It is 36 years since Steve Biko left us. The 18th of December would have been his 67th birthday. The secret police who murdered him martyred him. When his body was laid in the soil of King William’s Town, his body contained a seed that would spring from a bond with the soil, giving birth to a movement that would develop many branches. The branches would produce fruits in abundance and they would develop more seeds and more Biko’s would spring forth from those seeds. His memory is now as synonymous to Africa as a baobab tree.
Biko was an exceptional and inspirational leader and an important figure in South African history; he is one of the few leaders who came up with a genuine liberation ideology, Black Consciousness, that was aimed at liberating the minds of black people. It is unfortunate that his incisive mind is no longer with us to help us make sense of the events of the last few weeks. Would he condemn the booing of Jacob Zuma? What would he say of the fake sign language interpreter at Mandela’s funeral? We can only speculate about how he would have reacted.
This pivotal moment in history provides us with an opportunity to celebrate a colossus whose Black Consciousness ideology continues to resonate today as illustrated by the resurgence of the struggle for black liberation. Biko seems to have had a premonition about what was to come with the independence and the historic compromise made by the late Nelson Mandela and ANC with the Afrikaner Broderbond. 36 years ago Biko proclaimed:
“If we have a mere change of face of those in governing positions what is likely to happen is that black people will continue to be poor, and you will see a few blacks filtering through into the so-called bourgeoisie. Our society will be run as of yesterday. So for meaningful change to appear there needs to be an attempt at reorganising the whole economic pattern and policies within this particular country”.
23 years after Mandela walked out of prison that is exactly what happened. Reconciliation succeeded in changing the colour of those in governing positions while retaining numerous white faces from the Apartheid regime. The majority of blacks are still poor and trapped in Economic Apartheid. We have seen a few blacks filtering through the “so-called bourgeoisie”. The majority of these happen to be members of the ANC or those who are somehow connected to the ruling party. They have used their struggle credentials as a passport to wealth accumulation.
A minute political elite have benefitted from the Black Economic Empowerment programmes designed to provide previously disadvantaged groups with economic privileges that they were denied under Apartheid. Patrice Motsepe is one of those who benefitted from this programme: at 51 years of age, he is the third richest person in South Africa whose worth was pegged at about $2.7 billion as of 2013. He is one of the privileged few who have benefitted from playing the black ham in the white sandwich or fronting as the black face for white owned companies. Another benefactor in this regard, is none other than Cyril Ramaphosa who was the MC at Mandela’s funeral: his net worth as of 2013 was $700 million; that was a leap of almost $450 million from 2012.
Ramaphosa was a close ally of Mandela during the Apartheid struggle but he has since had his fingers in a lot of pies and worn a number of contradictory titles such as union buster, union leader, a beneficiary of black economic empowerment , part owner of Coca-Cola and McDonald’s South African enterprises to name a few. He is being primed as presidential material and expected to be a prominent player in the 2017 race. He is set to cement Mandela’s promises to the international business community that nothing will change in South Africa and that the economy is safe from radicals like Julius Malema and Andile Mngxitama from the EFF who want to nationalise the mines, expropriate businesses and land Zimbabwean style.
If Biko was alive today, I can’t imagine him joining the technocrats and bourgeoisie in the shameful accumulation of wealth while the proletarians feed on the scabs of their wounds. I want to believe that if Biko was alive, he would remain at the forefront of the people’s struggle calling for meaningful change. I remember the Biko who was clamouring for a reorganisation of the “whole economic pattern and policies” within South Africa. I would like to believe that Biko would have been enraged that the South African Reserve Bank is at the mercy of shareholders and the financial structure and banking institutions are not fully harnessed to the national development today. Was it possible that Biko saw this coming?
Considering his comments above, he had a premonition of what was to pass. Biko was aware that Apartheid like Jim Crow and other systems of oppression were not merely based on racial discrimination but they were economical systems. Black South Africans were oppressed because they were sitting on one of the greatest repositories of wealth, probably only second to that of the Democratic Republic of Congo. These minerals included diamonds, platinum, gold and other valuable minerals that are important to the capitalist system. Hence, human exploitation of both humans beings and the minerals went hand in hand. This system of exploitation was justified by the creation of an Apartheid State in 1948 by the Afrikaner National Party to undergo the systematic and systemic exploitation of South Africans. This Afrikaner National Party transformed into the African National Congress in Black Face at independence. Even the likes of De Klerk are now honorary ANC members.
