The ideals of Steve Biko, and Challenges to Youth

16 September 2004

Dearest Master of Ceremonies,
SRC President and Executive Members,
Fellow Students of Wits University,
Distinguished Guests,

The problem with our country is that we tend to sink ourselves into the memories of those who fought for the liberation of the country so much that we sometimes forget their reactionary views. Steve Biko is but one such hero.One of the legacies that is left for us to explore the mind of this student, youth and community activist, is his writings. I have re-read most of them, and believe that we have more to critic than to learn.

On a positive note, the struggle against Apartheid required the sharpness and dedication that was in Biko. In him there was the ideals of love for his black-folks, commitment to their liberation, intellectual analysis towards their freedom, unity for their community service.

The man you asked me to speak about today had other sides. He became so engulfed in the struggle for the emancipation of the black-folk that it immersed him into blind white hatred and dismissal towards any form of unity on common struggles. We cannot leave this sides unturned. We cannot turn a blind eye to this facts, authored by him and adored by many who, misled by this champion of black-racism on whites, even refused disarmament believing that a negotiated compromise is not a possibility. This is an ideal and value you should refuse to learn.

The man you also asked me to speak about suffered from a narrow nationalism syndrome. A syndrome that refused to believe that the black man was oppressed equally because of his cheap labour power and that this was also a class struggle. Biko the valuable man was also a man trapped in the misleading of backwardness, which he confused with culture. he continuously referred to white SA as the Coca-Cola and Hamburger generation and denied the fact that this was post-primitive SA, and that Imperialism is knocking on SA?s door. This was to be fatal.

We blame white SA for taking his life?and many other lives of revolutionaries who tirelessly fought against Apartheid. As we expose the weaknesses and Biko?s thesis, synthesis and anti-thesis, we should not forget that he was a victim of a ruthless Apartheid society and that its history should be taught and remembered, so as we do not return to that society.

“Black Consciousness is an attitude of mind and 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 as of the shackles that binds them to perpetual servitude?it is based on the on a self examination which has ultimately led them to believe that by seeking to run away from themselves and emulate the white man, they are insulting the intelligence of whoever created them black”(Steve Biko: I Write What I Like, p. 101)

This opening citation, taken from I write What I like, which is essentially a collection of the writings of Steve Biko, exposes three components of the society that Biko sought to create.

The first component is that of being black and being proud of it. The second component is the racial divide that existed in society at the time and the last being that only black people can and should fight for their emancipation.

If Biko were to say or write this about current South Africa, he would have been wrong in manifold. To insist that there are white people whom we share the world with, and to try and wish them away is wrong.

To suggest that Black consciousness ?is an attitude of mind and way of life? suggest that blacks should not be ?conscious? of the fact that there is a cultural revolution at place, which was eroded by various forms of social, political and economic development.

To conclude that the only way to eradicate Apartheid will be through a unity of blacks, with no other coalition or unity with white or coloured or Indian people is wrong. The very same races in society suffered under a white regime, in particular the latter two. Besides that, there were many white people who swelled the ranks of the ANC and the SACP as part of the liberation movement.

In Soul of the Republic, The Negro Today, Herebet Aptheker dedicates this book to that great scholar and Marxist who fought against white domination in the United States, W.E.B. Du Bois, he had this to say about him:

“Du Bois also had a vision not only of the American Negro, but also of the American white, too, understanding someday and joining someday?especially the working masses among the whites. Du Bois was a union man?The Crisis carried the union button even when the typographical union was lily-white”

In addition to this, the other case to prove that the Biko syndrome was a fatal one, was the failure to realise that ?it is only the oppressed who, by freeing themselves, can free their oppressors? The latter, as an oppressive class, can free neither others nor themselves.

It is therefore essential that the oppressed wage the struggle to resolve the contradiction in which they are caught; and the contradiction will be resolved by the appearance of the new man: neither oppressor nor oppressed, but man in the process of liberation? (Paulo Freire: 1970, Pedagogy of the Oppressed). The liberation of the black man was an equal, consistent and careful revolution towards the liberation of the white man.

