Is Biko Dead?
September has come to an end – and with it Heritage month: a time where we collectively celebrate and reflect on the rich diversity of cultures that shape our country’s collective identity. It’s also a time of dialogue; we discuss how to preserve our country’s variety of cultures while examining which parts of certain cultures may be harmful in modern day society.
But this year’s celebrations haven’t been without controversy: just last week a media scramble ensued when two white students from the University of Stellenbosch dressed up in blackface (just a month after two students from the University of Pretoria drew widespread criticism for a similar offence). Only after sustained pressure did the students offer a (non) apology which downplayed the magnitude of the act; with the students claiming “there was absolutely no malicious or racial intent” and that it was all just “an error of judgement” from their side. Then there was also the matter of Braai Day – a guise of Heritage Day that some believe is a form of cultural erasure that undermines the true purpose of the national holiday. Amidst of all the media coverage and controversy, we seem to have forgotten that last month was also Biko month – a month where we remember a man largely regarded as the father of the Black Consciousness Movement.
Born on the 18th of September 1946, Stephen Bantu Biko’s contribution to the anti-apartheid cannot be overstated. The former president of the South African Student Organisation (a black student organisation that fought against apartheid), Biko’s writings and philosophy of black self-determination inspired the Soweto Uprising of 1976 while his teachings of black autonomy, self-determination and self-love (which can be surmised in his now famous line “black is beautiful”) are also widely celebrated as key pillars of the Black Consciousness movement. When speaking of him, there really are no superlatives big enough to describe the magnitude of his philosophical impact on South African life. Such was his importance to the anti-apartheid movement that former president Nelson Mandela was once quoted saying “they (the apartheid government) had to kill him to prolong the life of apartheid”. It’s no wonder then that the Steve Biko Foundation, in partnership with the National Museum of Cultural History, recently launched an exhibition chronicling the rise of the Black Consciousness Movement during apartheid and the man who founded it. Titled “Biko: The Quest For True Humanity”, the exhibition also offers insight into the man behind the myth. Director of the Steve Biko Foundation Obenewa Amponsah described the exhibition as an examination into Biko “not only in the context of his death… but his life as well”.
The thinking behind the exhibition is that when people usually think about Biko, they think of him in the context of 12 September 1977, said Amponsah. “Steve Biko did not live to tell his story, so we thought we should tell it for him. Not just in the context of his death, but also in the context of his life. The exhibition is deliberately designed to talk about his life,” concluded the director of the Steve Biko Foundation.
Ms. Amponsah was also at pains to stress the exhibition wasn’t just a re-introduction of Biko – for some it would be an induction into Biko’s life. She narrated an experience she had at a recent high school visit where she asked a couple of students who Steve Biko was. The answers ranged from “a soccer player” to “the man who killed Nelson Mandela”. And even though the aforementioned are extreme examples, no one can deny that Biko isn’t as celebrated as much as, say, Nelson Mandela or Chris Hani. Instead, his philosophy lies at the recesses of public attention and his teachings have been relegated to trite T-shirt slogans at poetry sessions. Which is nothing short of scandalous given that there are still very many salient truths this generation could learn from him.
Take the issue of heritage, for example. In his seminal collection of essays “I Write What I Like”, Biko commented that because the world consistently frames Africa in such a negative manner (with African culture often referred to as primal or barbaric), its children internalise this negativity and find comfort with white society. “The African child learns to hate his heritage in his days at school. So negative is the image of African society that he finds solace only in the close identification with white society,” he wrote. And who can deny this? The very idea that we should section a time of the year off to celebrate our heritage (when we should be living and celebrating our differences everyday) is just one example of how Eurocentric culture has become our default standard of reality. Similarly, on the issue of privilege, Biko was unwavering: white South Africa had an unearned advantage over black South Africans by virtue of having a fairer hue. In his essay “Black Souls, White Skins”, Biko called the white community “a community of people who sit to enjoy a privileged position they do not deserve, are aware of this, and therefore spend their time trying to justify why they are doing so”. Today this manifests itself in the white community’s insistence that affirmative action is some form of “reverse racism” (instead of the from of redress that it is).
Indeed, Biko’s words still ring as true today as they did three decades ago. He is proof that when a man dies, his bones may decay but the power of his ideas transcend his very existence. Steve Biko is no longer with us, but the continued struggle for black self-identification makes his ideas more alive than ever.