A portrait of Steve Biko on a pillow case in the African-focused Xarra Books, in Joburg. Picture: Denis Farrell / AP

When Biko was 18 years old, he wrote an essay which was published in the 1965 yearbook of his alma mater, St Francis College, Mariannhill. In it we get a clear idea of how and why education was important to him. 

This was the year he matriculated, and Biko carefully noted how St Francis boarding school had provided him and his peers with public speaking, character-moulding and self-knowledge skills.

In the same brief essay, he reveals that he and his peers nursed dreams of becoming teachers, doctors, lawyers, priests and "other distinguished figures".

Twelve years later, on September 11, 1977, the apartheid police, who had been torturing him for days, transported Biko, then 30, from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria, "naked, manacled and unconscious". The next day he died what Sydney Kentridge described as "a miserable and lonely death" in a prison cell at Pretoria Central Prison.

This year, on the December 18, Steve Biko would be celebrating his 71st birthday. Fittingly, South Africa and the world took time to remember Biko during this week.

As singer Peter Gabriel sung in his haunting Biko song, “you can blow out a candle, but you can’t blow out a fire, once the flames begin to catch, the wind will blow it higher”.

They may have killed the man, but his ideas live on.

Biko’s I Write What I Like, first published in 1978, should be prescribed reading for all South Africans. It would greatly mould their characters as well as their political outlook.

As part of their induction, all newly-elected Student Representative Council members should be required to read the first three essays in Biko’s book. These deal with the key issues students and student formations were facing at that time. Biko’s mercurial ability to analyse the issues that confronted them and his ability to situate these in the contexts of the national politics of the time, is awe-inspiring.

In the first essay, Biko encourages (black) students to commit the "crime" of thinking for themselves. He also encourages them, above all, to cherish organisational and ideological independence. These ideas could be useful at a time when student leaders often seem more concerned about the perks, and more enthusiastic about implementing imposed political programmes designed for them by others.

Even a quick reading of Biko’s Black Souls in White Skins? will reveal that nothing was more important for Steve Biko than black unity, black pride and black leadership.

He distinguished between two broad understandings of integration between black and white. He rejected a view of integration seen as the "assimilation and acceptance of blacks into an already established set of norms and code of behaviour set up and maintained by whites".

Similarly, Biko dismissed opportunistic accusations of reverse-racism with contempt. Instead, he preferred the idea of integration based on the assumption that "a country in Africa, in which the majority of the people are African must inevitably exhibit African values and be truly African in style".

Does the South Africa of 2017 exhibit the African values of which Biko spoke? Has South Africa entered the 21st century as an African country? As long as South Africans continue to think our indigenous languages are not good enough for our children and as long as we engage in xenophobic hate, attacks and killings of fellow Africans, we fall short of Biko’s vision. Nor are corruption and greed the kind of "African values" Steve Biko had in mind.

What set Biko apart was that, inspired by the likes of Frantz Fanon and Paulo Freire, he provided some of the most incisive diagnosis of the black condition. He wrote of a black person who, during his time, had become "a shell, a shadow of man (sic), completely defeated, drowning in his own misery, a slave, an ox bearing the yoke of oppression with sheepish timidity".

This then was the "material" with which Biko had to work - defeated men and women whose faces twisted in anger in the privacy of their toilets, but dared never confront the system that oppressed them. In light of this reality, Biko designed a strategy to "make the black man come to himself; to pump back life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity, to remind him of his complicity". He called that strategy "Black Consciousness".

What, then, is the "material" with which leaders work today? Indications are that our streets are teeming with self-hating violent men.

For all his criticism of white liberals and their debilitating role in black politics, Biko’s vision of the future South Africa was inclusive.

For him, Black Consciousness was not only a means of building black pride and dignity, it was also part of a broader search for Ubuntu.

* Maluleke is a professor at the University of Pretoria and an extraordinary professor at the University of South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity. Twitter handle - @ProfTinyiko.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent