Stephen Bantu Biko: A thought leader gone far too soon

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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
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Yihla Moya, Yihla Moya
The man is dead
The man is dead
And the eyes of the world are watching now, watching now

From “Biko”, a song by Peter Gabriel


12 September 1977 was a watershed moment in South African and world history. It marked the untimely death of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko at the age of 31 in police custody in Pretoria. This was a massive blow to the anti-apartheid struggle, because a lot was still expected of him. Biko ranks favourably alongside other value-oriented thought leaders, such as WEB Du Bois, CRL Leavis, Dr Martin Luther King Junior, Amílcar Cabral and Frantz Fanon, to mention but a few. These were remarkable scholar-activists who made it their mission to humanise and conscientise the oppressed through their speeches, writings and direct actions in a world that was falling apart under the leadership of egregious and inhumane leaders. Biko’s death was a costly and hazardous event which robbed South Africa and the world of a young visionary and exceptionally bright thought leader. September 2019 marked the 42nd year since the untimely death of Biko. This essay revisits his magnum opus, a paper entitled, “Black Consciousness and the quest for a true humanity”. It is a remarkable essay in which Biko lays out the parameters of the Black Consciousness philosophy, the circumstances which birthed it, its modus operandi and its indispensability in a South African state that had made the depersonalisation and dehumanisation of the black “other” its mission. I hereby echo Dr Martin Luther King Junior’s assertion embedded in his celebrated “Letter from a Birmingham jail” that Biko, through the prism of the Black Consciousness philosophy, was “a creative extremist” (1992:94).

Both Biko and Dr King foresaw their own death. The type of work they did spoke truth to power. In a speech entitled, “I see the Promised Land”, Dr King declared:

And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. (1992:203)

And, in an essay entitled, “On death”, Biko asserted:

You are either alive and proud or you are dead, and when you are dead, you can’t care anyway … So, if you overcome the personal fear for death, which is a highly irrational thing, you know then you are on the way. (1978:152)

Key words

  • A thought leader
  • Blackness as a prism to unite the oppressed
  • Gone far too soon
  • Neither narcissistic nor vain
  • Blazing his own trail
  • Providing a template for rural development
  • Egregious and inhumane apartheid legislation


This essay seeks to centre Biko’s immense contribution to the liberation struggle in a post-apartheid society that has become afflicted with amnesia and selective memory, a post-liberation society that remains trapped in sectional politics, a society that conveniently valorises and recognises ruling elite who are former political activists. Such brazen self-serving and self-congratulatory political machinations will not enrich and strengthen the country’s crucial social cohesion project. In an article titled, “Whither the Black Consciousness Movement? An assessment”, South Africa’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, asserts:

There are critics in all sections of the liberation movement who refuse to acknowledge the achievements of others. They seem to believe that such acknowledgement would be a weakness on their part and a lack of confidence in their own organisations. (2001:21)

Triumphalism? Diffidence? Paranoia? Depravity? Questions and more questions. In an article entitled, “How have we unlearnt liberty?” former Black Consciousness activist Dr Mamphela Ramphele – who, along with Biko and other colleagues, built a health clinic at Zinyoka, a village outside his home town, Ginsberg – cautions against the ruling elite’s propensity to make us conveniently forget who we are. To buttress her argument, she invokes French thought leader, Milan Kundera, who asserted:

The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long, that nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. … The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. … The worst thing is not that the world is unfree, but that people have unlearnt their liberty. (City Press, 8 September 2019)

Still on the question of the “invention of new history” and “the struggle of memory against forgetting”, one wonders how many people in South Africa know that Biko, Ramphele and other Black Consciousness activists built a clinic in a village outside King William’s Town. Does the post-apartheid government support this clinic by way of resources? Is Biko’s contribution in the struggle for liberation part of our school curriculum? Or, in the words of Nelson Mandela, would “such acknowledgement ... be a sign of weakness”? Weakness? In what sense? The struggle to free South Africa was multipronged, and it was mounted from different fronts.

