Black Consciousness can unshackle us from historic subjugation

Ben Okri giving the annual Steve Biko Memorial lecture at UCT a few years ago. Picture: David Ritchie

Ben Okri giving the annual Steve Biko Memorial lecture at UCT a few years ago. Picture: David Ritchie

Published Sep 10, 2023


Prof Saths Cooper

As I write this, I’m acutely aware that the interrogation of Bantu Stephen Biko, the medical student whom I got to know in 1968 and who soon became my brother, my comrade, my mentor, the father of Black Consciousness (BC), was well under way 46 years ago at room 619 Sanlam Building Security Police Headquarters in Port Elizabeth/Gqeberha.

Detained with – but immediately separated from – Peter Cyril Jones on August 18 1977, kept naked and shackled in solitary confinement for 20 days, before suffering severe concussion by September 7 (which was Peter’s 27th birthday), and driven on the back of a Land Rover four days later to Pretoria Prison more than 1,111km away, naked and shackled, where he suffered a cruel and heinous demise that shocked the world, with concomitant, even inevitable, fame for a few who fed on his murder.

Eleven years earlier on that fateful September 6, apartheid prime minister HF Verwoerd (also a psychologist), was stabbed to death by parliamentary messenger Dimitri Tsafantakis/Tsafendas.

Muntu Myeza, the co-accused in the State versus S Cooper and Others (dubbed the Saso/BPC Trial), was jailed in Tsafendas’ Robben Island isolation cell between December 1976 to October 1977.

During his previous detention, Biko told the notorious security police: “Listen, if you guys want to do this your way, you have got to handcuff me and bind my feet together, so that I can’t respond. If you allow me to respond, I’m certainly going to respond. And I’m afraid you may have to kill me in the process.”

Believing that he had “to give back as much as I can so that it becomes uncontrollable”, the police ensured that he was handcuffed and shackled to the wall in the 22 hours of his interrogation and torture.

Ever since his murder, commentators, academics, writers and others have asked questions impossible to answer, such as “Would Biko have … ?” Whether we wish to acknowledge that “Apart from Nelson Mandela, nobody symbolised the struggle against apartheid more than Steve Biko.” (David Millward, The Telegraph), “We know today that when in the life of a nation the time comes for an idea, nothing, not even murder, can kill that idea” (Mandela, 2002).

In the Igbo/Ibo language, biko means please, but also exceptional, signifying the quintessential quality of Biko the young, but wise, thinker, who dared create real opposition to the minority regime, when most were cowed into submission and participating in the bantustanisation of South Africa.

Biko broke the pall of fear and united, especially youth and oppressed communities across South Africa, in the quest for our common humanity. This “spark that lit a veld fire across South Africa” (Mandela) resulted in igniting a cohort of leaders who played various roles in our troubled society for more than four decades. While many went into the government, his close colleagues who worked with him in building the student, then the political, youth, and women’s and community development structures for almost a decade, chose to remain out of the government, carving national and international recognition in their chosen professions.

While some played a role in the negotiated settlement, others did not, almost as an article of faith. This was our inescapable and cardinal mistake. I can only rely on Biko pressuring me into joining the Natal Indian Congress (NIC), with Barney Pityana, Harry Nengwekhulu and Strini Moodley present in 1971, and saying: “Whether we like it or not, the NIC will be formed. To prevent the narrow ethnicity you decry, you should go in to stymie the charouism!”

Hashim Seedat, Ashwin Trikamjee, Strini Moodley and I formed the Durban Central branch, which boasted Biko, Pityana, and Rick Turner as members. The largest branch, three of us were elected to the Interim Executive on October 2, 1971, despite the cries of a vociferous few: “We don’t want your kind!”.

On December 19, 1971, the National Organisation Conference in Soweto appointed an ad hoc committee to hold a Black People’s Convention (BPC). My election as the first vice president of the NIC earlier in 1972, did not stand in the way of my election to the five-person BPC Inaugural Executive Committee in July 1972.

Perhaps a poor, yet irresistible, example that Biko is likely to have argued involvement in the historic Convention for a Democratic South Africa, changing the terms of the compromised settlement and outcomes, the consequences of which we are all suffering today.

Then-president Nelson Mandela offered two seats to Azapo (which in at least one poll was second to the ANC) and wanted Azapo to buttress his approach to ensure that “We can take South Africa from them”.

There is no doubt that the formidable insights of astute BC leaders would have changed the birthing of a democracy, whose 30th anniversary we shall witness next year, in a cacophony of mindless, often conflicted, political voices that most of our people will tend to ignore as another get-rich-at-our-expense scheme, perpetuating the cycle of self-serving, while more than 60% of our population are under 30 years of age, with merely a sliver of hope to take their rightful place in our much-vaunted liberal democracy, that boasts the highest unemployment, the lowest employment, and the largest skills and wealth gap in the world.

BRICS has come, the G20 is on, and South Africa is going nowhere fast, while politics is the new – fruitless and wasteful – economy. We have let ourselves, our country and our future down.

Creating a vibrant coalescing of Biko’s BC notions to start afresh a journey of self-discovery where all of us, black and white, male and female, urban and rural, the few rich, the many poor in South Africa and elsewhere, can emancipate ourselves from the shackles of biology, history and circumstance, so that we regain our humanity, without rancour or bitterness, and evolve to a fair, open and participatory society.

Only then can we be fully unshackled from our historic subjugation, enabled to realising our humanness, serving all of humanity, everywhere.

Prof. Saths Cooper is President of the Pan African Psychology Union, a former leader of the Black Consciousness Movement and a member of the 1970s group of activists

The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL