What would Steve Biko say about the struggle of black people today?

During the height of the anti-apartheid student protests at the University of the Witwatersrand in the 1980s, there was a question that would often arise among different political groups: Would Steve Biko, the founder of the Black Consciousness Movement, have supported a nonracial struggle against apartheid, or would he have preferred the struggle to exclude the participation of white people?

The dominant political group on campus at that time held the view that participation in the struggle should not be based on skin colour and that all people who shared the vision of a nonracial, nonsexist and democratic South Africa should make their contribution to the realisation of this vision.

This view found its expression in the political programme of the Wits Black Students’ Society, which, at different times, was led by David Johnson, Tiego Moseneke and Dali Mpofu, to mention just a few.

The political group that adhered to the belief that the struggle was best conducted by black people alone had Xolela Mangcu as its vocal leader.

The nonracial group were mockingly referred to as the Mavarara but their political stance on campus received a major boost with the emergence of the United Democratic Front.


Mangcu’s group were dubbed the Zmzm.

Their ideological differences reflected the broader ideological battles being fought in the townships, which resulted in the ’Vararas and Zmzms openly attacking each other and leading to the unnecessary deaths of anti-apartheid activists in the townships of Soweto, the East Rand and the Vaal.

The ideological political battles between the ’Vararas and the Zmzms in the townships was well articulated by the Afrikaner author Riaan Malan in his politically eye-opening bestseller titled My Traitor’s Heart.

Fast forward 30 years or so and the issues of black identity and the struggles of black people have once more resurfaced. This was recently demonstrated by pupils of Pretoria High School for Girls, who protested against being forced to straighten their hair and being ridiculed by white teachers when speaking in their own language.

The #FeesMustFall student movement has positioned itself as the vanguard of black student struggles against university fees, and the core elements of black consciousness can be found in the political discourse of the movement’s leadership.

But the political realities of the black experience in post-apartheid South Africa require a universal response that does not prescribe race as a determinant for participation in the struggle for equality. The need for us to create a political position that accommodates everyone’s contribution to creating a just and fair society was expressed by activist and academic Angela Davis during the 37th Steve Biko Memorial lecture last week.

She said: “The instance of the particularity of the black predicament is precisely that which is capable of yielding a robust universality. For most of our history, the category human has not embraced black people. Its abstractness has been coloured white and gendered male. If all lives mattered, we would not need to emphatically proclaim that ‘black lives matter’.

“Our collective contribution towards dismantling the evil apartheid system should catapult us towards creating a space where there is universality in the struggle for the dignity and equality of all people in our country. It therefore becomes a new approach in the struggle – not the struggle by black people for a black cause but a struggle by all people for the black people and all others races who continue to suffer from the injustices of post-apartheid rule.”

A universal approach to the post-apartheid struggle for equality and social and economic justice was also endorsed by Mangcu in his recent opinion column in a Sunday newspaper. He called for the creation of a cultural “consciousness of blackness”. He argues that this approach would require black and white South Africans to immerse themselves in the black historical experience and the values of freedom and equality it generated.

This is an opportunity we can’t afford to miss: all the people of South Africa, irrespective race and class, being driven by common values and working to alleviate the negative economic and social effects of colonial and apartheid misrule.

The call for black and white South Africans to find each other in the quest for dignity and socioeconomic justice is best articulated by writer and journalist TO Molefe (cited by Max du Preez in his book A Rumour of Spring), who says: “Whites, generally speaking, need to open their eyes … to the source of the privilege they enjoy today and, with that, hopefully understand the moral and constitutional imperative of committing themselves to seeing this country transform.

“In turn, black [people], again generalising, should see the change in their fellow countrymen and women and seek ways of healing. Blacks and whites must speak their truths and reconcile – for real, this time.

If I was to be asked now the question that dominated our student political discourse in the 1980s: Which group Biko would support? I would answer that the answer is there for all of us to see. Biko would rally all of us, black and white, to fight for a South Africa that promotes dignity and equality for all.

Tutu Faleni (PhD) is an alumnus of the University of the Witwatersrand and a Democratic Alliance member of the North West provincial legislature. These are his own views

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