Biko Day raises tough questions

2014-09-16 11:00

South Africa is having a tough time politically – from the attacks on Public Protector Thuli Madonsela to Nkandlagate.

On Friday, we commemorated the anniversary of Steve Biko’s death.

I thought it would be appropriate to talk about what people feel and say about Biko, and what that means for the crisis of leadership we face in South Africa.

September 12 has become something of an unofficial day of remembrance for Biko. Amid growing anger in activist circles about attempts to “privatise” the right to remember him, it is good to see how this day has attracted a diversity of speakers and events.

Barney Pityana, Biko’s close comrade and the man who actually coined the phrase “black man, you’re on your own”, spoke at an event in Gauteng in recent years. Cape Town had the great Nigerian writer Ben Okri give a talk.

While the various political groups that emerged from the black consciousness movement are all tiny, intellectually moribund and lacking in any real popular support, Biko has become an iconic figure in intellectual circles.

Biko and Rick Turner, a philosopher teaching at Howard College (at the then University of Natal, now UKZN), were the leading intellectuals of the 1970s.

They both came to prominence in Durban and both were murdered by the state. Good friends, the two men became influential figures in the “Durban moment”, a time when Durban became the centre of radical intellectual and political life in South Africa.

Although Biko inspired the black consciousness movement, largely a movement of black intellectuals, and Turner was a key figure in the emergence of the black trade union movement, they shared an interest in cutting-edge international thinkers of the day like Jean-Paul Sartre and Paulo Freire.

This placed their thought and activism in the more democratic forms of radical thought that emerged around the world as “the new left” after the various global struggles in 1968. In a country where the left had long been dominated by the twin authoritarianisms of Stalinism and Trotskyism, this was a breakthrough.

Local figures like the late Strini Moodley and Bishop Rubin Phillip, both very close to Biko, as well as my postgraduate teacher, David Hemson, who worked closely with Turner, provided a living link to this great moment in Durban’s history for new intellectuals and activists.

But in all the new books about Biko, as well as the various talks given around the country on September 12, the emphasis has been laid not so much on paying tribute to heroes of the past but on finding ways to meet the intellectual and political challenges of the present.

Past Biko Day talks have stressed that people get the leaders they deserve, and have pointed to the gross failures of leadership in our country.

Even leading figures in the ANC have publicly expressed their concern about this.

The groundswell of public anger at corrupt and incompetent leaders has now reached crisis proportions. Just think of the attack on Madonsela, of Nkandlagate and Guptagate.

We should remember that in the 1970s, the national liberation movement denounced Biko as a CIA agent. The authoritarian left, in and out of the national liberation movement, has never been able to understand that people are perfectly capable of exercising political agency on their own.

We saw this during apartheid and are seeing this now. When people go on their own rather than under the authority of the official left, they are met with conspiracy theories and wild slander rather than attempts to understand why they have done this.

Biko stressed that it was the mind of the oppressed that is the most important terrain of struggle.

If today’s protesters were engaged as people with minds, instead of with conspiracies and witch hunts, our democracy would be a lot stronger.

And in the face of rampant cronyism and corruption, one wonders what Biko would have done.

Baccus is a research fellow at UKZN

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