/ 25 April 2023

Why Steve Biko still matters

Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko
Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko (in the poster above) taught that philosophy is a powerful thing, especially if it is shared. (Gallo Images/Oryx Media Archive)

Nearly 50 years after his death, Steve Biko and his Black Consciousness creed still provoke controversy: some in the black intelligentsia tend to extol him as their property, whites often regard him as philosophically alien. It is time to reclaim him as a towering leader of broad national, indeed global, importance.

Biko has grown in stature as the ANC’s moral authority has faded. The death this year of the last activist to see him alive, Peter Jones, sparked a flurry of nostalgic commentary.

To re-read Biko’s collected writings, I Write what I Like, is to be struck by his pin-sharp clarity of mind and breadth of vision — and the evolution of his thinking. 

He addressed himself to the South Africa of the late 1960s and 1970s, when the radical opposition had been shattered by massacres, trials, bannings and detentions, and the apartheid state looked invincible. He sought, as he put it, to “pump up the empty shell” that black South Africans had become.

But his thinking has a wider resonance for a country that, in 2023, has failed to live up to its promise, and a world rendered increasingly ungovernable by violence and greed.

Biko was far from being a racial chauvinist. He initially rejected the “unholy alliance” of white and black people in one movement, believing this fostered control by those he mockingly termed “black souls wrapped in white skins”. 

But he was personally free of racial animus and never strayed from the ultimate ideal of an integrated South Africa.

His charismatic appeal to liberal sympathisers such as newspaperman Donald Woods and Anglican churchman Aelred Stubbs is well documented. Less well-known are his close ties with radical leaders of the white-dominated student movement Nusas that he publicly scorned.

This left fringe, including such figures as Neville Curtis and Duncan Innes, rose above the standard liberal complaint that Black Consciousness was racism in reverse. 

It is said that in an extraordinary piece of political theatre at the 1970 Nusas congress, when conservative white delegates threatened a walkout, Biko’s (white) lover Paula Ensor crossed the floor and sat on his lap.

University numbers in the late Sixties, when Biko co-founded the South African Students Organisation (Saso) and broke with Nusas, inevitably worked against black leadership: 3 000 black students faced 24 000 whites.

Biko also derided the Communist Party orthodoxies, including the “red herring” that the South African conflict was one of class, not race: “Let them go to Van Tonder in the Free State and tell him this.”

But blackness was a metaphysical, not biological category — there was no such thing as a black policeman, he argued.

An incurable, even naive optimist, he believed in “the logic of history” — that events tend to the good — and the possibility of progress through rational persuasion.

“We have deliberately chosen to operate openly,” he wrote to US senator Dick Clark before his death, “because we have believed for a very long time that through … organised bargaining we can penetrate … the deafest of white ears.”

Black Consciousness was both a psychotherapy of oppression and a political programme; like Frantz Fanon, Biko saw that personal and political liberation were intimately connected. He wrote of the crippling dualism of the black mind, outwardly obliging but “in the privacy of the toilet” seething against the masters.

Famously, he remarked that central to his thinking was “the realisation by blacks that the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”.

That meant breaking the “man-forged manacles” of white missionaries and teachers, who had instilled the conception that whites were “a … god that could not be doubted”. 

Looking back, it is clear that without black leadership and the mobilisation of the hydra-headed black townships, apartheid could not have been defeated. Even liberal whites subconsciously felt secure under Nationalist rule, he argued, while the Liberal Party remained a powerless splinter in white society. 

Biko had the forethought to denounce the Bantustan and coloured leaders who flirted with apartheid, sometimes with the approval of the liberal elite and press, remarking that the course chosen by Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a man otherwise fit to be his leader, was “extremely painful”.

He also pointed a finger at author Alan Paton for suggesting from London that territorial apartheid “might be worth a try”.

Mental colonisation, dummy leaders, divide and rule: obstacles that face victims of national subjugation everywhere.

