Biko revisited

RW Johnson on the perennial question of what the late BC leader would have thought about SA today

The Enigma of Steve Biko

Every September the South African media carries a number of pieces all more or less titled “What would Steve Biko think if he were alive today?” for it was on September 12th, 1977 that Biko was murdered by the apartheid Security Police. He was aged 30. Each article dwells on Biko's enormous courage and his undoubted martyrdom but there is no clear answer to the question asked. Instead we get a lot of waffle. Yet Biko's shadow seems only to grow longer: he is, even today, much cited by radical black students and there is even some demand that university philosophy departments should teach his Black Consciousness philosophy.

Such demands, of course, mainly reveal an ignorance about what philosophy is for BC (as it is known) is mainly a series of assertions about the way (South African) blacks should think about themselves. Biko had hit upon the basic truth – enunciated long before and much more fully by Antonio Gramsci – that the chief instrument in allowing a ruling class to dominate a more numerous under-class is the internalisation of that relationship in the consciousness of the oppressed.

Put bluntly, Biko was outraged that so many black South Africans had come to accept white domination as “normal” and believed that they could never free themselves unless they could get rid of all sense of inferiority, feel proud to be what and who they were and to accept that “black man, you are on your own”, that is, that blacks must work towards their own emancipation and not depend on whatever help white liberals might give them.

Unfortunately, no proper biography of Biko exists. Donald Woods' account of him included so much about Woods himself that Woods, rather than Biko, appears as the main protagonist. Xolela Mangcu's biography is acutely disappointing: he not only hasn't bothered to read the newspapers of the time but hasn't even bothered to interview the still quite numerous people who knew Biko.

Durban - the centre

In fact Biko's story is already shrouded in myth. He was, we are told, a very gifted student and won a scholarship to the prestigious boarding school at Lovedale – from which, however, he was almost immediately expelled on apparently bogus political grounds. After two happy years at a liberal Catholic school at Marianhill outside Durban he won a scholarship to the “Non-European” Medical School at the University of Natal, Durban, the most important elite institution in black South African life which trained every single black doctor in the country – and to a very respectable standard.

But while there seems little doubt about Biko's intelligence, he seems to have been a very poor student: he was kicked out of medical school after six years while he was merely repeating his third year course. Years later I interviewed some of the men who had spent their lives teaching at that medical school – an admirably dedicated lot for the all-white medical schools at other universities were more prestigious and better paid and they could all have earned far more in private practice. Their general opinion was that Biko and his girl-friend, Mamphela Ramphaele had been very poor and very difficult students - “you really didn't want them in your class”. Later Biko studied law but that too he failed to finish.

Part of the reason was that from the outset student politics consumed much of his time in Durban. For all his later talk about not relying on white liberals, Biko relied heavily on NUSAS (the essentially white liberal National Union of South African Students) which, after the banning of the ANC and PAC, was the most radical mass organization in the country, favouring universal suffrage and the complete abolition of apartheid. Although Biko was to found the separate black SASO (South African Students' Organization) some two years later, the fact was that SASO always remained very weak and retained ties with NUSAS while Biko himself took full advantage of the numerous contacts and superior organization that NUSAS provided. Biko was a confident, attractive figure, enjoying considerable success with women and his lovers in these years included several white women drawn from NUSAS circles.

The pan-Africanist tradition

It is not surprising that the apartheid government at first looked upon SASO with favour. In those years NUSAS congresses often featured appearances by black delegates who simultaneously favoured a radical PAC attitude and also wanted to take advantage of the government's black homelands policy. Some of these were simply police spies but others were genuinely confused or were trying to play both sides of the street. At first, at least, the government wasn't sure where Biko stood.

But Biko had been brought up in a PAC family and when push came to shove the government feared the (generally anti-white) PAC more than the ANC. It is important to remember that in its eyes the most dangerous prisoner on Robben Island was not Mandela but Robert Sobukwe, which is why Sobukwe was kept apart in a dwelling of his own while Mandela was allowed to mix with the other prisoners.

However, at first Biko's fire was concentrated on white liberals, which doubtless pleased the government. He was anti-Communist not only for the usual PAC reasons (i.e. that the ANC was infeodated to the white and Indian intellectuals of the SACP) but because he saw the USSR as an imperial power just as much as the USA.

