R.I.P. Steve Bantu Biko, Dec. 18, 1946 – Sept. 12, 1977


The following article, What Biko’s teachings and death meant to SA, was originally published in the Sunday Times

“Black Consciousness is an attitude of the mind and a way of life, the most positive call to emanate from the black world for a long time. Its essence is the realisation by 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.” -Steve Biko

South Africa stands at a crossroads, having to discuss the future – especially economic integration of black people – so as for all citizens to feel included in all spheres of life in the country.

The year 1994 brought political freedom without economic freedom for black people. Whilst at these crossroads, I ponder on what Steve Biko would say if he were alive.

I quickly renege on this thought, for I understand that great people die young but their teachings and legacies elongate their lives to unimaginable years. When Biko died, he was a 30-year-old young man and yet he had influenced the nation so greatly that his was to be an inhumane death.

Many may argue, why did Biko have to die and Mandela, Sisulu, et al were allowed to live under police custody. What made Biko so much of a threat to the apartheid regime?

In his 1976 trial, Biko told the judge, “You and I are now in confrontation, but I see no Violence”. This succinctly captures why Biko was by far a greater threat, he had made an acknowledgement that “the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”. In him acknowledging this, Biko asserted that:

“Black Consciousness is an attitude of the mind and a way of life, the most positive call to emanate from the black world for a long time.

Its essence is the realisation by 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.”

The apartheid regime knew that if the mind of the servitudes – black people – were to be emancipated, a rebellion would be born, an awakening of a secluded people would be in order and the minority rule would be brought down to its knees.

That is why, Biko a proponent of non-violence, died a violent, brutal and catastrophic death.

However, I assert that this sudden death as tragic as it was, it was a much needed death, it was a death that served as an awakening, a death that formalised the cause of Black Consciousness.

This death was to black South Africans what the death of King Uzzi’ah was to Isaiah. In the holy scriptures, Isaiah 6:1 it is written by Isaiah that, “In the year that King Uzzi’ah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.”

In the year of Steve Biko’s death, the black oppressed South Africans and the global community saw brutality and dehumanisation of a black man’s life under the apartheid regime. In the year of Biko’s death, the fight to rid our nation of apartheid increased, that death was the fighting of minority and elite hegemony over the majority of the country.

Today, I wonder how much we as black people understand Black Consciousness and its need to continue to exist. Today, I often see white people wearing T-shirts bearing Steve Biko’s face – I wonder if they too understand what Biko meant.

It is time we asked difficult questions: Are we in love with Biko because we sympathise with the manner in which he was killed? Are we in love with Biko because he is one of the few black people that have had their philosophy world-renowned?

Are black people in love with Biko because he is just merely one of their own even though Biko said “being black is not a matter of pigmentation –being black is a reflection of a mental attitude”?

Can white people justifiably embrace Steve Biko, can they talk boldly about Biko with resonance to his teachings and be able to action his cause in our society? Lastly, can Black Consciousness find a place to survive under a black government?

I will address where Black Consciousness fits in, in the era of today whereby South Africa is led by a black government. Biko advanced a view that:

“Merely 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.”

In today’s society, the conditions of black people who are farm workers have not changed. Being black in South Africa still means receiving poor education, blackness is a ticket to an inefficient healthcare system.

I am black and therefore must tolerate shoddy service delivery from my rural and township municipalities. Today we must redress the injustices of the past and we are often accused as black people by the likes of the Democratic Alliance of wanting to champion black politics before any other racial group. Biko would have said to those who hold this view:

“It becomes more necessary to see the truth as it is if you realise that the only vehicle to change are these people who have lost their personality. T

he first step therefore is to make the black man come to himself; to pump back life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity, to remind him of his complicity in crime of allowing himself to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of his birth.”

This is the first step towards the emancipation of black people from the shackles of the past. The need to bring back the dignity of black people should be the priority of our government. Our own black government is betraying the cause and vision of Black Consciousness.

Biko believed that “In time, we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift – a more human face.” And this would be achieved through a black government.

Where is this human face today? Our politicians continue to obsess with benefiting from state resources through corruption. Our government continues to silence our people with social grants instead of concentrating on efforts to create decent employment for our people.

Media freedom and the judiciary are becoming under threat from the ruling party. Where is dignity in that? It is under a black government murder and rape continues to go untamed, and yet we want to claim that we have given a human face to South Africa? It cannot be.

Lastly, in today’s society the second step towards emancipating black people from the structural injustices of the past is economic freedom.

Biko talked on this too, and today his words find resonance with me, when he said, “We do not want to be reminded that it is we, the indigenous people, who are poor and exploited in the land of our birth.

These are concepts which Black Consciousness approach wishes to eradicate from the black man’s mind before our society is driven to chaos by irresponsible people from Coca-cola and hamburger cultural backgrounds.”

Here Biko makes a profound realisation that the primary goal of multinational companies is to make profits. They are not bothered what the conditions are, for as long as their profit margins are protected. Indeed, this is reflected in the reality that there are companies that did business with the apartheid government and continue to do business with the democratic government.

The same companies were sustaining apartheid and the black government accepted them with open arms without forcing any ownership restructuring that would see shares of those companies either being given to people or the state to handle them on behalf of the people.

Those companies inflicted and indirectly funded the atrocities of apartheid and today we seem to have forgotten. The means of production in South Africa are still largely owned by the few – mainly white people and a new black elite.

Indeed, Biko was right when he said, “Tradition has it that whenever a group of people has tasted the lovely fruits of wealth, security and prestige it begins to find it more comfortable to believe in the obvious lie and accept that it alone is entitled to privilege”.

This is definitely true, not only for white people but also for the new rich black elite that pays no responsibility to the cause of emancipating not only a few from poverty but all citizens of this land.

Through Black Consciousness, I have learnt to embrace my blackness and speak proudly of it. I have learnt to stand firm on my beliefs about how we should correct the wrongs that were imposed on my ancestors.

Forgiveness does not equate to forgetting the past and for as long as I do not forget I must do right and I must do so responsibly. To reiterate Biko’s words: “Those who are terrified of Black Consciousness, will tell us that to speak proudly of who we are is to polarise the nation.”

White people must understand then, that to embrace Steve Biko is to embrace Black Consciousness and if this is not the case, their embracing of Biko is insulting.

Black people must know that to embrace Biko and his philosophy is to take charge of your life and responsibility of your blackness. Only black people can betray Black Consciousness.


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