And religion. One of Biko’s most telling engagements was with the influential but politically supine legion of black churchmen, whom he accused of submitting to non-African governance and fixating on moral trifles rather than apartheid’s great political crimes.

Black Theology, which taught that acceptance of oppression was a cardinal sin, would feed into the decisive anti-apartheid campaigns of the 1980s. Stubbs noted that five products of St Peter’s Theological College in Johannesburg were either banned or detained, a situation “unimaginable 10 years ago”.

Stubbs also points out that Soweto ’76 erupted just six weeks after Biko’s widely reported testimony for the defence in the Saso/Black People’s Convention trial in Pretoria, commenting: “Courage is contagious.” 

The trial, essentially of the Black Consciousness Movement, is remarkable for the tightrope Biko delicately trod between projecting the movement as a revolutionary undertaking and prejudicing the nine treason accused.

Knowing the repugnance he must have felt, it is strangely impressive to read his careful responses to Judge Wessel Boshoff, whom he consistently addressed as “My Lord”. At one point he agrees with the judge that witchcraft is a false belief.

Tactically flexible and, in the spectrum of Black Consciousness thinking, a moderate, he is said to have counselled against pro-Frelimo rallies staged in defiance of a police ban that had landed the accused in court, seeing them as an empty provocation.

While publicly repudiating violence and law-breaking, he probably accepted that armed resistance had a role. In his last interview, he restated the Black Consciousness Movement’s non-violent stance, while paradoxically calling for the ANC and Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) to join the BCM in “one liberation group”.

Biko’s growing interest in a broad liberation front partly explains the police obsession with him in his last years — in the years 1975-77 he was detained four times.

An additional factor was the security hysteria ignited by the student uprisings. Over the 1976-77 period 14 activists died in detention, more than ever before or later.

In his paper “The Life and Politics of Steve Biko”, journalist Yunus Momoniat records that Biko consulted PAC leader Robert Sobukwe and ANC mole Griffiths Mxenge. There were plans for him to leave the country, perhaps at the invitation of a Western government, to meet ANC president Oliver Tambo.

It never happened. The state was “desperate” to head off unity moves between the Black Consciousness Movement and banned movements abroad. This underpinned Biko’s final detention and murderous interrogation by the notorious Eastern Cape security branch, which left him brain-damaged, ataxic and frothing at the mouth.

He died, naked and alone in a police cell, on 12 September 1977.

The murder seemed to proclaim the iron unassailability of fortress apartheid, but in truth it signalled its swift and irreversible decline. Just 13 years later, forced by a township uprising and the world outrage Black Consciousness had fuelled, FW de Klerk legalised the ANC. 

“Biko had come full circle, from doctrinal purity (“Black man you are on your own”) to pragmatic outreach. In his letter to Clark he all but urged US sanctions against South Africa. (It is worth noting that his contact with the US politician infuriated the Black Consciousness ultra-leftists of the Western Cape.)

His first concern was South Africa’s voteless, whom he urged to assert their “manhood” (his term), history and God.  

But he also thought Africa had a special contribution to make to the wider world — that of giving it a more human face.

In I Write What I Like, he contrasts the “highly impersonal world in which whitey lives”, its relentless accumulation of power and technological know-how, with “the true man-centred society [of blacks] whose sacred tradition is that of sharing”.

Individual land-holding was unknown in African tradition; leaning on neighbours in adversity as natural as breathing; and poverty, caused by drought, for example, community-wide rather a disease of a particular social stratum.

Biko highlighted the “cold cruelty” of Western faiths, attacking their doctrines of universal guilt and hell as foreign to Africa, where the natural and supernatural were intertwined. Rather than being confined to a once-weekly ritual in a secluded building, religion “featured in our wars, our beer drinking, our dances and our customs”.

But he also warned that Western materialism “is slowly creeping into the African character”. 

He would, of course, have rejoiced in the black conquest of political power. But there can be no doubt that the rampant corrosion of traditional values in a liberated South Africa (Eskom, VBS Mutual Bank, the Guptas) would have horrified him.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.