This strategy was carefully crafted by Mandela when he created a Government of National Unity in 1994 which included the Inkatha Freedom Party and National Party to boost the ANC’s votes to secure two-thirds of the vote to bolster investor confidence. Buthelezi was consequently rewarded with a home affairs ministry for his complicity and De Klerk was made deputy president. The National Party quietly disappeared from the government in 1996 and by 2006 all traces of it were gone, merged into the ANC by Marthinus van Schalkwyk who was De Klerk’s successor. The majority of the ANC failed to see the transformation of the Black Skins White Masks as they were blinded by the Madiba Magic, a phrase like the Rainbow Nation that sound like token phrases coined by South Africa’s white advertising agencies. All these empty phrases didn’t transform into concrete or tangible transformations for the majority black population. Only the nasty face of institutional racism such as arbitrary arrests, police brutality and white only and black only signs disappeared.
This systematic and systemic economic exploitation of South Africans was supported by the British, Americans, Germans and other nations in the West. The World Bank and IMF also played their traditional role of cementing the historical compromise by offering neoliberal policies in an effort to sugarcoat Economic Apartheid. This same neoliberal sugarcoating resulted in the ostracization, silent genocide of the indigenous inhabitants of Australia and the pillaging of their land and national resources by settlers who reduced them to refugees in their own country. The majority of the aforementioned nations had representatives at Mandela’s funeral to pay respects to the man who had helped to give their unholy alliance a respectable face.
Of course, Mandela the hero helped to do away with the more sordid and blatant facets of Apartheid such as segregation laws, police brutality, blatant discrimination and the likes which were haemorrhaging business and unsettling investors; however, the economic structures that oppressed the people still remain in power supported by that same unholy alliance. However; there is little difference in the use of police brutality at Sharpeville and 1976 with the murder of striking miners at Marikana. Today, police brutality is endemic and insidious in suppressing legitimate protests in South Africa today whether they are residents, teachers, miners, etc. as illustrated in the following link:
Mandela’s historic compromise provided white South Africans with the ability to travel the world without the stench of the Apartheid stigma following them around and they were also allowed to keep the land and wealth while the black people were left empty handed and feeling like they were robbed.
I would like to think Biko would have stuck to his principles and would have been disgusted at the talks of reconciliation and the flag flying independence without transformation and having nothing tangible to show for the struggle. I would like to believe Biko would still be in the frontline today if he was alive defying the odds and reminding the “black man of the need to rally together with his brothers around the cause of their oppression – the blackness of their skin – and to operate as a group to rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude.” This was what Black Consciousness represented.
I don’t believe Biko would have changed his principles to settle for a compromise without addressing the economical question. Biko was a different man. He was his own man. He was a thinking man. It is often often overlooked that Biko was only 23 years old when he sharpened his own thinking and created his own ideas about Black Consciousness. He was fired up by the Pan Africanist zeal of Kwame Nkrumah, African Nationalist teachings of the legendary Jomo Kenyatta, critical writings of Frantz Fanon and Walter Rodney and black nationalistis struggles in America. He was also acquainted with West African schools of thought such as Leopold Sadar Senghor, Aime Ceasaire and the philosophical works of Jean Paul Satre and Marxism.
Biko was acquainted with the racial dichotomy that drove South Africa. He knew it was a tale of two worlds that hinged on white domination and black subjugation which inevitably made South Africa a white supremacist society. He understood better than a lot of white liberals how white privilege operated and knew that as beneficiaries to an unjust system, they were too blind to see it let alone understand it; hence, his call for white liberals to step aside and let the black man or woman to take the centre stage in his or her struggles as encapsulated in the Black Consciousness philosophy. His recognition of the status quo was famously captured in his remark, “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”. Therefore, he wanted to free the minds of the people because he knew that the freedom of the body would follow if the mind was mentally decolonized.
The oppressed in the world today are forced to reconcile to the blatant vagaries of capitalism and imperialism. They have resigned themselves to accept that there is no alternative to globalisation and there is nothing they can do to change the international Western super structure. Black South Africans on the surface seem to have settled for the subservient role; however, underneath the skin, there seems to be a seething anger and Biko captured that kind of man in his famous remarks in his collection of writings I Write What I Like:
“But the type of black man we have today has lost his manhood. Reduced to an obliging shell, he looks with awe at the white power structure and accepts what he regards as the inevitable position. Deep inside his anger mounts at the accumulating insult, but he vents it in the wrong direction – on his fellow man in the township, on the property of black people. No longer does he trust leadership… All in all the black man has become a shell, a shadow of man, completely defeated, drowning in his own misery, a slave, an ox bearing the yoke of oppression with sheepish timidity.”
