What are the main lessons we take from the life and teachings of liberation struggle icon Steve Biko?
This question is important if we note that South Africa is a country with a chronic shortage of leaders with principles and a clear vision. Our country is cursed with political leaders who put themselves first. As a result of this poverty of ethics in our politics, we have seen recently unprincipled attempts by all the political parties to appropriate Biko’s image.
They all want to be associated with Biko’s good name but not his revolutionary thinking and exemplary selfless leadership approach. In this rush to claim Biko, we have also seen distortions of what he stood for. Here we focus on some of Biko’s main contributions to minimise the distortions.
Biko was a thinker of black power that arose to counter white supremacy. His philosophy of black consciousness, which he developed with other young people, was a direct response to the philosophy and practice of white supremacy that had been imposed by force of arms in South Africa since 1652 with the arrival of Europeans.
The violent land dispossession, the forcing of Africans to become labourers in mines, on farms and in kitchens of European settlers had created two worlds which were opposed to each other but made to look like one and natural. In this anti-black “natural” order, whites accepted their “superiority” and blacks accepted their “inferiority”. This abnormality is at the heart of SA society.
Biko realised that if black people were to be liberated they needed to first free their minds from mental slavery and reject this “natural order”.
Black consciousness focuses on the minds of the oppressed because as Biko said: “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”
Basically, once the oppressor has managed to get the oppressed to accept their oppression as natural, then the oppressed themselves will do the job of the oppressor.
A system of oppression that has succeeded in convincing the oppressed to obey it, is the most effective. It does not need supervision because the oppressed police themselves.
Biko lamented the state of the minds of black people before they came to consciousness. He said about blacks then: “The type of black man we have today has lost his manhood. Reduced to an obliging shell, he looks with awe at the white power structure and accepts what he regards as the ‘inevitable position’.”
Biko was clear that these were the people who must be given back their personality to be able to stand up and fight to regain their dignity.
The tragedy of the 1994 freedom is that it was without black consciousness and therefore simply continued the racist exclusion of blacks. The ANC government continued from where the National Party left off.
It promptly built RDP houses for blacks that were worse than the four-room apartheid “match box” houses. The ANC stayed away from any serious decolonisation of the colonial economic, social and spatial structures. Blacks continued to live in townships, squatter camps and remain providers of cheap labour.
Post-1994, apartheid was naturalised to the point that today most service delivery protests include fighting for an RDP house, because the expectation of liberation has been lowered so much.
Mental slavery afflicts both the leaders and general society. Leaders want to buy themselves out of blackness by outrageous consumption that drives corruption in the state and business.
Political leaders, in their futile attempt to whiten themselves, engage in acts of stupid consumption guided by the idea of “the most expensive of everything is good” – from cars and whiskeys to houses. The bigger and more vulgar, the better has always been the post-colonial politician’s sickness, while the people suffer.
Biko’s ideas must help black people regain their sense of dignity and ownership of the country. Only black consciousness can return self-love among black people and prepare them to struggle for a new world where apartheid is not reproduced and managed by blacks.
Biko’s ideas are the remedy needed to wake black people from the abnormality of supporting a national rugby team that doesn’t reflect the population profile of SA. This is an abnormality that has been accepted, 21 years later, as normal.
This is true with the fact that only two white men own more wealth than more than 25million black people put together.
With black consciousness we can also see the abnormality of only 35000 white families and trusts owning more than 80% of the land. That is less than 1% of the population.
Only Biko’s ideas can help blacks to fight for real liberation that is based on the return of land to black people.
Lack of vision has put SA in endless sideshows that breed black-on-black hatred while avoiding the battle to end racism, poverty and landlessness.