He favoured universal suffrage and the vague “African socialism” then in favour with most of his African nationalist heroes. But in truth his programmatic views were vague: he put far more of his energy into criticizing what he didn't like and into his assertion that liberation began with a liberated, self-reliant black consciousness. Specifically including Coloureds and Indians as black, he soon attempted to build a nation-wide movement – the Black People's Convention (also often just known as the BCM – Black Consciousness Movement) and to launch Black Community Programmes, the idea being to get black communities to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps – though, again, the BCPs depended on white liberal funding from Anglo-American, the Scandinavian churches and Christian sources within SA.

It must be remembered that at this point the ANC had been banned and quiescent for a decade. MK had made little progress, even the ANC hardly mentioned Mandela and its leader, Oliver Tambo, was a distant figure in London. The most significant internal black figure was Buthelezi but his status as a homeland leader made him unacceptable to the radical young. There is little doubt that Biko realised that the consequent political vacuum created a potential opportunity for himself. By this time the dying Sobukwe had been allowed to leave jail and live under house arrest in Kimberley and in 1972 Biko secretly visited him there, clearly hoping that the leadership baton of the pan-African current within the liberation movement would be handed on to him.

By all accounts Sobukwe saw him as a promising young leader but warned him that his heavy drinking and frequent womanizing were inappropriate for someone in a leadership position. Biko, always a magnetic personality who enjoyed life to the full, simply brushed aside this piece of advice. Doubtless the Security Police learnt of Biko's visit to Sobukwe and this probably lay behind his banning order in 1973.

Back to Ginsberg

This banning was a major watershed for Biko who had lived in Durban ever since 1966. Indeed it was in Durban that he had met a young nurse, Nontsikelelo (“Ntsiki”) Mashalaba, marrying her in 1970, with their first child born almost immediately. But his banning order restricted him to the magisterial district of King William's Town, within which his native village of Ginsberg, a village of only 800 souls, fell. The rural Eastern Cape was a far harder world than the Durban student world that he had left.

Naturally, he set up a BCP there – allowing him a small stipend – and thenceforth the centre of the BC current was transferred from Durban to Ginsberg, just outside East London. For the next four years Biko was caught up in a growing series of confrontations with the East London Security Police. It was a well-known fact that in Afrikaans centres like Pretoria or Stellenbosch the Security Police was kept on a fairly tight leash so as not to scandalise the respectable and religious centre ground of the National Party's electorate. In English-speaking towns or mainly African areas – and East London was both – the Security Police were allowed far greater latitude, which meant that many of the worst abuses occurred in such areas.

Biko was subject to intense intimidation and to repeated detentions – once for 101 days. But Biko refused to be cowed by the police, seeking out Donald Woods so as to gain greater exposure for his ideas in Woods' paper, the Daily Dispatch. He could not be unaware that BC was gaining converts fast, first on black university campuses like Turfloop and then filtering down to high school students.

The explosion of the Soweto uprising in June 1976 – which quickly found echoes all round the country -  took place under the banner of Black Consciousness and Biko must have realised that a position of true national leadership was now within his grasp.

This in turn made him increasingly heedless of the petty restrictions enforced upon him by the Security Police, notably his confinement to the magisterial district of King William's Town. He had no respect for the police and simply had bigger fish to fry.

The three currents

Thus by late 1976 the situation was finely balanced. Effectively, there had always been three main strands in black South African politics:

- a reformist, liberal strand advocated by the chiefly elite who originally launched the ANC. This strand was strongly influenced by missionary education and thus by a Christian non-violent tradition. Its modern representatives were, first, Luthuli, and later, Buthelezi.

-  a more militant Congress tradition born out of the post-war rise of popular African nationalism and its confluence with the Communist current. The launching of MK and Luthuli's effective eviction from the leadership by Mandela signalled the triumph of this tradition within the ANC.

- a militant pan-Africanist current which rejected the ANC because of the strong influence within it of white and Indian Communists. Sobukwe and then Biko led this current.

In 1960-61 it seemed quite possible that the PAC would overtake and then overwhelm the ANC for it was the first to adopt direct action against the hated pass system and it achieved a formidable popular mobilization behind such tactics which in turn led to the Sharpeville crisis. However, the post-Sharpeville crackdown crushed both movements and MK, though an important symbolic presence, wholly failed to threaten white rule. In the resulting political vacuum Buthelezi's Inkatha movement took on an enhanced significance. Biko took a strong position against Buthelezi, terming him a sell-out – an allegation which also embarrassed the ANC which maintained fraternal relations with Buthelezi.

