Remembering Steve Biko is increasingly becoming an act of "death by memory", as Gail Smith has observed, writes Andile Mngxitama.
Biko has been packaged as the poster boy of the post-1994 anti-black settlement. Biko is under siege, his name invoked by all from the ANC to the Democratic Alliance. Artists and merchants of fashion are also cashing in on his legacy.
Each year, Biko's memory is appropriated to serve anti-black agendas. Commemoration events and radio talk shops are hosted in his name and comment is provided by a carefully selected coterie of spokespeople who actually have nothing to say about Biko's philosophy and how to use it to deconstruct the tragedy of democracy under the ANC. For instance, the discussion of the marginalisation of black languages and culture are delinked from the fact that blacks under the ANC are no better off than they were under apartheid. How can anyone expect black cultural expression to thrive in an environment of marginalisation? These empty conversations avoid the real issue: that, for blacks, the ANC has turned South Africa into a dangerous Bantustan.
Biko's words are repeated with impotent monotony, divorced from realities such as the massacre at Marikana. Those selected to speak in his name are strategically silent on how Biko would have condemned the ANC for murdering blacks in defence of white capital and how its own leadership lives on the blood of blacks – just like the apartheid regime.
In the wake of Marikana, there have been vague calls for unity and an exaggerated sense of outrage that actually masks a bitter truth: the ANC is responsible for mass murder. There is silence on the fact that the ANC is itself a mine boss, owning more than 500 mineral-rights prospecting certificates, given to it by the government. This is legalised theft.
Perhaps the high-profile annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture, presented by the Steve Biko Foundation, is the best dramatisation of this killing of Biko by memory. We have seen the lecture given by people who have nothing to do with Biko's philosophy, or by people such as Trevor Manuel and Thabo Mbeki, whose everyday exercise of power has created an anti-black reality. The emphasis is on "high profile" and hype – not on the difficult task of how Black Consciousness enables us to dissect why post-1994 South Africa remains an elusive space for Biko's dream of liberation, for which he laid down his life.
This empty ritual of remembering Biko is institutionalised to give it a gloss of officialdom, whereas in reality it acts to gag his philosophy. The Biko who emerges from these exercises is mute and deaf to the deplorable black condition. This Biko celebrates fake progress and is preoccupied with peripheral concerns. This Biko refuses to judge the ANC as the main author of black suffering after 18 years in power. This Biko has nothing to say about the wretched of the Earth.
Biko's true legacy can be summarised as an uncompromising commitment to the total liberation of black people. Only in liberating blacks from white supremacy, from the structural violence of marginalisation and from degrading poverty can we start the march to true humanity and a society in which race would not matter. Needless to say, this dream has not just been deferred – it has been defiled.
South Africa is a white supremacist society under ANC management. Biko warned about this when he said: "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."
Today, white men live best in this country and black women remain at the bottom. Blacks are gripped by the same inferiority complex that Biko found them in after Sharpeville: they are prepared to face death for an RDP house, a toilet, even a mere R12 500. They are not fighting to own their land and souls; they are fighting to be workers and recipients of crumbs from a state that does not regard them as human.
Blacks have no sense of themselves as a majority in power. We do not see a confident black person demanding high-quality service. Blacks without black consciousness are vulnerable to manipulation by agents of neo-apartheid, such as Julius Malema, who is using their suffering to fight for the ANC tender system that has benefited him and impoverished the people of Limpopo.
Blacks with no black consciousness have no memories, no sense of judgment or pride. As Biko said, they stand on the sidelines and watch a game they should be playing.
For South Africa to work, we need a new black, one who is imbued by the true spirit of Black Consciousness, who would reject the ANC integration that Biko described as "the white man's integration – an integration based on exploitative values. It is an integration in which black would compete with black, using each other as rungs up the stepladder leading them to white values."
The Mangaung wars are about this terrible competition, a battle in which nothing will be spared – not even the memory of Marikana's massacred.
South Africa's post-1994 politics are bereft of an ethical vision of liberation that puts people first. Today Biko stands tall as a prophet of a possible future that works and his philosophy needs to be defended and elaborated by true Bikoists.