It is this type of character of seeing everyone who suffers from the same struggles as a coalition force that we talk about, and not as a suspect to ?throw red herrings? and mislead the black folks off their struggle. It is the ability to realise that an economic struggle, as we will show later, or rather, a class struggle, cannot be defeated on the basis of black?centrism.

To justify his call for a black oneness, Biko proclaims that there are ?white liberals? who are leading opportunistically ?leading an anti?white struggle? and ?dragging all sorts of red herrings across our paths? and telling us that it is a ?class struggle? (ibid. page 99)

There is everything wrong with calling all whites liberals, and if liberalism in Biko?s time were making such perfect sense it is either they were communist or Biko could not see the difference. The struggle for the liberation of Africans from economic and political bondage could not have been fought and won without the unity of all forces who were opposed to the system.

But equally, failure to see that the historical struggle in South Africa was a class struggle, and that it had manifested itself in the form of racial oppression and prejudice could not have assisted the Black Consciousness Movement in its lonely fight against the system.

In one of his anecdotes, Lenin explains how the refusal to acknowledge reality and material conditions and work within the same ultimately defeats the purpose. Lenin refers to a man who is held at gun-points by thugs and is defenceless.

The only rationale thing is to ?unite with the thugs in robbing you? by not resisting. This will save your life and you will live to fight another day. Unfortunately, Biko would not have seen this because it will be another ?red herring? and a white liberal call.

To be adamant that the reason why the ?black man? was oppressed is because of the colour of his skin is also utterly wrong. It was wrong when he said it and it is wrong now. Black people were colonised and were seen as cheap labour by the white folks.

?There is no doubt that the colour question in South Africa was originally introduced for economic reasons. The leaders of the white community had to create some barrier between black and whites so that the white could enjoy privileges at the expense of blacks and still feel free to give a moral justification?(ibid. p. 96)

Why is it that when people sniff in the dark, they ultimately bump into the truth and state it as an obvious reason? We could not exactly be taught that Apartheid was created for economic reasons. Of course the Dutch Eact India Company, a multi-national corporate, strolling through the globe and pinching the mineral resources of the other continents happen to land at the Cape and establish it as a colony.

And of course the white-folks from Britain came into South Africa to settle because it was easier and cheaper to buy land and steal herds to establish themselves economically. Furthermore, it was the main intention that legislation be passed for segregation because blacks, who were a labour reserve, could not have shared the same territory with their white folks.

Do we really believe that British and other colonisers came into the continent to hunt for slaves because they hated them. No, it made perfect economic sense. We agree here with Biko. But then to agree with this matter of fact, and still deny the fact that SA was a class struggle, and that blacks suffered because they constituted a cheap labor force is denial of what we acknowledged earlier on.

An interesting point made by Biko on the thesis, the synthesis and the anti-thesis is that:

?The thesis is in fact a strong white racism and therefore, the anti-synthesis to this must, ipso facto, be a strong solidarity amongst the blacks on whom this white racism seeks to prey?

Inasmuch as blacks were divided along with their white folks, there were also common feature that we suffered by the other races, and thus, a thesis could not be white hatred over black as if it is a generic feeling amongst the white folk.

There were the white working class who were actively involved in the formation of the SACP and who supported the ANC throughout. These white folks also introduced a form of worker organisations in the form of trade unions amongst the African working class and helped build such trade unions.

We can see this as pointed by Simons, respectable comrades who dedicated their lives to the liberation of blacks and the building of a socialist SA, that?

“Bunting, no less optimistic, reported that ‘the different races of workers of this country, whites, coloured, natives, Indians, are rapidly coming together to form one great Industrial Workers’ Union of Africa. (Simons:1969, Class and Colour in SA)

How could Steve Biko have overlooked this? Is it part of the ?red herrings? referred to in earlier on? Is it the fact that Bunting, and even Simons for noting this, were ?white-liberals? who were trying to justify the fact that there were common struggles amongst and between the working class of all colours.

Was there some sinister plot on the part of the two communists to create falsehood of unity and lead the struggle on behalf of the black worker? Is it the fact that there was wool in the eyes of black racism on the part of Steve Biko?

