In its fear and its desperation, in its brutality and callous disregard for life, the apartheid state inflicted a devastating loss on the Steven Bantu Biko family and on our nation. The murder of Steve Biko reverberated across the world, reinforcing the characterisation of apartheid as a crime against humanity.
We commemorate a cruel death. We also honour and celebrate a remarkable life. It was a life dedicated to the pursuit of freedom, equality and truth. It was the life of a great, but humble, revolutionary who fiercely rejected the false hierarchy of races.
He spoke with a burning eloquence of the essential humanity of all people. He understood that the system of apartheid was predicated on the deliberate lie of white supremacy and black inferiority. He knew too that this lie was perpetuated by those who sought to preserve white economic privilege at the direct expense and to the exclusion of the black majority.
The philosophy of Steve Biko was fundamentally the antithesis of this lie; it was about establishing the principles on which a new and more humane society would be established. He made this clear when he said:
“We have set out on a quest for true humanity and somewhere in the distant horizon we can see the glittering prize. Let us march forth with courage and determination, drawing strength from our common plight and our brotherhood.
“In time we shall be in a position to bestow upon South Africa the greatest gift possible — a more human face.”
“But where did this all come from?” Some have asked.
Ian McQueen in his book “Black Consciousness and the Progressive Movements Under Apartheid” writes that the Black Consciousness Movement was “A protean movement, the product of its time, the Black consciousness movement drew from diverse trajectories of the ideas constituted in distinct places, ideas moulded to fit a purpose – to resuscitate black pride and to generate a renewed project of political empowerment. Black consciousness emphasise the way of life, which those oppressed by apartheid should adopt, to embody a liberated mind.”
What Steve Biko sought to articulate was the lived experience of black people and to restore the true humanity of all people, black and white, and to build a society in which there would no majority, nor minority. There would just be people, free, fulfilled and at peace.
It is that quest – for a true humanity – that must lie at the core of our every endeavour. For decades, this quest has been a constant companion to the struggles of our people for freedom, dignity and respect. It was present at the formation of the liberation movements, during the campaigns of defiance, the strikes and the stayaways, the armed resistance. It is found within seminal documents like the African Claims and the Freedom Charter, in the writings of Pixley ka Seme, Sol Plaatje, Alex la Guma, Bessie Head, Steve Biko and others. Now, in another time, under different circumstances, as we confront new and sometimes unexpected challenges, we are driven by this goal.
To succeed, we must start – as Steve Biko did – with affirming our own sense of self. Biko taught us the revolutionary value of the confidence of black people in their own humanity and identity. He spoke of the debilitating effect of centuries of colonialism on the psyche of black people, making them complicit in perpetuating a sense of inferiority. His answer, black consciousness, was for the black person to see themselves as being complete in themselves.
It was a philosophy that embraced the confidence and optimism of the African-American poet and social activist, Langston Hughes, who wrote:
“I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
‘Eat in the kitchen,’
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.”
Like Langston Hughes, Steve Biko sought to lead his people to claim their rightful place at the table of humanity. Not under the table or on the side of the table.
While some regard black consciousness as a historical artefact, the ideas that Steve Biko propounded are timeless and universal. They are no less powerful and no less relevant today.
Even as we have defeated apartheid, even as we have built a democratic state, the psychological and physical vestiges of institutionalised racism persist.
Even today, we observe, in ways both subtle and crude, the residue of some amongst our white compatriots who have a sense of entitlement and a dose of arrogance. But in some circles we also still observe black submission.
Thanks to the advent of social media, the prejudice that lurks below the surface is, from time to time, given virulent expression. It is a measure of the progress we have made, and of the impact of leaders like Steve Biko and Oliver Tambo, that society reacts with revulsion to racist outbursts.
While naked racism is an aberration, the material manifestation of racism – white wealth and black poverty – is the norm. It is our responsibility therefore to both confront deeply embedded feelings of inferiority that manifest in submission and also deal with superiority that is expressed in supremacy. This should then enable us to work to overcome the economic and social inequality that underpins them.
This is not confined to race. Throughout history, there are few relationships more unequal than those between men and women. Women bear the brunt of centuries of discrimination and oppression, imposed in this case not by a colonial power, but by the traditions, practices and institutions of the societies into which they were born.
The struggle against patriarchy is therefore a struggle against the social norms, the attitudes and the thoughts that embolden men and enfeeble women. As black consciousness is a necessary part of the response to racism, so too is the self-affirmation of women necessary for the achievement of gender equality.
The assertion by women of their own power and agency is the foundation on which we must work together to eradicate all forms and manifestations of patriarchy. It is a necessary condition for the improvement of the economic status of women and the achievement of real equality in all areas of life.
Our quest for a true humanity requires that we end poverty. No society can be free for as long as any member is denied the basic requirements of life – food, shelter, water, security, work. When poverty is so widespread, when it is so deeply embedded in the structure of society, when it has existed for as long as any of us can remember, then there is a real danger that we learn to live with it and accept it as part and parcel of our existence.
We should not, and cannot, accept that poverty is an inevitable feature of the human condition. Because the face of poverty in South Africa is that of an African woman, our task is to address the racial and gender dimensions of economic exclusion. This means, in the first instance, that we must educate the black child and the girl child.
