Biko’s vision of freedom must be kept alive – especially now

Steve Biko was a "living embodiment of the hope he proclaimed by word and deed" and this remains true even 40 years after his death. (Photo: Tiisetso Lesotho/M&G)

Steve Biko was a "living embodiment of the hope he proclaimed by word and deed" and this remains true even 40 years after his death. (Photo: Tiisetso Lesotho/M&G)

What is the purpose of reflecting on the life of Black Consciousness leader Steve Bantu Biko 40 years after he was killed by the apartheid government?

The evil system, which evolved from colonial attitudes, laws and prejudice, was devised by the leaders of the National Party, a bunch of men supposedly learned in theology, philosophy, sociology, law and other professions. For some strange and illogical reasons, these men believed that black people were not entitled to the same education they had received and that, by God’s design, black people were predestined for a life of poverty and suffering.

Three months short of his 31st birthday, Biko’s life was cut short by the foot soldiers of the apartheid system, the Special Branch, a special unit of the South African Police (SAP) dedicated to harshly suppressing black political activism, which was perceived to undermine the apartheid system. And so, on September  12 1977, Biko lost his life at the hands of heartless men, joining a long list of other black people, including Ahmed Timol (1971), Abram Onkgopotse Tiro (1974), Mapetla Mohapi (1976)and Mthuli ka Shezi (1972), perceived by the regime to be “terrorists” bent on destroying “onse vaderland”.

Biko was caught in an apartheid police dragnet in August 1977. For 25 days, he was held in detention and cruelly interrogated; he was manacled, badly beaten and tortured. He suffered extensive brain damage before succumbing to his wounds, in what the prominent international jurist Sydney Kentridge described as a “miserable and lonely death” in a prison cell in Pretoria.

Biko would become the 44th person to die in the custody of the apartheid police.

He was stripped naked by his torturers — not even allowed the dignity of wearing a pair of underpants in case, according to the inquest testimony, he might have been tempted to use the scanty garment to commit suicide. As if this was not enough, he had been loaded, naked and in a comatose state, into the back of a Land Rover and driven for more than 1 000km from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria.

The warped, concocted imaginations of the cruel policemen would be laughable if it was not so tragic — to believe that a man in a coma could commit suicide by self-strangulation.

Aelred Stubbs, an English monk of the Community of Resurrection, reflecting on the life of Biko after editing Martyr of Hope: A Personal Memoir, contained in the slain Black Consciousness leader’s book, I Write What I Like, writes: “Steve died to give an unbreakable substance to the hope he had already implanted in our breasts, the hope of freedom in South Africa. That is what he lived for; in fact one can truly say that is what he lived. He was himself a living embodiment of the hope he proclaimed by word and deed.”

Now is the right time to reflect on Biko’s life.

South Africans continue to march in places of darkness, in political spaces not materially different from places of oppression the country experienced during the oppressive apartheid years.

Biko urged in his writings that South Africans must be part of the process of “freeing” one another from oppression and bad governance and causing “happiness of Africa”, so that all may look forward with confidence to the future, rather than be burdened by negative thoughts of uncertainty.

If he were alive, Biko would have turned 71 on December 18; he was born in 1946. The president of this country, Jacob Zuma, is 75. So, in a sense, he is Biko’s contemporary. But it does not seem that he has taken to heart Biko’s teachings. Zuma’s tenure as the president of this country has been marked by regression and bad governance and the purging of good men and women in his own party and the government, a view shared by many in the ANC.

Is he inclined to govern the country beyond the grave? Almost overtly, all his efforts seem to be expended on ensuring that, even in his years of retirement, his footprint, or spectre, will continue to loom large in the political space. There are many things Zuma should be concerned about, including the reinstated criminal charges by the high court in Pretoria. Zuma is at the mercy of the Supreme Court of Appeal, which is due to hear his appeal this week, which is an endeavour on his part to overturn the decision handed down by the high court a year ago.

Also, what are South Africans to read from the decision to have presidential hopeful Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma sworn in as an MP?

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa says there is an attempt to undermine his campaign with dirty tricks. Recently a Sunday newspaper reported that Ramaphosa’s private life was marred by sex scandals. Could there be echoes of dirty tricks in this, even as we accept that it was clumsy of Ramaphosa to try to stop the publication of the story in a country that prides itself on a free press? This is assuming the article was truthful, accurate, fair and not motivated by the desire to slander, and that the old principle of audi alteram partem (let the other side be heard) applied.

Some critics, understandably, believe the author of the report could be a “Zuma man”. In one of the now scrapped New Age breakfast briefings, sponsored by the SABC with the co-operation of its then chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the editor, Steven Motale, openly apologised to Zuma for the negative articles he had written about him.

Could this “revelation” about Ramaphosa be part of dirty tricks? We might never know fully.

But as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Biko’s death, let the country not subvert what his project for the future was all about, which was, in the words of Stubbs, the “purification” of a country “reborn out of the destruction of this racist society” — a society truly liberated and averse to dirty tricks.

Jo-Mangaliso Mdhlela is a freelance journalist, who studied philosophy and is a priest

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