Steve Biko is arguably one of the most contested freedom fighters of our time. The dominant post-1994 discourse has sought to portray Biko as, among others, a liberal non-racialist, who didn’t belong to any political movement. Essentially, reducing his political legacy to an apolitical intellectual current that has no connection with the existential struggles of the black majority.
In South Africa today we are witnessing a resurgence of Black Consciousness (BC), which articulates itself in the contemporary experience and grass-roots struggles of the black majority. The main reason behind this resurgence lies in Biko’s conception of the interplay between the notions of freedom and power.
Addressing this interplay in his essay “Our Strategy For Liberation”, Biko makes the point that “I think there is no running away from the fact that in South Africa there is such an ill distribution of wealth that any form of political freedom which does not touch on the proper distribution of wealth will be meaningless. The whites have locked up within a small minority of themselves the greater proportion of the country’s wealth. If we have a mere change of face of those in governing positions what is likely to happen is that black people will continue to be poor, and you will see a few blacks filtering through into the so-called bourgeoisie. Our society will be run as of yesterday. So for meaningful change to appear there needs to be an attempt at reorganising the whole economic pattern and policies within this particular country”.
Then in his essay on “The Definition of Black Consciousness” he makes the point that “…Blacks no longer seek to reform the system because so doing implies acceptance of the major points around which the system revolves. Blacks are out to completely transform the system and to make of it what they wish. Such a major undertaking can only be realized in an atmosphere where people are convinced of the truth inherent in their stand. Liberation therefore is of paramount importance in the concept of Black Consciousness, for we cannot be conscious of ourselves and yet remain in bondage. We want to attain the envisioned self which is a free self”.
At the time of making these very profound observations, I doubt Biko knew then that they would be central in defining the dilemma of black liberation in future. From Biko’s observations, there are at least three points that are worth emphasising. One, political freedom that is not accompanied by concomitant economic freedom is meaningless. Second, even if a government is under the full direction of the former oppressed, if such a government doesn’t control the national economy- such a government is essentially toothless. And thirdly, unless a former oppressed people are fully in charge of the instruments of political and economic organisation- their attempts at liberation are likely to amount to reform and not transformation.
Now, where do we locate Biko in the context of what is happening today in South Africa and the world?
Thirty six years after Biko’s death, the issues of land repossession, ownership of the economy and wealth redistribution, which he in the 1970s regarded as essential to the meaning of freedom and power for black people, have now found their way back on our nation’s political discourse – albeit in revised form. What are the implications of the resurgence Biko’s thought and analysis for our contemporary political discourse?
First, it brings into serious question the meaning of the political settlement reached at CODESA, over twenty years ago, and the substance of what others refer to as the “April 27 Breakthrough”. Biko’s conception of freedom and power compels us to ask whether the CODESA talks were really about black freedom or finding a mechanism to ensure that even if whites cede the state to blacks, they must still retain control of the economy? It also begs the question – what exactly have blacks been celebrating, for the past 19 years, on the 27 April each year?
Second, in addition to these very discomforting but pertinent questions, Biko’s conception of freedom and power helps us to understand that, just as there is a growing sense of excitement among our country’s ruling elite as they prepare for the glitz and glamour, of what they refer to as the “20th anniversary of freedom” in April 2014- underneath all this excitement lies the pain and anguish of the black majority whose existence continues to be defined by landlessness, grinding poverty, vulgar inequality, police brutality, powerless and hopelessness. This is particularly true for the youth, women and rural communities.
Third, we must locate Biko at the heart of the incessant grass-roots rebellions by black communities, the working class, peasants and students, which are deliberately delegitimised as “service delivery protests”- when they are in fact political rebellions against the status quo.
Fourth, we must locate Biko in the struggle against the state under the ANC, which has adopted an increasingly anti-black stance, in pursuance of its neo-liberal agenda, the consequence of which has been the cold blooded murders of Andries Tatane and black workers in Marikana.
It is Biko’s conception of freedom and power that brings us to the sobering realisation that in modern memory, the two events that aptly demonstrate not just the growing discontent of the black majority, but also the increasingly anti-black character of the state under ANC-is the killing of Andries Tatane and the black workers who led the Marikana Uprising. These two uprisings are likely to, in much the same way as the Soweto Uprising did, not just redefine the temperament of our national politics for a long to come- but they are also likely to precipitate a turning point in the direction of our nation’s politics.
Also, one of the hallmarks of Biko’s methodology was the centrality of the involvement of grass-roots communities in the conscientisation projects of the BCM. Biko must therefore also be located in the emergence of a number of radical worker and youth social movements, which are increasingly becoming the face of contemporary community struggles in the black community.
The emergence of these grass-roots organisations has also implied the absence of the historically left organisations such as AZAPO and the PAC, in the daily struggles of the black community. This development should be particularly concerning for organisations like AZAPO, which have over the years, been regarded as the flag bearer of Biko’s vision.
In their individual manifestations, the organisations that uphold Black Consciousness and Pan Afrikanism have been struggling to develop a programme that resonates with the growing black discontent and translate this into something of a meaningful, radical and sustainable political programme. The inability of organisations like AZAPO and the PAC to strike a chord with grass-roots black discontent is not just attributable to internal factors; there are also external factors, which have conspired to deliberately emasculate any political alternative to the dominant neo-liberal discourse.
Also, one of the things that distinguished Biko from the freedom fighters of his time was his preoccupation with the black condition. Therefore, any organisation that wants to advance Biko’s ideas and vision today must naturally also make the black condition its primary preoccupation. It is for this reason that the latest unity attempts between AZAPO and SOPA should be welcomed. This unity should be used to lay the foundation for a broader consolidation of the organisations that represent the interests of blacks and possibly the formation of a broad black front.
This is necessary for a number of reasons. First, because Biko understood the pervasive impact of the systems of white supremacy and capitalism, on black life and therefore placed a lot of value on the principle of the unity of the oppressed. This also explains why, at the time of his capture and ultimate murder, he was on a mission to plant the seeds for closer cooperation between the BCM, ANC, PAC and Unity Movement. Second, globally and in South Africa, there has been a growing consolidation of the liberal and conservative right and in the South African context; this is essentially aimed at perpetuating white power and black powerlessness.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, the struggle for wealth redistribution and land reconquest remains incomplete. This was the essence of the black liberation struggle and it is for this reason that Biko argued that, political freedom without concomitant economic freedom is meaningless. It is also critical that such a front should not be narrowly focused on electoral politics as this thinking tends to emasculate the potential for a radical shift from the current approach.
Biko was also pan-afrikanist and internationalist in his outlook and it is therefore critical that the consolidation of Black Power in South Africa, should also be geared towards supporting the efforts to defend the right to self-determination of the peoples of Afrika and in particular the people of Zimbabwe. Such a consolidation must also be geared towards supporting the struggles of the indigenous peoples of Asia, North, Central and Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific against corporate-state environmental imperialism.
It becomes increasingly clear that central to Biko’s conception of Black Consciousness was the need for black people to approach the issues that concern them as a group and not as fragments that are engaged in a counter-productive competition with one another. Unless blacks in South Africa organise themselves into a solid unit and form solidarity links with other oppressed peoples on the Afrikan continent and other parts of the world- their state of economic powerlessness will persist.
In the context of an increasingly neo-liberal and anti-black state-the best tribute we can pay to Biko is for all political forces that represent the blacks- to come together and work towards a programme that radically departs from the current hegemonic anti black-neo-liberal discourse.
* Veli Mbele is a writer and social commentator.