The le­gacy of Steve Biko: in­spir­ing ev­ery­day ac­tivism

Com­mem­o­rat­ing a hero who lit the fire in all of us to tackle in­jus­tices and racism

African Independent - - OUTLOOK - OBENEWA

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

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