Stephen Bantu Biko
September 12 2007 marks 30 years since the death of Steve Biko, noted black consciousness leader and one of the greatest political thinkers in South African history.
Right now the political landscape in South Africa may be likened to a desert in terms of great political leadership.
The 30th anniversary of Biko's death comes at a sobering moment in the current juncture of political leadership. Given the crisis of leadership
in the country, it becomes more imperative to retain the memory of South Africa's historical legacy of principled and committed leadership that is sorely lacking today.
Thirteen years into the post-apartheid dispensation, a number of challenges still face the country in terms of the overall redistribution of wealth, resources, opportunities and power that has taken place in a highly uneven and skewed form.
The majority of poor Africans remain marginalised and on the outermost periphery of what was supposed to be "a better life for all". We are still poised between the critical challenges of transformation and delivery and the ever present tensions of race relations.
So where then is the place for the memory of Biko?
Biko's beginnings in revolutionary activist politics originated from his schooling in the Eastern Cape and then moved to student activism at the University of Natal Medical School (the then black section). He was the
founder of the South African Students' Organisation, and was instrumental in setting up the Black People's Convention (BPC) in Durban.
The BCP was an umbrella coalition of more than 60 youth, student and worker black consciousness groups and movements.
Banned from medical school in 1973 and banished to his home town of King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he was repeatedly arrested, detained and interrogated under apartheid anti-terrorism legislation.
His final detention on August 21 1977 resulted in his death less than a month later on September 12 1977. He sustained brain damage during interrogation by the Eastern Cape security police.
His lonely and painful death pierces to the very heart of what was most abominable about apartheid South Africa: head injuries sustained during the course of his interrogation put Biko into a coma from which he never recovered.
Against the recommendation of hospitalisation by the police physician, Biko was instead taken in the back of a bakkie, naked and manacled, on a gruelling 12-hour journey to Pretoria Central Prison. He finally died from his brain injuries in a cell at Pretoria Central Prison.
Living and dying for the cause as he did, Biko has become a martyr and a potent symbol of black resistance to the apartheid system.
After his death, his family sued the state for damages in 1979 and were awarded an out-of-court settlement sum of R65 000.
Two decades later, the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission found conclusively that Biko's death in detention "was a gross human rights violation . . . despite the 1977 inquest finding no person responsible for his death, the commission finds that, in view of the
fact that Biko died in the custody of law enforcement officials, the probabilities are that he died as a result of injuries sustained".
Today Biko's name is synonymous with black consciousness, the philosophy and a way of living life which inspires confidence and restores
self-worth to black people.
His message of self-realisation and critical consciousness is one which does not detract from other races in any way. Nor is it an insular or narrow conception of who and what an African is.
But Biko's ideals of black consciousness have become distorted and perverted within the contemporary context of power and race relations in South Africa.
Even with the benefit of hard-won self-determination and democracy, we have become increasingly narrowly defined by race and rigid, narrow-minded ideas of who and what defines an African.
Though Africanism has remained a consistent theme on the national agenda, it is often couched in terms of black exclusivism and the agendas of the ruling party.
Within a political terrain marked by a growing culture of enrichment, empowerment, crass materialism and a profound lack of political integrity, black consciousness and its ideals have tended towards an uncertain and amorphous place in the political landscape.
Certainly, the near demise of the Pan African Congress supports this contention.
The philosophy and ideals of black consciousness have waned noticeably, lending themselves to misinterpretations of black exclusivity, and have gained perceptions of anachronism and historical irrelevance.
The tensions around race, particularly within the context of a racist economic system, mean that anything that is necessarily Africanist or black consciousness-based is discounted or marginalised or else it is exaggerated and distorted to the exclusion of other races. It is a
depressing state of affairs.
The national preoccupation with material enrichment must represent a kind of indoctrination or brainwashing which runs directly against the idea of black pride or identity: the idea that one can transcend one's
origins by hard work or individual achievement alone or that one can necessarily be born into a township and transform oneself into the highest levels of material achievement.
Instead of being positioned as the subject of vigorous debate and contestation, black consciousness and its twin message of critical awareness and consciousness has faltered and lost ground.
South Africa needs this message, which is Biko's legacy, to merge genuinely the aspirations and hopes of the poor majority.
We need leaders to give us a sense of liberatory political purpose.
We need an articulate spokesman for the problems that the poor majority are facing in the country.
Biko wrote stirringly in I Write what I Like: "You are either alive and proud, or you are dead, and when you are dead, you can't care anyway."
If anything, this 30th anniversary needs to jostle us out of both our complacency over the achievements represented by the democratic transition in 1994 and also our profound negativity around the state of political affairs in the country.
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