Related Stories By Gibson Nyikadzino Published: 20120917
Bantu Biko: A flame of consciousness


Breaking the colonial chains and the concomitant psychological inferiority complex were key concerns to Steve Bantu Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) he helped found.



Biko became not just a hero of South Africa’s liberation struggle, but a universal symbol of resistance to oppression, with his memory immortalised in films, books and songs; including Peter Gabriel’s haunting 1980 song in which he croons: “You can blow out a candle, but you can’t blow out a fire. Once the flames begin to catch, the wind will blow it higher.”

Having been key to the fight against political oppression, economic exploitation and social degradation, the philosophy of Biko has been adopted by firebrand former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema.

Could the expulsion of Malema be a case of a brother fighting on the side of the “enemy” to meet greedy ends?

Contrary to what is happening in the independent Rainbow Nation, the leaders who fought the apartheid regime have actually embraced these past tormentors and have made concessions with them, something that runs parallel to the doctrine of black economic emancipation.

Biko died on September 12, 1977, in police detention at age 31.

The apartheid police kept him naked man and manacled, and the subsequent inquest into his death established that he suffered brain damage, most likely from being beaten up by his inquisitors.

But he left behind him a fundamentally altered political landscape and a liberating mirror for the black men and women of not only South Africa, but of Africa at large.

The apartheid regime felt threatened by the beliefs that Biko propagated, and they resolved to charge him under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act which had a mandatory five-year prison term.

From August to December of 1976, Biko was detained for 101 days under that section of the Terrorism Act, and was then released without being formally charged. This would not be the only time that he would be so harassed by the security forces of apartheid.

The more he was charged unjustly the more Biko became conscious of the black man’s freedom call.

According to Lehlohonolo Moagi, a freedom fighter from South Africa, there was a certain purity of thought and spirituality that appears to have been cultivated in those times that Biko was in prison.

He said: “The mind is at its peak behind bars. Solitary confinement unearths some pure depth of thought, hidden beneath layers of vague existential contradictions.”

Moagi highlights that in jail you develop faith in reason and human knowledge; and wisdom becomes a religion.

The philosophy bears testimony when one considers the works of Biko, Robert Mugabe, Kwame Nkrumah and Nelson Mandela.

Their beliefs were more purified after they left the oppressors’ detention facilities.

In the book ‘I Write What I Like’, a collection of his writings and speeches, Biko says: “Blacks are tired of watching from the touchlines a game they should participate while people from Coca-Cola and hamburger backgrounds are enjoying the game.”

Biko articulated a vision for a new South Africa where property would be owned collectively. He also proposed a joint culture, which accommodates the African experience, saying, “Africans live in South Africa as if they were Europeans.”

Unlike the African National Congress (ANC), Biko’s BCM and the South Africa’s Students Organisation (SASO) opted for non-violence, so that they could maintain above-ground status and accept “certain legal limitations to our operations”.

In the cross-examination by the prosecutor in the 1976 court drama, which has been billed the “Trial of Black Consciousness”, Biko argued courageously for “one man, one vote, for Black Communalism and African Socialism”.

Asked if such a thing has worked out in other African states, Biko answered: “Kenya believes in African socialism” but it is really a “carbon copy of the old British society, terribly capitalistic in its approach, but they say they believe in African Socialism.”

After the trial, the security police asked him what his profession was, and he replied “freedom fighter”.

Whenever he was asked what his profession was, he often gave the same answer “precisely because this is what the state wants me to do, to sit at home and think about my freedom rather than be involved in creative work.” (“I Write What I Like”).

Biko was never ashamed to speak his mind; he did not shrink from danger even when his conscience pointed the path that most people thought dangerous, a path of “black consciousness and emancipation”.

“Do you see a country in which black and white can live amicably on equal terms together?” Biko was once asked.

“That is correct.

We see a completely non-racial society.

We (BCM) don’t believe, for instance, in the so-called guarantees for minority rights, because guaranteeing minority rights implies the recognition of portions of the community on a race basis.

“We believe that in our country (South Africa) there shall be no minority, there shall be no majority, just the people.

And those people will have the same status before the law and they will have the same political rights before the law. So in a sense it will be a completely non-racial egalitarian society.”

To all the progressives who share the aspirations of the brand of consciousness that Biko advocated, the call is simple: let us have mutual respect regardless of race.

When fighting for freedom, either political or economic, “you are either alive or proud or you are dead, and when you are dead, you can’t care anyway. And if you can overcome the personal fear for death, which is a highly irrational thing, you know, then you are on the way to freedom”.

Biko could not have been more right!