It seems that Biko had his stethoscope of the patient’s chest and correctly diagnosed the ailment. The distrust of that leadership was confirmed in the booing of Zuma by members of his own party the ANC who are unhappy with the corruption, E-Toll, his leadership style. It is no wonder that a petition for Zuma to resign is circulating social networking sites. The anger referred to by Biko above appears to be the main driver of the high levels of violence in the townships and areas of deprivation where high concentrations of black people are found.
Question Time hosted by David Dimbleby and filmed in Cape Town two weeks ago captured the anger of the people in the studio. Lindiwe Zulu who was representing the ANC and Zuma repeatedly illustrated that she was out of touch with the masses. Her language was deceptive, arrogant, and she couldn’t connect with the audience. This is significant as most leaders, not only in South Africa, have become so wealthy, they have lost touch with the reality of the common people they claim to represent. One of the most poignant moments of that Question Time programme was a young man openly declaring to Peter Hain [former Labour MP], the young people would quadruple Mugabe’s programme of land redistribution. You can watch the programme on the link below.
Biko once remarked that, “To expect justice from them at any stage is naive”. It is chilling how Biko’s perceptions more than 36 years ago still resonate not only with the younger generation but elders in the community who accuse the ANC of constantly talking about writing policies but they are just eating the cake alone and the people are not even receiving the crumbs that fall from the table. This is evident in the increasing militancy of the younger black leaders who know that the people are behind them and more importantly, the whole of Africa is behind them and so are other blacks in the Diaspora. Donald Woods a white friend of Steve Biko and former editor of the Daily Dispatch noted in his acclaimed work Biko that, “They [Blacks] also want a significant redistribution of the land and a fair sharing of the wealth of the land”. Those remarks written back in 1978 are still as valid today as they were when he wrote them.
Andile Mngxitama is one of the young, black radical leaders of the EFF who still endorse the teachings of Black Consciousness; his party is demanding genuine transformation and the Economic Freedom Fighters are gaining momentum at rate that is alarming the white community in South Africa and far beyond its borders. The PAC is also clamouring for more change. This partly explains why the Apartheid Regime was so afraid of Steve Biko that they had to eliminate him.
Biko was aware that for any form of meaningful change to happen, a political amalgamation of blacks had to work on enlightening the masses to rid them of their inferiority complexes and gain the confidence of the youth to challenge Apartheid in ways that the older generation failed. He made the corridors of power shiver with fear through remarks such as:
“Blacks are going to move out of the townships into white suburbs, destroying and burning there. It’s going to happen, it’s inevitable… a faceless army which destroys overnight will introduce far greater feelings of insecurity (among whites) than an organised military force on the border”. [I Write What I Like]
Not surprisingly, a lot of questions the international press focussed on what would happen after the death of Mandela. This uneasy peace reinforces the fear Biko instilled in the white community and establishment. Most people remain unaware of the political acumen and power that he possessed at such a tender age.
He was attempting to do something that the older generation had never done before. Little is known about his efforts shortly before his murder to unite the ANC and the PAC behind the scenes. The leader of the PAC Robert Sobukwe confirmed to Donald Woods and his wife in 1977 that Biko was a potentially strong unifying factor in the national scene. “Steve could bring us all together where we belong,” Sobukwe said. Oliver Tambo the ANC President-General also confirmed that Biko had been in touch with the ANC leadership in Lusaka, Zambia planning a secret visit to their headquarters for extended talks. Steve Biko wrote in I Write What I Like confirming his intentions:
“I would like to see groups such as the ANC, PAC and Black Consciousness deciding to form one liberation group. It is only, I think, when black people are so dedicated and so united in their cause that we can effect the greatest results.”
His vision and manoeuvres were the last thing the Apartheid Regime wanted to see happening. Biko hoped to use his charisma and influence to bring these giants of the struggle against Apartheid together to fight the common enemy. He was conducting talks with the ANC through Griffiths Mxenge. Harry Nengwekhulu who had skipped the country after he was banned in 1973 was tasked with the missoin to secure a meeting between Steve Biko and Oliver Tambo and the ANC. At the same time, he was also having talks with Sobukwe; they met in King Williams Town on Biko’s way to his mothers funeral in the Transkei. Further talks were facilitated through Malusi Mpumlwana and Mapetla Mohapi. However, fate struck and Mapetla was murdered by the Security Police before the dream became a reality.
