The legacy of Steve Biko: inspiring everyday activism
Commemorating a hero who lit the fire in all of us to tackle injustices and racism
TUESDAY will mark the 40th anniversary of the death of Bantu Stephen Biko in police detention. An anti-apartheid activist, Biko was the founder of SA Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), and seeking a body that legitimately represented the needs of black students, he established the South African Students Organisation (Saso) in 1968.
In defiance of the apartheid state’s divide and conquer approach, Saso defined black as anyone who was legally, culturally or economically oppressed by the apartheid state – in other words, those of African, Asian, or mixed raced origin, creating new solidarities to combat the repressive regime.
From its origins on university campuses, Black Consciousness evolved and spread rapidly, asserting the value and dignity of all people, growing into a movement that encompassed journalists, artists, high school pupils and countless others.
Biko and his ideas became such a threat to the state that when he was arrested in 1977, he was beaten to the point of suffering a brain haemorrhage. Apartheid doctors claimed he was faking the symptoms and denied him adequate treatment. As Biko’s condition worsened, he was transported, naked and shackled, without a medical escort, more than 1 000km from Port Elizabeth to the Pretoria central prison, where he died in his cell.
At first telling, the story of Biko’s death does not present much hope, particularly because his manner of death – from police brutality – is one that is familiar in many communities of African descent globally. Worse, the attitudes that give rise to such brutality, which make citizens such as doctors in Biko’s case accomplices to human rights violations, all too common.
Yet, it was Biko himself who prophetically stated, “your method of death can itself be a politicising thing”. And not only did Biko’s death raise awareness in the international community about the apartheid regime; his thought continues to inspire activism in younger generations and to shed light on how to address injustice.
In recent weeks, as communities in South Africa and the US have fought to counter racism, Biko’s legacy has been as relevant as ever.
In South Africa, there was public outcry when three “coloured” patrons of a Cape Town bar were arrested for public disorder when they condemned the display of the apartheid-era South African flag in Brian’s Pub. There were many who defended the display of the flag, asserting it was “just a symbol” and that the owner of the bar had a “right” to hang it. This, despite the flag’s representation of a regime condemned by the UN.
Weeks before in the US, white supremacists took to the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, protesting the planned removal of a statue of Robert E Lee, a Civil War general in the Confederate army who fought to uphold chattel slavery. One of the white supremacists drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, injuring dozens and killing a 32 -year-old white woman, Heather Hayer.
Like Biko’s death, these incidents on both sides of the Atlantic have awakened more people, and have caused many to ask what they ought to do to change the status quo. Among the most enduring aspects of Biko’s life, which enabled him to be an agent of change, was his commitment to what I call everyday activism.
I find that often, when people speak of activism, they think of protests and while protest action is a powerful and important tool in facilitating change, there are many more methods and approaches, that can and should be employed on a daily basis; not only as a means to counter racism, but also discrimination based on gender, religion, sexual orientation or any other differences used to marginalise people.
This principle was evident in the BCM. For these activists, consciousness was not a destination, a particular language or ascetic. It was about engaging with problems and finding solutions within themselves. But one indicator of this intellectual process are the terms black consciousness activists used to describe themselves.
In the founding documents of Saso, they referred to themselves as non-whites; yet a few short years later they were black and very proud; refusing as African, Asian and mixed-race people to be identified as non-white, amounting to non-entities.
A second lesson from Biko’s legacy is that we all have the capacity to be activists, to bring about change. Activism often evokes remarkable legacies such as those of Biko, Wangari Maathai and Angela Davis.
They are shining examples of activism. However, what we don’t talk about as much are the foot soldiers who marched and protested alongside the activists, the teachers who voluntarily ran winter schools in defiance of Bantu education; the lawyers who represented detainees; the aunts and uncles who raised children when parents were imprisoned; and those who gave what financial resources they had to bring about change, all equally activists in their own right. By lending our time and talent, we too can be change makers.
Finally, one of the most enduring aspects of Biko’s legacy was his courage, his belief that “it is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die”. This was the courage displayed by Hayer and other protesters who put their lives on the line in Charlottesville, and the courage that has been shown by countless others in South Africa and across Africa in the anticolonial struggles. This was the type of courage displayed by Merck chief executive Kenneth Frazier, who in the wake of President Donald Trump’s refusal to condemn the white supremacists, stepped down from the president’s manufacturing council.
This is the type of courage that will enable us to live out Biko’s admonishment that: “As people existing in a continuous struggle for truth we have to examine and question old values, concepts and systems. Having found the right answers we shall then work for consciousness among all people to make it possible for us to proceed toward putting these answers into effect.”
Amponsah is the executive director of the Harvard University Center for African Studies’ Africa Office and a former Steve Biko Foundation chief executive. She writes in her personal capacity