Steve Biko’s lessons for young black South Africans

Nelson Mandela described Steve Biko as “the spark that lit a veld fire across South Africa”. What did Mandela exactly mean by that?  The best way to answer that is of course by examining what Biko actually did, the consequences of those actions, and their relevance for contemporary South Africa.

In this article I point to five aspects of Biko’s life and work that need to be carried forward by the younger generation of South Africans as they seek to shape the future of this country in keeping with the best traditions and values of the freedom struggle.

First, it often goes unmentioned that Steve Biko was only 21 years old when he started the Black Consciousness Movement.  At the age of 22 he was the president of the South African Students Organization, and by age 25 he was an elder statesman banished to his home in Ginsberg in the Eastern Cape.  He was receiving ambassadors and political leaders from around the world at his mother’s house in Ginsberg. He had already written the prophetic essays that were later collected by his friend Aelred Stubbs and Hugh Lewin into the volume, I Write What I Like.  Many people think Biko was older than he actually was and this is because the liberation struggle is often thought of as something that was the business of older peoples such Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Robert Sobukwe and others.

Second, young as he was, Biko had an acute appreciation of the centrality of ideas to the success of any struggle. As he famously put it, “the most important weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”.  Without consciousness, your freedom and your power can be your worst enemies.  From thereon it is easy to betray your own revolution and prey on your own people.

And that takes me to the third remarkable aspect of Biko’s intervention – a new consciousness did not come out of thin air.  You needed strong cultural and intellectual institutions to produce it, which is why Biko and his comrades started the Black Community Programmes, which undertook development projects in communities throughout the country; Black Review, which conducted surveys into the state of Black communities; the Institute for Black Research under the leadership of Fatima Meer; and the magazine Staff Rider, which was where a young person in Ginsberg could share ideas with another young person in Lebowakgomo.  All of that initiative produced the Black Renaissance of the 1970’s.

The fourth point was his quest for unity among the liberation movements.   The apartheid government caught wind of a planned meeting between Biko and Tambo and set out to do everything in their power to stop it.  On 18 August 1977 Biko was caught travelling from an abortive meeting with the Unity Movement’s Neville Alexander.   After killing him, they also set out to destroy the entire cultural, intellectual and social infrastructure that gave meaning and purpose to our struggle.

They could kill Biko but they could not stop what he had set in motion.  The young people who had risen in protest against Bantu Education in 1976 and 1977 left the country in droves to join the ANC and the PAC. The infusion of energetic young people ready to take arms was the best thing to have happened to the ANC’s Umkhonto we Sizwe.

And so the fifth and final point I want to make is that without the intervention of Black Consciousness there would have been no resumption of the liberation struggle. And yet the ANC government has not seen fit to honor this martyr with an airport or a day in his name.

The question that remains though is this- where are the cultural, intellectual and social initiatives that led to the Black Renaissance in the 1970’s?  Where do young people now go to develop their ideas about our society?  The situation in our country is not as bad as it was in the 1960’s – far from it. But there is one respect in which it remains analogous to that time- Black people are still not in charge of the production of ideas. Unless there is an infrastructure to produce ideas, Black people will forever be dependent on ideas developed in the white world.  This means we will forever consume not only ideas but products made by others, which is another way of describing powerlessness. This is a struggle of a different order from fighting for political rights and winning elections. This is the struggle for cultural-intellectual power. Without it there can be no civil society – the setting of all settings.

If Biko taught me and my generation anything, it is that only when we are free in our minds, can we be comfortable in our own skins, literally and figuratively, whether as individuals or as groups.  A nation without consciousness is a nation without priorities.  Twenty years after our freedom, we need a new conversation about what a new national consciousness might look like.


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