1976 changed all that: the popular risings of that year owed nothing at all to the ANC. They were spontaneous and their ideology was the BC one of black self-assertion. Suddenly, once again, the pan-Africanist current had pulled ahead of the ANC.

Walter Felgate, a white liberal who had taken upon himself the somewhat messianic mission of uniting all these strands, spent much of the 1970s moving between the three camps. Later he told me that he gradually came to see his quest as hopeless because the three camps were sharply – and rivalrously – aware of one another. Naturally, all three movements talked of their wish to unite elements of the struggle but in practice none of the three would accept the leadership of any of the others. Buthelezi and the ANC, fearing the possible dominance of the BC current, maintained a friendly alliance in these years, aware that in a three cornered fight controlling two of the three angles gave one a blocking defensive position. But Biko clearly felt he was on the verge of winning. According to Felgate, he felt that in a battle for the loyalties of radical black youths, the ANC had only one trump card, their commitment to the armed struggle – despite the inefficacy of MK. Accordingly, he wanted BC to have its own guerrilla force – and for that he needed an international backer, willing to provide training and arms.

This was a problem. The entire Soviet bloc had plumped for the ANC. China had burnt its fingers supporting the PAC in the early 1960s and had ceased to play a role. Most African states recognised the ANC as the primary African movement in South Africa. This left only a handful of mavericks: in the end, according to Felgate, Biko secured the support only of Idi Amin, a complete wild card in African politics.

Growing the network

Meanwhile, Biko was the centre of an extensive diplomatic network – despite the fact that his banning order meant that he couldn't conduct any personal diplomacy. Through a number of trusty intermediaries he was able to maintain contact with Sobukwe, despite the fact that both men were banned. His old friend from Durban, the lawyer, Griffiths Mxenge, acted as an intermediary with the ANC and discussions were under way about Biko possibly sneaking out of the country to meet Oliver Tambo.

Naturally, Biko also tried to maintain contact with other leading BC figures and centres. And then there was the special problem of Cape Town, home to the Non-European Unity Movement, a mainly Coloured Trotskyite group. As BC had spread to the Cape, many of its followers there came from a Unity Movement background and this posed serious problems, for the NEUM had a long tradition of intransigence and its members were natural rebels, unwilling to take instruction from the BPC or anyone else. Biko tried to maintain relations with the NEUM through another lawyer friend, Fikile Bam, but there were always problems.

By mid-1977 these problems were getting out of control, with the Cape BPC dominated by Marxists like Johnny Issel, so Biko decided to sneak down to Cape Town (thus breaking his banning order) to see the NEUM leadership in the hope of brokering some deal. This didn't work – Neville Alexander, the NEUM leader, refused to meet him for fear that he had a police tail. Which may have been a shrewd guess because on the way back Biko was arrested at a police roadblock. It is quite possible – even likely - that the police had been aware of Biko's Cape Town trip from start to finish. He had been a thorn in their side for some time but they had lacked hard evidence against him. Once they learned of his trip they would doubtless have allowed it so as to have something definite to hold him for at last.

The end

The rest is pure infamy. Biko was shackled, handcuffed and chained to a grille while he was beaten almost to death. A tame doctor was procured who found no evidence of injuries on Biko – though these (including a major brain haemorrhage) were obvious. He was dumped in the back of a truck and driven to Pretoria where he died.

Biko's dreadful death had complex results. It created a huge international furore, especially when Jimmy Kruger, the Minister for Police, stupidly said that “Biko's death leaves me cold”. The sheer barbarism of Biko's death, the attempted cover-up and the callousness of Kruger's attitude were a toxic mix, fulfilling all the worst expectations of the apartheid regime.

Second, the fury felt by South Africa's military leaders for the Security Police thugs who murdered Biko knew no bounds for the international outcry it caused was such that President Giscard d'Estaing of France decided to join the arms embargo against South Africa – cutting the country off from such key munitions as Alouette helicopters and Mirage jets. At a stroke, Biko's death had done far more damage to the South African military than MK ever would.

Third, the Black Consciousness movement was decapitated – and Sobukwe died of cancer soon afterwards. Any hope of a BC guerrilla movement evaporated and, bereft both of structured organization and leadership, the BPC fell to bits. Young BC radicals were easily inducted into MK.

