A tryptych in honour of Steve Biko. Firstly, Graeme Arendse, as his alter-ego Ramgee, presents In Memory of Freedom, Gail Smith then scrutinizes the remembrance of Biko in ‘post’ apartheid South Africa, before Ramgee returns with an alternative story, using words drawn from testimonies to the TRC on the death of BC leader.
Twenty-five* years after four burly white supremacists pulverised Steve Biko’s brain, the blackeousie are macerating his memory, picking out the least threatening bits and pieces of his radical message and couching them in the language of liberalism Biko abhorred.
The 25th anniversary of Biko’s brutal death was commemorated in various forms of media, including print and television. What was most startling about these commemorations, is that the ‘memories’ of Biko have been divorced from his writing and the black consciousness philosophy. This is no coincidence, but part of the larger proclivity in the ‘new’ South Africa to promote struggle icons and rhetoric to do the work of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, maintain the status quo, and demonise the dispossessed. Biko’s philosophy and ideals are as threatening to the blackeousie courting capitalism and amassing wealth in the name of ‘black empowerment, as they were to the Boers who murdered him. Biko’s entreaty to black people that ‘none but yourselves can free your mind’ (to paraphrase Bob Marley) is as relevant in a democratic South Africa, as it was in 1977. Posterising Biko, and remembering him in the shallowest ways possible, strips his legacy of critical content and neutralises the very real threat inherent in his philosophy. Biko’s brand of black consciousness is needed in South Africa in 2002* more than it ever was before, because the society we’ve inherited has become the ‘fools paradise’ Bike alluded to in I write what I like.
The reduction of Biko’s memory and the ‘commemoration’ of his legacy, was led by a foundation that bears his name, which published an insert in the Sunday Times entitled ‘Steve Biko: 15 years on’ and consisted of commemorative pieces written by Nelson Mandela, Xolela Mangcu (Director of the Steve Biko Foundation), Peter Jones (friend of Biko’s and a Black Consciousness activist), Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Miriam Tladi (novelist) and Justice Albie Sachs amongst others. What made this commemorative publication astoundingly unique was the absence of Steve Biko’s voice— it carried not a single one of his articles or speeches. Even more astounding is the assertion by Mandela that – “[Biko’s] message to the youth and students was simple and clear: Black is Beautiful! Be proud of your Blackness! This theme of ‘remembering’ Biko selectively continued throughout the entire publication, as did the diminution of his radical analysis as evinced by Mandela’s equation of black consciousness to a philosophy of aesthetics.
Biko’s black consciousness message had less to do with looks, and more to do with power, privilege and oppression. His absence from a publication purporting to honour his memory is unsurprising. Black Consciousness has been sacrificed on the altar of the rainbow nation. There is therefore no space for the insertion of his argument that:
“it becomes clear that as long as blacks are suffering from inferiority complex – a result of 300 years of deliberate oppression, denigration and derision – they will be useless as co-architects of a normal society where man is nothing else but man for his own sake. Hence, what is necessary as a prelude to anything else that may come is a very strong grass-roots build-up of black consciousness such that blacks can learn to assert themselves and stake their rightful claim.”
Staking ones rightful claim, in the Mandela-inspired climate of reconciliation and ‘forgive & forget’ rhetoric, becomes highly problematic. One would assume that staking one’s rightful claim, as a black person in a ‘democratic’ South Africa would be a matter of course. It is not. Whites (and a small strata of bourgeois blacks) continue to cling to power and privilege, and frame any attempts to stake one’s claim as an act of aggression, of militancy. Expressing black pride in the rainbow nation makes people nervous. It threatens our fragile process of ‘reconciliation’. Best therefore to keep Biko silent and allow him to speak through a series of hagiographic remembrances that keep the peace.
The SABC and e.tv followed the trend set by the print media, with a series of programmes ‘remembering’ Biko. Once more, the format of these commemorative ‘celebrations of Biko’s legacy’ lacked critical content and were marked by the complete absence of the philosophies that made him so threatening. While many of the talking heads called upon to remember Biko, included many of his comrades and friends, the man himself remained hidden behind the veil of memories. I was 8 years old when Biko died, and had I not taken it upon myself to familiarise myself with Biko’s writing, the abiding memory of this man formed here would’ve been one of a gap-toothed activist, who had charisma, commitment and liked to party. A benign revolutionary mourned more for form, than content. A young lion cut down in the prime of his life. Except no-one deemed it necessary to explain why, or what it was that he espoused – in fact none of the interviewees on e.tv’s The Biko I knew seemed capable of quoting a single line of the eloquence that so enraged the Vorster regime. Vorster knew, and understood the hazard Biko presented to the white supremacist regime. Biko, and the Black Consciousness Movement he was building, presented the single biggest threat to the Prime Minister who, one year after coming to power, stated: “I believe in the supremacy of the white man over his people in his own country and I am prepared to maintain it by force.” Vorster knew why the cheeky native had to die. Left to rely on the shallow commemorative endeavours of the democratic order, millions of young South Africans, however, will never know why.
Biko, in support of his rationale for a move away from liberal student organisations dominated by whites, argued that, “it was felt that a time had come when blacks had to formulate their own thinking, unpolluted by ideas emanating from a group with lots at stake in the status quo.” Similarly, in 2002*, a time has come in South Africa when the poor and working class, mostly black, have to begin to formulate their own thinking, unpolluted by ideas emanating from the blackeousie with lots at stake in the status quo. Most of the current leadership, in politics, and especially in business, have much at stake in keeping Biko silent. He can be seen, but never heard, read, understood, and integrated into any analysis of the ills that dog our democratic order.
