During this time, politicians have, perhaps understandably, made it a habit to invoke the spirit of Chief Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela. Foreign students know Mandela and Tambo, but Steve Biko, the iconic Black Consciousness leader, remains on the periphery.
On September 12 we commemorate the 40th anniversary of Steve Biko’s death. It is an appropriate moment to look at the reflections around Biko and what this means for the crisis of leadership that we face.
September 12 has become something of an unofficial day for remembering Biko and reflecting on his legacy. Amid growing anger in activist circles about attempts to “privatise” the right to remember Biko, ironically led by actors who support Zuma and the Guptas, it is pleasing to note that this day has attracted a diversity of speakers.
Barney Pityana, Biko’s close comrade and the man who coined the phrase “Black man, you’re on your own”, and Nigerian writer Ben Okri have spoken on Biko Day. People like Mputhlane wa Bofelo, a BC activist, have spoken in Durban.
There has also been a wealth of new scholarship, by Nigel Gibson, Xolela Mangcu, Daniel Magaziner and and Leslie Hadfield.
But the various political groups that emerged from the Black Consciousness Movement are all tiny, intellectually moribund and lacking in any real popular support. They are shells of what they once were, with little relevance to the political life of the country. It is in the new student struggles that Biko has become an iconic figure.
However, the idea of Biko that has been used in these struggles is often far removed from the reality of Biko as an historical figure. It is particularly disgraceful that Biko’s name has been so egregiously misused to defend the most rotten elements of the ruling party.
Many of the surviving generation of activists who were close to Biko have expressed deep concern about the ongoing abuse of his name and legacy. The scholarship on Biko is a useful counter but it has real limits. One is that it tends to focus on Biko’s time in the Eastern Cape and to downplay his time in Durban.
Biko and Rick Turner (who embraced Islam and was a philosopher teaching at what is now UKZN) were the leading intellectuals in Durban during the early 1970s. Both came to prominence there and were murdered by the state. The two, who were good friends, became the leading figures in what is now known as “The Durban Moment”, a brief period in which Durban became the centre of radical intellectual and political life.
Over the years, larger than life Durban figures like the late Strini Moodley and Bishop Rubin Phillip, both very close to Biko, provided a link to this great moment in the city’s history for new generations of intellectuals and activists.
Biko and Turner shared an interest in international thinkers of the day like Sartre and Paulo Freire, central figures in the democratic Marxist tradition. They placed their thought and activism firmly in the camp of the more democratic forms of radical thought that emerged under the banner of “the new Left” in the wake of the struggles that emerged around the world in 1968.
In a country where the left had long been dominated by the triple authoritarianisms of nationalism, Stalinism and Trotskyism, this was a real breakthrough.
It is arguable that the current crisis of our country is felt most seriously in Durban, and in KwaZulu-Natal more generally. Political assassinations have become routine and there are real fears that democracy may not survive the current crisis.
We should remember that in the 1970s the national liberation movement denounced Biko as a CIA agent.
The authoritarian left, in and out of the ANC, has never been able to understand that people are perfectly capable of exercising political agency on their own. We have seen this during apartheid and in the democratic era. When people have organised themselves on their own rather than under the authority of the official left, this has constantly been met with conspiracy theories and wild slander rather than attempts to understand why it is that people have organised themselves.
The Trotskyists have tended to content themselves with character assassination and slander. But the nationalists in the right wing of the ANC have increasingly engaged in murder. But murder is linked to ideology. People, from grassroots activists in informal settlements to people of the stature of Makhosi Khosa and Pravin Gordhan, are presented as “spies” to delegitimise them as people and justify escalating repression.
We should remember that Biko stressed that it was the mind of the oppressed that was the most important terrain of struggle. If today’s critics of the corrupt right-wing faction in control of the ANC were engaged as people with minds instead of with witch-hunts for the agitators and conspiracies, our democracy would be a lot stronger.
Biko was a great man. He was a man of real courage and real intellectual brilliance. He was a martyr of our Struggle. Yet this great man was described as a CIA agent by the Stalinists and right-wing nationalists in the ANC. We should never forget this uncomfortable historical fact.
In this time of crisis, paranoia, character assassination and actual murder, it is vital to remember that the example of Biko shows, along with many other lessons, that there is not just one way to be a committed patriot.
It shows us that sometimes there is a very dangerous authoritarianism within the Struggle. It shows us that space must always be made for dissent and critique within the Struggle. It shows us that no party, and no faction of any party, can claim to own the Struggle for themselves.
* Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI, and Research Fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN.