By Charlie Kimber
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2784

Steve Biko—Black Consciousness and liberation

Born 75 years ago this month, Steve Biko was one of South Africa’s most important activists and thinkers. Yet he is barely mentioned in many histories. Charlie Kimber looks at Biko’s life and politics.
Issue 2784
South African revolutionary and Black Conscious leader, Steve Biko.

South African revolutionary and Black Conscious leader, Steve Biko.

Whose politics dominated the ­battle against the ­racist apartheid system in South Africa?

The automatic answer is Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC).

But for a decade in the 1960s and 70s, the ­strongest and most energetic force was Black Consciousness, led by Steve Biko.

Most people have heard his name only in a Peter Gabriel song, or in the film Cry Freedom. It ­concentrates on his friendship with the white liberal journalist Donald Woods—and Woods becomes the hero.

But Biko was much more significant than this. Black Consciousness ideas were important among those involved in the historic Soweto school students’ revolt in 1976. 

Mandela himself said Biko was “the spark that lit a fire across South Africa”.

The apartheid state ­murdered Biko in 1977 when he was just 30 years old. 

But groups of activists, disillusioned by the ANC ­government’s corruption and failure to bring change, are today re-examining his ideas.

Biko was born into a poor family in Eastern Cape. His father was a policeman and then a clerk, his mother a domestic worker for white families. 

His childhood coincided with the strict formalisation of ­apartheid. It denied black people all political and most economic rights. 

It classified them through humiliating racial tests, told them where they could live, and beat, jailed or killed them if they resisted.

Whites, one in seven of the population, ruled the country.

Biko came into prominence as the first president of the South African Student Organisation (Saso) in the mid-1960s. 

It was a low point for resistance. By ­killing demonstrators at Sharpeville and Langa on 21 March 1960, the government had shown it would meet protests with bloody repression. 

This was followed up by the banning of the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress

It took great courage to stand out and urge a fightback. But it also meant there was space for new ideas.

A central issue for Saso was whether black students should organise separately from whites, and particularly white liberals.

The country’s national ­student organisation, Nusas, was open to students of all racial categories. But despite its multiracial membership, it was largely controlled by white students. Biko wrote, “The role of the white liberal in the black man’s history in South Africa is a curious one. 

“Very few black ­organisations were not under white direction. True to their image, the white liberals always knew what was good for the blacks and told them so.”

Saso in contrast restricted membership to all black sections of the population, which included those sorted into the apartheid categories of “African”’, “Coloured” and “Indian”. 

Its roots lay in Africanism, an ideology that developed around figures such as Anton Lembede in the 1940s. He argued Africa was “a black man’s country” and whites had no part to play in the liberation struggle. 

This was a sharp ­difference from the ANC tradition which stressed multiracialism, ­bringing together people of all classes and ethnicities. 

But at the same time Lembede agreed with the ANC that liberation struggle was not about confronting capitalism.

Biko’s version of Africanism was more radical. It was influenced by the global revolt of 1968—including in Africa—and the movements in the United States. Stokely Carmichael’s call for “black power” and Malcolm X’s demand to use “any means necessary” was ­particularly important.

Black Consciousness activists also borrowed from the writings of Frantz Fanon. “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed,” Biko said. 

He wanted black people to gain pride and not feel they had to back off. It was necessary to destroy the prevailing notion that “black is an aberration from the ‘normal’ which is white.”

Biko popularised the slogan “black is beautiful”. But he insisted, “I must state ­categorically that there is no such thing as a black policeman.

“Any black man who props up the system actively has lost the right to be considered part of the black world. They are the extension of the enemy into our ranks.”

Being black meant ­recognising the source of oppression and having the will to smash it.

The great strength of Biko’s ideas was that they tapped into the rising sense of militancy in the 1970s. 

This was shown by the Durban strikes of 1973—the beginning of workers’ ­resistance at a time when there were no legal trade unions. This affected back consciousness. 

The language describing the enemy shifted from the “white power structure” to the “white capitalist regime” and “racial capitalism”.

And then came the Soweto rebellion. Biko’s fearless defiance and self-reliance fitted. You didn’t have to wait for a group of exiled ANC political figures to fight.

The government had initially thought Black Consciousness might fit with its racial categorisation. 

But it soon learned it was a danger, and turned to repression. Biko was first banned from political activity and then involved in a trial of Black Consciousness members.  

His quick-witted and ­pugnacious appearance in court for a week gripped the country. 

His friend Ben Khoapa said, “Overnight, Steve became the toast of the Soweto shebeens [drinking halls]. Here at last was the authentic voice of the people, not afraid to say openly what other blacks think but are too frightened to say.”

But there were weaknesses in Biko’s ideas. There was little direction or discussion of what forces could break the regime. 

More time was put into local self-help projects—building clinics and schools and trying to boost black businesses—than into organising workers. 

The Africanists had been strongly anti-Communist, seeing Marxist ideas as a diversion from black unity. This wasn’t quite Biko’s position. He said, “Any form of political freedom which doesn’t touch on the proper distribution of wealth will be meaningless. 

“If we have a mere change of face of those in governing positions, what is likely to happen is that black people will continue to be poor, and you will see a few blacks filtering through into the so-called bourgeoisie. 

“Our society will be run almost as of yesterday.” That’s quite a good prophecy about what has happened since 1994.  

But at the same time Biko did not see the class struggle as central to smashing racism, or the systemic intertwining of racism and capitalism. 

The most ­important factor in ­beating apartheid was neither the ANC nor the Black Consciousness ­tradition but the militancy and power of black workers striking and resisting. 

Biko didn’t relate centrally to that. At times he seemed to suggest gradually accumulating structures of black community organisations and businesses would force the regime to give in to the majority. 

State repression hit Black Consciousness hard after 1976 and many of its activists were forced into exile. 

But the ANC also won out politically. It built stronger local roots and was helped by support from international organisations. 

Its overt cross-class appeal and version of multiracialism appealed to liberals everywhere. 

It also had a clear strategy—a combination of mass ­mobilisation and armed struggle.

By the end of 1977 it had taken the leading position in the opposition to apartheid, which it was never to give up. 

Arrested at a police ­roadblock in August 1977, Biko was held for 20 days naked and ­handcuffed, facing torture and brutal interrogation. 

Despite suffering a brain haemorrhage, he was given no proper medical treatment. 

He was then eventually thrown in a Land Rover and driven unconscious for more than 12 hours to a prison hospital. He died there on the stone floor of a cell.

The minister of justice and the police, Jimmy Kruger, claimed that Biko had died from a hunger strike. 

Addressing a ruling party congress, Kruger proclaimed to laughter, “I am not saddened by Biko’s death. His death leaves me cold.”

But people in South Africa and globally remember Steve Biko decades after the barbarism of apartheid and its ­henchmen has been defeated.

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