Naked, shackled and suffering from severe head injuries is how South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko died in a prison cell. It was a death that changed South African politics forever.
The Steve Biko Foundation says it was at this moment, on that cold Sunday on September 12, 1977, the country was robbed of its “foremost political thinkers”.
Kwandiwe Kondlo, a Professor of Political Economy at the University of Johannesburg, says that South Africa would be a different place if Biko was still alive. He says Biko would have made President Nelson Mandela reconsider his approach to introducing democracy to South African.
“If Steve Biko did not die, there is a probability that he would have actually forced and influenced the African National Congress (ANC) to change their approach. He would have been a factor that compelled the ANC to rethink its strategy of national liberation,” says Kondlo.
“Biko was not ANC, he was not PAC (Pan Africanist Congress), but he was standing for a movement of black solidarity. He sought to make known the deliberateness of God’s plan of making black people black,” says Kondlo.
Biko was one of the founders of the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO), a body for black, Indian and colored students in the country. SASO evolved into the anti-apartheid Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) in the early 1970s. Biko’s ideologies were instrumental in people rekindling their pride in being black, and culminated in the Soweto Uprising in 1976. The student riots against Bantu education led to other protests spreading across South Africa and greater pressure on the government to end apartheid.
Now, almost 40 years since Biko’s tragic death, his philosophies could be as important as they were then.
Strike Thokoane, Deputy President of the Azanian People’s Organization (Azapo) – a political party formed out of the ashes of the BCM – believes that if Biko was alive today, South Africa would not be struggling to curb racism.
“If Biko was alive today we would not have [Economic Freedom Front leader Julius] Malema saying black people must occupy land, instead we would have transformed the question of the country’s economy and not have the Ruperts and the Guptas running our country. We would definitely have a transformed society but more so, a transformed leadership,” says Thokoane.
Biko was often jailed and in 1973 he was forbidden from writing or speaking publicly because of his ideologies rejecting apartheid. He was also restricted to King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape. The arrest that led to his death came because he was stopped on his way to Cape Town. Despite this oppression, Biko continued to rally for black solidarity and a self-reliant black nation.
His son, 45-year-old Nkosinathi Biko, recalls a conversation he had with an elderly woman who described his father as a “warm feeling”. Nkosinathi says this is the most accurate way to describe not only what Biko means to him, but to others around the world.
He says that warm feeling is the core of Biko’s teachings; it is a strong sense of self.
“Once you have that, you have won 90 percent of the struggles that you face because hopefully with that sense of self you can then organize yourself as an agent of change,” he says.
Biko’s belief in black consciousness could be as important today as it was in the 1960s and 1970s.
“I think the young people of today, particularly the university students, are now seeing the benefits of the philosophy of black consciousness because while those who went to what we’d call ‘black universities’ think that things are better, the ones who went to the lily-white universities of Cape Town and Wits, have come to realize that the teachings of [founder of PAC] Robert Sobukwe and Steve Biko are actually needed,” says Thokoane.
“They are saying ‘I have access to Wits and UCT, but when I step outside and I go to my hostel room, I am in a room that is filled with the trappings of poverty, and when I go home I am immersed in poverty’,” adds Nkosinathi.
“No struggle in the world is not born out of people’s lived reality, and no struggle disappears unless those conditions are changed,” he says.
Biko’s rise to prominence started in student politics. What he fought for is being resurrected by South African university students today.
“Not so long ago, we were defining our young people as a lost generation; I guess we were saying they don’t care about anything of substance. Now the young people have woken up,” says Nkosinathi.
In 2015, students at the University of Cape Town (UCT) led the #RhodesMustFall movement which campaigned for more transformation at the institution and for the removal of a statue of colonialist Cecil John Rhodes. That was followed by another nationwide student campaign, #FeesMustFall, where students are demanding free education.
The students at the frontline of the protests often wear Steve Biko and Robert Sobukwe t-shirts.
Kondlo says they connect with black consciousness after realizing the ideological bankruptcy of today’s politics.
“We say we are liberated but at the level of ideas, we are so bankrupt, much more bankrupt then before 1994,” he says.
Nkosinathi was six years old when his father died. He says he is inspired by his father’s legacy.
“It was most embodied in what would become known as the Black Community Programme, which was the community development arm of the Black Consciousness Movement. So he and his colleagues would take these ideas they were talking about and give them a practical expression, like with health and education projects, as a way of demonstrating it isn’t just pie-in-the-sky ideas,” he says.
Biko rallied to bring tangible change to black communities. Before his death, he was to meet with then ANC President Oliver Tambo to discuss uniting the ANC, the PAC and the BCM, to promote black South Africans without isolating white South Africans.
This was difficult as both the ANC and PAC were competing to be regarded as the voice of black people in the country.
“The problem they had is Biko never wanted to define himself as ANC or PAC, but he defined himself as ‘the people’ and was saying they want one united voice of the liberation struggle. Both parties actually had a lot of headaches over how to relate with Biko,” says Kondlo.
The police headquarters at the Sanlam Building in Port Elizabeth, where the activist was assaulted before being transported to Pretoria where he died, is now called Steve Biko House. The abandoned and dilapidated building is a poor attempt to remember a man who gave his life trying to gain freedom for his people.
After a visit to the Sanlam Building, Professor Bill Rolston writes that “as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission confirmed, Biko’s head was rammed into the wall of the interrogation room by the security police who then manacled him to the metal grill of the door and left him there, unconscious and foaming at the mouth. They then tried to revive him by putting him in a bath of cold water…”
The government then lied to the world by saying Biko died from a self-imposed hunger strike. Helen Zille, the former leader of the opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, exposed the truth while working as a journalist for the Rand Daily Mail.
“I just knew a very great injustice had been done and I shared my commitment with my editor, Allister Sparks, to get to the truth of the story and I was pretty much driven by that. There were moments of great trepidation when I would go and confront the doctors but I was determined to get the story,” says Zille.
Biko’s murder might have silenced him but it could not silence the world. English musician, Peter Gabriel, wrote the song Biko for his self-titled album in 1980.
“I think it’s a song that was able to capture the imagination of audiences that would have otherwise perhaps not been interested in the plight of the South Africa,” says Nkosinathi.
Thokoane believes that South Africa’s politicians should embrace black consciousness.
“Black consciousness is about a self-love towards a society of black people. As a leader, you won’t only bring those who are in the same political group as you, or who carry your surname, black consciousness would say, ‘let’s stand together and fix things’. They had an approach to reject the white man’s crumbs that are falling from his table,” he says.
There are some populist politicians emerging in South Africa that are influenced by Biko. The founder of Black First Land First, Andile Mngxitama, says the members of his movement call themselves Bikoists. During a lecture titled How Biko Helps Us To Think Black, member of Black First Land First movement Neo Mokatsanyane says, “Biko might have suffered a physical death but his spirit, through his liberating ideas, have become immortal.”
Kondlo says with poverty, unemployment and inequality rife in South Africa, black consciousness isn’t being fully realized.
“We still feel we need leaders who are not only politically bold but also theoretically and intellectually,” he says.
Almost 40 years since his death, it’s intriguing to imagine what South Africa would be like if Biko was still alive. Unfortunately, we’ll never know.
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