Biko’s ideas for black emancipation live on

Angela Mudukuti

Angela Mudukuti

Published Sep 27, 2018


Tuesday marked 41 years since about 15 000 people attended 30-year-old Steve Biko’s funeral in King William’s town. The thought leader, activist and anti-apartheid veteran’s influence remains deeply relevant to this day. Born in the Eastern Cape, Biko was a bright student who decided to study medicine at the black section of the University of Natal in Wentworth. 

There he and his friends began to breathe life into the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) in the hopes of releasing the bonds of second-class citizenship and removing the shackles of inferiority worn by black people under apartheid. Having identified the main problem to be racist oppression by white people coupled with black people’s “acceptance” of the status quo, Biko’s vision was to “make the black man come to himself; to pump back life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity”. 

Many have interpreted Black Consciousness to mean black supremacy at everyone else’s expense, but as aptly explained by Biko, “it isn’t a negative, hating thing; it’s a positive black self-confidence thing involving no hatred of anyone”. Biko spoke of a “completely non-racial society”. He believed that “ in our country there shall be no minority, there shall be no majority, just the people”. 

In 1972 the university banned him from continuing his studies. Some sources say it was due to poor academic performance; others say it was due to his involvement in politics. Biko remained undeterred and continued to work to uplift black communities in practical and meaningful ways. By 1973 the apartheid government had banned him from speaking in public, from speaking to the media or to more than one person at any one time, and from leaving his King William’s Town district. But Biko’s message continued to spread. 

The apartheid government’s harassment of Biko knew no end. He was frequently arrested and detained. Once he was detained for 137 days without charge or trial. This persecution did not stop Biko. Ignoring the banning order, he travelled to the Western Cape to meet anti-apartheid activist Neville Alexander in 1977. The meeting never took place. On his way back on August 18, Biko was arrested at a police roadblock that many believe was set up to catch him. This would be his last day as a free man. Biko was interrogated for hours on end, shackled, chained to a grille and severely beaten.He died on September 12, 1977, from a brain haemorrhage after sustaining a fatal head injury in police custody roughly six days earlier. Biko was the 47th person to die in police custody.

 The apartheid government falsely claimed that he died due to a hunger strike. Five apartheid police, Harold Snyman, Gideon Nieuwoudt, Ruben Marx, Daantjie Siebert and Johan Beneke, were implicated in the death of Biko. Nieuwoudt, in particular, had a reputation and was notorious for his cruelty and brutality. 

His techniques included whipping with rubber hoses and using a variety of stress positions while interrogating anti-apartheid activists. In 1994 they were all denied amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after failing to honestly disclose what had transpired. In 2003 the National Prosecuting Authority announced that they would not be prosecuted due to insufficient evidence. The apartheid government killed Biko but they failed to kill his ideas. Biko inspired a political and social awakening that provided the tools, the vocabulary, the inspiration and momentum that contributed to the eventual fall of apartheid. Nelson Mandela described Biko as a leader “who helped shape democratic South Africa” and as “the spark that lit a veld fire across South Africa”. But Biko’s work is not done yet. 

The continual public and unashamed acts of racism in the country show that racism continues to thrive. This includes Penny Sparrow who referred to black people on the beach as “monkeys”, Adam Catzavelos who used the K-word in a video, celebrating the lack of black people on the beach in Greece and Vicki Momberg, the first person to be convicted for using racial slurs. While Biko’s ideology alone cannot cure the nation’s problems, the approach, philosophy and passion that Biko and his contemporaries are remembered for could help South Africa work through the challenges presented by racism and intolerance. Having just celebrated Heritage Day, the 41st anniversary of Biko’s funeral should provide another moment for deeper contemplation about unity, the promotion of tolerance, equality for all and an end to racism. 

Angela Mudukuti is an international criminal justice lawyer with the Wayamo Foundation, and was previously with the Southern Africa Litigation Centre and the International Criminal Court

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