Black Consciousness Liteby Brandon Edmonds / 21.04.2011
We begin in the street only to leave it. Our hero is apparently driven to the club. That’s the first sign we are in a dream-sequence of unhindered mobility in which everyday stress-makers (car guards, parking, petrol, driving yourself) fall away. Gliding past the bouncer tells us this is also a dream of total access. Then the truth behind appearances (capital) – the thing that makes this fantasy world possible – the commodity itself appears.
Beer in this case.
Then women are danced with. Sexual plenitude is the reward of success. This is a dream of life once you’ve arrived. Once you’ve made it. The cordon of the VIP section is unhooked and we descend into what enables the pleasures above – idea-driven projects, brainstorming teams working all hours, adding value while the rest of us sleep, in short, the mythic iconography of the information economy.
Our hero solves a problem by adding an unforeseen element to a difficult equation, demonstrating his prized inventive spontaneity, besting regular management, reminding us how capitalism needs and rewards Nietzschean mavericks exempt from the crowd. Then the pool hall – traditional terrain of the working class – where our guy disdains the game altogether and demonstrates his distance from the masses with an impossible trick shot. His skills transcend old forms. His superiority over both management and workers duly demonstrated by mastery over strategy and labour, and it’s back upstairs to claim his reward for being such an exceptional individual, the CEO of capitalist space-time. Beer, deference and yet more women.
Let’s quickly explore two aspects in play here. What this advert currently tells us about the consumerist capture of Steve Biko’s notion of Black Consciousness, and the dead center of new South African culture – the reigning ideology of “aspirations” (a far better name for Generations).
Biko once asked – “What do we do when we have attained our Consciousness?” This was in 1971 when the question seemed utopian. He acknowledged the possibility of “true integration” but admitted to being “much more concerned about what is happening now than what will happen in the future.” Well, the future, as this advert suggests, has arrived. It depicts a nightlife where the demands of Black Consciousness have not only been realised (our hero’s blackness is radiant with positivity, signifying solvency, mobility, intellect, potency and success) but transcended – racial difference really doesn’t matter.
There’s no denying the aspirational kick of a black achiever out on the town. It’s where young South Africa wants to be. In this sense, Biko would have enjoyed the advert were he around to see it. He defined Black Consciousness as the struggle to “correct false images of ourselves” and “to be our own authorities rather than wait to be interpreted by others” – and most importantly developing “real black people who do not regard themselves as the appendages to white society.” You’d have to say our hero is his own man. He looks sharp, carries himself well and appears in control. An aspirational figure. Who wouldn’t want to be him? But here’s Biko in the same paper: “By describing yourself as black you have started on a road towards emancipation, you have committed yourself to fight against all forces that seek to use your blackness as a stamp that marks you out as a subservient being.”
Those ‘forces that seek to use your blackness’ certainly include a major brewery monopoly positioning yet another aspirational brand before the ascendant black middle class. This is what is missing from the advert, a critical edge. Commitment to fight subservience, which, in South Africa, still means the transformation of the wretched living conditions of the impoverished black majority. Without that awareness, that lived practice of solidarity, Black Consciousness is more a lifestyle, a set of market-driven aspirations, than a genuinely transformative social force. It is Black Consciousness lite. This removal of struggle, of any sign of chronic social inequality, from the world of the advert, is pure ideology. If only the poor would disappear, leaving us to our fantasies. It pretends we are free.
The emptiness of this depoliticized version of Black Consciousness is very evident in the advert. Feel the expensive smoothness it goes for, the propulsion of its entitled flow. Events glide by. Our hero passes through space like tears down a cheek. That glide-affect simulates aspirational social mobility – or as sublime soul singer, Curtis Mayfield, put it, “Moving on Up”. It is how being successful must feel. Achieved in the advert by shutting out whatever contradicts the fantasy. Structural factors like inequality or subjective ones like self-doubt.
Think of what’s lost here. So many aspects of South African blackness have been excised in this figure of the solo black male capitalist achiever: sharing, struggle, ubuntu. As ace British cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, reminds us “cultural change” is a “polite euphemism for the process by which some cultural forms and practices are driven out of the centre of popular life.” The advert revels in the kind of sovereignty Biko was denied under Apartheid and murdered by the State to allay.
Here it is, selling beer.