Guest Column

Steve Bantu Biko: A pale reflection

2017-10-27 11:23
PHOTO: Gallo Images

PHOTO: Gallo Images

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Glenn Bownes

I was 10 years old when Steve Bantu Biko was murdered by the apartheid police.

In my lily-white child's world in Johannesburg at the time, his murder (while not "leaving me cold" like it did Police Minister Jimmy Kruger) did not really touch me in any way at all.

Ever since June 1976, we kids had all heard the grown-ups talking in hushed voices about the "restless natives/Bantus/blacks". Words like "riot", "unrest" and "communist threat" were often thrown around, leaving this young boy with a sense of unexplainable disquiet.

In 1979, my family moved to the tiny Eastern Cape town of Cradock. Another English-speaking boy, who had arrived from King William's Town, became one of my best friends. He carried with him a level of racism (taught to him by his parents, and thankfully unlearned by him as he grew up). He would talk about the "kaffir Biko" who was buried in the King William's Town township of Ginsberg. But still, I learnt nothing about the man.

A name that I did hear a lot of suddenly though was "Goniwe", usually prefaced with the words "trouble maker", "communist", "instigator"… and the inevitable "fokken kaffir".

Matthew Goniwe - community leader, political activist, leader within the the United Democratic Front, and a teacher in the Cradock township of Lingelihle – was also murdered, like Biko, by apartheid security forces.

When the Cradock Four – Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sparrow Mkonto and Sicelo Mhlauli – were murdered on June 27, 1985, I had been at the "university currently known as Rhodes" for six months. I had already joined the End Conscription Campaign and NUSAS on campus, and had started my journey of conscientisation and reeducation about my country.

Goniwe's murder, unlike Biko's, made a huge impression on me. Somehow, having spent the last six years of my schooling in the town we shared (yet didn't), opened my "wide shut eyes" to the brutality needed to defend a system of white supremacy in a country where the vast majority of the population were denied land, human dignity and the right to vote.

Goniwe's funeral was a massive turning point in the struggle for liberation, especially on a symbolic level. The ANC and SACP flags were unfurled in an unprecedented display of defiance. 

It was this non-racial Congress politics that I encountered at university, and which began to politicise me. 

My black comrades on campus belonged to the Black Student Movement (BSM), which was a member of the Azanian Students Organisation (AZASO). 

AZASO was founded after the banning of the Black Consciousness South African Student Organisation (SASO) in 1979. Biko had been president of SASO, which was launched in 1969, as a black-only student organisation. It had broken away from the "multi-racial" NUSAS, arguing that black people needed to organize separately to avoid whites dominating the agenda of the struggle against apartheid. 

In the lingo of today's youth, black people were fed up with having the struggle "whitesplained" to them.

Biko was critical of white liberals who "could skilfully extract what [suited] them from the exclusive pool of white privileges."
Initialy aligned to the black consciousness Azanian People's Organisation (AZAPO), AZASO broke away in 1981 to align itself with the non-racialism of the ANC and the UDF. 

In 1986, it changed its name to the South African National Students Congress (SANSCO), after adopting the Educational Charter and aligning itself officially with the Freedom Charter. While remaining a blacks-only organisation, it realigned itself with NUSAS, which was, by this time, also within the Charterist camp. Finally, in 1991, it combined with NUSAS to form the South African Students Congress (SASCO).

The fact that black and white comrades and allies organised "together, but separately" in the mid-80s (while appearing to some as paradoxical to our stated aims of building a non-racial, post-apartheid society) was still very much based on Biko's position that black students needed to set their own agenda, unconstrained and undominated by their white allies in NUSAS.

It was an awkward, yet necessary, divide. It meant that AZASO/SANSCO could set the agenda, without having to pander to the, often, different needs and interests of white students. It also meant that NUSAS could focus on organising and politicising white students, in order to "create cracks within the white minority regime", as we liked to say.

The ECC, which attempted to mobilise young whites against the system of military conscription, was also seen as essential in creating these cracks in white minority rule. Because conscription was the only way in which white men could be said to have been "oppressed" by apartheid, it was identified as an "issue" around which to mobilise young white people against a system which, in almost every other way, benefitted them.

But, while the way in which we organised was influenced greatly by Biko and his comrades, Biko's name was never hailed within our movement. In fact, in the Eastern Cape particularly, there were serious conflicts – often violent – between the UDF and AZAPO.

As Mangcu points out, after AZASO renounced Black Consciousness for the non-racialism of the ANC, it became "taboo to even mention Steve Biko's name. Young activists gathered in front of Steve's home chanting 'u-Steve Biko, i-CIA'."

We sang freedom songs about our heroes – Tambo, Mandela, Sisulu, Slovo, Hani – but never about Biko. In fact, it was often my black comrades who were most critical of Biko and Black Consciousness. The closest we ever got to singing about Biko was when we sang along to UK rock star Peter Gabriel's tribute song.

I did get to read some of Biko's writings though. Even though they were banned, we used to pass around dog-eared and stained photostats of his I Write What I Like. Frantz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks also got passed around in a similar fashion.

It is worth remembering that even pictures of Nelson Mandela or Oliver Tambo were banned and could get you into trouble during those crazy, dark days.

In a new preface to his book, Mangcu speaks about Biko's "newly found disciples", but criticises them for "falling back to the apartheid, skin-based definition of black people". He argues that they are often "driven by the same biological determinism that Steve had rejected".

Mangcu throws out a challenge to the new South African student movement "that has emerged with such energy over the past few years", saying that Biko's "emphasis on self-reliance is particularly important in the context of calls for the decolonisation of universities". 

But, for Mangcu, "decolonisation cannot be built on apartheid definitions of blackness, nor can it be built of a falsification of the historical narrative of movements such as Black Consciousness and Pan Africanism".

"We owe it to the memory of these individuals [like Biko and Robert Sobukwe] to protect their legacies, and to develop their philosophies into a usable past for future generations. The obsession with whites achieves the very opposite of what Black Consciousness sought to achieve – a positive, self-directed programme of mental decolonisation."

Mangcu points out that Biko, following in the footsteps of WEB Du Bois and Aime Cesaire, had argued that "that being black is not a matter of skin pigmentation - being black is a reflection of a mental attitude. Merely by describing yourself as black you have started on a road towards emancipation, you have committed yourself to fight against all forces that seek to use your blackness as a stamp that marks you out as a subservient human being".

Biko, says Mangcu, also gave a "political definition of whiteness as a social construct, and not an attack on individual beings on account of their skin colour". 

He quotes Biko: "Blacks see whiteness as a concept that warrants being despised, hated, destroyed and replaced by an aspiration with more human content in it."

"What Steve is saying in no uncertain terms is that 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 of Steve Biko's own personal life," Mangcu writes.

This is not the same as saying that white people should not be criticised (and even attacked) for their racism. White people who cry about "reverse apartheid" and how they are now the ones being discriminated against, must sit down, listen, learn – and count their blessings!

It also doesn't mean that black people can do no wrong, or can't be criticised. 

But, if you, like me, are a "pale native" of this beautiful, complex country, the least you can do before reacting and getting all offended is to take the sound advice of the new generation of South African student radicals.

"Check your privilege."

- Bownes is News24 chief sub-editor.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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