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Biko’s idea of freedom still lives 40 years on

12 September 2017 marked the 40th anniversary of the death of the black consciousness (BC) leader, and one of the greatest sons of Africa, Bantu Stephen Biko.

Paranoia by the party in power was proven by the way the white minority apartheid regime treated Biko. He could not be blindfolded or neutralised as other leaders of the liberation movement.

Steve Biko was the first president of the South African Students Organisation (SASO) and Biko and originated the transition from multi-racialism to black consciousness in terms of struggle approaches. So it was after 1970 that scathing attacks on white liberal thinking began, which were led by Biko. He felt very strongly about the things he believed in. To him, whites had to prove themselves by directing all their energies into educating other whites. Furthermore, they had to prepare other whites to accept a future system of majority rule. Unless that were realised blacks would go it alone.

Biko’s BC movement, as understood when applied elsewhere, was founded on being “black and proud”. Although conditions were hard, he discouraged black people from asking for alms, begging and relying on hand-outs. It led him and his movement to encourage and even initiate “Self-Help Projects”. Clinics were also started for people, food gardens were initiated, projects that were consolidated. The June 16 Uprising was against the imposition and disadvantaging of African students in their education. In June 1976 the whole of South Africa was in flames. Biko’s fearlessness as a leader inspired others.

The following year, he died of brain damage at the hands of police, after being driven kilometres, naked and manacled, in a police van from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria.

He was caught by the authorities on his way to Cape Town to meet another revolutionary, the late Dr Neville Alexander. This was after meeting Robert Sobukwe under clandestine conditions.

The nation needs to honour Mama Nokuzola Biko and her daughter-in law, Ntsiki (Biko’s wife) for such a son and husband, who became a wonderful leader. As an ordinary human being he was far from perfect. But what he did as part of the leadership collective and support from the ground made a difference. There is a distortion being spread that the June 1976 uprising (an initiative of Biko’s BC movement) was not related or initiated by the movement, with the further argument that the uprising was spontaneous. Truth has a way of asserting itself and exposing lies. Where and when did the students make the placards and the planning of what to do at the school’s assembly point?

Biko’s movement led to the 1976 uprising, resulting in the swelling of the armies of the liberation movements, MK and APLA. Even Professor Wally Serote noted “SASO gave ‘to the ANC oxygen and new life, which the movement desperately needed – youth of the South African people, tempered in defiant action’.

The people of South Africa must claim and own their history, and not any political party that drives a partisan agenda. People who can be trusted with the truth are academics and independent thinkers, and not politicians. His parents didn’t make a mistake in naming him Bantu (people) because he died for the people. Biko owafel’a Bantu.

Forty years after he passed on his words still reverberate and haunt, even in this new South Africa, the “Rainbow Nation”, where black people are still demeaned, degraded, devalued disrespected and discriminated against. “Black man, you are on your own!”

His commitment and sacrifice for the emancipation of his people and his country affirmed him as a revolutionary in a pantheon of comrades of ideological persuasion. A revolutionary is one who is for a total transformation of society, as Biko certainly was. This is crowned by the fact that he didn’t see black consciousness as an end in itself, but as a means to freedom. He once declared: “it will be irrelevant in a colourless and non-exploitative egalitarian society.”

Biko’s utterances ring true more than 40 years on, the idea that he died for lives, the Freedom we live under. It is up to us to honour the source of such freedom and supreme sacrifice made. “It is better to die for an idea that will live than to live for an idea that will die,” Biko declared. Those responsible for his death lived for the idea that died, apartheid — John Vorster, Jimmy Kruger, PW Botha, Magnus Malan. Some of the freedom songs referred to them as dogs, part of the ugly side of our history.

Biko’s death, like his contribution, became a major contribution in advancing the cause of the struggle that led to this democracy. His death led to international protests and the UN arms embargo on South Africa.

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