Steve Biko revisited

Tim Crowe on the life and legacy of the martyred black consciousness leader

I’ve been trying to understand what’s happening at my alma mater and employer for over 40 years, the University of Cape Town (UCT). Part of this endeavour involved exploring the history of student/community organizer/liberation icon Stephen Bantu Biko, founder of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). I do this from the perspective of: who he was, what he thought, what he did, and what is his legacy.

Who was he? 

To BCM colleagues, he was a national/liberation-hero: brilliant (not intellectual), honest, handsome, magnetic, leading (not dominating), ideologically eclectic, charismatic/messianic, politically and culturally aware. The Apartheid regime initially chose not to target him/BCM because of their perceived anti-communist-English-intellectual stance and call for blacks to “go it on their own”. Because of this exclusionist-self-help-persona, Biko/BCM were “swimming in money” from local/international, ‘white’ liberal entities, which inadvertently made them vulnerable to Apartheid-infiltrators.

His biographer, Xolela Mangcu, and Moeletsi Mbeki portray him as a Xhosa messiah/prophet/martyr. Another self-styled Biko scion, Andile Mngxitama, mocks this characterization. A range of reviewers of the Mangcu biography and eminent journalist Zubeida Jaffer agree with Mngxitama. Biko’s words support this: “The Cape African, this is true, in the Cape particularly, has rejected chiefs and all that kind of nonsense”.

He was a great man, but of his time.

His critics (e.g. colleagues in the National Union of South African Students, Sobukwe, Mandela, Pallo Jordan) maintain he was also precipitously confrontational, “swollen headed”, “bombastic”, “hyperbolic”, “clannish”, “arrogant”, “ideologically embryonic”, and a flagrant ‘multi-racial’ philanderer/adulterer, abuser of alcohol, failed-student, severely intolerant of colleagues (e.g. South African Students’ Organisation president Temba Sono) who wanted to explore dialogue with the ‘opposition’.

He was flawed personally.

Although most stress his non-violence, Mangcu likens him to militant, Black Panther, alleged-murderers, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton and Stokely Carmichael - notorious for commenting: "The position of women in the [Civil Rights] movement is prone.” and "I have never admired a white man, but the greatest of them, to my mind, was Hitler.” Thabo Mbeki commented that latter-day BCMers “seek to redefine him by stripping him of his revolutionary credentials”. Andile Mngxitama portrays Biko as an acolyte of Frantz Fanon, noted for his epistemic sexism/homophobia and for advocating destructive “spontaneous violence” in the name of liberation. In the end, Biko’s only documented act of violence was to punch one of his murderers. Furthermore, he opposed creating a BCM military wing and argued against demonstrations that would elicit violent confrontation with police.

He was against violence as a means to ‘black’ liberation/development.

He was strongly/effectively involved with ‘black’ self/community-development projects nationally and supported many individuals in his Eastern Cape township, especially with regard to advancing their education. Yet, he depressingly concluded: “Township life alone makes it a miracle for anyone to live up to adulthood. There we see a situation of absolute want, in which black will kill black to be able to survive. This is the basis of vandalism, murder, rape and plunder that goes on.”

He was a proud, dignified man who supported competence-honesty-based development in a horrible world.

What did he think? 

He projected an immense animosity/hatred towards ‘white’ people: “the South African white community is a homogeneous community … trying to justify their position of privilege and their usurpation of power”; “thus in the ultimate analysis no white person can escape being part of the oppressor camp”; “the real sources of evil—white society—are sun-tanning on exclusive beaches or relaxing in their bourgeois homes”; “whiteness has thus been soiled beyond recognition”; “whites as the major obstacle in their progress towards peace, prosperity and a sane society”; “at best, blacks see whiteness as a concept that warrants being despised, hated, destroyed and replaced by an aspiration with more human content in it”. “There is nothing wrong with blacks” and all ‘whites’ are irredeemably evil.

He was a Black Nationalist.

Strangely, Biko focused his anti-‘white’ animosity not on Apartheid architects/agents who ultimately brutally murdered him: “these are not the people we are concerned with”. His worst enemies were “that curious bunch of [Anglophile] nonconformists who explain their participation in negative terms: that bunch of do-gooders that goes under all sorts of names - liberals, leftists etc.” He even vented against his folk: “The black man has become a shell, a shadow of man, completely defeated, drowning in his own misery, a slave, an ox bearing the yoke of oppression with sheepish timidity.”

