Black Prophetic Fire: Steve Biko and EFF through History

2015-09-11 10:59

In 1831 a young Black man and his followers, armed with farm implements, moved from farm to farm killing White people. Within a day the group had killed about 60 Whites. The young man's name was Nat Turner. He was a slave in America and he organised fellow slaves to conduct this bloodiest deed.

Nat Turner's rebellion was one of the bloodiest in American history. The bloody massacre went way beyond practical issues that sparked it. The firestorm and social unrest that followed the rebellion heralded the American Civil War that cost more than half a million people, and nearly splinted America into two countries. And it eventually led to the end of slavery.

David W. Blight, a history professor at Yale University writes that; ''Nat Turner is a classic example of an iconic figure who is deeply heroic on one side and deeply villainous on the other,''

In 2002, Nat Turner was listed as one of the 100 Greatest African Americans by the Institute for Afrocentric Studies. Some Whites protested and wanted Nat Turner removed from the list.

But the Institute's president Molefi Kente Asante refused to remove Nat Turner from the list, and he remarked:   The African American people have both a historical and emotional investment in Nat Turner and this interest in Nat Turner is not a new discovery, it is a permanent condition. Nat Turner’s image in our consciousness as Blacks does not come and go; it is a historical presence.

Nat Turner would later inspire and fire up countless generations of African Americans, and this included Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X.

Malcolm X was a huge figure within the African American community in the 1960s. He ordered Black people to start gun clubs because as he said at that time he wanted to launch "more violence across America than ever before".  Malcolm X was feared and he struck terror in the heart of mainstream America.

As a kid Malcolm X's parents were followers of Marcus Garvey's movement Universal Negro Improvement Association, which was the largest African American movement in those days with 6 million members. The Association had a military wing called African Legion. African Legion would march across America in uniform chanting and shouting:  Up You Mighty Black Race,  Strike the blow!

In those days Black people perceived themselves psychologically attacked as they found themselves in a sea of Whites all around them and sought combative ways to assuage perceived White attacks on their sense of humanity.

On the other hand there was Martin Luther King, Jr. Unlike Malcolm X who operated among the Black urban youth, King was popular among the rural areas preaching non-violence and peaceful means of struggle. King's message was effective in those areas where things were relatively quiet.

But in the urban areas where black people witnessed injustices every day it was a different story. The angry black youth in the urban areas could see no way the Whites can be appealed by speaking about love. So they followed Malcolm X. The message of starting gun clubs was appealing to them.

That was Black Consciousness spirit in display in its various streams of expression. That was the seeds of the Steve Biko phenomenon that we are celebrating in September. The month of September is considered the Steve Biko month with the 12th of September being the D-day.  It was on the 12th of September 1977 that Steve Biko died in the hands of the police under very brutal circumstances. Steve Biko was the most complete political activist, a man who emphasised grassroots and participatory politics that exploded and redefined our society.

Steve Biko inherited a lot of things from Malcolm X.  The central thought of Steve Biko can be located in what Malcolm X said: "We declare our right on this be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary."

In his book Powershift Alvin Toffler demonstrates how power has progressively shifted from those who command violence to those who command ideas. And that was the genius of Steve Biko. That genius is that he was part of those Black leaders who kept with change, and effectively and successfully shifted the message of Black self affirmation from violent means to psychological ideological engagement.  The message of Steve Biko at the grassroots level was very potent indeed. And the Apartheid government recognised this and they deployed all various means to ensure that he does not speak or write or come to contact with people.

Steve Biko after he was expelled at the University of Natal as a medical student poured himself in the creation of grassroots clubs across South Africa and he used those clubs to spreading the ideas of black affirmation or consciousness. He believed that the most devastated weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed that is ignorant and open for suggestion and control. He would create publications that he used to express the idea of black consciousness through a series of articles. The bulk of those articles winded up as part of his most famous book: I Write What I Like.

Over sometime the space that Steve Biko occupied became increasingly void as more people shifted with the ANC to the centre of management of state. Moving to the centre the flickering light of Black ideological fire was weakened. That has made it more difficult for black courageous and radical voices to critique the vestiges of Apartheid, and that is not a good thing because suffering in black communities is not abating but it is escalating in every front dealing powerful psychological blows to their human dignities and the way they perceive themselves.

Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) as a political activist party has sought to project itself as the broad church galvanising all various streams of black fire but on the main of it lies the vibrancy of the Steve Biko legacy. It has developed a deep emotional attachment with the legacy of Steve Biko and his great disciple Abram Onkgopotse Tiro.

And this Saturday, the 12 of September EFF had made it a point to finally seal in the legacy of Steve Biko. It is having a massive rally in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, the hometown of Steve Biko.  The rally is projected as a celebration of the life and times of Steve Biko.

The Black ideological fire is about boldness in the midst of utter misery. The Black ideological fire seeks to disrupt the status quo and to tilt it in the interests of the common people. And that boldness sometimes is mistaken as anarchy. The poor living conditions sometimes can have a devastating toll on the minds of black people and make them to start doubting their value and worth. Poverty is brutal and crushes the dignity of the human person.

So it is within this context that political organisations such as the EFF will remain increasingly relevant and more popular with the Black people at mass grassroots level.  EFF contend and rightly so, that unless Black people achieve economic freedom the black fire should be kept alive.

