Basically the South African White community is a homogeneous community. It is a community of people who sit to enjoy a privileged position that they do not deserve, are aware of this, and therefore spend their time trying to justify why they are doing so. Where differences in political opinion exist, they are in the process of trying to justify their position of privilege and their usurpation of power.
We are concerned with that curious bunch of non-conformists who explain their participation in negative terms: that bunch of do-gooders that goes under all sorts of names – liberals, leftists etc. These are the people who argue that they are not responsible for White racism and the country’s “inhumanity to the Black man.” The role of the White liberal in the Black man’s history in South Africa is a curious one. True to their image, the White liberals always knew what was good for the Blacks and told them so. The wonder of it all is that the Black people have believed in them for so long.
From I Write What I Like: Selected Writings, written by Stephen Biko and edited by Aelred Stubbs C.R., published 1979.
On September 12, 1977, Stephen Bantu Biko was murdered by the White supremacist minority regime which occupied Azania (South Africa) at the time.
Biko, who is considered the father of the Black Consciousness Movement of Azania, was born on December 18, 1946 in King William’s Town, in the Eastern Cape Province. He was the third of four children born to Mzimgayi and Nokusola Biko.
On August 18, 1977, he was detained under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act of 1967 and taken to Port Elizabeth, where he was kept naked and shackled, brutally beaten and tortured to death.
He had been detained for 101 days from August to December 1976 under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act and was released without being charged. The Terrorism Act No. 83 of 1967 was a law of the White supremacist apartheid regime.
Section 6 of the Act allowed the detention of anyone “suspected” of engaging in terrorist acts to be detained for a 60-day period (which could be renewed) without trial on the authority of a senior police officer. Terrorism was broadly defined as anything that might “endanger the maintenance of law and order”.
Since there was no requirement to release information on who was being held people detained under this Act tended to disappear. It is estimated that approximately 80 people died while being detained under the Act.
In Biko’s case, he was interrogated for 22 hours (including torture and beatings resulting in him going into a coma) by officers of the Port Elizabeth security police. He suffered a head injury while in police custody and was chained to a window grille for a day. Biko was kept in leg irons and handcuffs, severely beaten and tortured from the day he was arrested (August 18, 1977) until the day he succumbed to the injuries (September 12, 1977).
Biko defined Black Consciousness as:
“An attitude of mind and a way of life. The call for Black Consciousness is the most positive call to come from any group in the Black world for a long time. It is more than just a reactionary rejection of Whites by Blacks. The philosophy of Black Consciousness therefore expresses group pride and the determination of the Black to rise and attain the envisaged self.
“Its essence is the realization by the Black man of the need to rally together with his brothers around the cause of their oppression – the Blackness of their skin – and to operate as a group in order to rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude.”
Biko established the Black Consciousness Movement in December 1968 with the founding of the South African Students’ Organization (SASO). In July 1969, Biko was elected president of SASO.
During his presidential address to the First National Formation School of SASO (December 1 to 4, 1969), Biko explained some of the reasoning behind the opposition of “liberal” White students to the foundation of SASO:
“The idea of everything being done for the Blacks is old one and all liberals take pride in it; but once the Black students want to do things for themselves suddenly they are regarded as being ‘militant.’”
As a medical student at the University of Natal, non-European section, Durban, Biko had been active in the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). Although NUSAS tolerated African students, it was under the leadership of White students.
In the biography, Biko, published in 1978, Donald Woods, a White journalist, wrote:
“Apartheid, designed to suppress a unified Black response, had created precisely such a response. In denying validity to any claim by Blacks to even the slightest share in a common multiracial society, the racists had driven the most articulate young Blacks into claiming not merely a share but the dominant share in such a society – on their own terms.
“The young Steve Biko and his colleagues had seized the shoulder of the sleeping giant of Black awareness in South Africa to shake him from his slumber. And more than that: to raise him to his feet, to stretch him to his full height, and to place him for the first time into the attitudes of total challenge toward all those who had sought to keep him prone. Black Consciousness was born, a new totality of Black response to White power, and with it a new era in the racial struggle in South Africa.”
In August 1970, one month after he was elected Chairman of SASO Publications, Biko began writing a series of articles published under the pseudonym “Frank Talk” in the SASO newsletter under the heading “I Write What I Like”.
In March 1973, Biko was “banned”, which meant he could not travel, speak in public or have any written work published. Obviously, Biko’s writings greatly troubled the White establishment. He wrote about integration, which was illegal under an apartheid regime and even more troubling, it was not the integration favoured by White liberals.
“The myth of integration as propounded under the banner of liberal ideology must be cracked and killed because it makes people believe that something is being done when in actual fact the artificial integrated circles are a soporific on the Blacks and provide a vague satisfaction for the guilty-stricken Whites.”
He wrote of the hypocrisy of the “liberal” Whites’ attempt to salve their conscience:
“First the Black-White circles are almost always a creation of White liberals. As a testimony to their claim of complete identification with the Blacks, they call a few ‘intelligent and articulate’ Blacks to ‘come around for tea at home’. The more such tea-parties one calls the more liberal he is and the freer he shall feel from the guilt that harnesses and binds his conscience. Hence when he moves around his White circles – Whites-only hotels, beaches, restaurants and cinemas — with a lighter load, feeling that he is not like the rest.”
He offers a scathing indictment of the White liberals’ idea of integration in these words:
“Nothing could be more irrelevant and misleading. Those who believe in it are living in a fool’s paradise.”
As a critical thinker and community worker, Biko was a threat to the White supremacist regime that eventually murdered him.
The five White men (Harold Snyman, Daniel Siebert, Rubin Marx, Johan Beneke and Gideon Nieuwoudt) responsible for the brutal killing of Biko applied for amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of South Africa.
Biko’s family contested their application. On Thursday, July 25, 1996, South Africa’s most powerful court rejected the family’s attempt to prevent the killers from being pardoned if they confess.
A 1998 study by South Africa’s Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and the Khulumani Support Group, which surveyed victims of abuse during the Apartheid era, found that most felt that the TRC had failed to achieve reconciliation between the Black and White communities.
Most believed that justice was a prerequisite for reconciliation rather than an alternative to it and that the TRC had been weighted in favour of the perpetrators of abuse.
Today Biko is an international hero whose words are quoted in books and elsewhere (www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZHDPTE4TXk).
There are several musical tributes to his life and work including “Biko”, by Beenie Man, which can be viewed at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3U3OAtCCts.