One of the renowned African scholars, Franz Fanon, in the wretched of the Earth, writing 16 years before Biko?s death, pointed to the fact that:

?HISTORY teaches us clearly that the battle against colonialism does not run straight away along the lines of nationalism. For a very long time the native devotes his energies to ending certain definite abuses: forced labour, corporal punishment, inequality of salaries, limitation of political rights, etc. This fight for democracy against the oppression of mankind will slowly leave the confusion of neo-liberal universalism to emerge, sometimes laboriously, as a claim to nationhood. It so happens that the unpreparedness of the educated classes, the lack of practical links between them and the mass of the people, their laziness, and, let it be said, their cowardice at the decisive moment of the struggle will give rise to tragic mishaps.? (Fanon:1961)

This is a clearer lesson to the effect that the struggle for the national emancipation and self determination has various twists and turns. We cannot lazily refuse to see beyond the white-hate-black context because to do this will be to fall into narrow nationalism and racial hatred.

In his address to the court, Nelson Mandela pointed out, to paraphrase him, ?he hated white domination in as much as he hated black domination? and that he will struggle against both at any given point. This statement was an onslaught to narrow nationalism and an acceptance of the fact that whites are as much part of SA as blacks and that we cannot wish them away.

The same Fanon that we mentioned earlier, waned against tendencies of white-hate-black thesis as espoused by Biko, and said that:

?The faults that we find in it are quite sufficient explanation of the facility with which, when dealing with young and indepen?dent nations, the nation is passed over for the race, and the tribe is preferred to the state. These are the cracks in the edifice which show the process of retrogression that is so harmful and prejudicial to national effort and national unity.?

The ultimate struggle in South Africa was the creation of a non-racial society, were all leave equally. We might agree that we have not fully achieved this. However, care needs to be taken to ensure that we ?do not pass the nation for the race? and the ?tribe is preferred to the state?.

The greatest achievement that our country scored was the realisation that we cannot build this country on the basis of blindness to a multi-racial society that was build by imperial forces, and thus, ours was to create a nation united and moving forward.

Breaking from the silence around the hero Biko was, and moving on from the fundamental ideals that the liberation movement, which later engulfed the whole Black Consciousness Movement into itself, there are various lessons and ideals, transformed from Biko?s conception to the current democratic and non-racist society.

The major challenge that the youth of the country face is that of building a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic socity. This is the ideal that Steve Biko later came to realise. In an interview with the media and the during cross-examination during his court case. Lets listen to what he said:

?Do you see a country in which black and white can live amicably on equal terms together?

That is correct. We see a completely non-racial and society. We don?t believe, for instance, in the so-called guarantees for minority rights, because guaranteeing minority rights implies the recognition of portions of the community on a race basis. We believe that in our country there shall be nom minority, there shall be no majority, just the people.?

In court?he said?

?SASO believes that (a) SA is a country of which both black and white live together?and shall continue to live together?

?Now what does that mean, asked the magistrate

?Well this means that we accept the fact that the present SA society is a plural society with contributions having been made to its development by all segments of community, in other words we speak of groupings both black and white?we have no intention to whatsoever of seeing white leaving this country?when I say leave?I mean leave this country?

Our challenge is to build a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic society.

The other key lesson about Biko is to build a society that is conscious of its community. Biko cared of his community, he had humility, humbleness, meekness and person-ness. He was able to integrate community service with the passion to struggle. It is the guidance and contribution that Biko made towards the struggle for national liberation that we acknowledge and uphold. If there is any lesson that we should learn from Biko, it is that passion for the struggle and the community.

In closing, we would like to refer to a poem by the young Richard Wright:

?I am black and I have seen black hands

Raised in fists of revolt, side by side with the white fists of white Workers,

And some day?and it is only this which sustains me?

Some day there shall be millions and millions of them,

On the red day in a burst of fists on a new horizon!?

Steve Biko?s legacy needs care and understanding, but it also needs criticism, and it needs this youth. Long Live the Spirit of Biko.

Thank you!