During his interrogation in detention, Biko confirmed to Donald Woods that the Apartheid Government and the security forces feared his unifying influence among the senior liberation movements; his interrogators kept returning to this line of questioning about uniting the ANC and PAC. Biko was no mere talker. He was an intellectual revolutionary who also acted on his words. An intellectual revolutionary is a person who comes from the people and has the capability of intellectualising and at the same time doing things to uplift his community or his people. Biko and members of the Black Conscious Movement not only spoke about doing things for themselves in their community but they did it.
One of these projects was the Zanempilo Clinic which he founded with Dr. Mamphela Ramphele who is now the leader of AGANG. She is the one standing with him in the picture to the right. That community health centre was a dream they shared while they were both medical students. However, Steve was never able to finish his studies because he was banned by the Apartheid Regime and placed under house arrest.
There were other projects they established such as a creche which they founded under the auspices of the Black Community Program. Biko had also worked with other students to create other Black Conscious groups such as the South African Students Organisation and various all-black sports bodies and established trust funds for the maintenance of families of political prisoners. He also worked hard at establishing various other community projects. This captured the essence of what Black Consciousness represented. His wife Ntsiki described the impact of his activities in Ginsberg in a biography of Biko:
“His main concern was that in Ginsberg at that time there was only one graduate; that was a certain Mr Mangcu, who happens to be the brother to Dr Mangcu [the author of this book]. So he was the only graduate here, and that was worrying Steve a lot, so he raised money and established the Ginsberg Educational Trust fund. From that Trust, I am glad to say, most of the people who got bursaries are well-off now in that they are well educated. He produced mayors and some of them are working in government now.” [Biko A Life]
She also described how Biko used to help people out in Ginsberg when they brought their family or money problems to him during his ban. He would provide them with money to send their children to school or if they didn’t have any food, he would empty their [Biko’s] bags to help the people who needed food. He was a young selfless person who put others in front of himself as true leaders would do. He ultimately paid the ultimate sacrifice for freedom with his life.
Steve Biko had an ambitious dream to free the minds of black people and get them to do things for themselves. He wanted us to unite and work as a group to rid ourselves of economical subjugation and reliance on others. It was also his wish that we would get to enjoy our slice of the economical cake. He understood that division would weaken our struggle; therefore, his noble attempt to unite the ANC and PAC. His noble actions remind us that we need each other more than ever and we need to rediscover Black Consciousness and take up where Biko left off and see to it that genuine transformation happens in our lifetime.
It is our time to regroup and organise and protect our own interests as a group as Steve Biko encouraged; that is what Steve would have wanted us to do as he said in his own words, “Organisational development among blacks has only been low because we have allowed it to be”. All other groups are protecting their interests except the blacks. It is high time we rally together around the cause of our oppression – our black skin, not our religion, tribe, political affiliation but our black skin. This intellectual revolutionary left us a template of liberation. Let’s follow the plan. He may be gone but not forgotten.
Although many in the white media and community misunderstood Biko and misconstrued him as a racist because he called for blacks to rally together and solve their own problems without help of white liberals. Like Mandela, he envisioned a non racial society after independence as he said in his own words, “Blacks have had enough experiences as objects of racism not to wish to turn the tables”. He went on to say, “And in the same way that they’ve always lived in a racially divided society, they’ve got to live in a non-racial society”.
In conclusion, Mandela best summed up Steve Biko’s relevance to South Africa in a tribute in which he wrote:
“Whether his death came from an accidental blow or not, they had to kill him to prolong the life of apartheid. The very thought of a link up between the ANC and the Black Conscious Movement was unthinkable to the Apartheid Government. Today there are those who claim validity for their ideas by claiming a lineage to Steve Biko. To live with Steve’s ideas they need to seek out this singular ability of Steve, to adapt and grow and display the courage that belongs to leadership. Steve lives on in the galaxy of brave and courageous leaders who helped shape democratic South Africa. May we never cease celebrating Steve Biko.”
I belong to a generation that never got to meet Steve Bantu Biko but he left an indelible footprint in our hearts and minds. He is like a lost uncle I never got to meet. He ignited a flame in us that allowed us to walk tall and proud. And in my own little way, I remember an intellectual revolutionary who continues to inspire many like me with his slogan “Black is Beautiful. Be proud of your Blackness”. I salute him!
There is a new biography called Biko A Life written by Dr Xolela Mangcu which is hot off the press and comes at a very crucial moment in our history. It provides an in-depth analysis of the life of this Intellectual Revolutionary. Go to this website to grab a copy www.ibtauris.com. Look out for my review of this book in the New Year. Have a Blessed festive season and an equally splendid New Year.