Biko’s Legacy Lives On

Unisa has vowed to introduce seminal works from renowned activists and concepts such as black consciousness into the university’s curriculum. Publishers have also been challenged to reprint some of the writings of struggle icons and thought leaders, as the country reflects on 20 years of democracy. These clarion calls were made during the university’s celebration of Steve Biko Commemoration Day on 12 September 2014, marking 37 years since his death.


Biko was one of the country’s foremost activists during the height of the apartheid era and influenced the lives of many through his teachings and philosophies. The founder of the Black Consciousness Movement and co-founder of the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO), he was arrested, tortured and eventually died on 12 September 1977.

Unapologetically African

Unisa’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Prof Mandla Makhanya explained that Unisa was unapologetically an African university and that this will inform how the institution uses Biko’s teachings. “The works of people like Steve Biko on Black Consciousness must be consciously mainstreamed into our curriculum in order to give voice and cognitive justice to the African experience that is often marginalised in the dominant paradigms.”

One of Biko’s greatest literary writings, according to Prof Barney Pityana, former Principal and Vice-Chancellor, was an essay entitled, We Blacks. Reflecting on the current crossroads that South Africa finds itself at, Pityana believes it needs to be revisited. “It was a family conversation, a family conversation that can be true and robust and honest. It was about how we could fight meaningfully but also how we identify problems and find solutions together. I think right now South Africa needs such a conversation. We need to talk to ourselves and say what is wrong with us? We should stop blaming the government and others.”

The Ideas That Still Live On

Biko’s untimely death came at the relatively young age of 31 and many of his achievements were attained during his twenties. Noting that Unisa’s current average student age is also 31, he believes Biko’s legacy should set a profound example. “That should be an inspiration to most of our youth as one does not have to wait to be grey-haired to leave an indelible mark in life. As South Africa searches for answers in its soul-searching moment, Biko’s ideas may provide some of the most profound answers.”

With the benefit of having known Biko personally, Pityana says consciousness was a concept that he cherished and often considered as a tool of self-discovery during the struggle. “He paused and said; something has to be done. It begins with me as a conscious leader, to know that the solutions to this malaise. If we cherish freedom, as South Africans, if we cherish what freedom is about, we will know what to do. Democracy is just not a title in our constitution where we call South Africa democratic because it (the constitution) says so. It must deliver on the aspirations of our people,” he concluded.

*By Rajiv Kamal


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