Biko revisited: A response

Mandla Seleoane sets out where he thinks RW Johnson's assessment was wrong

I have read RW Johnson’s piece – Biko Revisited – with great interest. I am in agreement with a number of points he makes in the article, but I think a number of other points he makes must be challenged. I shall not dwell on the points I agree with him on, but propose to move straightaway to the points I wish to challenge.

Johnson takes the view that the suggestion that university philosophy departments should teach Black Consciousness philosophy, reveals “ignorance about what philosophy is”.  My reading of him suggests that he takes this view because, in his understanding, BC (as it is known) is mainly a series of assertions about the way blacks should think about themselves.

After reading this proposition by Johnson, there’s great expectation that he will give an exposition on what philosophy is. But lo and behold, he makes not the slightest effort to impart knowledge on what the subject is about. He contents himself, rather, with an exposition on why Black Consciousness is not philosophy but merely a series of assertions on how black people (in South Africa) should view themselves.

But if we don’t know what philosophy is, then we cannot know why a “series of assertions about how black people must think of themselves” should not be seen as philosophy – why it betrays ignorance to suggest that philosophy departments should teach it. In the light of Johnson avoiding the issue his own argument raises, it remains on us to attempt the task he avoids, and then inquire whether his dismissal of the proposal at hand as a manifestation of ignorance is justified.

Because of the vast field that philosophy is (it has several sub-disciplines), one must be humble in trying to define it and, by a parity of reasoning, in hastily dismissing certain forms of knowledge as not belonging to it.  For current purposes I want to take my cue from Antony Flew (A Dictionary of Philosophy), where he writes: “… philosophy is a matter of standing back a little from the ephemeral urgencies to take an aphoristic overview that usually embraces both value-commitments and beliefs about the general nature of things”. Let us paraphrase: in philosophy we stand back for a little while and reflect on things generally taken for granted and make wise pronouncements on them.

Now, whether the pronouncements themselves are wise as claimed, is also a matter for philosophical reflection. When, then, one considers the propositions argued by Black Consciousness, and it wasn’t just one proposition as Johnson suggests, one has to make out a case for the suggestion that they were devoid of philosophical content (as a different question from whether one agrees or disagrees with them). Merely dismissing the argument as Johnson does, well, that is unphilosophical. Philosophy imposes the discipline on all who aspire to it that they have to provide cogent reasons for arguing one way or the other.

Even if one were to confine oneself to the single aspect of Biko’s views which he has elected to focus on for rejecting the suggestion that BC should be taught by philosophy departments, Johnson would remain on thin ice. On his own version, Biko challenged the internalisation of white domination as normal by black people. On his own version, Biko challenged black people to rethink themselves. The challenge to black people not to take their oppression as a norm conveys both ontological and normative considerations – that is philosophy. The challenge to black people to rethink themselves conveys normative, epistemological and ontological considerations – that is philosophy.

The question whether Biko was “a very poor student” must remain a matter of judgement. True, he finished neither his medical nor his legal studies – many of us in that era didn’t. Let’s grant it: his lecturers may, as Johnson points out, not have wanted Biko in their class – he and Mamphela Ramphele were not the only students lecturers did not want in their lecture halls.

One of the tenets of Black Consciousness was that we are members of the oppressed community before we are students. Our first responsibility was, so seen, to the cause of ending our oppression. But that did not mean we thought less of education. We were so committed to education that, after our expulsion from various universities in 1972, we established what we ambitiously called the Free University Scheme. We were so committed to education that, after our expulsion from universities in 1972, we started night schools in various townships.

Many of us completed our studies several years after we had initially enrolled for them. If Biko had lived, does it fall outside the realm of possibility that he too, might have completed some studies he had enrolled for? If our yardstick for judging the worth of a student is whether he completed the degree he enrolled for within the expected period, Biko was a bad student – many of us were! If our yardstick is whether the student learns effectively so that he has a better grasp of the challenges of life, many will say Biko was a better student than several of those who completed their degrees in record time.

Johnson subtly suggests that Biko was politically inconsistent: “For all his later talk about not relying on white liberals, Biko relied heavily on NUSAS”. How does he arrive at this rather curious conclusion? He doesn’t say explicitly, but he writes: “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”.

