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When Steve Biko died exactly forty years ago today, I hardly knew of his existence, despite just graduating from university.
That’s how ignorant and isolationist most white South Africans of my generation were in those days.
Today we know, even most whites know, that this prophet of Black Consciousness was one of the sharpest thinkers in South Africa’s history; a philosopher and activist whose ideas still influence and inspire people today.
Since 1977 I have read everything he wrote and probably most of what has been written about him.
Oh, a quick side note: the last time I wrote something about Biko, several black readers admonished me for my “arrogance” and told me to stick to “white affairs”.
My response is that Biko wasn’t your run-of-the-mill activist. He was a universal thinker with a superior mind that had impacted my society profoundly and I would not be worth my salt as a political commentator if I didn’t contemplate his place in South Africa’s past and present.
Biko is the one figure from our past that often makes me wonder how differently our history would have unfolded if he hadn’t been killed so young.
He was only 30 when he died in a police cell after being brutally assaulted.
He would have been 71 years old today – younger than President Jacob Zuma.
I have also wondered whether the men who beat him to death knew who he really was and what he stood for.
Perhaps they simply thought he was just another uppity black who had to be taught a lesson.
But their superiors and political masters must have known that he wasn’t just another angry black person.
If they understood what he stood for, they would have feared him more than the communists and ANC activists of the time.
The latter carried weapons and blew up stuff; Biko’s power was one of the mind, seeking to make black South Africans strong, proud and assertive.
Perhaps Nelson Mandela was right when he said: “They had to kill him to prolong the life of apartheid.”
“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed,” was probably Biko’s most famous statement.
The real damage apartheid inflicted wasn’t pass laws or segregated facilities, it was what it did to the psyche of black people, he said.
“Being black is not a matter of pigmentation – being black is a reflection of a mental attitude.”
If one isn’t proud to be black, meaning if one agrees that one is inferior as apartheid declared because one is black, then one can’t really be liberated, was what he believed.
Biko didn’t waste his time or dilute his power and authenticity by constantly insulting and threatening the white minority.
He told them bluntly what he thought of them and their position, whether they were white nationalists or liberals, and he did so as an equal, almost as a superior.
But he saved his focus and energy for the psychological liberation of black South Africans – all black South Africans – because that, he knew, would hasten the end of apartheid and inequality faster than insults or bullets.
His Black Consciousness Movement founded the Black Community Programmes in 1972 to focus on improving education, health care and the advancement of black economic self-reliance.
Nobody can know what Biko would have said or done and what choices he would have made if he had lived another forty years.
But from where I sit, if his brand of black liberation after many generations of colonialism and apartheid had been allowed to develop and grow naturally, black attitudes and mental states would probably have been a lot different by the 1980s and thereafter.
This would undoubtedly have had an impact on the thinking of the white minority and the apartheid strategists.
Perhaps that would have led to negotiations and a political settlement – and a different one – much earlier.
But Black Consciousness was throttled by the apartheid governments and by the ANC.
The ANC, under the strong influence of (and in some ways, dependency on) the mostly white Communist Party of the time, decided on the principle of non-racialism.
Mandela wrote in his biography that he was, as an ANC Youth League leader with Anton Lembede, a staunch Africanist but changed his mind after working with the communists.
Many ANC activists and leaders who joined the ANC in the 1970s came from the BC camp, but had little choice but to join the ANC if they wanted to fight for liberation.
If we look back now, we understand that, despite the sincerity of some, especially in the UDF of the 1980s, non-racialism was never really much more than a piece of ideology.
In Zuma’s ANC non-racialism is dead. Deceased. Kicked the bucket.
The bizarre thing is that many leaders in the ANC, including Zuma, still proclaims their support for non-racialism, but they are in fact pure black African nationalists.
I think I’m justified in concluding that if the culture of black pride, black assertiveness and self-liberation had grown after Biko’s death, the post-liberation governing party would not have been so corrupt; they would not have allowed state capture and tolerated selfish, failing leaders and bureaucrats.
They would have used every cent of taxpayers’ money on the development of needy South Africans rather than impotently and simplistically blaming “white monopoly capital” and white intransigence for the continuing inequality and under-development. They would have dealt with these by now.
They would most certainly not have allowed the education of black youth to be as disastrous as it is.
We would have had free, quality and decolonised (depending on the definition) education for all by now.
There would not have been space for aberrations like Zuma and the Guptas or caricatures like Hlaudi Motsoeneng.
As importantly, I believe that if Stephen Bantu Biko lived for forty more years and his ideas got wide traction, white South Africans’ attitudes would probably have been vastly different.
Much less prejudiced and more respectful, I think, in a way that would have left no room for AfriForum and the likes.
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