Unlike Mandela et al., Biko excluded ‘white-liberals’ from contributing to the processes of black psychological/political liberation. Blacks must do this alone via a “very strong grass-roots build-up of black consciousness such that blacks can learn to assert themselves and stake their rightful claim.” “The Liberal must serve as a lubricating material”, and only ‘pitch up’ when the job is done.

He rejected classical liberalism.

Biko’s vision for the processes of liberation was Verwoerdian-segregationist: “At the heart of true integration is the provision for each man, each group to rise and attain the envisioned self. Each group must be able to attain its style of existence without encroaching on or being thwarted by another. Out of this mutual respect for each other and complete freedom of self-determination there will obviously arise a genuine fusion of the life-styles of the various groups. This is true integration.”

Biko ‘plagiarized’ Verwoerd in defining ‘blacks’ as nie blanke: ‘coloureds’ (including KhoiSan and ‘Malays’), Bantu (‘black’ Africans) and Indians. The justification of this biologically, anthropologically and culturally senseless taxonomy was that these ‘subsets‘ of humanity share a common colonial/Apartheid oppression that could be overcome in concert.

This required developing “Consciencism” sensu Kwame Nkrumah (“the map in intellectual terms of the disposition of forces which enable African society to digest the Western and the Islamic and the Euro-Christian elements in Africa, and develop them in such a way that they fit into the African personality”).

Nkrumah’s African persona is epitomized by “Négritude” sensu Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor (pride in possessing African characteristics, values, and aesthetics with a final goal of racial unity). According to Biko, this ‘fitting in’/’fusion’ would result in an inclusionary “joint culture” promulgated by a “vanguard political movement” (VPM).

But then he effectively marginalized ‘coloureds’/Indians by saying that, because South Africa is “a country in Africa, in which the majority of people are African”, it “must inevitably exhibit African values and be truly African in style”. This is reminiscent of the neo-VPM ANC/Jacob Zuma view: “We [Africans] have more rights here because we are a majority. You have fewer rights because you are a minority. Absolutely, that’s how democracy works.” These views violate Section 9 of South Africa’s Constitution.

He did not respect the rights of minorities.

His downfall

Biko’s demise began when he morphed the culturally-based-BCM into the nationally-political Black People’s Convention (BPC). The goal of the militant/African-biased BPC was to unite shattered/disparate fragments of the ANC, PAC and other liberation movements.

To that end, Biko met with Sobukwe, planned to meet with OliverTambo and tried to meet with Neville Alexander (but was rejected). Little is known about the agendas of these meetings, but they produced nothing. The BPC collapsed after his death and surviving members were killed, imprisoned or absorbed within the ANC and PAC.

What is his legacy?

Some rank Biko with Mandela and Sobukwe. Others maintain that he “was never able to gather and retain much support beyond a narrow band of African intellectuals” and accomplished little sustained mass organization or practical benefit for the masses. Others assert that BC-ideas are out-dated, hindering the development of multi/non-racial South Africa.

Mngxitama suggests that Biko, the BCM, BPC and other liberation movements were crushed by the United Democratic Movement and ANC and Oliver Tambo in part by condemning Biko as an agent of the CIA! In the end, by refusing to participate in CODESA and the 1994 democratic elections, the BCM committed socio-political suicide, effectively destroying Biko’s political legacy.

With regard to UCT 

Biko would demand: removal of symbols such as Rhodes’ statue, curriculum reform and more demographically representative academic staff. Given his/BCM’s policy of non-violence and demands that ‘blacks’ need to recover dignity/competence/self-confidence through Consciencism, Biko (like Neville Alexander) would insist that: ‘transformation’ be based on merit and syncretism; appointments/promotions not be based on ‘tokenism’; and violent/destructive behaviour should not be tolerated.


Biko’s resolutely exclusionary, Black Nationalist, anti-‘white-liberal’ strategy for liberation and post-liberation development and his decision to politicize/militarize the BCM abandoned inherently syncretic, non-violent elements of Consciencism and Négritude and put him on a collision course with the UDM/ANC and the Apartheid regime.

In doing so, he laid the foundations for the deaths of many and socio-educational destruction sensu lato beginning with the Soweto Student Uprising in 1976 and culminating with the collapse of family structure, education and the rule of law during the 1980s. His self-identified/appointed, squabbling, considerably less able, political/ideological successors take the current perverse position that, for “blacks to be beautiful”, ‘whites’ (and probably after them ‘coloureds’ and Indians) must be emasculated, if not destroyed.

I fear that the end result of all this will be neo-BCMers fighting about race/racism amongst themselves in the ashes resulting from the fire ignited by Biko’s candle.