After Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko is probably the most famous of South Africa’s liberation struggle icons. In terms of ideology, Steve Biko is much more influential – Black Consciousness is studied by Africans, those of African descent and others for various reasons and purposes.
Steve Biko was born in December 1946 in the Cape Province and later entered the medical school of the University of Natal. At the University of Natal he founded the South African Students Organisation (SASO) in 1969 and began developing his theories of Black Consciousness, which was- and still is about- “to make the black man come to himself, to infuse him with pride and dignity, to remind him of his complicity in the crime of allowing himself to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of his birth”.
Afraid that this would result in a national awakening of the oppressed blacks the apartheid regime moved in to counter Biko. By 1975 he had been banned, his ideas banned, and he himself restricted to his hometown. In August 1976 Biko was arrested and detained for 101 days until December when he was released without being charged.
But Biko remained uncompromising, defiant and committed to the freedom of blacks. Unable to break his spirit the apartheid regime detained him again on 18 August 1977 after which Biko was tortured, humiliated and kept in chains.
On 12 September 1977 Steve Bantu Biko died of brain damage caused by torture in detention.
It is thirty six years since South Africa, and Africa as a whole, were robbed of a brilliant young man whose input would have been invaluable in the independent Africa we now live in and instrumental in the construction of a new Africa we envision.
This week Steve Biko will, rightly so, be remembered throughout the African continent and beyond. His life will be celebrated, his wisdom praised, his ideas debated and analysed. Dusty copies of a collection of his writings titled “I Write What I Like” will be opened and read. In countries like South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Angola and others where the experiences of colonialism are still fresh in the minds the people, Biko will be used to fan waning support for liberation movements.
It is fitting that we celebrate Biko’s life as we do, we should continue to learn from his ideals. However a critical analysis of Steve Biko’s life, his ideas and death gives rise to the question: Is the independent Africa ready for Steve Biko?
In other words, would Biko, who wrote what he liked, be tolerated in an increasingly intolerant Africa? Is there enough protection for those who choose to oppose the powerful in their writing? In many African countries, journalists, authors and ordinary citizens who write and say “what they like” are at the risk of imprisonment.
I think many African governments, despite claiming to espouse Biko’s lofty ideals, would find him a very uncomfortable person to be with- because Biko asked uncomfortable questions.
Whilst during his lifetime Biko was preoccupied with the question of racial equality, we can imagine that today, now that we are independent, his sharp mind would ask other questions.
Biko was banned from discussing politics; he was not allowed to address gatherings and rallies. We still have laws reminiscent of colonial ones in our countries. We have POSA and AIPPA in Zimbabwe and the Ugandan Parliament recently passed the Public Order and Management Bill (POMB) which requires the “police to be notified of any meeting, even in your houses”, the Ugandan Police Commissioner reportedly said. He would ask, I think, why independent African states have laws like these.
Steve Biko was detained for 101 days without trial. He would obviously ask why people are still being arrested and detained without charge.
In how many African countries is the torture and humiliation of prisoners an acceptable practice? Many prisoners across Africa live in inhumane conditions, worse than animals. They are treated like they are not humans. Our governments should be ashamed, that is what killed Biko.
Recently a Zimbabwean young woman from the MDC accused of murdering a policeman died in prison. She had spent over two years there without being convicted. Her medical condition deteriorated in jail, nothing was done. Her co-accused are still detained despite lack of evidence or a conviction. What would Steve Biko say about this?
What would Biko say of the petty fighting, the tribalism, regionalism, division according to political opinion- what he calls “The Fragmentation of Black Resistance” in I Write What I like? Biko would condemn these petty games the powerful play while Africans starve. I do not think he would smile on those who have amassed obscene amounts of wealth illegally, using their positions in government to mask their activities and to safeguard their loot.
In my opinion Africa is not yet ready for Biko, and will not be, for as long as it regards different opinions as “treason”, “selling out” and continues to threaten, detain and torture those who oppose and disagree with government views. In fact African governments may be killing the Bikos of their own countries.