Bantu Steve Biko, the man and the thought

A young and charismatic man, endowed with an exceptional intelligence, the struggle against apartheid, a short life, a horrible death, all this happened to Steve Biko, an icon in the black imaginary. But beyond the isolated quotes one can read, we will discover the very rich thought – and somehow surprising – of this glorious ancestor.

Bantu Stephen Biko was born in 1946 in the segregated South Africa, dominated by the racist and genocidal system of Dutch settlers and English who came later. He was 4 when his father died. His mother bore alone, in difficult conditions, the needs of the whole family. Biko was raised in the Xhosa tradition and Anglican Christianity. At the age of 18, he entered adulthood through the initiatory rite of Ulwaluko, when he was circumcised.

The birth of a thought

Brilliant student, he joined his brother Khaya in the locality of Lovedale. He developped sympathy for the Pan-African Congress, its organization and its ideas centered on the affirmation of the Black and African identity. The two brothers were arrested, suspected to belong to the armed wing of the party, then acquitted and expelled from Lovedale. Biko then considered law studies, but his entourage, worried about his rising political activism, convinced him to choose a safe career as a medical doctor.

Steve Biko at the University in 1966

In 1966, Steve Biko was 20 years old when, with a scholarship, he attended the “non-European” section of the Segregated University of Natal in Durban. The struggle against apartheid in the student community was dominated at the time by progressive Whites. Biko was at the start open to a large union. Then he realized that progressive Whites were paternalistic and that their will to determine the ideology, meaning and chronology of the Black struggle rested on the same thinking as that of overtly racist whites, namely that Blacks are inferior. Multiracial organizations were therefore a deception for him, because Whites always wanted to impose themselves as masters.

On the other hand, the progressive Whites would never give up, for the struggle of the Blacks, the privileges their color provided them. The problem being white racism, Whites who really wanted the end of apartheid had to fight against the system. It was not up to them to give themselves the paternalistic role to lead Black people, calm down their anger and treat as racist Black organizations from which they were excluded, because their superior sense of intelligence had been offended.

Biko concluded that the first problem of the Blacks was the inferiority complex, lack of trust and fear. This psychological condition was the breeding ground for their exploitation and was incompatible with the struggle for liberation. That is why he said this phrase, the best known of him to this day “The most potent weapon in the hand of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”.

Black Consciousness, the thought of Steve Biko

Biko said “The basic tenet of black consciousness is that the black man must reject all value systems that seek to make him a foreigner in the country of his birth and reduce his basic human dignity.” The goal of the Black Consciousness is to restore the Black Man’s pride as Black and African so that he is it for the fight. Biko stressed that South Africa is an African country and the natural land of the Black man. Other people who live there must accept this African identity which must be dominant. According to his diagnosis, the elements on which the lack of pride (of the Blacks) relied on are:

  • The falsified black history that makes the black man believe he is an incapable barbarian since the dawn of time.
  • The European languages that make everything that is bad Black.
  • The Christian religion that serves to oppress Blacks, whereas the African spirituality has been soiled by the dominant system and described as an illogical superstition.
  • The Black culture that has been crushed in favor of the norms of the Western culture.
  • The beauty criteria that make Black people believe that they are ugly, and that beauty is white.

So, Steve Biko reckoned that it was necessary to resurrect and popularize black history and culture, to persuade Blacks of their beauty, to make the word ‘black’ positive, to restore the truth about African spirituality and to ensure that Christianity ceases to serve to the oppression of Blacks.

The philosophy of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM)’s members is to rely only on themselves. Biko said “Black man, you are on your own”. It is about appropriating – as whole and responsible human beings – alone the direction of the Black struggle against apartheid. Liberation is first mental. It begins by tackling all the psychological elements that chained Blacks and prevent them from fully expressing their potential. Liberation is also economic and goes through a black economic communitarianism. Steve Biko maintained friendly relations with white progressive leaders but excluded Whites from the BCM. The movement accepted Colored and Indians.

The action

In 1969, the South African Students’ Organization (SOSA), the black student union, was founded by Steve Biko and his fellow struggle partners. In 1971 the manifesto of the Black Consciousness, ideology of the SOSA was adopted. Biko was only 25 years old!!! His great eloquence and mental alertness hit the target. The SOSA engaged in an education campaign focused on the psychological empowerment of Blacks. Biko’s motto was “Black is beautiful”. The SOSA imposed itself in South African campuses and its leader, who used to write his ideas under the pseudonym of Frank Talk, stood at the forefront of the fight against apartheid.

The tragic end

In 1973, the BCM was declared dangerous by the authorities. Biko was intimidated, accused of terrorism, placed under house arrest, and his house shot. He still found some relays to communicate with the outside and stayed one of the main theoreticians of the fight. He raised funds for the construction of health centers, nurseries, for the assistance of the political prisoners, and helped finance scholarships.

In 1976, the government of the Dutch colonisers wanted to impose its language (Afrikaans) as the main language of instruction in black schools. On June 16, 1976, supported by the BCM, 20,000 Black students from Soweto protested in reaction and the White police shot. Between 176 and 700 people, mostly children and adolescents, were killed. Chaos spreaded across the country, it was the famous Soweto riots. The repression on the BCM members increased.

Soweto riots

Harassed by the police, Steve Biko was arrested on June 18, 1977 in Ikapa (Capetown) for breaking his house arrest. He was taken to a house in Port Elizabeth where he was chained and horribly tortured. Blows and wounds disfigured him, causing massive brain hemorrhage and kidney failure. He entered coma. He was driven naked, on a 12-hour trip, without medical assistance and in the back of a mundane car to the Pretoria Central Prison and was left agonizing on the floor of his cell. He died the next day September 12, 1977. He was 31 years old.

20,000 people gathered for his funeral. This was the first mass funeral South Africa would know since then, until the end of apartheid.

What to remember from Steve Biko?

What is striking is the angle under which the Black world knows Steve Biko today, superficially, only like a charismatic young man who fought and died. No, the most precious legacy of this man is his thought. The diagnosis and the solutions he has proposed are highly worthy of interest and needed in our days. In a way, it was Afrocentricity, that is to say, to strengthen the Blacks in their African identity, so that they can be fit for the economic and political struggle. This is what Cheikh Anta Diop also thought and it is the ideology of the Afrocentric movement to which Lisapo ya Kama belongs. The philosophy of Steve Biko must therefore be learnt and studied by Africans today.

By John Burns


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