How We Remember Steve Biko
South Africa’s apartheid government murdered Steve Biko 43 years ago this month. But they couldn’t snuff out his political influence — the Black Consciousness leader remains a symbol of defiance against injustice and racial oppression.
- Interview by
- Sean Jacobs
- William Shoki
Steve Biko was just thirty-one when he was murdered by South Africa’s apartheid government on September 12, 1977. A leader of the Black Consciousness (BC) movement, Biko helped found the South African Students’ Organization (SASO) in 1968 as a breakaway from the multiracial, but white-led, National Union of South African Students.
While the apartheid government initially saw SASO and the BC movement as preaching a racial separatism not inimical to their own, it soon realized the radical movement was a threat to racial hierarchy in the country. As a series of national strikes broke out among black workers in the mid-1970s — eventually culminating in the 1976 Soweto uprising — the government cracked down. SASO and BC activist Onkgopotse Tiro was killed in 1974, and three years later Biko died in police custody.
But rather than snuff out his influence, Biko’s murder elevated him to the pantheon of South Africa’s great anti-apartheid leaders. Today, many invoke his name to critique the post-apartheid order, which remains brutally unequal.
Earlier this week, as part of the new video series “AIAC Talk,” Africa Is a Country’s Sean Jacobs and William Shoki spoke with Dan Magaziner, author of The Law and the Prophets: Black Consciousness in South Africa, 1968-1977, about Biko’s life, the politics of Black Consciousness, and the ways that Biko is remembered today. Their conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
When we talk about Biko and Black Consciousness, it’s important to note the difference between their existence in history — which is to say how Biko and Black Consciousness emerge at a particular moment in South African history — and their existence in popular memory. Because there’s a great disconnect there.
One of the things that’s so striking about the association of Biko with people of such fame and renown such as Nelson Mandela is that Mandela was well-known and famous for pretty much most of his political life. Biko came from a very different sort of setting. He was not nearly as well-known during the first years of his political activity.
A medical student at the time, he emerges in the late 1960s as the first president of the South African Students’ Organization, which in time becomes the cradle of the broader Black Consciousness movement. He is one of the organization’s most eloquent and important spokespeople, and he has this column in the SASO newsletter beginning in early 1970 called “I Write What I Like,” which becomes his platform for disseminating a lot of the ideas of Black Consciousness.
Biko’s moment of most clear international fame and renown, ironically and quite sadly, comes with his death. The Soweto uprising in June 1976 had refocused a lot of international attention on South Africa, and as international news reporters and some progressive politicians found their way into South Africa, they began to interact with Biko, and Biko developed a more well-known network internationally. So when he was murdered by the government in September 1977, it created an almost immediate furor internationally.
During the preceding years, Biko had worked as a community organizer, and on a number of smaller-scale community development projects. He was not all that well-known nationally in South Africa, but after his death, his fame skyrocketed. And the symbol of Biko — which is very different than the person of Biko — gains purchase in both the South African and the global imagination.
How did Black Consciousness come to be? The conventional argument is that BC was picking up on ideas that were filtering around in the world — civil rights, Black Power, Fanonism, etc. You suggest in your book that that might be the case, but that there’s also something more local that’s driving the emergence of Black Consciousness.
One thing that’s important to understand across the broad sweep of nineteenth- and twentieth-century South African history is that political movements are always constructed by thinkers who are conversant in their local context and in international affairs. South Africa is never apart from broader international trends.
Black Consciousness is exemplary here because it uses a lot of symbols: the clenched right fist, for example, the very term “black,” a lot of the dress that Black Consciousness advocates adopt. It uses symbols that are refracted from the Black Power movement in the United States, and is influenced by groups like the Black Panthers, musicians like James Brown, and so on.
But its ideas are also very profoundly South African, and they stretch back to previous moments in South African political history. Biko, for example, is influenced greatly by his older brother who was a member of the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), and in a lot of Biko’s thinking about blackness and about the possibility of what Biko calls “true humanity” that exists on the other side of the struggle against apartheid, you can see the influence of someone like Robert Sobukwe [the founding president of the Pan-Africanist Congress].
In thinking about what it means to be an African, you can see the influence of someone like Anton Lembede [the late African nationalist]. His notions of what can be defined as a lived Christian commitment at the heart of political life are very reminiscent of [Zambian leader] Kenneth Kaunda‘s version of African humanism. So there’s a lot there.
They are always adopting ideas and filtering them through the context of South Africa’s more recent history, and their own understanding of South African political traditions.
What is it about that moment in South African history that provided fertile ground for these ideas to be rejuvenated and developed? I think the immediate explanation one could provide is that it was the period after the African National Congress [ANC], and South Africa’s dominant political organizations were banned, most of their leaders were scattered into hiding, and the ANC really wasn’t the main political force.
But what else explains why those ideas proved to be so resonant? Were they disappointed in what the ANC and its affiliated organizations were providing? Or was it something else?
I think it’s a really good question, and you’ve already given part of the answer, which is that the timing mattered so much. It’s after a moment when there had been a pivot toward mass resistance, which had endured tremendous political repression, including the murders at Sharpeville in 1960. And then there had been the move toward armed struggle that had also endured tremendous political repression.
