Steve Biko’s death was apartheid’s revenge
By Mbuyiseni Ndlozi
On the occasion of Steve Biko’s 74th birthday, let us reimagine his death with this question; why did the apartheid regime kill a central and leading figure of the Black Consciousness Movement? In fact, after long hours of torture, Biko’s naked and bruised body was driven for over 1000km at the back of a police van just to perfect his humiliation and devastating murder.
There is absolutely no doubt that Biko and his generation had a great impact on the intellectual conduct of the anti-apartheid struggle. The admirable fact is that this generation had little if no relationship at all, with any of the established political parties, in particular ANC.
The system had not killed any of the key leading figures of the existing radical and mass movements. From Luthuli (the first mass based ANC president) to PAC’s Sobukwe. The system seemed to prefer trials, regardless of their unfairness, and the long or life imprisonments. Even in the case of Sobukwe, they passed a law to keep him indefinitely in prison.
It is therefore possible that apartheid preferred this route because it allowed a political docility to overtake society. Through long trials, often massively publicised they could dramatise that activists were evil terrorists willing to kill innocent people to attain their ends. Of course, many people were hanged by the regime, but not the central political leadership of either PAC, ANC or SACP. If these leaders were assassinated (e.g. Luthuli, Tiro), the regime often denied any responsibility. It was often far too dangerous to directly murder a leader of a movement that had taken the country by a storm. Why then did Steve fall in so brutal a manner? Did they underestimate his impact on the masses?
We must immediately out rule the idea that it was a mistake carried out by some low-ranking policemen in Port Elizabeth. Biko’s torture and death were deliberate and planned.
But why then treat him differently, say from Mandela or Sobukwe? This is important because Mandela and Sobukwe had armies, however far from South Africa or small. They had groupings supported by African governments and USSR working to confront the regime through military means. Why keep people with armies in jail, but kill a man with no army, with dramatic brutality, and still lie that it was a mistake?
If we consider that Biko died in 1977, a year after the high school uprisings of June 16 that started in Soweto and spread across the country. Then, it is not possible that apartheid had not seen his impact.
No one, not the SACP, ANC or PAC had the same impact on high school youth that Biko’s movement did. When the youth of 1976 adopted BC, the ANC, SACP and PAC were still operating outside the country, with links and underground cells in the country.
Thus, the politicisation of teenagers is a specifically BC genuine. Since BC the high school, as a technology of apartheid rule, became the central site of destabilisation of the regime. Once children took to the streets every day to fight men and women of uniform and guns - even the moral legitimacy apartheid enjoyed in the white world fell to its knees.
Children took Biko’s ideas personally and developed conviction to the extent of willing to die for what they believed. There can be no other reason for the brutal murder of Steve than this single fact; his impact on people who are willing to die for what they believe. This becomes worse when it is carried by children.
Once children became fearless at the face of armed soldiers, police and security personnel, the system’s days were numbered. Boers could not justify being a child-killing regime. Even the ANC’s first reaction to 1976 was negative; they rejected what students did and called on order in schools. Because fearless children confronting gun-carrying soldiers with stones was scary for them too. But after 1976, they adopted a strategy of politicising the school-going populations, so much that a decade later in the 1980s, soldiers were in permanent occupation of schools as they did in 1976.
Biko’s killing proves that a system of oppression is most scared of people with conviction than of people with guns. His ideas, which were philosophically complex, produced a conviction so powerful inside the teenagers that they were willing to throw stones at guns.
Thus, after 1976, imprisoning Biko was no option. In killing Biko, they were not trying to erase his ideas or stop them from spreading. They were taking revenge against the success of his movement.
This is because at the intellectual table of Biko’s BC rose an arrogant, unapologetic and completely self-sufficient black. Biko’s blacks never sought any intellectual approval from whites and there is no racist that can oppress blacks who don’t seek the oppressor’s approval to think about their own beauty, moral order, epistemic value and who set on a path to live absolutely without whites. This attitude remains the greatest thereat to the white supremacist and privilege order to this day. All whites fear a day blacks will live without their supervision and approval.
It is for this reason they work so hard to destabilise the EFF; they fear that under an EFF government, they will cease to be special. They fear the EFF will create an existence in which whiteness is meaningless.
Once whiteness becomes meaningless and Africanness is the only identity that matters, whites are scared they will have to take intellectual direction for their identity in Africa from Africans. This is one reality they have fought against all their lives as a settler population.
So determined to keep a white identity that they made sure the Freedom Charter and the Constitution says South Africa belongs to them. South Africa must never belong to anyone who identifies as white because to be white, one needs others to be black. As Sobukwe stated, Africa belongs to Africans; all whites who reject this premise must leave us in peace.
* Ndlozi is an EFF MP.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.
The Sunday Independent