One of the outstanding African revolutionaries Sekou Toure once wrote: “To take part in the African revolution it is not enough to write a revolutionary song; you must fashion the revolution with the people. And if you fashion it with the people, the songs will come by themselves, and of themselves. In order to achieve real action, you must yourself be a living part of Africa and of her thought; you must be an element of that particular energy which is entirely called forth for the freeing, the progress and the happiness of Africa. There is no place outside that fight for that artist or for the intellectual who is himself not concerned with and completely at one with the people in the great battle of Africa and of suffering humanity”.
Bantu Steven Biko was a revolutionary who directed his work and strength to the liberation of his people, both psychologically and otherwise, from white minority domination. He was brutally murdered on 12 September 1977 by the apartheid killing machinery. He was indeed one of the towering giants of the struggle for liberation in South Africa. The main thrust of Biko’s writings was to drive home the lesson that if blacks are to assert themselves in South Africa, they must turn away from the liberal trap of integration with whites, build their own sense of self as blacks. Addressing mourners at the funeral of Biko, Archbishop Desmond Tutu called him “a young man completely dedicated to the pursuit of justice and righteousness, of peace and reconciliation. A young man completely dedicated to radical change in our beloved land”.
He held high for our people, the hope in human values and the triumph of the human spirit. He encouraged us not only to rise above our limitations but that we must never collude in our own suffering. Biko belonged to a very rare breed of outstanding revolutionaries who lived prophetically what they preached. The expropriation of land will restore a sense of pride and dignity to the Africans from whom it was stolen through the barrel of the gun during the colonial conquest. This will be in the living memory of legendary Steve Biko. He wrote the following in his seminal work, I Write What I like– “You are either alive and proud or you are dead, and when you are dead, you can’t care anyway. And your method of death can’t itself be a politicizing thing. So you die in the riots…..So if you can overcome the personal fear for death, which is a highly irrational thing, you know, then you’re on the way”.
The former President Nelson Mandela observed that “the attitude of mind and way of life that Biko and his comrades called for are needed today in abundance. They are relevant as we define our being as an African nation on the African continent. They are pertinent in our drive to ward off the temptation to become clones of other people.” The contribution of Steve Biko is more relevant than ever before. Despite the 1994 Democratic Breakthrough, white supremacy and racism still persist. Propaganda of white supremacy plays a key role in manipulating our people to believe that the problems facing our country can be solved if they collaborate with the political parties that seek to restore white minority privileges. The trend in the election polls where blacks allowed themselves to be stooges of political parties of white supremacy like DA and casting of their votes for such, bear testimony to this. Most recently, we have witnessed Mosiua Lekota’s COPE collaborating with the white farmers with a view to frustrating the government’s effort to address the land question in our motherland.
Cde Nelson Mandela added that “while Steve Biko espoused, inspired, and promoted black pride, he never made blackness a fetish. At the end of the day, as he himself pointed out, accepting one`s blackness is a critical starting point: an important foundation for engaging in struggle. Today, it must be a foundation for reconstruction and development, for a common human effort to end war, poverty, ignorance and disease.” Biko must continue to inspire us to wage the struggle for the total liberation of blacks in general and Africans, in particular, from the last vestiges of apartheid colonialism.
Our country needs the services of as many black intellectuals as possible for the colossal task of transforming our country. To counter backward and reactionary tendencies that bedevil our society, the black intelligentsia must play an important role by engaging in the public discourse. They must grasp the theory of the revolution and strengthen their political and ideological work by becoming a base for agitation, propaganda and practical organising work among the masses. This means that they must always work among the masses and try at every step to push the consciousness of the masses in the direction of socialism, to link up every specific question with the general tasks of the working class and the poor and comprehend the leading role of the working class in the revolution.
The intervention on the level of consciousness – and consciousness was a key concept in his political approach and vocabulary – was at the essence of Biko’s strategic brilliance and understanding. That intervention came at a time when the political pulse of our people had been rendered faint by banning, imprisonment, exile, murder and banishment. Repression had swept the country clear of all visible organisation of the people. But it was also a time when the tide of Africa’s valiant struggle and her liberation was consolidating black pride across the world and firing the determination of all those who were oppressed to take their destiny into their own hands.
A new attitude of mind and way of life are required in our efforts to change the human condition. But they can only thrive if we succeed in that common effort to build a better life. They are required as we strive to bring all power into the hands of the people; as we seek to shape a new media that appreciates the conditions and aspirations of the majority; as we change the structure of ownership of wealth; as we build a new ethos in our ideals, and yet at the same time, the specificity of our own concrete conditions.
A report to the Plenary Session of the South African Communist Party (SACP) in 1973 stated that “Our Party is a Marxist-Leninist party which upholds the principles of the unity of the working class throughout the world, without regard to race or colour. We reject the narrow ideology of bourgeois nationalism which divides the workers and can lead to harmful concepts of chauvinism and racialism. There is no conflict between this, our outlook, and our unqualified support for the progressive elements present in the nationalism of an oppressed people struggling for its national freedom. We have consistently upheld the efforts of the ANC to build up and assert the rights of the African nation in our country; we have worked hard and long to achieve the fighting unity of the African, Coloured and Indian people against white domination. From this point of view, we warmly welcome the assertion of national identity, pride and confidence implicit in the overall concept of “Black Consciousness”. It is a fully justified and healthy response to the insulting arrogance of the white supremacists. The current spread of Black Consciousness is a contribution to the “psychological liberation” of the African people. It is essentially a part of the prolonged struggle which was proclaimed by the African National Congress in 1912, and which has always received the fullest support of our Party.”
The Party correctly distinguished Black Consciousness from other forms of narrow-nationalism. The latter represents backward tendencies and is reactionary in its manifestation while the former embraces liberation and hope for the future. As Steve Biko outlined it: “The philosophy of Black Consciousness expresses group pride and the determination by the blacks to rise and attain the envisaged self. At the heart of this kind of thinking is the realisation by the blacks that the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. Once the latter has been so effectively manipulated and controlled by the oppressor as to make the oppressed believe that he is a liability to the white man, then there will be nothing the oppressed can do that will really scare the powerful masters. Hence thinking along lines of Black Consciousness makes the black man see himself as being entire in himself, and not as an extension of a broom or additional leverage to some machine. At the end of it all, he cannot tolerate attempts by anybody to dwarf the significance of his manhood. Once this happens, we shall know that the real man in the black person is beginning to shine through…Various black groups are beginning to rid their minds of imprisoning notions which are the legacy of the control of their attitude by whites.”- I Write What I Like.
Biko’s life and thought, as that of our departed martyrs and many others, remind us that whatever has been gained, including independence and national liberation, did not come of themselves. They were results of struggle and sacrifice, and it behoves us, the inheritors of any and every benefit of those sacrifices, never to forget. A people without memory are in danger of losing their soul. As we observe the 41st anniversary of the brutal murder of Steve Biko, let us unite in action and act in unity to advance deepen the democratic breakthrough. Let us fight racism. poverty, corruption, inequality, unemployment and most importantly, fight the capitalist mode of production for bringing the untold miseries to our country. His teachings are more relevant in the liberated South Africa than they were during the struggle for liberation. We draw inspiration from his indefatigable energy, exemplary courage and unceasing creativity that are to be imbibed by every revolutionary intelligentsia.
Dr Lehlohonolo Kennedy Mahlatsi is SACP Free State PEC (Provincial Executive Committee) Member And Anc Member. He writes in his personal capacity