Speaking at the annual Steve Biko lecture, President Cyril Ramaphosa called for South Africans to work towards a true humanity, while recalling his own links to the black consciousness movement.
Ramaphosa, a former branch chair of the South African Students’ Organization (Sasco) — which was founded by Steve Biko — recalled during the lecture that he too was incarcerated for his work in the black consciousness movement.
The president had joined Sasco in 1972 while studying University of the North (Turfloop) for a BProc degree. By 1974, Ramaphosa was serving as chairman of both the Sasco and SCM. That year, Ramaphosa was one of the organisers of the pro-Frelimo rally at Turfloop, where he was detained for 11 months under section 6 of the Terrorism Act for his activism.
Although he never met Biko in life, Ramaphosa said, “When I meet him, I will pick this bone with him that he got me arrested and finally expelled from my university before I could get my degree.”
The president focused his lecture however on a passage from Biko’s essay, Black consciousness and the quest for a true humanity.
“He (Biko) understood that the system of apartheid was predicated on the delicate lie of white supremacy and black inferiority. He knew too that this lie was perpeutated by those who sought to preserve white economic privileges at the direct expense and exclusion of the black majority,” said Ramaphosa.
“The philosophy of Steve Biko was fundamentally the antithesis of this lie. It was about establishing the principles of which a new and more humane society would be established in our country.”
This week marked the 20th anniversary of the Steve Biko Foundation and the 41st anniversary of Biko’s death.
Biko died on September 12 1977 after spending over 20 days in detention. He had sustained a brain hemorrhage between the morning of September 6 and 7 and, despite the injury, police had continued to question him until the black consciousness leader succumbed to his injuries.
“The murder of Steve Biko reverberated across the world. Reinforcing the characterisation of apartheid as a crime against humanity,” said Ramaphosa.
“In the week that we commemorate a cruel death, we also honour a truly honourable life that was cut too short, too young. It was a life dedicated to the pursuit of freedom, of equality, justice and truth.”
He added: “It was the life of a great, but humble, revolutionary who fiercely rejected the false hierarchy of races.”
Ramaphosa explained how Biko’s philosophy, which was “to resuscitate black pride and to generate a renewed project of political empowerment”, was especially relevant today in the fight against racism, patriarchy and poverty.
“While naked racism is an aberration, the material manifestation of racism, white wealth and black poverty is the norm. It is our responsibility therefore to both confront deeply embedded feelings of inferiority that manifest in submission and also deal with the superiority that it expressed in supremacy,” said Ramaphosa.
“As black consciousness is a necessary part of the response to racism,” Ramaphosa continued, “So to is the self-affirmation of women necessary for the achievement of gender equality in our country as well. The ascension by women of their own power and agency is the foundation on which we must work together to eradicate all manifestations of patriarchy.”
In order for a true humanity to be realised, Ramaphosa called for the eradication of poverty: “No society can be free as long as any member is denied the basic requirements of life, food, shelter, water, security and work.”
He added that South Africans should not accept poverty as “part and parcel of our existence”.
“Because the face of poverty in South Africa is that of an African woman. Our task is to address the racial and gender dimensions of this economic exclusion. This means in the first instance that we must educate the black child and the girl child if we are to end the transmission of poverty,” Ramaphosa said.
One of the greatest obstacles to the achievement of a just future, the president noted, was inequality in education: “The fault lines of race, gender, class and geography are no more distinct than in access to a decent education. Unless we correct this as a matter of priority, we will not reduce inequality and we will not end poverty in our country.”
He called for the involvement of parents, community members, schools and their officials to help promote educational excellence: “We must be a society where the burning of a school, the trashing of a library is a grave affront to our sense of moral purpose. Our quest for true humanity must be routed in a genuine sense of solidarity.”
The president admitted that legislation and policies to improve the representation of black people, women and the disabled in the economy has been met with some success, but not total success.
In order to redress inequality, the president has asked that “those who are the beneficiaries of decades of racial privilege that they have both the responsibility and the vested interest in ending privilege and affecting redress. This has to be a national task, and it is pivoted around a value that Steve Biko promoted so well: Solidarity.”
“To succeed, we must start as Steve Biko did with affirming our own sense of self. Biko taught us the revolutionary value of the confidence of black people in their own humanity and identity,” Ramaphosa continued.
“What Steve Biko sought to articulate was really the lived experience of black people and to restore the true humanity of all people, black and white, and to build a society where there would be no majority or minority. Where there would just be people: free fulfilled and at peace. It is that quest for a true humanity that must lie at the core of our every endeavour.”
Ramaphosa completed his law degree via correspondence through Unisa in 1981, completing his articles the same year. He would join the black consciousness-oriented Council of Unions of South Africa (CUSA) as an advisor in the legal department and later led the formation of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).