Anti-apartheid activists attend Steve Biko's burial ceremony in 1977.
VUYISILE MSILA 

Forty years ago this week Bantu Biko died as a result of knocking his head against a wall when he was in a scuffle with zealous police in Sanlam Building, Port Elizabeth. It was a grim death and the then police commissioner Jimmy Kruger was "touched and sorry" for Biko’s death.

Using sardonic and callous humour Kruger was quoted as saying: “Biko died of hunger strike, I allow detainees a democratic right to starve themselves to death. His death leaves me cold. I suppose one feels sorry about any death. I suppose I would feel sorry about my own death.”

Such was the deep grief of this in- human lawman.

There were many others who died in apartheid police cells by injuring themselves before and after Biko. James Tyita, Caleb Mayekiso, Bathandwa Ndondo, Mapetla Mohapi and 100 others. Mohapi died in 1976 by using his jeans to hang himself after writing a suicide note to his captors. Recently we heard police stick to their story about Ahmed Timol who died while fleeing from the 10th floor of John Vorster Square.

Self-inflicted injuries, bars of soap, hunger strikes and pants were always the official reasons for death of political prisoners in grim apartheid cells.

But we know the truth. Biko like many others before and after him who died in police cells, suffered the notorious brutality of police whose interrogation tactics knew no bounds. We know Biko was no coward, he died defending his people, his principles, his land and his cause. He had a dream of one nation.

When Donald Woods, the then editor of the Daily Dispatch in East London met Biko for the first time, he argued that his Black Consciousness was mere reverse racism. The sharp Biko explained the main tenets of Black Consciousness among which are to build a self-confident, self-reliant, psychologically strong black person during a time when apartheid made black people believe they were “empty shells” with no identity. Woods might not have understood when the young (Nyameko Barney) Pityana and Biko’s friend defiantly declared: “Black man you are on your own”.

We live in a time when we have come to realise that Black Consciousness has a role to play, especially among the poor who tend to be gullible and easily exploited because of their vulnerability. It is black people who suffer many injustices as they try to find ways of understanding and taking control of their reality. When one goes to a prophet and allows him to spray the insecticide Doom on him in the belief that miracles will happen, it is tragic. There is a problem when I believe that by eating rats and grass I will be redeemed from earthly misdemeanours.

Black Consciousness teachings have never been as relevant as they are today when people need to conscientise themselves, believing in their power to take charge of their circumstances. As long as people believe they are where they are because of fate, they will not progress as main actors who lead their own lives and in control of their destinies.

Biko and his colleagues gleaned from the teachings of philosophers such as Julius K Nyerere and Paulo Freire as they tried to change the course of history. With Nyerere it was the teachings of self-reliance as the Black Consciousness comrades introduced the Black Community Projects whose idea should not have died all these years. The projects demonstrated that the South African Student Organisation and other Black Consciousness formations instilled the self-belief that the poor could gain confidence in themselves as they worked diligently for their own communities. The organisations work in communities throughout the country using Freirean principles to reassure the non-literate and the indigent that there are ways in which they can reclaim their lives.

Furthermore, the Black Consciousness work in the mines and other workplaces was creative in proliferating literacy while conscientising the people.

People became aware that they were oppressed by the system because they were black and it was when they understood that that they needed to change their circumstances for the emancipation of the group.

There are many who contend that decades after Biko’s death the black condition has not changed much. It is mainly black children who do not get jobs, even after having qualified.

Recent events in various schools show that it is black children who cite continuing alienation. Unfortunately, in some schools black children are made to believe that their success might be unexplainable, some form of magic.

Recently, a St John's College teacher was quoted as saying to a high-flying learner: “You disappointed the blacks by getting a good mark”. The educator, Keith Arlow, continued to tell black learners that they were getting good marks because they sat next to white learners.

This is sickening and one can imagine what this does to the psychology of the black children in his classrooms.

For Arlow, white is equal to excellence as he was quoted as saying: “Well done, you’ve started thinking like a white boy”.

Black Consciousness would be opposed to this entrenching of racist beliefs that demean black people because of their racial identity. One cannot forget in a Pretoria school a teachers reproached black pupils because they were speaking in an unintelligible language. The girls were speaking in their mother tongue.

The Struggle in 1976 and subsequent years was fighting against this black domination and oppression in institutions. One becomes sad to think that there are many schools and institutions that seek to destroy black pride, values, talent and identity.

The fight for decolonised institutions is a fight for institutions that are open to diversity and understand the virtue of building institutions for an Africa that understands all its people.

In the fourth decade after Biko’s death his ideas live on. He was the young man with a vision, a precocious one who saw the path ahead. How we should wish for more young visionaries who should walk uncharted roads to sketch the future of our country.

Biko and his colleagues walked the wild paths when politics was not fashionable alternative but a dangerous escapade whose intent was to free the oppressed and dispossessed. Their agenda was huge and their dream big; yet as we walk into the future we are realising how his teachings continue to remind us that the journey continues as long as the poor search for just schools, for land, for employment and for self-reliance.

In this 40th year of Bantu Biko’s commemoration of his death we should not forget to celebrate his contemporaries who shared the dream and, like him, suffered the brunt of the heavy-handed apartheid authorities. Deborah Matshoba, Mamphela Ramphele, Ranwedzi Nengwekhulu, Pityana, Bokwe Mafuna, Saths Cooper, Malusi Mpumlwana and Strini Moodley were among the many colleagues who worked tirelessly for the freedom dream with Biko. There would not have been a Biko without these gallant women and men.

Their dream of building a national consciousness and one nation lingers.

The cracks spreading in our wall of democracy need the society not to forget the undying ideas of Biko and his gallant soldiers. As we write our Struggle history, we should always see the visible trail left by this martyr who died with his fist aloft.

Professor Msila is a director at Unisa’s Change Management Unit and the author of the upcoming book Reading Biko: Critical and Reflective Essays. He writes in his personal capacity.