12/09/2017 06:05 SAST | Updated 12/09/2017 06:05 SAST

Steve Biko's Newfound Disciples Are Not Getting Him

Forty years after the struggle icon's death, we look back at some of his ideas and why they are still relevant today.

Rudi Louw/Graphics24

Today (Tuesday) marks 40 years since Steve Biko died but his ideas are more alive than ever. The philosophies of this evergreen Black Consciousness leader continue to influence policy, culture and provide a way of making meaning in the world.

Our authors show why Steve Biko's ideas of black consciousness and self-reliance are as relevant today as they were in the Sixties.

The first extract to be featured comes from "Biko: A Biography –- Anniversary Edition" by Xolela Mangcu (Tafelberg, 2017):

Forty years after his death, Steve's newly found disciples have fallen back to the apartheid, skin-based definition of black people. This was no more evident than when a group of self-proclaimed Black Consciousness and Pan-Africanist radicals disrupted one of the most beloved writers on the African continent, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, during his 2017 lecture at the University of Cape Town.

They demanded that before he could speak, Ngugi should ask all the whites in the hall to leave. They grumbled when he refused to do so. Ngugi then asked them why they could not pose their criticism of whites in their presence? All hell broke loose during question time, when from the chair I identified a white person to ask a question. The crowd heckled and refused to permit the man to ask his question. They had absolutely no idea who this man was, or what he might have had to say, even if it was in support of their cause. It was a shameful moment, especially the disrespect they had shown to such a distinguished African intellectual.

Biko, A Biography.

But they were driven by the very same biological determinism that Steve had rejected. Steve had also rejected this kind of biological determinism in his definition of "whiteness", long before the concept came into vogue.

Identities are characterised by content, which skin colour on its own can never possess.

He gave a political definition of whiteness as a social construct, and not an attack on individual beings on account of their skin colour: "Blacks see whiteness as a concept that warrants being despised, hated, destroyed and replaced by an aspiration with more human content in it."

Identities are characterised by content, which skin colour on its own can never possess. We must be able to hear and listen to what people have to say before we can make decisions about their political identification.

As Steve put it, "Obviously it is a cruel assumption that all whites are not sincere, yet methods adopted by some groups often do suggest a lack of real commitment."

Nowhere in that critique of liberal duplicity is there the kind of blanket dismissal of ALL whites propounded by those who claim to speak in his name.

In a response to David Soggot in the SASO/BPC Trial, he reiterated the movement's decision to exclude whites from its membership, while also saying this was not to be construed as anti-whitism: "in all matters relating to the struggle towards realising our aspirations, whites must be excluded ... this attitude must not be interpreted by blacks to imply anti-whitism, but merely a positive way of attaining a normal situation in South Africa. Now again this is a warning to the membership that it is not our intention to generate a feeling of anti-whitism amongst our members."

It is indeed a shame that, 40 years after his death, Steve's newly found disciples mistake the movement's strategic policy of excluding whites from membership of the movement.

What Steve is saying in no uncertain terms is that being anti-racist, which is required of all of us, does not rest on being anti-white, which is not required of any of us. Being against those white individuals who support racism does not require making enemies of those who abhor racism. To say ALL whites support racism is to fly against the message and the reality of Steve Biko's own personal life.

It is indeed a shame that, 40 years after his death, Steve's newly found disciples mistake the movement's strategic policy of excluding whites from membership of the movement with anti-whitism on the part of Black Consciousness.

But that is so far from the reality of Black Consciousness movement that one wonders why there would be any such confusion, especially given Steve's own writings on the matter. As we will see in the following pages, despite breaking away from the predominantly white National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) in 1967, Steve continued attending its meetings, and Black Consciousness had representatives at NUSAS congresses right until 1970.

He also did not shy away from attending white-dominated conferences. One prominent example is the conference he and Barney Pityana addressed at the University of Cape Town in 1971 under the auspices of the Abe Bailey Trust. The paper he presented there, "White Racism and Black Consciousness", later became part of the collection of his essays known as "I Write What I Like". Steve and Barney's attendance and truth-telling at that meeting is a perfect example of what Ngugi was advising the students – to speak about white racism in the presence of whites themselves.

And as his correspondence with Colin Collins demonstrates, Steve raised funding for SASO through the University Christian Movement (UCM). Anyone who knows anything about the history of Black Consciousness will know that the movement held some of its most important meetings at Wilgespruit because of the support of Dale White, and that the Black Community Programmes was an off-shoot of Beyers Naudé's Christian Institute. Indeed, Naudé was the first man Steve called upon following the murder of Mapetla Mohapi in Kei Road in August 1976. Steve met Naudé at a small landing strip outside King William's Town. Naudé's pilot for the risky flight was Cedric Mayson.

Some people asked how Steve, an avowed radical and communalist, could take money from a capitalist organisation like Anglo.

I have first-hand accounts of Steve's friendships with whites such as Donald Woods. Woods visited Steve regularly at his home in our township. We played with Woods' children in front of the house, while the parents socialised inside. Steve was also particularly fond of the white local priest in Ginsberg township, David Russell.

When Russell left for another posting, Steve wrote to Stubbs: "David's going away left a gap which cannot be closed. The evenings we spent together were very good palliatives to the mental decay which so easily sets in. Besides this, he was a person full of life and always with something new to pursue. He was strong and reliable and made life purposeful."

HO Old / Reuters
Undated file photo of South African black consciousness leader Steve Biko.

Steve did not shy from accepting funding from white individuals and organisations for the Black Community Development Programmes. His decision to accept funds from Anglo American Corporation for community projects attracted the criticism of radicals within the movement. Aelred Stubbs remembered that:

"Some people asked how Steve, an avowed radical and communalist, could take money from a capitalist organisation like Anglo, to which Steve replied that the money belonged to the people anyway, as the earth from which the metal was extracted was for the benefit of all South Africans, by virtue of the sweat of black workers who extracted it from the soil. He was merely giving Anglo the opportunity to put back into the service of the people a tiny fraction of what properly belonged to them rather than to the shareholders of the corporation."

And then, over drinks, Steve would argue with the Anglo American executive Bill Wilson about the virtues of capitalism and communalism respectively. Many other struggle heroes, including the late Wellington Tshazibane, who was killed by the apartheid police in John Vorster Square, saw nothing wrong with taking money from capitalist organisations for their education.

The same pragmatism extended to black students who needed money to pay for university education in the 1980s, even as they stared the apartheid juggernaut down.

The second reducted extract is from the introduction of "The Testimony of Steve Biko", edited by MIllard W. Arnold (Picador Africa):

No shot was ever fired, no bomb ever detonated, no grenade tossed, no threats made, not even a stone was thrown, and yet nine accused were on trial for terrorism. Their crime? Supporting what the State called 'violent revolutionary change'. From a distance of forty years, it seems unthinkable that for merely advocating change, nine young black men would be sentenced to five years' imprisonment on South Africa's notorious Robben Island.

The defendants, all members of the South African Students Organisation, or the Black People's Convention, were in the dock for having the temerity to think; to have opinions; to envisage a more just and humane society. It was a trial about ideas, but as it unfolded it became a trial of the entire philosophy of Black Consciousness and those who championed its cause. It was to become the longest terrorist trial in the history of South Africa, and yet no shot was ever fired; no bomb ever detonated, no grenade tossed, no threats made, not even a stone was thrown ...

What comes first to mind when one thinks of political trials in South Africa are the Rivonia Trial of 1956–61 and the Treason Trial of 1963–64. Rarely, if ever, is the SASO/BPC trial mentioned in the same breath and yet it was perhaps the most political trial of all.

The defendants were tried and convicted for speeches delivered, poetry written, songs composed, words penned, thoughts expressed and ideas that electrified young people thirsty for the truth. In referring to the SASO/ BPC trial, Es'kia Mphahlele would later write that: 'It was the first time in South African history that imaginative literature stood trial in a court of law'.

It was a trial about ideas, but as it unfolded it became a trial of the entire philosophy of Black Consciousness

They were convicted of terrorism because of the context in which their trial took place: independence for Mozambique in 1974, liberation of Angola in 1975 and the student uprising of June the 16th 1976 in Soweto. Harold Macmillan's 'Wind of Change' was blowing hard across southern Africa, and whilst it would be another twenty years before the continent would be finally decolonised, the events that gave rise to the SASO/BPC trial, and the trial itself, were catalytic in bringing about that change.

Steve Biko was called by the defence to be a witness in the case against the accused. Ironically, were it not for the fact that he was banned and restricted to King William's Town, Biko would likely have been one of the defendants as well. Sadly, had that been the case, he might still be alive today.

The celebratory rally called by the accused, which was to take place in Durban in support of the 1974 Frelimo victory in Mozambique, was the flashpoint that ultimately gave rise to the proceedings against them.

Biko was to be star witness number one, but he took full advantage of the freedom to travel after nearly three years of restriction

... Alarmed by a gathering veering out of control, the government swooped down on the leadership of the movement and arrested more than 200 activists, including the defendants.

Initially, the state's position against the accused was largely perfunctory, but as it became increasingly clear to the defendants that the state's case was to establish a basis for arguing that Black Consciousness was being used to incite a revolutionary uprising, it was obvious that the trial would be as much political as it was legal.

