We should all follow Biko's teachings

When Steve Biko was killed on September 12 1977, he was almost the same age as Trevor Noah (31). Biko was 30 years old. He was three years younger than Julius Malema is now and four years younger than Mmusi Maimane. And yet these young South Africans, and millions of others, owe their opportunities to the supreme sacrifice and the immense contribution Biko made.

“Dying so young leaves a life of such promise in the air,” wrote Biko scholar and biographer Lindy Wilson.

It is not the brutality of Biko’s death that captivated the imagination of the world, but his life, character, work and vision for humanity. Upon meeting the young Biko, lawyer and concentration camp survivor Lien van den Bergh immediately recognised the leader and statesman in him.

After meeting Biko, United States senator Dick Clark quipped: “I talk to [then prime minister, BJ] Vorster when I want to find out what government is thinking. I talk to Mr Biko to find out what blacks are thinking.”

Similarly, Bruce Haigh, of the Australian embassy, after meeting Biko also in January 1977, passionately appealed to his government saying, “please protect Biko”.

It was as a student, in the context of student politics, that Biko gradually came to political militancy. His wrongful, vindictive arrest by the police at the age of 16 and his subsequent expulsion from Lovedale College threw him into politics. Not that he was ever a naive youngster.

With an elder brother such as Khaya Biko, then already active in Pan Africanist Congress politics, how could he be ignorant of the political imperatives of his day? Indeed, having lost his father when he was four years old and noted how his mother, a domestic servant, struggled to provide for her children, how could Biko have missed the wretchedness of the black condition? With his curious and incisive intellect how could he, sooner or later, not connect the dots between the centuries-old struggle of his people against colonialism and the political quagmire in which black people found themselves in the 1960s and 1970s?

Inevitably, for Biko, student politics in particular and youth politics in general was a crucial site of struggle. But his vision of student politics extended well beyond the campus and the narrow possibilities offered by formal education. In his first address as president of the South African Students’ Organisation (Saso), he lamented the fact that it seemed “it was a crime for [so-called] nonwhite students to think for themselves”. Biko put at the highest premium the capacity and ability of black students to think independently and to be self-aware.

He believed in the capacity of youth to provide what is today popularly known as thought leadership. Whereas parents, lecturers, government and university authorities didn’t exactly see youth as leaders, let alone thought leaders – probably for the students’ “own good” – for Biko, university campuses were idea centres and radical-thought incubators.

It was as if Biko imagined a virtual underground university below the surface of the formal university. In that university, students recognised the inadequacy of the curriculum, the complicity of the authorities and the sheepish timidity that extended from the university campus to the remotest rural village.

And yet for Biko, independent thinking and the generation of ideas by the youth were not merely cerebral activities meant only for lecture rooms, conference halls or liquor-drenched shebeen talk-shops. If this was not his understanding, he would not have fought so hard both to establish Saso and to distinguish it sharply from the white-led National Union of Students in South Africa (Nusas).

Biko believed in the construction of autonomous institutions that would host, nurture and keep sharpening the best of those ideas. To suggest, as detractors did, that he could simply have joined Nusas and transformed it into a black Saso is to underestimate the value he attached to self-reliance and independence.

For far too long, Biko watched brilliant struggle ideas dissipate for lack of incubation and implementation facilities. For too long he watched black student formations hijacked, disunited and disintegrating. Indeed, he observed the same in the mainstream of black politics. He, together with his comrades, was determined to find a different approach.

Biko is therefore defined by his belief in the unity of the oppressed, the efficacy of thinking, the generation of ideas and the creation of institutions and programmes for their implementation as the engine of the struggle for liberation.

The mind boggles when one considers the number and objectives of institutions established and inspired by Biko in his short life. To illustrate, I list some (not all): Saso, Zimele Trust, Black People’s Convention, the New Farm Settlement Project (near Phoenix, Durban), Dududu Project (South Coast), Winterveld Project, Njwaxa Home Industry; journals such as Black Review, Black Perspective; student formations and networks such as Natal Youth Organisation, Transvaal Youth Organisation, Border Youth Organisation, National Youth Organisations and South African Students’ Movement for high schools; on the health front, Zanempilo Community Health Centre near King William’s Town and Isutheng Health Centre near Tzaneen.

The creation of subversive, autonomous and alternative institutions as bearers of the black consciousness vision was clearly central to the Biko strategy. This was meant to ensure that black consciousness would become much more than an intellectual tradition, but also a developmental trajectory complete with model programmes rooted in the most basic needs of the community.

Already at that age, like his kindred spirit, Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso, Biko could have become the best president this country ever had. We can only wonder what crucial contribution Biko the statesman could have made to the African Union’s Agenda 2063. Today, Biko’s insight is missed as the nations of the world discussed and reached consensus on the United Nations’ sustainable development goals that come into effect in January 2016.

South Africa misses his insight and inspiration on several levels. Nowhere is this more palpable than in the realm of youth politics and youth leadership. The fractured landscape of youth and student politics, allegedly rented student representative councils stuck in narrow institutional and party political holes, could do with a dose of unity below, above and across party political lines. They could do with a dynamic vision linked to concrete programmes.

The #RhodesMustFall movement is a good sign. The rage unleashed must be channelled to constructive and programmatic use. But that movement will have to articulate more than just what it stands against along the lines illustrated above, with the example of Biko. It is instructive that, as a student and youth leader, Biko and his peers spent considerable energy looking inward, seeking to understand the psyche and the experiences of fellow youth and students.

The experiences of alienation, humiliation and rejection more and more young people are talking about, which they encounter on campus, on the shop floor and in the unemployment queue, needs more eloquent articulation than we have seen so far.

The power of Biko was neither military nor coercive. The power of Biko was his ability to articulate rage with crystal clarity, his forceful push for unity across political and ethnic divisions, his ability to embrace fearlessness and his penchant for building institutions.

Biko was determined to resist both the colonial push “to empty the native mind of all content” and destroy, disfigure and distort the past of the oppressed.

His fearlessness was on display both in relation to the apartheid authorities, but also in his analysis of the central problem in the country. “The problem is white racism,” he wrote in an article titled Black Souls in White Skins?

The solution, he suggested then, was antiracism and black consciousness and not hasty integration. In the same article he indicated his resentment of the fact that a “minority should impose an entire system of values on an indigenous people”.

Admittedly we have seen aspects of these on campuses in recent times. But the inability to harness anger and channel it into powerful protest gestures that exclude violence and thuggery may erode the steady gains.

Our universities, too, are poorer for the absence of Biko. Instead of becoming places of vigorous debate beyond the narrow confines of formal curriculums, indications are that they are places where fear and conformity reign.

Sadly, what Biko once said of Nusas still holds true for many universities, albeit in different circumstances: “there shall always be a white majority in the organisation”, especially among the academic staff members.

In what is arguably the best statement of the main objectives of black consciousness, Biko notes in a 1973 article titled Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity that “blacks have had enough experience as objects of racism to wish to turn the tables”.

His defiant hope, even then, was surreal. “We have set out on a quest for true humanity, and somewhere on the distant horizon, we can see the glittering prize,” he wrote.

He did not live to see his prize.

I am not sure that what we see around us is the prize Biko envisaged. I fear that we are losing our way towards a true humanity.

  Professor Tinyiko Maluleke teaches at the University of Pretoria. Follow him @ProfTinyiko

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