Over the course of the 1960s, a lot of the impetus in South Africa was focused on multiracial organizations like the Liberal Party, and especially the National Union of South African Students. When we talk about Black Consciousness, we begin with student politics, because the small number — and it was a very small number of students in South Africa’s universities who were people of African, Indian, and “Colored” descent — find themselves in a situation where they know that they are representatives of the vast majority of the population, but within student politics, they are dominated by these white liberals.
Initially, the government is like, “those are our boys right there,” because these students are saying black people should have their own organization separate from white liberals. When SASO emerges as a separate organization, breaking away from the multiracial National Union of South African Students in 1969, the government initially applauds it — which means for a critical year or so, SASO was able to organize and generate political energy, and find unanimity and agreement across the country with black students, without the government getting in their way.
It’s only in 1971 that the government begins to get wise to the threat that Black Consciousness represents. And repression follows very quickly — from 1972, then through the banning of BC activists in 1973 [which relegated them to their home towns], the murder of [BC activist] Onkgopotse Tiro in 1974, and culminating in Biko’s murder in 1977.
So that’s part of it. The other part was that the late 1960s were a restive period across the world. And although South Africa was a place where state censorship was a really big deal, a lot of ideas couldn’t be censored. The Vietnam war, what’s happening in the college campuses in France, what’s happening in Czechoslovakia: this stuff is getting covered in the South African press, and these young people are reading that. And [these events] are helping them think about themselves and their circumstances in light of what appears to be a generational shift occurring globally.
They begin to think of their own experiences in light of that, and think about how they don’t need to be beholden to the political practices and thinking of their elders — although they do learn from those people — and that instead they have the authority as young people to act, they have the authority to develop their own concepts and ideas.
And since the government kind of lets them do it for a while, these ideas really spread.
Looking look back at BC, beyond consciousness building, what are the tangible things that people can say BC accomplished?
I’m going to push against you, because I think consciousness raising shouldn’t be seen as separate from politics. The great achievement of Black Consciousness during this period is that Black Consciousness spurred a generation of people to think of themselves and their position in South Africa differently.
Its conviction was, and I think it proved correct, that if you think of yourself and your capacity for action, and you make a decision positively to claim a black identity — and black identity was not about race necessarily so much as it was about politics, about one’s commitment, and saying that one was determined not to accept the status quo in South Africa — that is incredibly powerful. It tells people that their engagement and how they stand in relation to the moment that they find themselves in is dynamic, that they can effect change.
By the middle of the 1970s, and in part spurred by the strikes in Durban that began in 1973, they are beginning to articulate a political program. So you do have a concept known as “black communalism,” which is essentially a South African version of Ujamaa, from [Julius] Nyerere’s Tanzania: national ownership of resources, shared wealth within the community, and drawing on African village traditions to help to create this widespread economic wealth.
But a lot of BC is just about defiance. A lot of it is just about, we are people who now defy. I find that to be incredibly politically powerful, and that’s a hard thing to pull off.
Yeah, the image of defiance for its own sake is a really powerful one, and it’s one that gives us a nice ability to look at the contemporary moment and unpack what explains Black Consciousness’s renewed popularity. One immediately thinks of Fees Must Fall [the movement against Rhodes Must Fall, the effort to remove symbols of colonialism], a whole generation of young people articulating this idea of defiance in such a captivating way: Everything Must Fall; the political order doesn’t serve us, it is inegalitarian, and it must fall entirely.
Yesterday I was rereading your 2012 article on Steve Biko for Africa Is a Country, and I was saying to Sean that it was actually the first time I realized that your article was written prior to Fees Must Fall and Rhodes Must Fall.
He’s a prophet!
Yeah, he’s a prophet. What gave you the sense that BC was going to make a comeback?
That’s a complicated question. To some extent, it’s because of the content of Black Consciousness and this message of defiance. And also that it asserts a heritage for South Africa that is not derived from Europe. So when you’re talking about Rhodes Must Fall, it’s clear why that would gain such power.
The other thing is, it has a lot to do with the person of Biko. I think about Biko the way I think about Patrice Lumumba: another figure on whom all these ideals are projected, all these visions of a postcolonial path not taken because it was stolen from him, and by extension from the world, by the machinations of the American government.
Biko is the same — he was stolen from South Africa by the apartheid government. So we don’t know what Biko would have done. We don’t know where he would have ended up. And the not knowing of it allows us this tremendous freedom in how we think about Biko, and how we use the idea and the memory of Biko. There’s another element to this too: he’s not sullied by association with the contemporary ANC, because he never joined the ANC. He’s someone who is above reproach because he doesn’t make that transition.
I will push back against the idea that I was, in any way, prophetic. What I was, was someone who talked to a lot of Black Consciousness activists of that generation who had known Biko and worked very closely with Biko. What they all shared in common was a deep unhappiness with how things have played out in South Africa. They, in a sense, are keeping his memory, and the critique that he seems to embody, alive.
And so I could hear their voices in my ears as I was thinking, okay, how are we using Biko? How are we thinking about Biko at this moment of political change and possibility in South Africa?
Can you place Biko and Black Consciousness within South African political history? What was the contribution of BC?