Because it was going to be a political trial, after careful consideration and following discussions with their attorney, Shun Chetty, a decision was taken to have Biko appear as defence witness number one, to provide the foundation, background, ethos and philosophy of Black Consciousness. Special permission was sought and granted that enabled Biko to suspend his banning order and travel to Pretoria where the proceedings were taking place. Biko was to be star witness number one, but he took full advantage of the freedom to travel after nearly three years of restriction, and according to Saths Cooper, 'stopped at every little dorp along the way'.


What should have been a few hours' flight to Pretoria turned into a four-day journey by road. Which needless to say complicated the defence proceedings because the intent was to have Biko open the defence, and have his colleague and contemporary, Rick Turner, to follow, demonstrating the nonracial basis of Black Consciousness. Rick Turner, a white academic and activist, was subsequently assassinated.

Although Biko was known to the authorities, and indeed was serving a banning order, not much about the man was known by anyone outside of his colleagues and the movement. That was about to change with his appearance as a witness in the SASO/BPC case. He would enter the court- room known to some, but his four-day testimony would leave a celebrity known to all. In his book, The Eyes That Lit Our Lives, Andile M-Afrika recounts how Don Nkadimeng, a practising attorney, was stunned by Biko's appearance:

Steve spoke his mind in that court. He could display his intellectual superiority so superbly, and there were times when we – as the audi- ence – would wonder whether Steve himself was the judge and the judge the accused. Judge Boshoff was surprised at the quality of the man and the testimony. It was clear that he never expected that he was questioning a witness who had written extensively on the philosophy which was on trial. He was so shocked that he almost stopped the trial.

Saths Cooper points out that for whatever reasons, Advocate Rees, the lead prosecutor, elected not to question Biko, leaving it to his junior, Advocate Attwell. Cooper surmises – perhaps correctly – that Advocate Rees would have known something about Biko from the files and records the state had on him, and simply did not want to tangle with such a formidable mind.

From the state's perspective, the unintended consequences of Biko's appearance was the unwanted exposure it gave to Black Consciousness, with its resulting politicisation of the teeming numbers of young people and activists who flocked to the trial. The popularity of the trial and the realisation that it was being used for political purposes forced the state to subsequently hold all future trials in remote areas far from those likely to be conscientised...

Biko was electrifying as a witness. As M-Afrika relates, Dr Nthato Motlana, a long-standing activist in Soweto, was enamoured with Biko: Steve was a young man who was so brave. If you look back to those days when many of us wouldn't open our mouths and say the kind of things Steve said there, you'll see a testimony to the courage and the inspiration he had. He must have inspired the whole generation of young people about the kind of things he stood for. And to say those things in public, he was wonderful.

Biko's testimony came a little more than a month before the deadly June the 16th uprising in Soweto that captured both national and global attention and galvanised the international anti-apartheid movement. Dr Motlana's observations of Biko were prescient. The young students who protested Afrikaans as a medium of education were inspired by Biko's testimony a month earlier, the continuation of the SASO/BPC trial with its revelations and information and the efforts of the South African Students Organisation, one of the offshoots of the Black Consciousness Movement.

Biko was electrifying as a witness.

There is little doubt of the casual effects of the SASO/BPC trial and Biko's testimony on the events of June the 16th. Biko would certainly not have authorised what was a spontaneous response by young students, but he would have known full well that such an outcome was inevitable given the state's intransigence and the growing politicisation of the youth. The unrest that followed plunged the country into chaos and led to renewed sanctions and political castigation for the government. Unlike the accused in the SASO/BPC trial, this time there was violence; shots were fired, stones were thrown and people died.

Biko's enthralling testimony at the SASO/BPC trial helped crystallise political thinking among both young and old.

By this time, Steve was now a marked man. His mesmerising appearance in court justified the state's opinion of him as the instigator of the nationwide turbulence the country was then experiencing. Communist to the left, right and centre; agitators triumphantly celebrating Marxist ideology, a restless generation of belligerent youngsters prepared to take on the state, it was an unsettling time for the government of the day. Biko's enthralling testimony at the SASO/BPC trial helped crystallise political thinking among both young and old. A trial that was intended in part to intimidate and curtail political activity spiralled out of control on the testimony of one man.

Biko's testimony could not help but to be seen as the catalyst for all that followed. To allow him to be active was now considered too dangerous despite his still being subject to a banning order. Something more was needed; he needed to be neutralised. Shortly after his return to King William's Town, Biko was detained and held in solitary confinement for 101 days. Subsequently released, he was a dead man walking; his death was simply a matter of time. (Millard Arnold Johannesburg June 2017)