Steve Biko will forever be young and untainted by party politics and power. That's what happens when you die as a martyr when you're 30. The world has been without Steve Biko now for longer than it has known him, but he is still proving useful for the governing ANC — even though he himself never belonged to a party.
On September 12 it will be 40 years since Steve Biko died alone in a police cell in Pretoria after days of being beaten and brutally tortured by police. For a long time he lay in a grave that seemed more plain than befitted the icon he was. On Tuesday the official Human Rights Day celebrations were focused on his gravesite, with both President Jacob Zuma and his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, in attendance for the ceremony that saw wreath-laying and the opening of a memorial.
His gravesite will now no longer be plain. So many years after his death, Biko's memory has finally been captured by the pomp and ceremony of a state-bestowed honour.
It is, however, not the first time that the highest office-bearer in the country had celebrated Biko's life. Former President Nelson Mandela at an event commemorating Biko's murder in 1997 used Biko as an example of how a newly democratic South Africa should find its nationhood. He said: "The attitude of mind and way of life that Biko and his comrades called for are needed today in abundance. They are relevant as we define our being as an African nation on the African continent. They are pertinent in our drive to ward off the temptation to become clones of other people."
Mandela ended his speech saying: "We are confident that by forging a new and prosperous nation, we are continuing the fight in which Steve Biko paid the supreme sacrifice."
Ten years later, former President Thabo Mbeki delivered a lecture in honour of Biko in Cape Town, and with three months to go to the ANC's Polokwane conference, he was in the midst of some bitter infighting in his own party, fueled by Zuma.
Mbeki used Biko as an example of the values of selflessness and non-corruption (Mbeki had relieved Zuma of his duties as deputy president two years before due to corruption charges). He said: "Similarly, many have expressed concern at what seems to be an entrenched value system centred on the personal acquisition of wealth at all costs and by all means, including willful resort to corruption and fraud.
"These negative social phenomena and others, which occasioned the call for moral regeneration, have suggested that our society has been captured by a rapacious individualism which is corroding our social cohesion, which is repudiating the value and practice of human solidarity, and which totally rejects the fundamental precept of Ubuntu."
Mbeki continued: "The question is therefore posed correctly — is this the kind of society that Steve Biko visualised, that he fought and died for! When he wrote that, 'The philosophy of Black Consciousness...expresses group pride and the determination by the blacks to rise and attain the envisaged self', surely he did not imagine an 'envisaged self' characterised by the rapacious and venal individualism we have just mentioned!"
On Tuesday, Zuma used Biko for his own ends, to sell his catch phrase of "radical economic transformation". Zuma said: "In the memory of Steve Biko, let us promote the emancipation of the mind. He wanted black people to understand that they are equals with other racial groups, and that they were equally deserving of dignity, respect, equality and a better life.
"He believed that only when black people understood that they were not inferior, and the white people understood and accepted that they are not superior, would true liberation be achieved in our country. Our country indeed needs liberated minds in order to achieve radical economic transformation."
Whether Biko would have agreed with any of these three presidents can be debated at length. That's the nature of the black consciousness message he preached.
Still, South African leaders need his memory to keep the country on the course they want to steer it on.
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