CAPE TOWN – Marking 44 years since the assassination of Steve Bantu Biko on September 12, internationally-renowned educational activist and researcher Julian Kunnie looks into the legacy of the Black Consciousness Movement leader in a series of articles, this being the first.
One of the most painful historical events ever experienced in South African history is the manner that one of Africa’s giants, Steven Bantu Biko, was never allowed to live a full life, something for which we all pray, yearn, and hope, essential to our basic instinct as is with all forms of life, to preserve our lives as long as we can.
Biko was only 31-years-old, and for those of us who are past the age of 30 and even elderly, we look back to that age with nostalgia, because it was the time when we were most energetic and most active and perhaps even most productive, depending on the vocation or phase of life we were living.
An isiZulu proverb says, Ukuguga Akumemezi, “old age never shouts!.” Indeed.
Again, those in their 70s+ understand this proverb with living profundity.
The catastrophe of Biko’s arrest, inhumane and horrific torture for weeks, and his eventual murder at the hands of apartheid police on September 12, 1977, is a tragedy that few in South Africa, Africa, and the world realise.
Biko had been a medical student at the then University of Natal medical school in eThekwini, and was compelled to leave a promising career because he realised the anomaly of being black in a minority white-run settler-colonial racist state where the overwhelming majority was considered “non-white,” an aberration to the norm, that was “white.”
Biko developed, taught, wrote about, and disseminated the philosophy of Black Consciousness because he realised that black people, which included the spectrum of those who were officially classified as “non-white,” some nine categories in the apartheid racial pyramid, were fragmented and constantly fighting against each other as colonised and oppressed people, while the white minority was strongly singular and united albeit under different political formations like the National Party, United Party, and Progressive Party.
These formations all cohered on one important principle: that of white supremacy and social and economic unity that coalesced under the law, policy, and practice of suppressing the humanity and rights of all black people.
Biko, thus, formulated a very brilliant, comprehensive, strategic, and practical philosophy and pedagogy that served to cultivate the principles and requirements of Black Consciousness, where black culture, material existence, and history was the point of departure and the basis for the assertion of an independent black identity free from the enslaving and paternalistic tutelage of white minority racism, including liberal white activists who were adamant that they understood the black experience and reality in South Africa, particularly university students of which Biko was one in that era.
As Biko instructively noted: “Black man/woman, you are own,” and “blacks are tired of playing on the touchlines of a white man’s game….they want to do things by themselves and all by themselves,” and in his insightful critique of white liberal do-gooders, he declared.
“They kick you in the back and then tell you how to respond to the kick!” Biko emphasised that being black was not a matter of skin pigmentation but primarily “a state of mind, a way of life.”
In this regard, he noted that black policemen, who defended the apartheid system and engaged in the repression, assault, and torture of black people, had ceased to retain their blackness.
This is a very critical point of Black Consciousness that few in South Africa have been taught or realise in the wake of the ANC-led regime continuing to use ethnic categories that still reinforce a fragmented African nation because it evokes the distorted colonial legacy and reification of “tribalism” and reproduces ethnic factionalism that is key in the undermining of a non-racial society for which Biko struggled and was murdered.
One of the marvellous and historical elements of Biko’s life was that he was collective in his way of doing things in concert with Indigenous African cultures, unlike most of the black middle classes today, and forged the formation of the South African Students Organisation, the Black Peoples’ Convention, Black Community Programs, and the Zanempilo Health Care Center, the latter in the Eastern Cape.
Like Malcolm X, the black liberation leader in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s who worked within the Nation of Islam originally and then broadened his base to form the Organisation of Afro-American Unity to unite black people across the political divide, and then branched out into the African and Asian continental worlds to internationalise the black struggle for independence and liberation in the US, Biko, too, sought to broaden the scope of the black liberation Struggle in South Africa by incorporating the experiences and writings of decolonisation revolutionary theorists and activists like Frantz Fanon, Léopold Senghor, Aimé Césaire, and W.E.B. Du Bois and the socialist works of Marx and other radical anti-capitalist thinkers.
Yet, very sadly and violently, he was never allowed to develop his critical thinking, theory, and philosophy to full fruition because the settler-colonial apartheid regime realised that he was far too dangerous to be allowed to live.
Biko, after all, was a revolutionary black liberation fighter, and the thorn that stuck in the minds of apartheid’s protagonists in the 1960s and 1970s was that he was against capitalism, which he considered a parasitic “dog-eat-dog system”, and thus, advocated socialism that would democratise the ownership of the means of production and the economy of colonised South Africa, as he explained to a BBC reporter in the mid-1970s.
He also insisted very importantly that there would be no “minority rights” in a liberated and non-racial democratic South Africa/Azania because all people would be accorded equal rights under a new dispensation and be required to fulfil their obligations as unified race-free citizens of the country, with no privileges accorded to any particular group, even while the diversity of cultures, languages, and backgrounds would be mutually respected under the law.
The point that Biko was attempting to drive home that was impossible for the white minority community, in particular, to understand is that all people living in South Africa should uphold their allegiance to the South African nation and the African continent because South Africa was an integral nation in Africa, as opposed to what he described then and now, “an island of Europe in Africa.”
In this regard, Biko called for the self-determination of South Africa as an African country liberated from the clutches of Eurocentric culture, education, political economy, and orientation that persisted since 1652, and very ironically, ’till this day.