Steve Biko He died in the Strug­gle, yet is re­mark­ably over­looked, writes Matthew Gra­ham

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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

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