Ah, those of us who were members of SASO are truly amused to hear that SASO was always very weak – but let’s park that for another day. For all the years when I was a member of SASO, I am truly unaware of any reliance we ever placed on NUSAS. True, we tried to have cordial relations with NUSAS and that was perfectly understandable because, as students, we would need one another’s support from time to time. We had an agreement with NUSAS, for instance, that if black students had issues they took up, NUSAS would get involved only if SASO asked them.

In 1972 when black university students protested, the issue was academic freedom, arising directly out of Turfloop’s expulsion of Abram Onkgopotse Tiro. Without consulting with SASO, NUSAS joined the protests and the public focus shifted from academic freedom to whether it was right for the State to use plain-clothes policemen to control protesting students. To the best of my recollection SASO and NUSAS were never able to cure the rift created by that.

For the record, Biko’s talk about not relying on white liberals was not a “later talk” as Johnson suggests. Biko did not start saying this after breaking away from NUSAS: he broke away from NUSAS because he had already arrived at the conclusion that black people should not place reliance on white liberals. He motivated others around that issue precisely.

The question whether the apartheid government ever looked upon Black Consciousness and Biko with favour must remain debatable. I am aware that a number of scholars have suggested that the government misread Black Consciousness as an endorsement of its policy of separate development. My first memory of an interface with the authorities was a confrontation between SASO members who were selling the SASO Newsletter at Park Station in Johannesburg and the police. But really, anyone who read the SASO Policy Manifesto would find it hard to imagine the apartheid government looking upon SASO and Biko with favour.

On the ideological front, I think two arguments Johnson makes invite comment - the idea that Biko was anti-Communist and the idea that Black Consciousness ever embraced African socialism. I am truly unaware of Biko’s anti-communist stance. I am aware that once, when a journalist quizzed him on his stance on the class struggle, Biko told the journalist to go and tell Van Tonder in the Free State about the class struggle. The King Williamstown Declaration (1975), however, states very clearly that Black Consciousness is committed to “a strong, socialist, self-reliant economy” – Biko was part of the meeting which adopted that declaration.

At a subsequent meeting held at Mafikeng, where Biko was not present, the Black People’s Convention adopted the Mafikeng Manifesto, also known as the 16-Point Programme. That programme committed Black Consciousness to black communalism – not African socialism.

Incidentally, the two fore-going paragraphs should also take care of Johnson’s argument that “in truth his [Biko’s] 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”. Anyone who has read the King Williamston Declaration and the Mafikeng Manifesto will know that there was nothing programmatically vague about what Biko stood for. Neither is it possible to read these documents and then argue that Biko was at his best when he criticized what he did not like. It is possible to argue that there was an inconsistency between the two documents – that’s a different issue.

Referring to the encounter between Biko and Robert Sobukwe in Kimberly in 1972, Johnson writes that Biko “clearly [hoped] that the leadership baton of the pan-African current within the liberation movement would be handed on to him”. The problem is that Biko had not gone to Kimberly primarily to meet Sobukwe – he was not even aware for a while after his arrival that Sobukwe was in the same house. After finding out, he scolded Sabelo Ntwasa and demanded an explanation as to why he had not been told in advance “ukuthi uTixo ukhona” – i.e. that God (which is what he called Sobukwe) was in the house. Johnson’s speculation that Biko “secretly” met Sobukwe in the hope of the Africanist baton being handed to him is therefore farfetched speculation.

Johnson writes that the government may have gotten wind of Biko’s meeting with Sobukwe in 1972 and therefore banned him in 1973. Those of us who were around at the time will recall that the government was not in the habit of giving reasons when banning people and therefore gave none for banning Biko in 1973. We know, however, that Jerry Modisane was already banned when Biko was banned. And we know that Biko was not banned alone: he was banned along with seven others – Drake Koka, Strini Moodley, Saths Cooper, Nchaupe Mokoape, Bokwe Mafuna, Sabelo Ntwasa and Ranwedzi Nengwekhulu. Those of us who were in the BC Movement thought they were banned for their activities in the BC Movement. Johnson however says it is doubtless that the Special Branch came to know about his meeting with Sobukwe, and that he was banned for that. He is clearly better placed to have known than we were, and so we must accept that he might know something we didn’t.

