Steve Biko

My friend, a successful and confident academic, found his seven-year-old son standing in front of a mirror, crying.

“Why are you crying?”

“I’ve been talking English at school every day, and I’m still black!”

The railroad of racial consciousness is still with us, still pushing us to be a racial somebody, telling us who we are and who we are not, and, crucially, who is valued and who is not, which raises the question of what would not be a racial consciousness of this kind.

I cannot claim I was ever close to Steve Biko, though once I slept in his bed. Before the biographers leap to their laptops, I need to add that he had relinquished his room in the Medical School residence to accommodate my twin brother and myself.

As a student at the University of Natal, I had organised a Nusas seminar in April 1968, and had got a cluster of liberal academics to speak to us. The venue was the Alan Taylor residence in Wentworth, while delegates came from the “white” campuses as well as from the medical school. At that time the model was that a speaker would speak, we would ask questions and discuss, and move on to the next.

On the second day, however, most of the black delegates were absent, meeting outside with Steve Biko. Not understanding where we were at, the rest continued as if nothing had happened. Perhaps the problem was that the white organisers like myself did not know how to use the crisis to enable a productive dialogue.

This was a key movement in the development of Black Consciousness in South Africa; campuses withdrew from Nusas and set up the South African Students Organisation.

When I returned to Durban from a year’s study overseas I found a kind of intellectual ferment I did not expect, clustered around charismatic leaders like Rick Turner, the political scientist at Howard College, and Biko, while the Wages Commission, led among others by my older brother, was forming the new trade unions.

I did not see Biko much except for a couple of visits he made to the home of Rick Turner, where two people with similar values but different analyses would contest the issues. There was then an explosive growth of political activity – the Durban strikes, the banning of people like my brother, Soweto in 1976. In September 1977 I was in the office of Paddy Kearney, then director of Diakonia, when the phone rang. He looked shocked, and then said to me, “Steve Biko is dead”.

Of course apartheid kept claiming lives of people around us, and one may think that one became stoical about it. I was not stoical about this death; I had not known that I would feel so hurt. Maybe this was because something about what he stood for challenged something important in myself.

For Biko, Black Consciousness was the clearly defined alternative to the racialised consciousness that still afflicts us. It confronted those who experienced racial oppression, reminding them that the first and most important freedom that they had was the freedom of being able to think and to value oneself. Even in prison, you retained that power.

In a system that told black people that they were of little value, and that white people must take the lead, many accepted that this was just the way things were. In contrast, Black Consciousness confidently asserted the opposite.

Black Consciousness communicated to those subordinated on the basis of their “race” and “culture” that they were people of value and intelligence.

The term “black” applied not to a coalition of “races”, but applied to those subject to racial oppression.

These ideas were disturbing for many. The apartheid government was naturally threatened by the complete rejection of the racial and ethnic justification for its system. Even in the congress movement, many reacted arrogantly and even violently at this challenge to some of the assumptions of the liberation movement.

Many white people felt that Black Consciousness was anti-white, failing to understand the need to have a different strategy for those whose racial consciousness was formed from the experience of privilege.

South Africa never took Biko’s message to heart. And so I encounter often the same racial consciousness in business, in sport, in education, with the trotting out of the same weary old stereotypes of race and culture that keep people in their place. No doubt there are limitations to this approach. South Africa in 2013 is now very different from the late 1960s.

At the time, with the immense racial divide, there was less awareness of the need to address other forms of subordination, such as around gender and sexuality, and how a process of liberating consciousness cannot stop at race alone.

But the key point, about taking responsibility for freeing our thinking and our actions, is needed more than ever.

l Hemson is the director of the International Centre of Nonviolence, based at the Durban University of Technology.