Steve Biko: The man who refused to submit

Steve Biko died in detention 10 years ago, having refused to "collaborate in his own oppression" by co-operating with his interrogators. He died, in the words of the inquest magistrate, Marthinus Prins, of a head injury. He was in the custody of the police, but Prins found that no-one was responsible for his death.

Advocate Sydney Kentridge, who represented Biko's wife Ntsiki at the inquest blamed his interrogators. Kentridge told the court that Biko died because of a "criminal assault on him" on September 6 or 7 by one or more of the eight security policemen in charge of him. It was then that he sustained the fatal injury which led to his death on September 12. If the quietly-spoken Biko had been a timid man, he would have submitted and co-operated with his interrogators. There would never have been the "scuffle," as Prins labeled it, or the "assault," as Kentridge contended.

But Biko was a resister to the end, not a supplicant for mercy. After his first detention for 101 days in 1976, Biko recalled telling his interrogators after an exchange of blows with one of them: "You (will) have to handcuff me and bind my feet together, so that I can't respond. If you allow me to respond, I'm certainly going to respond. And I'm afraid you will have to kill me in the process even if it's not your intention."

Biko's refusal to submit to subjugation was perhaps his primary legacy to his fellow black people. But it was only part of the wider philosophy of black consciousness which he pioneered. A number of inter-related ideas made up the philosophy which he bequeathed. Fundamental to it was black pride, the belief that blacks had to shake off the psychological shackles of the "slave mentality" and overcome the sense of inferiority and self-alienation.

Closely related to black pride was black self-sufficiency, the conviction that blacks had assume leadership roles and control their own destiny. With that went establishment of blacks-only movements – the South African Students organisation and the Black People's Convention – and popularisation of the slogan: "Black-man, you are on your own." Associated with that was a deep-rooted suspicion of white liberals and, it should be stressed, leftists. "The biggest mistake the black world ever made was to assume that whoever opposed apartheid was an ally," Biko said in 1971.

Liberals and leftists were whites who claimed to have "black souls wrapped up in white skins", people who aspired to control – and mute – black liberation movements, people who wanted to tell blacks how they should respond to the collective "kick" administered by the white-controlled society. Another key concept in Biko's political philosophy was absolute rejection of participation in government-approved political institutions. "We condemn bantustan leaders, even the best of them like, Gatsha Buthelezi," he said.

The principal task of blacks was to destroy government created platforms, Biko contended, rejecting the view that they could be used to advance black liberation. Arguing that the "bantustans" – and, by extension, all political institutions established for blacks – were designed by whites to ensure continued black subordination, he said: "If you, want to fight your enemy you do not accept from him the unloaded of his two guns and then challenge him to a duel."

When Biko championed black withdrawal and black solidarity, he saw it as a means to an end, not an end in itself. Ultimately, after blacks had built up their strength and forged themselves into a powerful force, there could be reconciliation and re-intergation with whites. But Biko stressed, it would be a meeting of equals, not an accommodation imposed on, or designed for, blacks.

Positing a Hegelian model, Biko said: "Since the thesis is a white racism, there can only be one valid antithesis: solid black unity to counter-balance the scale." Out of these opposing forces a synthesis would slowly emerge! "a South Africa where black and white live together in harmony."

As he told Judge Boshoff in the black consciousness trial of 1975-76, in all matters relating to the struggle "whites must be excluded". But, he added, the struggle was for "an open society, one man, one vote, no reference to colour". Appraisal of Biko's central ideas 10 years after his death is difficult. All have endured. Some however, have been marginalised. Others remain central to the quest for equality.

The notion of excluding whites from "the struggle" has been largely pushed aside with the advance of movements supporting the Charter, notably the United Democratic Front, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the African National Congress. Against that the Azanian People's Organisation and its ideological allies remain strongly committed to exclusively black – in the sense of African, coloured and Indian – "liberation movements". All these movements remain as strongly opposed as ever to participation in government – approved institutions from townships councils to the segregated chambers in the tri-racial parliament. All applaud the concept of black self-esteem although with varying degrees of intensity.

Many of Biko's lieutenants and disciples abandoned black consciousness after his death, joining the pro-Freedom Charter camp. The names that come to mind are Barney Pityana, Thenjiwe Mtintso, Aubrey Mokoena, Cyril Ramaphosa and Patrick 'Terror' Lekota. But against that many original black consciousness adherents have steadfastly supported it. The majority of the men indicted and sentenced in the black consciousness trial of 1975-76 maintained their commitment to mention a few: Saths Cooper, Muntu Myeza, Aubrey Mokoape and Pandelani Nefolovhodwe. So, too, has Peter Jones, the man who was picked up with Biko at a roadblock in Grahamstown on that fateful day in August 1977.

Where would Biko stand if he were alive today? Would he have judged that the time for the healing synthesis had come? Would be have felt the need to reassess some of his original propositions in the light of changing circumstances? Or would events have strengthened his convictions? No one can be sure. But one assertion can be made. He would have lamented the divisions in black ranks. He saw the black consciousness movement as a third force, hoping that it would serve as a bridge between the ANC and its pan-Africanist offshoot and not function as a catalyst to further division.  

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.


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Patrick Laurence
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