Johnson hints that the 1976 uprisings gave Biko a fair understanding of his influence and that “true national leadership was now within his grasp”. He suggests that this encouraged Biko not to respect the police and to pay his restriction orders little heed. Now of course those of us who knew Steve will testify that he never had respect for the police and that this disposition was not post-1976. But let’s move on. Johnson writes that Biko now “wanted BC to have its own guerrilla force”.

How does Johnson arrive at this position? He appears to relay on Felton, who stated that Biko could only get one supporter for his military ambitions – Idi Amin! Assume for a moment that it is true that Biko wanted to establish his own “guerrilla force” in the aftermath of the 1976 uprisings. Then it seems singularly improbable that the only backer he might find would be Idi Amin. It is a matter of record that BC activists who left the country in the aftermath of the 1976 uprisings and who did not wish to join the ANC or the PAC received military training in Libya; Syria, Lebanon and from ZANU-PF fighters. That makes it hard to understand why Idi Amin might be the only person willing to accommodate Biko’s alleged military plans when so many groups were happy to embrace Tsietsi Mashinini and Khotso Seatlholo in the same timeframe.

But Johnson’s argument is in any event not internally consistent. If Biko were bent on having his own guerrilla force, the last thing he would want is to sneak out of the country in order to meet Oliver Tambo as Johnson suggests. The fact of the matter is that the BC Movement was concerned for a very long time about the consequences of proliferating armed forces in the South African conflict. Therefore even after the formation of the South African Youth Revolutionary Council, efforts were made to unite the armed forces of the liberation movement. That brings us to the next issue Johnson writes about – Biko’s trip to Cape Town and the sad ending it had.

He writes that in 1977 Biko sneaked out of King Williamstown to go and meet the leadership of the Non-European Movement, in particular Neville Alexander. As he documents the purpose of the visit, Biko went to Cape Town in order to try and broker a deal between Marxists like Johnny Issel and BC activists. Let’s just get a little nuisance factor out of the way before we discuss serious stuff: if Biko wanted to broker a deal between “Marxists like Johnny Issel” and BC activists, there would be no need to meet Neville Alexander. Issel was part of the BC Movement for a while and then joined the UDF in the 1980s. There’s really nothing involving Issel which Biko might want to discuss with Alexander.

Johnson is right in the indication that Biko was about to leave the country. The agenda was that he might attempt to bring the ANC and the PAC together. But the thinking was that if he is going to go on such a mission, his word might carry greater weight if he has the support of the wider liberation movement in the country. He wanted to meet with the NEUM in order to get that kind of endorsement. Johnson is also right where he writes that Alexander – and it wasn’t just Alexander: there were others as well like Frank Van der Horst – refused to meet Biko. The reason he gives for the refusal is disputed.

Alexander et al did not refuse to meet Biko because they feared “that he had a police tail”. They refused to meet him because of the meeting Biko had held with US Senator Dick Clarke, which they presented as a collaborationist stance on the part of Biko. I suspect Johnson intends mischief when he proceeds, with reference to the refusal to meet Biko: “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”.

Let us set the record straight. Biko and Peter Jones were not intended to return to the Eastern Cape on the day and the time they did. The reception they got from the NEUM comrades gave them a scare and they panicked and decided to drive back to the Eastern Cape a day earlier than was planned. If the police knew about Biko’s trip from start to finish, the road block would have been mounted the following day.

The state of affairs was something like this: When Biko and Jones left the Eastern Cape, they used a borrowed car – a Peugeot 504. The idea was that Biko’s car would be driven around so that the police might think he is in the area he was confined to. Biko was sitting at the back of the car, in an overcoat, disguised as an old man. When they hit the road block, the police were in fact folding up. They asked Jones to open the boot but he couldn’t. They then asked them to drive to the police station with the police, where the boot would be opened. It was only once they were at the police station that an alert policeman noticed Biko. The rest is history.

Mandla Seleoane