The term anarchists in reference to the EFF leaders was a bleeping noise at the recently concluded ANC Youth League elective conference.  It became the reference point and thrusts of speeches and public remarks made by both the newly ANCYL President Collen Maine and the Secretary General Njabulo Nzuza.

I found their utterances strange observations of EFF because in all its political thrusts and mass participation in society EFF leaders were never arrested. If we are a law abiding peaceful society of which we are then EFF leaders by this time should be in jail if indeed they are anarchists.  A society such as ours does not tolerate anarchy or anarchists.

Ideas, just as sound values, are at the heart of human progress. The market place of ideas that will allow ideas of progress to prevail has their participation as one of its requirements. ANC Youth League should contest the space of open public engagement, that is how the youth will want it. Retreating or sleep walking or watering down or surrendering the rights for sound criticism should not be an option of the ANC Youth League.

The South African space is still welcoming new youthful ideas and alternatives. In progressive society leaders and icons are not placed beyond the realms of critical exploration.

I would say the ANC Youth conference started well with the theme Restoration. It was a worthy angle from which to proceed, but one which ultimately did not succeed due to a number of unhelpful digressions and some flawed observations of the previous leadership.

Throughout the years various attempts has been made to provide the broad outlines of Steve Biko's life.

Xolela Mangcu’s book Biko: a Biography is great but I was surprised when Xolela began the book with a discussion about Steve Biko being a Xhosa prophet. If there is a consideration or a search for a Xhosa prophet then the first to fit that model may be Nelson Mandela not Steve Biko. Nelson Mandela’s world view and milieu is deeply derived from the Xhosa ancient perspectives. With Steve Biko he wrote and outlined principles that are purely universal, with less attachment or reference to history of the Xhosa people the way Nelson Mandela did.

Notwithstanding Xolela Mangcu's book remains relevant. The book provides rich analysis taken from the varied research that the author made throughout the years and most importantly when he was the Founding Executive Director of the Steve Biko Foundation. And the fact that Xolela is also Xhosa does provide very interesting perspective to the story.

The renowned South African film maker Lindy Wilson's book simply titled, Steve Biko is yet another worthy attempt on the life of Steve Biko. She provides an interesting account that locates Steve Biko within the American civil rights movement.

Mamphele Ramphele in her book: Bounds of Possibility: The Legacy of Steve Biko and Black Consciousness provide a vivid moving account of Steve Biko based on her varied relationship with the man.  Mamphele Ramphele shows Steve Biko's inner self that was distance from the public. She writes that no matter the context Steve Biko exuded charm and a healthy sense of humour placing ideological opponents off guard and allowing him to advance provocative and even outrageous arguments. And that he assume an approachable charming outward style, yet also held something in reserve.

Nelson Mandela said that Steve Biko was a fire that lit the veld. He was operating largely within the breath and length of the Black youth.

Black Consciousness protagonists are political activists who cheerfully took on the burdens of society.

It is noteworthy to consider that Malcolm X, Steve Biko and the EFF all are condemned as "Black racists, black supremacists".  This shows the unbroken long tradition and continuity of the black ideological fire, that it is still vibrant even today.

An objective study of Malcolm X, Steve Biko and EFF leadership demonstrate the following similarities:

All were (and are) young and appealed to the youth. Appealing to the youth is understandable because once people reach adulthood they are stuck in their behaviour patterns (personalities) and you cannot easily change them.

They used their charisma to remain true to the traditions of Black prophetic fire in the culture of fleeting pleasures.  They demonstrated that there is something great about being on fire to stand against constant daily injustices that have become systematic and entrenched. Poverty is an injustice and the message of economic freedom seems relevant in that context.

Essentially a leader plays more of a psychological role in that he sets the atmosphere for the advancement of a common vision. Powerful solid leaders give the verbal and nonverbal message and communicate the aura  that they are ready to fight for what they believe.

Good leaders such as Steve Biko have good understanding of human psychology and use that knowledge to make their people walk tall and get fired up marching on the streets.

So ultimately, the study of Steve Biko cannot be better understood unless we consider that he is a product of a long series of epochs and milestones of the Black ideological fire that have its origin with Nat Turner and was pushed to a new dimensions by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. From there it spread and became universal and international.

Nelson Mandela would later say: From Robben Island we followed with immense interest the movement led and inspired by Steve Biko.  His revolution had a simple but overwhelmingly powerful dimension in which it played itself out – that of radically changing the consciousness of people. History from time to time brings to the fore the kind of leaders who seize the moment, who cohere the wishes and aspirations of the oppressed. Such was Steve Biko, a fitting product of his time; a proud representative of the re-awakening of his people.

Steve Biko stood for universal principles that shaped history, and our relationship with each other and the rest of humanity.

Today, through scientific discoveries, we know that all humanity is one, we are all one and we all come from Africa. But through time we have morphed into people who are hurtful to each other. We need to return to our essential origin (maropeng).

That awareness of one common humanity is there. We are moving towards a critical mass, a tipping point when there will be a massive shift. It is not so far away. When enough people awaken to who they are authentically to reclaim their deepest connections there will be a leap. This whole world will be a loving place as dreamed by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr said: I have a dream that one day ...the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

The Black prophetic fire and its protagonists as Steve Biko was, has always sought to demonstrate the importance of Africa and Africans in the rich heritage of humanity. Bringing all humanity from the sidelines of suffering to the centre completes our human story.


AB praises selfless skipper

2010-11-21 18:15

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