Steve Bantu Biko was adamant the most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed

Tiyani Lybon Mabasa

Tiyani Lybon Mabasa

Much has been written about Steve Biko, but the emphasis has been on the treatment he received from the apartheid police that culminated in his brutal murder.

There was more to Biko than his detention, sub-human treatment and lonely death - far away from family and friends on a cold concrete slab in a Pretoria cell.

He was not only the embodiment of our liberation struggle, but its cornerstone, and a resonant and triumphant voice that spoke to us in our language. He almost single-handedly inspired the people at a critical moment in our history.

Were it not for Biko and his radical Black Consciousness Movement, one wonders how long it would have taken our people to rid themselves of the fear that hindered them in their fight against apartheid.

Biko is incomparable with anyone in our country or the world. It is for that reason that 30 years after his death, he is still regarded as South Africa's second-most recognisable face, irrespective of the fact that he has not received due honour.

Biko had the same weaknesses that all people have, but his mind, commitment and vision were in a class of their own. His understanding of the plight and conditions of black people transcended borders and countries. He knew the problems that oppressed blacks globally faced and what they had to do to get out of that situation.

Biko said: "The greatest weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the minds of those whom they oppress."

He said black consciousness was not about race, but about the fight against racist oppression. This situation persists in the white world and was largely the basis for slavery and colonisation.

He urged black people to define and discover themselves, their history and their values. For Biko it was the only logical and reasonable way of finding their self worth.

Donald Woods, editor of the Daily Dispatch when Biko was killed, said he had interacted with and interviewed many leaders all over the world, but he had met no one as vibrant, as visionary or as intelligent as Biko.

The same sentiments were echoed by former US senator and US ambassador to the UN, Andrew Young, the right-hand man of US civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Young called Biko a colossus that South Africa could ill afford to lose.

While it would be easy to say that blacks lost their greatest leader and visionary in Biko, the truth is that South Africans, black and white, lost a leader who understood that cosmetic change would not be enough for a country that is so historically divided.

Even in the darkest hours of apartheid, Biko never displayed any bitterness towards white people. He understood the poison that was apartheid and how it permeated the psychology of white people's thinking.

He said that they were not passive victims, but conscious participants in the oppression of black people, because year after year, white South Africans voted the racist regime into power. So collectively, they were willing to dip their fingers in the reserved pool of privilege. That situation has placed whites in a better economic positions, even under democracy.

Biko defined the terrain of the struggle and understood the futility and impotence of multiracial organisations and homelands. He cautioned against creating a black middle class: "By bringing a few educated black people to positions of power and wealth."

Biko said that any economic policy that panders to the dictatorship of the markets or submits to private ownership of the means of production, will not bring reprieve to the majority of people.

He said that the only difference will be that the new advocates and defenders of the system will be blacks or in his words, "non- whites".

Biko, contrary to what so many people would like us to believe, did not believe in "blurred visions or lines" nor was he neutral in terms of his people or the movement he founded. His struggle was about freeing his people. He had identified the tools and instruments he would use to achieve his goals.

To cast Biko in the mould of the new "democrats", the black elite who have sold their souls to the devil, is to betray the man, his people and his vision. He had chosen the poor and black people. He refused to compromise and that is why he was so brutally killed.

It was for the rural poor and blacks in general that Biko helped build Zanempilo Clinic. He set up community projects to promote self-sufficiency and independence for black people, and Zimele Trust to defend them from the tyranny of arbitrary detentions.

Blacks remain powerless in the new dispensation. The majority do not own land, are homeless and struggle with HIV-Aids and other deadly diseases. They are forced to buy water and electricity, the two things they need most to survive. Biko would be on their side.

l Tiyani Lybon Mabasa is president of the Socialist Party of Azania.