If we are to end the transmission of poverty being inter-generational moving from generation to generation, we must ensure that every child receives from their earliest years until adulthood a comprehensive quality education.
This is the reason why we have invested so extensively in early childhood development and why we have made higher education free to the children of the poor and working class. It is for this reason too that we continue to give attention to the physical state of our schools, the availability of resources and the quality of learning, teaching and leadership.
Despite the progress made over the last two decades, inequality in education remains one of the greatest obstacles to the achievement of a just and prosperous future. The faultlines of race, gender, class and geography are nowhere more distinct than in access to a decent education. Unless we correct this as a matter of priority, we will not reduce inequality and we will not end poverty.
It requires a shift in social mindset, where few things are valued more than knowledge and learning – where parents, relatives, friends and neighbours take a keen interest in the development of the young mind. It requires teachers, principals, administrators, elected representatives and political formations who place at the centre of their efforts the promotion of educational excellence. We must be a society where the burning of a school, the trashing of a library, is a great affront to our sense of moral purpose.
Our quest for a true humanity must be rooted in a genuine sense of solidarity. For the last three centuries, the history of our country has been defined by the deprivation of the many to enable the enrichment of the few. Today, our people continue to live that history. Millions live without work, without land, without security, without opportunity. And yet, our Constitution – which is readily embraced by all South Africans – enjoins us not only to recognise the injustices of the past, but also to ensure equitable redress of historical iniquity.
Since the advent of democracy, we have progressively directed resources towards meeting the needs of the poor, providing assets in the form of land and houses, equalising spending on education, health and social grants, and investing in infrastructure in previously neglected areas.
We have enacted legislation and implemented policies to improve the representation of blacks, women and people with disability in the economy, to encourage the development of black and women entrepreneurs, and to increase black ownership of the economy. These efforts have met with some success, but have not done nearly enough to reduce inequality or overcome exclusion.
We are therefore called upon to embark on an extensive programme of fundamental redistribution that closes the gap between those who have and those who have not, between white and black, and between men and women.
It requires the involvement of all within society – with those who have most been prepared to make the greatest contribution. It requires a recognition by those who are the beneficiaries of decades of racial privilege that they have both a responsibility and a vested interest in ending privilege and effecting redress.
Inequality severely constrains our ability as a country to realise our potential, it limits growth, perpetuates hardship and promotes instability. We must therefore become a society defined by solidarity, not competition. We must build a society that is defined by compassion, selflessness and generosity.
Those who have followed the history of the Black Consciousness `Movement will have realised that the BC Movement was deeply rooted in encouraging those amongst black people who had become better off to demonstrate compassion by getting involved in community work. Unlike its characterisation as a movement of predominantly intellectuals, black consciousness activists had a strong ethos of community involvement and students were encouraged to plough back their skills and knowledge into their local communities. Ian McQueen observes this in his book.
A practical expression of this was how the BC Movement went around setting up clinics in deep rural areas of our country to empower our people. Dr Mamphela Ramphele was at the cutting edge of this development.
We must give effect to the expression: ‘From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.’ Our quest for a true humanity requires that we have leaders of integrity and a society that values honesty and hard work.
As we emerge from the corruption of apartheid, we are called upon to forge a new morality, which places the interests of the people above the narrow interests of the individual.
Now in the 25th year of our democracy, we must acknowledge with shame and regret that we have failed to live up to the standards of the selfless leaders that came before us. We now know of powerful individuals who used positions of authority to plunder the resources of the state, threatening our economic sustainability and further impoverishing our people. We now know of business people whose reckless and fraudulent actions eroded the savings of many ordinary people.
Astounded as we are by the devastating audacity of one family and their associates, we should not be blinded to the corruption that has taken hold in many institutions across government. This requires firm, decisive and united action. We have begun the work, but there is much more to do. Commissions of inquiry, disciplinary hearings, criminal prosecution and lengthy prison sentences are necessary instruments to tackle this scourge. But ultimately, we will not succeed unless we forge a new morality.
We need leaders who serve with diligence and commitment, seeking neither advantage nor undue rewards for themselves. Every citizen needs to respect the rights and property of others, respect the law and be respected by the law. We must rise above the differences of colour, faith, creed and affiliation to pursue a common mission. We must draw on the example of Steve Biko, who belonged to a special generation of young and fearless patriots who kept the flames of liberation burning.
He and leaders like Professor Harry Nengwekhulu and Rev Barney Pityana bequeathed to our nation a cohort of leaders who were politicised in the South African Student Organisation and sharpened their revolutionary skills in struggle.
The Black Consciousness Movement gave rise to an enduring consciousness among oppressed South Africans who found political homes in different organisations but shared a common commitment to end a crime against humanity.
Bantu Steve Biko led people, not parties.His revolution was one of the mind, not one of membership. The alumni of his movement are spread across many formations and are found in many parts of society and different geographies.
Steve Biko was a selfless revolutionary whose epoch defining ideas contributed significantly in making South Africa what it is today. His thoughts continue to guide us in our quest for a true humanity. So let us march forth, as Steve Biko called on us to do, with courage and determination to bestow upon South Africa the greatest gift possible – a more human face.
By Cyril Ramaphosa,
President of South Africa.