“In the time, we shall be in a position to bestow unto South Africa the greatest possible gift – a more human face.”
– Steve Biko (I Write What I Like)
I was 10 years old when I first heard of Bantu Stephen Biko. It was on June 16th and the TV channel SABC 1 was showing the film Cry Freedom, in commemoration of the June 16, 1976 Soweto Uprisings. It was also a commemoration of a collective effort which united to fight and overthrow the inhumane and dehumanising system of apartheid.
The film depicts the life and times – and death – of Biko, a black anti-apartheid activist who had sacrificed his life and became a martyr of hope for black people during the darkest and most oppressive years of the apartheid regime.
Hitherto, I had very limited knowledge about my country’s history and that the fight against oppression included many selfless individuals who valued freedom more than their own lives. I took particular interest in the role Biko played in the fight against apartheid. I started researching and reading with passion about Steve Biko and his Black Consciousness philosophy.
In January 2015, I started out my journey to Port Elizabeth’s Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University to undertake my undergraduate studies in Criminal Law. Upon arrival, one remembered that Bantu Biko had spent the last days of his life at the holding cells of Walmer Police Station. I made a commitment that I would visit the cell in which he was held, and where he subsequently sustained the critical blows to the head until he was comatose which lead to his death on September 12,1977,on the cold floor of a prison cell in Pretoria.
I stood in Biko’s former cell, and standing there, I tried to transport myself back to those days when Bantu Biko was detained as a domestic terrorist – a time when the success of his struggle was by no means a certainty. I tried to imagine Biko – the legend who changed the course of history- as a man who had paid the ultimate price for freedom. A man who, in his extremely short life, became the martyr of hope for the Black struggle.
Biko once said that students had to challenge white power both within student organisations,and within society at large. What Biko said more than 25 years ago still remains relevant today, in at least two senses. First, white power and privilege still remain potent in South Africa and Biko’s message reminds us that white people carry the benefits and the burden of that legacy.
White arrogance is sometimes thinly disguised as a non-racial critique of the new (black) holders of power in government and elsewhwere. Humility does not come easily to the privileged. We continue to see an arrogance which fails to recognise the generosity which Black South Africans have shown their white counterparts,and which also fails to recognise that our democratic constitution and do not produce social transformation – rather, it created one of the necessary preconditions for the transformation which must still come.
Biko’s critique also continues to speak to Black South Africans. It speaks to the need for Black people to assert the power which they hold,in a way which does not depend on and gain its strength from the negative critique of white power. It also speaks to need for empowerment which empowers all and not just a few elite.
It speaks to a form of affirmative action which is about power and not just numbers. This will be the foundation of the self-confident power-sharing which Biko predicted would be the long term outcome of Black Consciousness. We should not be surprised that we have not arrived there after a few short years of political liberation.
We continue to struggle, often painfully, with the result of our history. Black Consciousness tries to get Blacks to grapple realistically with their problems, to attempt to find solutions to their problems, to develop what one might call an awareness, a physical awareness of their situation, to be able to analyse it, and provide awareness for themselves. The purpose behind it really is being able to provide some kind of hope.
People must develop hope, develop some kind of security to be together to look at their problems and build their humanity. This is the point about conscientisation and Black Consciousness.