Biko’s vi­sion must be kept alive

His mur­der re­minds us that many peo­ple still live un­der the con­di­tions en­gi­neered by apartheid

Mail & Guardian - - Comment & Analysis - Jo-Man­gal­iso Mdhlela

What is the pur­pose of re­flect­ing on the life of Black Con­scious­ness leader Steve Bantu Biko 40 years af­ter he was killed by the apartheid gov­ern­ment?

The evil sys­tem, which evolved from colo­nial at­ti­tudes, laws and prej­u­dice, was de­vised by the lead­ers of the Na­tional Party, a bunch of men sup­pos­edly learned in the­ol­ogy, phi­los­o­phy, so­ci­ol­ogy, law and other pro­fes­sions. For some strange and il­log­i­cal rea­sons, these men be­lieved that black peo­ple were not en­ti­tled to the same ed­u­ca­tion they had re­ceived and that, by God’s de­sign, black peo­ple were pre­des­tined for a life of poverty and suf­fer­ing.

Three months short of his 31st birth­day, Biko’s life was cut short by the foot sol­diers of the apartheid sys­tem, the Spe­cial Branch, a spe­cial unit of the South African Po­lice ded­i­cated to harshly sup­press­ing black po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism, which was per­ceived to un­der­mine the apartheid sys­tem. And so, on Septem­ber 12 1977, Biko lost his life at the hands of heart­less men, join­ing a long list of other black peo­ple, in­clud­ing Ahmed Ti­mol (1971), Abram Onkgopotse Tiro (1974), Mapetla Mo­hapi (1976) and Mthuli ka Shezi (1972), per­ceived by the regime to be “ter­ror­ists” bent on de­stroy­ing “onse vader­land”.

Biko was caught in an apartheid po­lice drag­net in Au­gust 1977. For 25 days, he was held in de­ten­tion and cru­elly in­ter­ro­gated; he was man­a­cled, badly beaten and tor­tured. He suf­fered ex­ten­sive brain dam­age be­fore suc­cumb­ing to his wounds, in what prom­i­nent in­ter­na­tional ju­rist Syd­ney Ken­tridge de­scribed as a “mis­er­able and lonely death” in a prison cell in Pre­to­ria. Biko would be­come the 44th per­son to die in the cus­tody of the apartheid po­lice.

He was stripped naked — not even al­lowed the dig­nity of wear­ing a pair of un­der­pants in case, ac­cord­ing to the in­quest tes­ti­mony, he was tempted to use the gar­ment to com­mit sui­cide. As if this was not enough, he was loaded, in a co­matose state, into the back of a Land Rover and driven for more than 1000km from Port El­iz­a­beth to Pre­to­ria.

The warped, con­cocted imag­i­na­tions of the cruel po­lice­men would be laugh­able if it was not so tragic — to be­lieve that a man in a coma could com­mit sui­cide by self-stran­gu­la­tion.

Aelred Stubbs, an English monk of the Com­mu­nity of Res­ur­rec­tion, re­flect­ing on the life of Biko af­ter edit­ing Mar­tyr of Hope: A Per­sonal Mem­oir, con­tained in the slain Black Con­scious­ness leader’s book, I Write What I Like, writes: “Steve died to give an un­break­able sub­stance to the hope he had al­ready im­planted in our breasts, the hope of free­dom in South Africa. That is what he lived for; in fact one can truly say that is what he lived. He was him­self a liv­ing em­bod­i­ment of the hope he pro­claimed by word and deed.”

Now is the right time to re­flect on Biko’s life.

South Africans con­tinue to march in places of dark­ness, in po­lit­i­cal spa­ces not ma­te­ri­ally dif­fer­ent from places of op­pres­sion the coun­try ex­pe­ri­enced dur­ing apartheid.

Biko urged that South Africans be part of the process of “free­ing” one another from op­pres­sion and bad gover­nance and to cause “hap­pi­ness of Africa”, so that all may look for­ward with con­fi­dence to the fu­ture, rather than be bur­dened by neg­a­tive thoughts of un­cer­tainty.

Biko would have turned 71 on De­cem­ber 18. The pres­i­dent of this coun­try, Ja­cob Zuma, is 75. So, in many ways, he is Biko’s con­tem­po­rary. But it does not seem that he has taken to heart Biko’s teach­ings. Zuma’s ten­ure has been marked by re­gres­sion, bad gover­nance and the purg­ing of good men and women in his own party and the gov­ern­ment, a view shared by many in the ANC.

Is he in­clined to gov­ern the coun­try be­yond the grave? Al­most overtly, all his ef­forts seem to be ex­pended on en­sur­ing that, even in his years of re­tire­ment, his spec­tre will con­tinue to loom large in the po­lit­i­cal space.

There are many things Zuma should be con­cerned about, in­clud­ing the re­in­stated crim­i­nal charges by the high court in Pre­to­ria. Zuma is at the mercy of the Supreme Court of Ap­peal, which is due to hear his ap­peal this week — an en­deav­our on his part to over­turn the de­ci­sion made by the high court a year ago.

As we re­mem­ber the an­niver­sary of Biko’s death, let the coun­try not sub­vert what his project for the fu­ture was about, which was, in the words of Stubbs, the “pu­rifi­ca­tion” of a coun­try “re­born out of the de­struc­tion of this racist so­ci­ety” — a so­ci­ety truly lib­er­ated and averse to dirty tricks.

More than an icon: Steve Biko, not only with his teach­ings but even in his death, is a re­minder of the prin­ci­ples South Africa’s free­dom was founded on and what it ought to strive to be. Photo: Robben Is­land May­ibuye Archives

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.