We are going through depressing times, watching the promise of our liberation struggle receding with each passing day, month, year and decade.
We watch as the aspirations that informed the heroism of so many of our martyrs dissipate like the morning mist, scorched by an aggressively accumulating petit bourgeoisie.
Under such circumstances, the temptation to deify heroic figures such as Steve Bantu Biko might be overwhelming, but Biko himself would be horrified by any attempt at his deification. He would scream at us, the living, not to do anything of the sort.
He considered himself an ordinary son of the soil, with the same needs, talents and weaknesses as the rest of us. Yes, he called himself “son of man”, but that was merely to emphasise his belonging to his people and his availability to serve humanity, not as a god, but as a son.
But, sorry, Biko would simply have to forgive us, the living. We cannot but put him up there as the standard against which to measure our performance, achievements and service to our country. We do that without any notions swirling in our heads about him being any less mortal than all of us.
What have we been up to since his death and the attainment of a democratic dispensation?
Biko distinguished himself among the leadership of the SA Students’ Organisation in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He emerged as one of the most prominent voices of the Black Consciousness Movement.
His death on September 12, 1977, entrenched him in the consciousness of our nation and the world.
His deep intellectual commitment to the liberation of his people was matched by an equally unflinching preparedness to live or die for truth, justice and freedom. He sacrificed his medical studies for the Struggle. Biko could, like his contemporaries at the University of Natal, have concentrated on his studies, which would have led to a fairly comfortable life for him as a doctor.
While under banning orders in Ginsberg, and under perpetual harassment by the security police, he initiated and participated in community development projects in health, education, self-help and income generation for ordinary people. Like Paulo Freire, he believed in the power of the masses to liberate themselves, provided they are sufficiently empowered.
Earlier in his student days, he was among those of us who took part in literacy projects around the country using the Freire method.
While he was a hero to the oppressed, he was a dangerous villain to the regime, which detained and tortured him many times, before he was fatally beaten in Port Elizabeth.
We, the living, intensified the struggle after his death and ushered in a democratic order that is anchored in a constitution that guarantees justice, equality, fairness, freedom and human dignity.
On the back of that constitution, we enacted laws that sought to cement our democratic credentials.
But we are a schizophrenic society, one that liberators in the mould of Biko would consider candidates for mobilisation for another revolution. Our reality on the ground and what the constitution provides are far apart.
We strut around extolling the virtues of our constitution, yet we live outside of its letter and spirit.
Since his death, our society has become one of the most unequal in the world. Poverty has increased under our much-vaunted democratic dispensation.
The black intelligentsia, of which he was a member, has betrayed the masses. It is as simple as that.
Generally speaking, this class has embarked on a path of avaricious accumulation of wealth, which it does through theft, corruption and short-changing of the very masses it led to political freedom.
It has simply joined its white counterpart in the economic stakes, except that it is a junior partner in the enjoyment of the fat of our country.
Under its watch, public education has gone to the dogs. While its children can get a decent education in private and suburban schools, the children of the majority cannot read, write or calculate as they should. The recent Annual National Assessment results have just confirmed that. Our children are beaten hands down by kids in neighbouring countries with a gross domestic product much smaller than our own.
We do not suffer from a dire shortage of resources, but there is an appalling lack of solidarity, empathy and application to the liberation project. Instead, many who occupy positions that should enable them to help pull the majority out of poverty are preoccupied with looting.
Every day, the public protector or Parliament’s standing committee on public accounts or the auditor-general or the Hawks or the media feed us a bitter staple diet of corruption in high places.
Alongside that are frequent protests by the poor against the non-delivery of services.
Seventeen years after the attainment of freedom, our children still learn in mud classrooms, under trees. Often their feeding schemes collapse due to massive pilfering and, in Biko’s home province, the education system has collapsed under the weight of graft and maladministration.
For those of us who believe that education is the most potent and sustainable weapon against poverty, this state of affairs is excruciatingly painful. Through education, poor children are given an opportunity to escape the clutches of poverty, at the same time as the country gains skills to grow its economy and so create wealth and jobs for many.
Biko himself is an eloquent testimony of the efficacy of education as an intergenerational mechanism to defeat poverty in families and communities. He and his siblings were born of poor, working-class parents, but through education he could easily have become a doctor. What is more, his children and grandchildren have received, or are receiving, a good education and that lineage is unlikely to fall back into poverty. This confirms that children of educated parents are more likely to be educated and partake wholly in the economy.
