indirectly financed, campaigned as well as advertised, for more than five million immigrants to come and settle in the country. These immigrants were overwhelmingly Europeans (Portuguese, Spanish, Italians), but also Japanese, Lebanese, etc. The idea was that through mass importation of these nationalities and miscegenation, over time, the black shade in the population’s complexion would be reduced into insignificance. This led the Brazilian white liberal elite to proclaim that Brazil was a ‘’racial democracy’’ and a “racial paradise” where the race mixture would eventually nullify the racial, social and economic dichotomy of inequality. Bahia and Salvador however remained the state and the city with the highest concentration of Afro-descendants over time. Up to this day, with 70% of its population being black and proudly tracing their roots to Africa, Salvador is a majority black city and is de facto the capital of African consciousness and culture in South America. In Brazil as a whole, 55% of the population acknowledge that they contain an amount of black blood in their veins or they consider themselves black.
By 1946 black political cultural movements like the National Convention of Brazilian Blacks began to talk openly and defiantly against the concept of racial democracy and racial paradise that they saw as the white regime’s attempt to mask racial inequality and to entrench marginalisation of black people. In the decade of the 1960s, the movimento negro (black movements) drew further inspiration from the intensification of national liberation struggles in Africa as well as the Civil Rights movement in the USA. لعبت روليت In the 1970s, the movimento negro experienced a renewed renaissance in the assertion of African identity and its diaspora and saw the founding of cultural groups like Ilê Aiyê in 1974. It was founded as a carnival block and was hugely responsible for revolutionising the carnival in Salvador and infusing it with explicitly African culture and political history. Olodum, a now famous drumming musical school that backed Michael Jackson in his famous music video ‘They Don’t Care About Us’, was founded in 1979. The Batuque (Brazilian African drumming and dance), that Olodum has modernised and made world-renowned, is a traditional medium for expressing protest through the self-affirmation of African history and pride.
In 1992, a group of activists emerged out of movimento negro and founded the Biko Institute. These activists were younger in the decade of the 1970s when Biko’s ideals began to spread and when he was assassinated in 1977. But they had been influenced, not only by Biko’s ideals and conscientized by his assassination; in the 1960s they had also heard the rumblings of the national liberation struggle in Africa and the Civil Rights Movement in America.
The Biko Institute draws its philosophy from Steve Biko’s philosophical teaching that “The most powerful weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”. The idea is to infuse the black mind with the sense of black pride, independence, assertiveness and solidarity. The institution uses Steve Biko’s ideals in the context of the “pedagogy of the oppressed” to cultivate a proudly independent black mind in a black child in Bahia and Brazil as a whole. موقع قمار The terminology of ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ is of course borrowed from the Brazilian educationist, Paulo Freire. The founders of the Steve Biko Institute were initially motivated by their conclusion that, whilst Blacks were 70% in the majority in Bahia, they were nowhere to be found in tertiary colleges and universities in the state. So in Bahia, as well as in the whole of Brazil, they assessed that lack of education and access to tertiary and university levels, as well as absence in high positions in society in general, correlate to the colour line. They said; the whiter your pigmentation is, the likely you are to rise higher in the echelons of education, the economy and politics. The
blacker you are, the opposite is the case. For them, this was another example that racial democracy and the racial paradise as advocated by the white liberal elite was a myth.
The curriculum of the Biko Institute stands on three legs.
The first one is what they call a vestibular focus that teaches pre-university black students in the subjects that prepare them to pass university entry examination. This leg is not only academic but also involves career guidance and mentorship.
The second one focuses on science, technology and professionalism and they call it OGUNTEC. This term is taken from the African deity who is considered in West Africa as the god of fire, war and science. This focus recognises the importance of these subjects in the future success of the students and their future effective participation in the economy and development of the country. These subjects have largely been made to look inaccessible to black students from Brazilian favelas and poor communities. OGUNTEC is deliberately based on an Afro-centric pedagogy. For example, one of the teachers explained during a chemistry class that cachasa, a popular and highly potent alcoholic drink that is now dominated by German beverage companies, came through to Brazil on slave ships and found its way to slave settlements in Brazil. Such history would not be taught in conventional school pedagogy. By exposing the students to such knowledge, the teacher infuses a sense of pride about themselves, the indigenous chemistry knowledge from Africa and the continent of their forebears. The aspect of professionalism is designed for students who have recently graduated from university or tertiary institutions and are about to enter the job market.
The third leg is Cidadania e Consciencia Negra (CCN – Black Consciousness and citizenship). This is a compulsory course that targets the Black consciousness of the student. This entails relocking the student’s consciousness to the African continent, an African landmass that is the birthplace of humanity and culture, a continent that bears fundamental significance to the civilisation history of Brazil. It is about getting back the mind of the students from the possession of the oppressor, as Steve Biko instructed, ‘the most powerful weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed’. This is not to ignore the class nature of Brazilian society and economy, but it is to highlight and emphasize the aspect of black consciousness, which is often downplayed in the politics and the economy of Brazil. As one Steve Biko Institute teacher puts it; “I can sleep poor and wake up rich, but I can never sleep Black and wake up White”.
As a result of activism by different Afro-Brazilian groups and institutions like the Steve Biko Institute, by the end of the decade of the 1990s, politicians and white academics had largely come to acknowledge that Afro-Brazilians were sorely absent in positions of power throughout Brazilian society. The appreciation and recognition of Afro-Brazilians’ contribution seemed to be acknowledged and confined only for enjoyment in exploits such as soccer and samba. It was because of the acknowledgement of this black marginalisation that President FH Cardoso who was in office between 1995 and 2002 found it necessary to issue a decree to federal Ministries instructing them to establish affirmative action quotas for personnel recruitment of Afro-Brazilians, minorities and women. As a consequence of this decree, in 2002 a National Affirmative Action Programme was established. By 2012 a Quota Law was approved mandating that by 2016 all federal universities should have established a quota system. The fact that it had to await the presidency of Cardoso before Brazil recognised that affirmative action were necessary to deal with the legacy of slavery and racism is an indication of the continued challenge that Afro-Brazilians and indigenous people still face.
At the end of the intense session with teachers and students of the Steve Biko Institute, I walked down the long narrow staircase that took me out of the Biko Institute building into the cobbled black streets. I had just been pleasantly reminded that Steve Biko bequeathed the black race, both in South Africa, Brazil and in Bahia, the very same philosophy of a vestibular focus, an OGUNTEC pedagogy and a Cidadania e Consciencia Negre. In Bahia, through institutions like the Steve Biko Institute, Olodum and Ilê Aiyê, Afro-Brazilians have woven that philosophy of Steve Biko into every aspect of the community. In South Africa, we the black educated class, can also emulate teachers and students of Instituto Cultural Steve Biko. Where government falters, we can do our part to use our educated skills to help lift the poor black child over many barriers of racial and class marginalisation that are still prevalent in our country.
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