Steve Biko's remarkable legacy often overlooked

Picture credit: Daily Dispatch
Picture credit: Daily Dispatch

While Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, and Desmond Tutu are rightly venerated for their role in opposing and ending white minority rule in South Africa, another leader of the liberation years has been overlooked: Bantu Steven Biko, who led the enormously influential Black Consciousness Movement.

Four decades after his death in police custody on September 12 1977, he deserves to be recognised as one of the towering heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle.

Black Consciousness (BC) re-energised black opposition to apartheid and helped draw the world's attention to the brutality of white minority rule. It began after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 when the ANC and PAC were banned by the apartheid government and forced into exile.

In 1969, with overt political activism and leadership largely dormant, BC emerged from the South African Students' Organisation to fill the void. Biko advocated that black liberation would only follow once psychological liberation from the internalised acceptance of racial oppression was achieved, arguing that "the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed".

At its heart, BC demanded pride, self-assertion and self-confidence. This relatively simple idea radically changed perceptions of the struggle. It helped instil a new psychological outlook among blacks and thereby renewed the challenge to the apartheid system.

As a consequence, Biko was banned in 1973, confining him to King William's Town and prevented him from speaking in public.

In fact, as Mandela put it, the apartheid state was so terrified of Biko's influence that "they had to kill him to prolong the life of apartheid".

In 1977, Biko was killed in police custody after brutal interrogation and torture. Despite a subsequent political cover up, the circumstances of his death were exposed, laying bare the violence of the apartheid state.

His death led to greater international pressure against white minority rule, particularly via the global Anti-Apartheid Movement and influential people such as white journalist and activist Donald Woods, whose friendship with Biko was the subject of the 1987 film Cry Freedom.

So why hasn't BC left as deep an institutional footprint as the ANC? Part of the answer is that as a movement, it was relatively weak organisationally.

Beyond its activists' community projects, BC was never an effective or broad-based organisation. Most of its leaders were imprisoned or banned by the mid-1970s.

It was predominantly an intellectual movement confined to SA's urban areas.

As newly politicised South Africans variously joined and formed alternative organisations, it fragmented and began to lose influence. By 1977, it was illegal under the Internal Security Act, and Biko's murder robbed it of its intellectual and political leader.

The "revolutionary consciousness" Biko called for enabled people to appreciate their subjugation and to take action. It inspired the children of Soweto to protest against the imposition of Afrikaans in schools in 1976, resulting in an uprising that caught the world's attention and put the apartheid regime under more pressure than ever. In fact, BC was a more powerful catalyst than the established liberation movements.

It "freed" minds, revived and mobilised political opposition, and re-energised the declining ANC as militant young activists joined the exiled armed struggle.

Yet since the end of apartheid in 1994, the governing ANC has worked hard to monopolise the history of liberation. A plethora of groups including BC, the United Democratic Front, the PAC, and student organisations were all involved in the anti-apartheid struggle, yet the ANC has worked to disregard the efforts of alternative actors.

To fully recognise the power and influence of Biko's ideas would disrupt the ANC's preferred version of history. So even though Biko became a martyr for the anti-apartheid struggle in his day, he is too often left out of the story. -