‘Biko Lives!” Just over 30 years ago, these prophetic words were boldly graffitied on a ghetto wall, as reported in the black consciousness publication Frank Talk.
Steve Biko had been murdered almost a decade earlier. To proclaim “Biko Lives!” at that time was an act of audacity and defiance in the face of adversity. Biko’s followers were hunted down as the “third force”. There was violence aimed at political domination between Steve Bantu Biko’s followers and those who followed the exiled ANC through its proxy, the United Democratic Front. Scores of people were killed for daring to say: “Biko Lives!”
The changeover of the apartheid administration in 1994 was hailed as evidence that Biko’s ideas had died with him.
But 21 years after ANC rule, through its ideas of nonracialism and reconciliation without justice, the condition of black people has not improved. Biko foresaw this eventuality. Former president Nelson Mandela’s magnanimity and larger-than-life inspiration was not enough to give birth to a country free of racism and suffering. Biko had warned about the misdiagnosis of the main contradiction in South Africa. He said we were heading towards a wrong prescription and would consequently suffer from its side effects.
Today, the economy is basically on its knees. The political and economic classes are involved in open thieving. The nation lurches from one crisis to the next. Institutional and individual acts of racism are rife. Blacks live in poverty, while white households earn, on average, six times more than black ones. There is a concentration of wealth and land in a few white hands and a sprinkling of coopted blacks. The assault of racism and alienation are not reserved just for the poor – the so-called black middle class, from our top universities to the boardrooms of South Africa, finds that being black in South Africa is a humiliating experience.
The rainbow myth lies shattered in the gutter of expediency. Black rage is on the ascendance. It is in this reality that Biko’s ideas have returned with great force almost 40 years since white power thought it had silenced him. The single most important point of revival of black consciousness is the university-based “decolonisation” activism of movements such as Rhodes Must Fall. The black majority is searching for ideas again. Biko has stepped forward – black consciousness presents the clearest way out. This accounts for why Biko is back with a bang.
If we return to the graffiti wall of 30 years ago, we can see why “Biko Lives!” was such a prophetic call. The Frank Talk editorial screamed: “Biko Lives! Two words slashed across a ghetto wall. A phrase that haunts the nights of South Africa’s rulers. Reactionaries and opportunists of every stripe hope and pray it will disappear under the rain of blood and the whitewash of reforms. But it remains bold and powerful.”
Amid the decay of political morality and the reduction of politics to mutual insults in search of the tender, we see attempts by politicians to abuse Biko’s sacred name.
They hate his ideas, but associate with his great name for narrow political ends. To be relevant today, one has to be seen to be on the side of Biko. That is why charlatans would one day celebrate the Freedom Charter and the next claim to celebrate Biko. The charter was severely criticised by Biko. The danger of making him an empty symbol is real and must be exposed. Biko stood firmly for black first. How can one celebrate the Freedom Charter – which surrenders the land rights of blacks – and Biko at the same time?
Opportunists have also tried to use Biko to justify violence against black people. Biko stood for black solidarity, black love and the protection of the black community. This love and care for one another is what has been lost in the past 21 years to the politics of tenders – to feed expensive and revolting lifestyles.
Our society is in a deep crisis. A new black agenda is called for. That is why Biko is so big again. Biko was clear. If we missed the fact that “white racism” is the main problem, then South Africa shall end with a false liberation, where blacks will continue to live in bondage in the midst of the abundance enjoyed by whites.
So if Mandela’s dream has failed, what is Biko’s dream? Firstly, Biko put a lot of energy into thinking. A few years ago, I was told by a young black fellow: “Mandela said, ‘Let us fight,’ and they put him in jail for 27 years. Biko said, ‘Let us think,’ and they murdered him.”
The person was impressing upon me the value of thinking. The 1994 Mandela compromise was possible because blacks had outsourced thinking to whites and were mere bodies on the march.
Biko understood the value of ideas and was able to think beyond his own possible death. He explained: “It’s better to die for an idea that will live than to live for an idea that will die.”
The re-emergence of Biko is a gift to “thinking” as our only guarantor of true liberation. There is a new hope on the horizon – it speaks black! Biko must be proud of developments in Azania.
Mngxitama is the co-editor of Biko Lives! and the national convener of the Black First Land First movement