Fourth, this strengthened both Buthelezi and the ANC. A 1978 poll conducted by Theodor Hanf and Lawrie Schlemmer for the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute found that Buthelezi was now the single most popular black leader.[1] The ANC, doubtless infuriated by this and now finding itself in a two, not a three-cornered game, now felt able to pick a bitter quarrel with Buthelezi and tried to assassinate him.

The myth and the legacy

None of this is in the minds of those who ask each year what Biko would say or do if he were alive now. In truth, there is no easy answer. For a start, Biko's life was utterly chaotic. He had two children with Ntsiki but she was infuriated by his repeated adultery and moved out of the house. At the time of his death she had begun divorce proceedings. Biko also had two children with his old girl friend, Mamphela Ramphaele and yet a further one with Lorrain Tabane. He had countless other lovers – at NUSAS congresses he competed to see how many female delegates he could seduce in a week.

One cannot but feel that the key to Biko was the student milieu in which he lived and thrived from the moment he reached Durban. To serve on a Student Representative Council and work with NUSAS in those high apartheid days meant a life of stimulus, excitement and fun. It was the one milieu which allowed for extensive discussion of liberation politics, which was wholly non-racial and where opposition to apartheid was taken for granted. (I served on an SRC and was active in NUSAS in Durban just a few years before Biko. It was a world I knew well and which I, too, loved.)

There was something splendid in the midst of apartheid to find oneself suddenly in a society where everyone felt the same as you did – it was a huge bond. NUSAS was well organized, its congresses full of fascinating politicking and, often, extremely interesting and gifted people – the cream of the English-speaking campuses.

In addition there were usually a number of attractive women and charismatic young men. The political situation brought a huge intensity to the whole thing – but since we were still all students there was always a lot of laughter and risk-taking. We all knew we were under Security Police observation but this gave a special delight to breaking the rules and, occasionally, getting the better of the police.

No wonder Biko thrived in such a world and showed no inclination to leave it. Even after he was forced back to Ginsberg in 1973 he retained close links to other BC leaders like Barney Pityana and Saths Cooper who were active on SRCs at black universities, so in a sense Biko never lost touch with that student world. This is, I suspect, the key to his larrikin style, his womanizing, drinking and risk-taking and his general joie-de-vivre. But student life is quite normally disorganized with essay crises, cash shortages, exam failures and unhappy love affairs, not to mention raucous parties, practical jokes and all the rest.

And Biko's life was nothing if not disorganized. When one considers that he married in December 1970 and that less than seven years later he had had five children by three different women while being detained four times while he simultaneously ran a community project, dealt with the endless complications of a banning order, and tried to run a national political movement and an international diplomatic network, one gets a sense of how overcrowded and by-guess-and-by-God his life must have been.

The only way to cope with such a life is to live day by day. And that is even without allowing for the heavy drinking. One possible answer to the question of what if he were alive today is that he might have been a hard-drinking womanizer with a very large number of children. He would probably have laughed at the idea of gender equality.

What he might think of today's South Africa is equally hard to know. We have seen so many of yesterday's heroes decide that they want to be seriously rich and to hell with the poor, that we really shouldn't be surprised if someone else were to disappoint us. But to make such a supposition is unfair to Biko. All that we know of him was admirable – he was absolutely right about the African need to stand up, throw away inferiority complexes and demand nothing less than full equality – and heroic.

He was the very spirit of confidence and defiance and there is something magnificent about that. As for the final move which undid him – his decision to ignore his banning order and travel secretly to Cape Town – this was no doubt due to serious political reasons but it was, surely, also a reflection of that student bravado that he never lost. To hell with the police, he would fool them and, later, laugh at them over a drink. Sadly, as many of us came only slowly to recognize, the police were a whole lot better at their jobs than we gave them credit for.

This spirit was, moreover, upheld by his family when the circus of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came to town. The TRC was dominated by clerics. Not one of its members had been detained or seriously suffered under apartheid. But they wanted to stand in judgement, make grandiloquent statements, weep public tears and then hug both victim and perpetrator alike. For this circus they needed the co-operation of people like Biko's remaining family. To their undying credit, the family refused all co-operation because to allow the case to go before the TRC meant giving Biko's murderers the chance of amnesty. This they would not countenance.

The clerics of the TRC wanted everyone to confess their sins, weep upon one another's necks, embrace and go home happy. The Biko family refused this charade. Murder most foul is exactly that; most foul. They were not going to be party to such a circus and they certainly didn't want to see any pardon for the people who had murdered Steve. Biko would have approved.


[1] See their South Africa: The Prospects for Peaceful Change (1981)