In the first few years of South Africa’s democracy, many questioned the relevance of prominent student leader and anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko’s ideas on Black Consciousness.
And in the politics department at Wits University, many students were given this very subject to ponder.
The emergence of Fallist movements such as Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall, which have sought to challenge the unfinished struggles of freedom and decolonisation within university environs – highlighting commodified education and the exploitative labour system in the process – brought to the fore Biko’s emancipatory philosophy in theory and practice.
It was a stark reminder of similar actions undertaken during the Soweto Student Uprising of 1976.
Therefore, the relevance of Biko’s ideas cannot be questioned as they live on in song, protest art and the political ethos and practices of Fallist movements across the country.
The idea of Black Consciousness as an attitude of the mind, a breakaway from white liberalism, enabled us to create our own spaces – hence our renaming the Bremner building at the University of Cape Town (UCT) Azania House, and Wits University’s Senate House Solomon Mahlangu House.
Biko wrote that “it seems sometimes that it is a crime for the Black students to think for themselves”.
Fallists carried his political philosophy into their position on white student involvement in their movements.
This enabled our collective struggles and articulations to flow from black voices.
It enabled us not only to theorise about the lived experiences of Black people, but also to act on these experiences by erecting Shackville, which stood on UCT’s upper campus.
Fallists described this structure as “a symbolic representation of Black dispossession, of those who have been removed from land and dignity by settler colonialism, forced to live in squalor”.
Our Black activism was also prevalent in Fallists’ protests against high university fees that continue to exclude Black students from receiving an education, and against the continuation of colonial and apartheid-era exploitative labour practices against Blacks, such as outsourcing.
Biko’s influence is not only evident in the ideologies of Fallist movements, it has also become embedded in the physical spaces that universities occupy.
Graffiti signs with slogans such as “Biko Lives” appear on Wits University walls (though some have been removed by management), while the University of the Free State has had its walls spray-painted with names such as Biko House, Lillian Ngoyi House and Sobukwe School of Law by Fallists.
When Fallists wrote the phrase “Biko Lives”, they were citing his work as part of the theoretical framework informing their actions in redefining blackness in post-apartheid South Africa.
And when they sang the words “Biko Lives”, they were reclaiming their subjectivity and expressing their political ideals.
In the same way Biko called for the re-establishment and solidarity of people’s struggles, Shackville at UCT – as the performance of struggle – “was a necessary imposition upon UCT in its many attempts to hide away from its complicity in the violence experienced by those in shacks and townships throughout the country”, contended protesters.
Shackville, read with the Steve Biko Foundation’s participation in the recent #CEOSleepOut, begs the question: Who is carrying Biko’s legacy?
What does this say about the memory of Biko in post-apartheid South Africa?
The foundation’s condescending commemoration of poverty and its participation in structural violence cannot be read as the manifestation of Biko’s ideology in practice but rather as a crisis of leadership and imagination.
By participating in the Sleep Out, a show of white wealth and Black bourgeoisie sensibilities, the foundation called its understanding of blackness into crisis – rendering its claim as keeper of Biko’s memory illegitimate.
In reference to apartheid society, Biko wrote: “We cannot plan side by side with people who participate in their exclusive pool of privileges.”
How, then, does a foundation committed to protecting his legacy participate in an event alongside companies such as Northam Platinum, run by white CEOs, which has a history of exploiting cheap Black labour for profit?
In many ways, Fallist movements erupted partly because of Biko’s philosophy and for however long Fallism remains, Biko’s memory will continue to live.
His contested legacy lives in our collective understanding that to be conscious is more than a digestion of knowledge and theory but an intuitive response to a feeling that normalised Black poverty and suffering must be challenged and corrected.
Biko’s legacy lives in the students at Pretoria High School for Girls, San Souci High and many schools alike in their refusal to leave their Blackness at the school gates, proclaiming that Black is beautiful, that their languages and hair as signifiers of their identity have a place in our schools.
These young Black women performed a necessary illustration of rage and alienation, reminding all of us that the struggle of Black Consciousness - to be - is far from over and that it is not only in the university or some other undefined "world" but it haunts us every day.
Biko’s memory comes alive in the Black imaginations of students across the country that have emerged as new Black subjectivities contesting the legitimacy of SA’s post-apartheid apartheid condition as a way of continuing the struggle for a more human face.
Mathibela has a law degree from the University of Cape Town, and Dlakavu is a master’s student in African Literature at Wits and a Fallist
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