‘The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.’
The words of Bantu Steve Biko, a South African anti-apartheid activist in the 1960’s and 70s. A student leader, he later founded the Black Consciousness Movement which would empower and mobilize much of the urban black population. The Movement was a peaceful one, opposed to violence. Biko died in police custody on the 12th September, 1977. Thirty years old, he was handcuffed, beaten and naked for twenty days before suffering a massive brain haemorrhage. Forced to endure the 700-mile journey from security police headquarters in Port Elizabeth to Pretoria, fatally injured in the back of a landrover, he was denied medical assistance and died, alone, shackled on the floor of a filthy cell.
Were the five policemen involved in his brutal death ever brought to justice? A Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 1994 to investigate past abuses of human rights, sought to look into Biko’s death but his family opposed it on the grounds that the Commission could grant amnesty to those responsible. In 1996, the Constitutional Court ruled against the family and the investigation followed. Five police officers appeared before the Commission requesting amnesty in return for information apropos the events surrounding their prisoner’s death. It was denied on the grounds that their stories did not reconcile and, besides, there was no clear political motive for Biko’s killing.
‘In October 2003, South Africa’s justice ministry announced that the five policemen would not be prosecuted because the statute of limitations had elapsed and there was insufficient evidence to secure a prosecution.’ (Wikipedia.)
In the absence of justice …
Steve Biko. Dwarfed by Nelson Mandela. Justifiably? I only became aware of the name Biko in light of Richard Attenborough’s 1987 film Cry Freedom. Based on the books of Donald Woods, a white South African journalist and anti-apartheid activist, it charts the story of their friendship – based on shared beliefs and the value of truth and justice – culminating in the death of Biko and the ensuing escape of Woods and his family from their homeland. A superb film crying out to be made, it brought the name Biko to light, once more, while all around were the cries of ‘Free Nelson Mandela!‘.
A hit for The Specials in 1984 – written by Jerry Dammers who had never even heard of Mandela before attending an anti-apartheid concert in 1983 – all I remember is the anger of the white South Africans, in this country, who regarded him as little more than a terrorist! How things change. How history adapts. Mandela came to embrace violence, believing it necessary in the political struggle, and thus, in 1961 – without the permission of the party’s president, Albert Luthuli – he established the ANC’s underground military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe or Spear of the Nation. Jailed for life in 1964, he was offered freedom several times, courtesy of various conditions – one being the renouncing of violence – but he refused. Twenty-seven years later, in 1990, he was released and went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 – together with President FW de Klerk – for his part in bringing an end to apartheid and striving for a peaceful South Africa.
A giant of a world figure, Mandela is now regarded as an icon of pacifism alongside the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. However, neither Gandhi nor King condoned violence – neither did Steven Biko.
It is Wednesday, 3rd as I, now, write. I so wanted to post this yesterday – my contribution to Blackout Tuesday – but it is a huge topic and I spent much of the afternoon and evening looking back over the stories of Biko – and Mandela. I’m not sure I would have broached the subject had it not been for the fact that I was nominated, by a friend (same one as last time!), to post 7 book titles in 7 days on Facebook. I am grateful to her as, with the news focused on the death of George Floyd – and in my search for my next book cover – I was reminded of Biko and his murder at the hands of the police.
‘At its heart Black Consciousness demanded pride, self-assertion and self-confidence. Biko’s idea was that this would, in turn, stimulate a “revolution of the mind”, allowing oppressed peoples to overcome the racial inferiority and fear propagated by white racism so they could appreciate that they were not just “appendages to the white society”. This relatively simple idea radically changed perceptions of the struggle. It helped instil a new cultural and psychological outlook among the black population, and thereby renewed the challenge to the apartheid system.’
(Why is Steve Biko’s remarkable legacy often overlooked? Matthew Graham. The Conversation. September 4, 2017.)
Steve Biko was a pacifist who strove for change through words and ideas, alone. These became potent weapons, however, and, recognised by the white minority state as such, Biko was subjected to a banning order in 1973. An order which confined him to King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape, it also prevented him speaking in public. Arrested for subversion in August 1977, the rest is history; Biko’s history, now, seemingly, buried beneath the weight of Mandela.
In pondering the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands – or knee – of evil, it is hard to make sense of it all. Mindless killing by corrupt thugs behind the guise of uniform. Uneducated bullies whose self-worth is embedded in dominance achieved by violence. Of course, it was racist but racism merely sanctioned the green light. That policeman – those policemen – must seek outlets for their inner anger; a hatred which, surely, comes from within; one which is nurtured in the home. Racism is an excuse!
The public outcry which has ensued is justified – and inevitable – but the violence and opportunism is not. Once again, we bear witness to the anger and hatred in the world – and the crowd mentality; the need to operate en masse. The monster responsible for the abhorrent murder – and the cowards who stood by – are individuals. They are not representative of all police in the same way that one white racist does not – cannot – condemn the rest of us!
Human beings believe themselves the superior race. Why is that, exactly? For reasons of intellect, education? For all that, we remain primal, seeking strength in numbers. The modern world, ironically, is one of disconnection; of increasing isolation spawning low self-esteem and a multitude of mental health issues. Mass indoctrination courtesy of social media has led to people losing the ability to think for themselves. The individual is a lone voice. Tarring everyone with the same brush, however, is pernicious and contrary to any form of healing.
So it is that racism is alive and well – as is the class system. Inherent in both is the word collective; a mindset which must change. One’s attitude and ongoing treatment of one’s fellow human being is borne in the home. One learns from one’s parents how to respond to the outside world. It is here one learns compassion and to treat others as one would expect to be treated oneself. One learns … What fairytale am I reading from? The family unit is all but gone along with most of the values which matter. What does matter is that the colour of one’s skin has no bearing on the person within. Self-worth, however? Well, it is everything!
This, I suppose, is my equivalent of a black screen. I didn’t post yesterday as I was engrossed in research. I’m not sure if any of it makes any sense but I delved deep and I’m grateful that my search for a book cover led me to revisit the story of Biko. I, for one, believe he got it right …
‘They killed Biko because he had an idea: that blacks must be proud.’ Julius Malema
(Imagining Steve Biko as the anti-Mandela ignores his greatest contributions, Lynsey Chutel.
Quartz Africa, September 12, 2017.)
This is Trish, signing off.