Thus, we are more likely to defeat poverty if we educate our young than when we do not. Doling out social grants is nice, but it does not take people out of poverty, it merely freezes them in that state.
And we cannot build a stable society on a foundation of widening inequality. Sooner or later, something would have to give – possibly another revolution.
Our people go to public health facilities with trepidation. These are sites beset by gross inefficiencies and shortages of medicines and health professionals. The abuse of patients is commonplace.
This is because unqualified managers are employed and because merit gives way to connections of one description or another.
Under conditions of incompetence, maladministration and connections, graft simply runs amok.
Make no mistake, we have appropriately qualified and competent people.
But when vacancies come up, very often many applicants are found to be of the wrong colour, sex, political party, family, business associates, or they are too honest and upright. So, appointments are made on the basis of something other than ability. The people who suffer the consequences of the shambles in public health institutions are the masses. Members of the petit bourgeoisie have medical aid schemes that enables them to receive medical care in private institutions.
We may start hoping that things might change for the better when the political and state administrative leaders go to public health facilities for their medical needs. They avoid those institutions like the plague.
The health of the poor was very close to Biko’s heart. There can be no genuine freedom without decent health care. To that end, he and his colleagues established and successfully ran Zanempilo Clinic in Zinyoka village. This they did despite efforts by the regime to sabotage the project. Yet, we, the living, with the state under our control and billions of rand allocated to health, run the public health system into the ground.
Nowhere does our schizophrenia manifest itself more than in our commitment to gender equality. We set aside a public holiday to affirm the rights of women, and yet we are probably the worst country in the world when it comes to the safety of women. Women in countries that do not shout so much about gender equality can walk the streets safely. We do not seem to mean anything we say.
Black Consciousness envisages the creation of an anti-racist society in our country where the colour of your skin, origin, culture or language would not be a point of reference.
Its adherents punt this position with their voices and in the many official documents of their organisations.
Such a society is naturally inconceivable under conditions of institutionalised racism, as we had in this country.
Further, this philosophy holds that such a society cannot be built under circumstances where one of its sections has internalised notions of superiority while the other section has an internalised inferiority complex.
A lot of work needs to be done to disabuse black and white people of these complexes which they acquired simply by living in a racist society for centuries. Black Consciousness seeks to restore black people’s dignity, pride and humanity.
It held then, and we still hold now, that physical freedom without psychological liberation is problematic. It is clear to some of us that most of those among the black petit bourgeoisie do not rate themselves highly; their self-esteem is highly suspect, and therefore do not, subliminally and otherwise, believe that black people deserve better.
You cannot take pride in your work if your self-esteem is low. Similarly, you cannot be ashamed of your shoddy and substandard work if you do not rate yourself highly.
Why are black people not bothered by the fact that they cannot teach their own children? Why can’t we create excellence in our neighbourhood schools?
Why do we have to go and look for excellence somewhere, at the former Model C schools, perhaps, when we can create the same standards or better in the schools next to our homes? There is no Verwoerd to hold us back any more.
We are in charge of the education budget and state machinery. Who or what is holding us back?
Why would black professionals gladly take their cheque home at the end of the month if they didn’t do a decent day’s work to earn their salaries? If you do not love yourself and, therefore, your people, sufficiently, you will not do your best for them.
The difference between the black petit bourgeoisie and its counterparts in this country and elsewhere in the world lies in consciousness, self-esteem and firm connection, spiritually, socially, culturally and otherwise, to their people.
The attainment of political freedom 17 years ago was a great advance for us on the road to total emancipation. But it is abundantly clear that psychological oppression, particularly of the black intelligentsia, is a major obstacle in our march to a truly liberated society.
A sufficiently conscientised black petit bourgeoisie would ensure that municipalities, education, health and other social services are properly run for the benefit of all our people.
In addition, it would ensure that land, mines and other forms of wealth are spread to our society as fairly as possible. Continued grossly skewed ownership of the wealth of the country is as unjust as it is unsustainable.
Then, and only then, would our quest for the creation of a truly open society where your race, point of origin or language do not constitute a point of reference, be realised.
Let Biko, our unequal symbol of liberation, the excellent patriot, continue to inspire us, the living, as we work towards a sustainable democracy.
n Mangena is a former president of Azapo and minister of science. This is an edited version of his lecture delivered at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth on the 34th anniversary of Biko’s killing.