Today marks 39
years since the death of Steve Biko, the founder of the Black Consciousness
Movement. Biko’s work is as relevant in South Africa now as it was at the time
he was writing. As I reflect on his death, I am reminded of one of the most
compelling things he said: “It is better to die for an idea that will live,
than to live for an idea that will die.” Biko was himself killed for an
idea that lives on.
Today marks 39 years since the death of Steve Biko, the founder of the Black Consciousness Movement. Biko’s work is as relevant in South Africa now as it was at the time he was writing. As I reflect on his death, I am reminded of one of the most compelling things he said: “It is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die.” Biko was himself killed for an idea that lives on.
As a young black South African woman, Steve Biko taught me to not only love my blackness, but to stand up and take pride in myself, even as society rejects every bit of who I am. This remains important, as 22 years into democracy, we still face racial discrimination. This is seen in our homes, our offices, courts, schools and all sectors of society. I was born in a home where my parents believed the closer I was to whiteness the better. This was not because my parents were stupid, but because they were for more than 52 years conditioned to believe that white was better.
This is encapsulated in Biko’s words when he said: "The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” Apartheid wanted black people to believe we are naturally inferior due to their race.
But what makes Steve Biko such an influential figure and why does he mean so much to so many black people? Biko believed the pursuit of non-racialism to be as noble as the struggle for the rights of black South Africans during apartheid. He also knew it was important that, in the pursuit of non-racialism, black people needed to empower themselves and accept themselves for who they are.
Biko wanted black people to fight for their very being to be decriminalised – because in actual fact being black was a crime during apartheid. Government monitored black people’s movements, anti-apartheid activists were jailed or placed under house arrest. Compliance with white standards was the only way to not be criminalised.
With this in mind, Biko wanted mental emancipation for all black South Africans. Racism teaches the oppressed that they are in the position they are because of who they are. It was important for Biko to make black people aware that who they are, had nothing to do with what they were experiencing. It was important for black people to take back their power and be the heroes of their own struggle. This is articulated in his explanation of the raison d’être of the Black Consciousness movement:
“Black Consciousness is an attitude of the mind and a way of life, the most positive call to emanate from the black world for a long time. Its essence is the realisation by the black man of the need to rally together with his brothers around the cause of their oppression - the blackness of their skin - and to operate as a group to rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude”.
His writings are even more significant today because in our pursuit of a rainbow nation we ended up skipping some very important steps. A true rainbow nation cannot be attained when the majority of the nation continues to live in poverty, and some even forced to endure living conditions worse than apartheid.
In our pursuit of this rainbow nation we forget that black people still serve as maids, cleaners, gardeners and miners. The majority of this country is as economically dispossessed as they were during apartheid.
Even though laws have changed, our institutions are still riddled with the legacies of the apartheid regime and colonisation. Black people still live in the same areas they lived in during apartheid. The majority of black people are still poor. In South Africa when one speaks of the struggle of workers, one speaks of the struggle of black people. Students have been at the apex of these issues since 2015, when they took to the streets to speak against apartheid conditions that form the basis of Higher Education institutions during #FeesMustFall #RhodesMustFall and #OpenStellenbosch. Biko’s writings remind us that we have not achieved total emancipation.
But Biko’s writings are not just important for black people, they are as relevant to white South Africans who want to live the dream of a rainbow nation. In his letter to Student Representative Council presidents in 1978, Biko had this to say: “The blacks are tired of standing at the touchlines to witness a game that they should be playing. They want to do things for themselves and all by themselves”.
if white South Africans want to see racial equality, it would serve them well
to read Biko’s writings to emancipate themselves from the shackles of a
privileged mind-set. This is inculcated in the following passage from The Quest
for a True Humanity, I write what I like:
“We do not want to be reminded that is we, the indigenous people, who are poor and exploited in the land of our birth. These are concepts which the Black Consciousness approach wishes to eradicate from the man’s mind before our society is driven to chaos by irresponsible people from Coca-Cola and hamburger cultural backgrounds”
He was quoted in the Boston Globe in October 1997: “So as a prelude, whites must be made to realise that they are only human, not superior. Same with blacks. They must be made to realise that they are also human not inferior”. This is what the likes of Penny Sparrow, Mathew Theunissen, Vicki Momberg and many others still see blacks as inferior need to understand.
It is because of the Black Consciousness Movement that we see students and learners standing up for their blackness and ready to fight for total emancipation. The fact that a portion of this country still do not see racism as a problem tells you how important Biko’s writings are. Biko’s writing literally cleansed my mind of the “rainbow nation” façade I was fed as child. The ideas captured in his work gave me the strength I never thought I had, a passion I am prepared to die for and a love for humanity that I never thought I had.