Biko was the exemplar of the sort of leadership defined by Mbulelo Mzamane as “accommodating, inclusive and life-giving”. The Black Consciousness philosophy he advocated rejected apartheid culture, which Mzamane defines as “intolerant, exclusive, incestuous and therefore moribund” (2005:iv). The Zinyoka health clinic outside King William’s Town, a Biko-Ramphele initiative, was as liberating as it was humanising. It provided a template to the rural development paradigm which is at the centre of the post-apartheid government’s reconstruction agenda. The construction of this clinic also gave substance and meaning to the 1970s South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) slogan, “Black man, you are on your own.” This initiative speaks to Biko’s vision, courage, wisdom and thought leadership. After all, courage and wisdom are not conflicting values.

In his magnum opus, “Black Consciousness and the quest for a true humanity”, he asserts that the movement he led was counter-hegemonic in orientation and sought to be therapeutic and affirmative to the oppressed. After the relative political hiatus that was occasioned by the banning of major liberation movements in South Africa, such as the African National Congress (ANC), the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and the Unity Movement in South Africa, the oppressed were diffident and almost rudderless, while the apartheid government became emboldened and intensified its brutality and repression. Some of the oppressed were cowed by the state’s relentless repression, and they acquiesced. The apartheid state hatched several schemes to intimidate them, to chain and to control their bodies and minds. Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement sought to reclaim the dignity of the oppressed, to reaffirm their worth and humanity and to unchain their minds, which were captured by the repressive state and its ruthless, dehumanising machinery. Talking of the pivotal and central role of the mind of the oppressed to the oppressor’s grand design, Biko writes as follows in his landmark essay:

At the heart of this kind of thinking is the realisation by blacks that the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. (1978:92)

Dissecting the centrality of the mind of the oppressed in the Black Consciousness liberation paradigm, Biko asserts in his landmark essay:

Black Consciousness is the attitude of mind and a way of life, the most positive call to emanate from the black world for a long time. Its essence is the realisation by the black man of the need to rally together with his brother around the cause of their oppression – the blackness of their skin – and to operate as a group to rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude.

It is based on a self-examination which has ultimately led them to believe that by seeking to run away from themselves and emulate the white man, they are insulting the intelligence of whoever created them black. (1978:75)

Giving context to the genesis of the Black Consciousness philosophy in South Africa, he asserts:

In other words, the “Black Consciousness” approach would be irrelevant in a colourless and non-exploitative egalitarian society. It is relevant here because we believe an anomalous situation is a deliberate creation of man. (1978:89)

Shedding more light on the appropriateness and relevance of the Black Consciousness paradigm in South Africa, he asserts:

The overall analysis, therefore, based on the Hegelian Theory of Dialectic Materialism, is as follows: that since the thesis is white racism, there can be one valid antithesis, ie a solid black unity to counterbalance the scale. (1978:51)

The Black Consciousness Movement used blackness as a prism to rally, to conscientise and to unite the oppressed to the cause of freedom. The apartheid government used the people’s colour, their blackness, to exclude them and to deprive them of their fair share in the country’s resources. So, the Biko-led Black Consciousness Movement was counter-hegemonic and subversive in intent. Biko was not a separatist. He recognised and appreciated the importance of strategic alliances that resonated with his movement’s value system.

But he was wary of the disposition and modus operandi of white liberals in the struggle for the liberation of the minds and bodies of the disfranchised black majority. He reasoned:

For the liberals, the thesis is apartheid, the antithesis is non-racialism, but the synthesis is very feebly defined. They want to tell blacks that they see integration as the ideal solution. The concept of integration, whose virtues are often extolled in white liberal circles, is full of unquestioned assumptions that embrace white values. It is an integration in which the black man will have to prove himself in terms of these values before meriting acceptance and assume that the poor will grow poorer and the rich richer in a country where the poor have always been black. (1978:91)

Biko’s predecessor, the father of Pan-Africanism in South Africa, the late Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, was also wary and critical of the stance of white liberals in the South African racial nightmare. In a landmark speech he delivered as a 23-year-old student at Fort Hare in 1949, he proclaimed:

Every time our people have shown signs of uniting against oppression, their “friends” have come along and broken that unity. In the very earliest days it was the Missionary […]. Between 1900 and 1946 it has been the professional Liberal. (1949:4)

The Biko-led Black Consciousness Movement eschewed making blacks complicitous in their own oppression. The advocates of the Black Consciousness philosophy know of apartheid’s depersonalising thrust. Resonating with their thinking is Frantz Fanon’s dissection of colonialism, apartheid’s twin monster. He defines its modus operandi in the following terms:

