Steve Biko He died in the Struggle, yet is remarkably overlooked, writes Matthew Graham
WHILE Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Desmond Tutu are rightly venerated for their role in opposing and ending white minority rule in South Africa, another leader of the liberation years has been remarkably overlooked: Bantu Steven Biko, who led the enormously influential Black Consciousness Movement.
Four decades after his death in police custody on September 12, 1977, he deserves to be recognised as one of the towering heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle.
Black Consciousness re-energised black opposition to apartheid and helped draw the world’s attention to the brutality of South Africa’s white minority rule. It began after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, when established liberation movements such as the ANC and the PAC were banned by the government and forced into exile.
In 1969, with overt political activism and leadership largely dormant, Black Consciousness emerged from the SA Students’ Organisation to fill the void.
Biko advocated that black liberation would only follow once psychological liberation from the internalised acceptance of racial oppression was achieved, arguing that “the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”.
At its heart, Black Consciousness demanded pride, self-assertion and self-confidence. Biko’s idea was that this would in turn stimulate a “revolution of the mind”, allowing oppressed peoples to overcome the racial inferiority and fear propagated by white racism so they could appreciate that they were not just “appendages to the white society”.
This relatively simple idea radically changed perceptions of the Struggle. It helped instil a new cultural and psychological outlook among the black population and thereby renewed the challenge to the apartheid system.
Biko turned ideas into a potent new weapon. The white minority state was slow to appreciate that the spread of ideas could not be contained by physical force alone. As a consequence, Biko was given a banning order in 1973, which confined him to King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape and prevented him from speaking in public. As Mandela put it, the state was so fearful of Biko’s influence “they had to kill him to prolong the life of apartheid”.
In 1977, Biko was killed after brutal interrogation and torture. Despite a subsequent political cover-up, the circumstances of his death were exposed, laying bare the violence of the apartheid state. His death led to greater international pressure against white minority rule.
So why hasn’t Black Consciousness left as deep an institutional footprint as the ANC and its like? Part of the answer is that as a movement, it was relatively weak organisationally.
Beyond its activists’ community projects, Black Consciousness was never an effective or broadbased organisation; with most of its leaders imprisoned or banned by the mid-1970s, it was predominantly an intellectual movement confined to urban areas. As newly politicised South Africans formed alternative organisations, it fragmented and began to lose influence.
By 1977 it was deemed illegal under the Internal Security Act, and Biko’s murder robbed it of its intellectual and political leader.
But the movement was long outlived by its ideology. Ideas are difficult to extinguish and don’t necessarily need an institutional home to flourish. The “revolutionary consciousness” for which Biko called enabled people to appreciate their subjugation and to take action.
It inspired the children of Soweto to protest against the imposition of Afrikaans in schools in 1976, resulting in an uprising that caught the world’s attention and put the regime under more pressure.
In fact, Black Consciousness was a more powerful catalyst than the established liberation movements. It “freed” minds, revived and mobilised political opposition, and re-energised the declining ANC as militant young activists joined the exiled armed struggle.
Yet since the end of apartheid in 1994, the ANC has worked hard to monopolise the history of liberation. A plethora of groups including Black Consciousness, the United Democratic Front, the PAC and student organisations were all involved in the anti-apartheid Struggle, yet the ANC has worked to disregard the efforts of alternative actors.
To recognise the power and influence of Biko’s ideas would disrupt the ANC’s preferred version of history.
Even though Biko became a martyr for the anti-apartheid Struggle in his day, he is often left out of the story. The same goes for other figures who helped topple the system, especially those who worked outside the ANC. It’s long past time to celebrate these other elements of the Struggle – of whom Biko was surely among the strongest.
Graham is a lecturer in History, University of Dundee