Khaya Dlanga: Steve Biko and white people’s things

September 12 will mark the 36th anniversary of Steven Bantu Biko's brutal assassination. During this commemoration, there will be many who purport to speak for and know what he meant by the things he said.

There will be the radicals who will correct and rebuke anyone they believe are misrepresenting Biko by quoting him selectively. They will paint him as one thing only, as though he were not a multidimensional figure. I say that because there is no individual in the history of the world who is all of one thing and no other.

I don't claim to fully grasp or completely understand what Biko stood for but I do have my own views on him. Whenever I think of Steve Biko, I cannot help but think about blackness and the meaning of it: the black person who has attained political freedom must continue defending freedom, not only for themselves but for others too. Even those who are not liked should have their freedom defended, because black people know what it was like to be treated as undesirables.

Because black people know better than anyone else what oppression feels like, they should be the greatest defender of the down-trodden, even if it means defending the right of a racist to receive a fair trial, for example. In order to preserve this freedom, black people have to fight for others to be free.

How can I say that when there are some who still see black people as inferior and treat them as such; who will do everything they can to prove black people are beneath them? It includes sabotaging efforts in order to prove their own prejudiced point of view, so that they can turn around and say: "Well, I told you these people can't do it."

When I was young, I learned about izinto zabelungu, or "white people's things". These things could be anything associated with a form of technology – from a phone and a fridge to a space shuttle – as though anything mildly complex may be beyond the comprehension of a black person. A belief in white and black things is a handicap, and there are many white people who believe there is no contribution a black person can make in society besides being a great orator, freedom fighter, singer or athlete.

But let me recount a few things most people don't know were invented by blacks:

Refrigerators, traffic lights and light bulbs are just some of the things we glibly call izinto zabelungu. What would surprise you is that these are actually black people's things too. I know you're thinking Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. You would be correct. But Thomas Edison's light bulb only lasted a few days. Lewis Latimer, the son of an escaped slave, invented the long-lasting light bulb for a company owned by Hiram Maxim, who was Edison's rival. The name of his company was US Electric Lighting Company. His improvement resulted in light bulbs being installed in houses and on the streets.

A black woman by the name of Patricia Bath transformed eye surgery when she invented a method to remove cataracts from patients' eyes with a laser device. 

And oh, a black man also invented the traffic light.

And as black people, we need to do our best to excel in every human endeavour we enter into. That should be the new black consciousness. It would be the best way to honour Steve Biko. His mission in life was to make the black person realise that he or she was not inferior to any other race on planet earth – that he or she was equal to everybody. 

I don't know what Steve Biko would think today, but I suspect that if black people started inventing things at such a rate that it became commonplace, he would be really proud. Being great businesspeople, inventors, economists, industrialist and scientists for a black person should become as common as seeing a great black sportsperson or hip-hop star. I can't wait for the day black excellence is celebrated in that way. Not because I am anti-white or apologetic, but because black people should create history too.

No more izinto zabelungu, and here's to izinto zabantu bonke, everyone's things.


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