Because it is a systematic negation of the other person and a furious determination to deny the other person all attributes of humanity, colonialism forces the people it dominates to ask themselves the question constantly: “In reality, who am I?” (1963:250)

Critiquing the apartheid state’s segregated system of education and its systematic erosion and denigration of black culture and family values, Biko writes:

Children were taught, under the pretext of hygiene, good manners and other such vague concepts, to despise their mode of upbringing at home and to question the values and customs of their society. The result was the expected one – the children and parents saw differently and the former lost respect for the latter. Now in African society it is a cardinal sin for a child to lose respect for his parent. Yet how can one prevent the loss of respect between child and parent when the child is taught by his know-all white tutors to disregard his family teachings? Who can resist losing respect for his tradition when in school his whole cultural background is summed up in one word – barbarism? (1978:94)

But the bastardisation of black culture does not seem to have been a uniquely South African phenomenon – it seems to have been a global scourge. Lamenting the bastardisation and even inferiorisation of black culture and the self-denigration within the African-American middle class, poet laureate Langston Hughes asserts:

The children go to a mixed school. In the home they read white papers and magazines. And the mother often says, “Don’t be like niggers,” when the children are bad. A frequent phrase from the father is, “Look how well a white man does things.”

And so the word white comes to be unconsciously a symbol of all virtues. It holds for the children beauty, morality and money. The whisper of “I want to be white” runs through their minds. One sees immediately how difficult it would be for an artist born in such a home to interest himself in interpreting the beauty of his own people. He is never taught to see that beauty. He is taught rather not to see it, or if he does, to be ashamed of it when it is not according to Caucasian patterns. (1994:91)

Steve Biko was detained near Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape on 18 August 1977. On 19 August, he was handed into the custody of the security police in Port Elizabeth. He was denied exercise and kept naked in a police cell for 18 days. Interrogation began on 6 September, and by 7 September, he had suffered a brain injury which was the result of three blows to the head, according to the findings of a neurological pathologist. He was transported naked on the floor of a police van to Pretoria, where he died on 12 September 1977. Delivering a sermon entitled, “Oh, God, how long can we go on?” at Biko’s funeral, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu defined Biko like this:

God called him to be the founder of the Black Consciousness Movement, against which we have had tirades and fulminations. It is a movement by which God, through Steve, sought to awaken in the black person a sense of his intrinsic value and worth as a child of God, not needing to apologize for his existential condition as a black person, calling on blacks to glorify and praise God that he had created them black. Steve, with his brilliant mind that always saw to the heart of things, realized that until blacks asserted their humanity and their personhood, there was not the remotest chance for reconciliation in South Africa. (1977:19)

In the midst of apartheid rule’s egregious, inhumane and depersonalising laws, the country’s oppressed black majority needed a counter-hegemonic, humanising and therapeutic philosophy of this magnitude. The psychological damage visited on the country’s oppressed was multipronged and soul-eroding. It caused some of them to seek validation by gravitating towards whiteness in a country whose whites saw them as “invisible”.

What kind of leader was Biko? In an essay entitled, “The legacy of Steve Biko”, his long-time friend Barney Pityana asserts:

Biko was no saint. He would not wish to be considered as set apart from the people. If hero he was, then it was not by his ambition but by force of circumstance whose only virtue was that he willed the people to stand up and to bring an end to the rule of the oppressor. (1991:254)

In a post-apartheid South Africa bedevilled by a paucity and deficit of value-based and selfless leadership, with leadership that uses its struggle credentials for self-enrichment, one wonders how Biko would have reacted. In a post-apartheid South Africa ensnared by morbid symptoms and startling revelations of state capture and kleptocracy, Biko must be turning in his grave at this alarming descent and at a predatory and selfish leadership that has jettisoned morality and respect for those who elected them into office.

Biko blazed his own trail. He was black and proud without apology. As a leader, he was not vain, depraved or narcissistic. His famous words, “and your method of death can itself be a politicizing thing”, have resonance. Prophetic. Prescient. Gone far too soon.

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  • JC (Koos) Oosthuysen
    JC (Koos) Oosthuysen

    Indeed, gone far to soon. Steve Biko's untimely death is one of the greatest tragedies of South African history. A mature Biko would have been one of the most distinguished leaders to grace our diverse country.

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