By Justin Mhaka

Pretoria’s about to host the woman labelled as the pop art goddess of the Black Panther Party, Angela Davis.

The American political activist, author and academic scholar was a part of the famed 1970s civil rights movement in the USA.

She has a chequered, if not, somewhat controversial, history.  In 1970, Davis – then a Black Panther activist and member of the Communist Party in the USA, was charged with aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder in the death of Judge Harold Haley.

Unable to secure bail, Davis spent 16 months in prison. An all-white jury found her not guilty in 1972. 

Born on January 26, 1955 in Birmingham, Alabama in the racist south, Davis was raised by her mother, Sallye Belle Davis, in a poor, segregated black neighbourhood.

As Davis’ mother was a national officer and leading organiser of the Southern Negro Youth Congress, Davis’ early years were crucially influenced by communists and civil rights activists.

She later earned a bachelor’s degree from Brandeis University in Massachusetts, an MA from the University of California, San Diego and a Phd from The Humboldt University of Berlin.  

In the 1960s, Davis was a leading proponent of Counterculture, a popular anti-establishment cultural movement. It vehemently opposed mainstream politics, music, fashion.

Davis sported an afro back then. A huge, dashing afro. Her iconic image wonderfully symbolised the black feminists’ civil rights struggle.

Hearing her deliver the annual Steve Biko lecturer at the UNISA campus in Pretoria this September should be an intriguing affair.

The hullaballoo about hair doing the rounds in Pretoria couldn’t be more pronounced.

Students of colour at Pretoria High School for Girls marched in protest at school regulations regarding black hairstyles.

But, it wasn’t really about black hair, was it?

Was it just youthful exuberance perhaps?

Was it all about black pride, black dignity?

Let’s ask Davis for her afro-tinted take on this hair-raising protest.

As a young, militant political activist, Thabo Mbeki sported an afro. That towering intellectual from Mbewuleni in the Eastern Cape had a seriously powerful look about him: That snazzy James-Brown-Muhammad-Ali-Stevie-Wonder supafly look. So did Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Winnie Mandela, Chaka Khan, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, Magic Johnson. 

Just as the youth of Pretoria High School for Girls are finding their voices, while asserting their constitutional right to live unhindered by notions of cultural identity and self-expression they are wholly uncomfortable with – the woman whose iconic image and history so fittingly capture the essence of women’s empowerment and civil rights in the 20th century enters the fray.

You couldn’t make this up.

September in Pretoria looks set to be a month for the ages.


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