Thirty years after dying in prison in apartheid South Africa, Steve Biko remains a historical icon, even if his black consciousness movement no longer carries political weight.
A fervent anti-apartheid and freedom activist, Biko’s popularity in the new South Africa is rooted in culture, providing ideas for the shaping of the identity of young black South Africans rather than formal politics.
“Steve Biko is on T-shirts, in music, in the newspapers,” said Kopano Ratele, a researcher with the University of South Africa’s Institute of Social and Health Sciences.
“People who were teenagers or in their twenties in the 1970s still remember Biko with nostalgia and they credit him for giving them a sense of pride in themselves.”
In 1971, Biko explained that Black Consciousness was the realisation that black people should rally together against the cause of their oppression.
“… It seeks to infuse the black community with a new-found pride in themselves, their efforts, their value systems, their culture, their religion and their outlook on life.”
To mark the 30th anniversary of his death on Wednesday, the Steve Biko Foundation has put on a series of events across the country since June, which will culminate in a lecture by President Thabo Mbeki in Cape Town.
“In popular culture, he is a very powerful symbol of hope … an icon of change. He helped to articulate our understanding, our own identity that continues to resonate in young South Africans to this day,” said Biko’s son Nkosinathi, who manages the foundation.
“His ideas have a real influence well beyond the political field, in cultural organisations, in research organisations and in churches …”
Ratele said if Biko were still alive he would be disappointed to see his ideas compromised by poverty and inequality still evident in South African society 13 years after the demise of apartheid.
“If you are unemployed and poorly paid and you see the rich black people, of what use is your pride?”
However, the younger Biko feels his father’s ideas are still relevant to black South Africans, and should be used by leaders to propel the country forward.
“People who are entrusted [to] a position of power do not recognise the extent to which they can give direction to change in this country,” he said.
“In that extent his ideas are still relevant; there is a need to link consciousness of self to development programmes”.
On August 18 1977, 30-year-old Biko was arrested by police under the white minority apartheid government, and taken to a prison in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth.
He was transferred to Pretoria on September 11, and was found dead in his cell the following day, becoming the 20th person to die in the prison in 18 months.
While authorities said that he died after going on a hunger strike, South African newspapers did extensive investigations, revealing he had died from brain injuries.
At the time, justice minister Jimmy Kruger told Parliament: “The death of Biko left me cold.”
The explanations of Biko’s death were not convincing to the international community who, for the first time, adopted sanctions against the apartheid regime.
Biko’s tragic death turned him into a liberation struggle hero, with his memory praised in films, books and song.
“You can blow out a candle/ But you can’t blow out a fire/ Once the flames begin to catch/ The wind will blow it higher,” sang British artist Peter Gabriel in his 1980 song about the activist.
Thirty years after Biko’s death, the song moved another liberation hero, Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu to tears, when Gabriel sang it during the July celebrations of former president Nelson Mandela’s 89th birthday.
Premesh Lalu, an associate professor at the University of Western Cape, said it was important to commemorate Biko’s death, but not enough was being done with his legacy in modern South Africa.
“I personally think there is much more to be said about Biko and done with Biko’s thoughts.” — AFP