In the 70s, Biko described liberal whites as ‘Black souls in White skins.’ The nouveau riche wabenzi in a ‘democratic’ South Africa have become an inversion of this; they are While Souls in Black Skins: Black people who have amassed wealth, power and privilege. Who are ‘black’ only insofar as a benefits them and whose newly acquired middle-class-ness sets them apart from the ‘new South African’ Other: the under-class. Otherwise known as the ‘dangerous darkies’ seething with resentment and criminality – the undeserving. Those, whom the wabenzi argue, will eventually benefit from the ‘trickle down’ effect of black empowerment – an argument often cited by those intent on grasping as much of the pie for themselves first.
Another description of whites formulated by Biko was that they were “a community of people who sit to enjoy a privileged position that they do not deserve, are aware of this, and therefore spend their time trying to justify why they are doing so.” This is a prophetically accurate description of the blackeousie today: a community of people who sit to enjoy a privileged position, privilege won on the backs of the poor who remain disenfranchised, and who have been repositioned as ‘undeserving’ and as a ‘menace’ to society, as inherently criminal. Being black, the blackeousie, enjoy their privilege based on their ‘previous disadvantage’ and spend their time justifying their right to be rich and to enjoy the excesses of capitalism.
The role of the white liberal in the democratic South Africa remains a curious one, as Biko identified when he said:
“The role of the 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. The wonder of it all is that the black people have believed in them for so long. It was only at the end of the 50s that the blacks started demanding to be their own guardians.”
White South Africans have gotten off relatively scot-free; there has been no pressure for them to examine what Biko called their ‘passports to privilege’ and what Bell Hooks calls ‘white skin privilege’. There has been no pressure put upon white South Africans to go within and identify deeply held beliefs about themselves, their privilege and their positions. Consequently, they still cling to the idea that ‘their parents came here with nothing and worked for everything they have’ as an explanation of their wealth, power and privilege. Or else they trot out the old chestnut: ‘My parents didn’t oppress anyone!’ Ignorance is bliss.
The white-supremacy and domination which Biko so vehemently opposed and sought to destroy remains a grim reality in a ‘post’ apartheid South Africa. Despite the existence of a black government, white domination continues unabated in business, civil society, the academy, the arts and culture arena and in almost every sphere. White domination continues in the form of ‘interpretive mastery’ posited by Desire Lewis, where blacks experience and whites interpret. Affirmative action has given credence and weight to white supremacy, where whites, based on their previous advantage, still regard themselves as overseers, largely reluctant to vacate ‘their’ domains of power and privilege and still assume the right to know, interpret and speak for ‘inexperienced’ blacks.
The white liberals from whom Biko sought to break away, in organisations such as NUSAS (National Union of South African Students), have outlived Biko. 25* years after his death, they have matured and are prospering and can be found dotted through the upper echelons of government, business and academic institutions. They have reconfigured themselves, mastered the language of development, based on a thorough understanding of their experience of struggle and their close encounters of the black kind. White liberals continue to set agendas, drive transformation processes, raise millions in donor funding for the ‘development of (black) capacity; and continue to make blacks the objects of their study. Biko’s analysis of the problems South Africa faced in the 70s vis-a-vis liberals remain as pertinent today as they did then:
“There is nothing the matter with blacks. The problem is WHITE RACISM and it rests squarely on the laps of the white society. The sooner the liberals realise this the better for us blacks. Their presence amongst us is irksome and of nuisance value. It removes the focus of attention from essentials and shifts it to ill-defined philosophical concepts that are both irrelevant to the black man and merely a red-herring across the track. White liberals must leave blacks to take care of their own business while they concern themselves with the real evil in our society-white racism.”
Biko’s ideas were both simple and radical, and that is what made him so threatening to the racist oppressive white-supremacist apartheid regime. The threat he posed to the apartheid state in the 70s is as menacing to the ‘democratic’ South African order as it was to the boers and liberals 25* years ago. Biko’s writing and philosophy threatened the apartheid regime because among other things it exposed the foundations of apartheid: white supremacy engineered in the pursuit of capitalist expansion.
Twenty five* years after his brutal murder, his writing remains threatening to a ‘democratic order’, which has accommodated white supremacy in the pursuit of black bourgeois ascendancy and continued capitalist expansion at the expense of the poor and disenfranchised. Biko’s legacy highlights the uncanny similarities between the white capitalist supremacists of old, and the ‘new’ black middle class. Which is why the commemorative endeavours sanctioned by the new ruling elite are dominated by ‘memories’ of Bikos earthly virtues: his humour, his love of a good party, his personality. His ideas, his philosophy and his analysis of power remain hidden within these vacuous reminiscences. A thorough interrogation of the man, and the ideals for which he was murdered, would reveal a South Africa not very different from those in which he lived and died. In remembering him, the blackeousie have committed a double homicide: murder by memory.
Gail Smith is a feminist journalist and writer. She lives in Jo’burg. Ramgee aka Graeme Arendse lives in Cape Town and is Chimurenga’s design
*Death in Memory and In Memory of Freedom originally appeared in print in Chimurenga Vol. 3: Biko in Parliament. Truth & Reconciliation is available in print as part of Chimurenga Vol. 9: Conversations In Luanda And Other Graphic Stories. Biko’s “brand of black consciousness” continues to be needed.