Steve Biko: His death created a vacuum

A massacre, recriminations, confused leaders and a country in debate about where it is going. This is the world Steve Biko found himself in. It is also the world he would recognise if he were here today.

In commemorating the 35th anniversary of the death of Biko in police detention, newspapers and debates across South Africa asked the question: "What would Biko say?" By and large, these posited that he would not be happy with the way things were going. Some were critical, others were outright furious. They all called for South Africa's leaders to step up and all of them said we needed more leaders of Biko's ilk.

A close friend and fellow student of Biko, activist Geoff Budlender, told the Mail & Guardian he often found himself wondering what his take on current events would be. "I keep stopping and thinking back to him, using him as a reference point to look at where we are going now."

Budlender, a human rights lawyer and founder of the Legal Resources Centre, met Biko when they shared a car trip from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth. "You instantly warmed to him and he accepted people as they were, regardless of their politics."

The hours travelling up the coast were filled with laughter. "He had a tremendous sense of humour and he laughed a lot. He could laugh at himself, which we could do with more of today," he said.

The car trip grew into a firm friendship and Budlender got a first-hand view of how Biko led people. "He was unassuming, but so ardent in his beliefs that people followed him. He was a natural leader, not one of these who need to take the position," he said.

Crossing political frontiers
Part of his power came from this ability to accept anyone, even if they had diametrically opposing political beliefs. "He understood that it was the system that needed to change, but people were still people."

This ability to cross political frontiers and engage with people is lacking today. "He wouldn't have been satisfied with how things are going today," said Budlender.

Anti-apartheid icon Mamphela Ramphele, who had two children with Biko, told the M&G that his life should be a beacon to the youth of South Africa. "His life exemplifies the possibilities of transformative idealism pursued with the passion that youthful energy inspires."

She spoke out against the excesses of the police, given the way in which Biko died. "The manner of his death is a cruel reminder of the risks of the capacity of militarised police to commit human rights abuses in pursuit of narrow party political agendas."

She said the onus lay with South Africans to change this. "Citizens must campaign vigorously for the return of policing framed by respect for human rights and non-partisanship."

Speaking at a packed lecture venue at the University of the Witwatersrand to commemorate Biko's life, another friend, Dr Saths Cooper, also emphasised the need for citizens to stand up. An inmate of Robben Island for a decade, he said Biko would have spoken out regardless of the personal cost. "We tend to keep quiet, because we have a liberation movement in power and we supported it. But we need to voice our problems with the kinds of excesses that are happening."

And it was the death of Biko that created a vacuum in politics in the country today. "His murder ushered in the second vacuum of politics in this country, the first being after Sharpeville and the banning of political parties. His murder created a vacuum which allowed for the politics we see today," said Cooper.

Using the healthcare system as a pertinent example – Biko was a medical student – he said the government was failing in many of its roles. "Healthcare turnaround requires two things: the will and the ability. We have the money, but the government has neither of the two. So now our healthcare stinks and it's as bad as it's ever been."

It was the apathy of citizens that got him the most riled up. "We can only blame ourselves. We get the leadership we deserve." Rather than be apathetic, people should take a cue from the constant debates that Biko started and joined in his youth.

Speaking at the same event, Rogers Ragaven, a professor of social sciences and a friend of Biko in his university days, said the debates of the day were similar to those today. "Biko sought to conscientise everyone and change the way they think about the world. It worked. Now we need to get this kind of thinking back."

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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