He was killed three months before I would begin school, though I would only learn that later, in high school. His was one of a series of names intoned by some people, apart from the list of heroes intoned to educate us into the true political substance of the country at the time. But it would not be until I was 16 that I encountered his voice, in writing, to match the image and the stories which surfaced so intermittently across the previous decade.
Immediately, Steve Biko’s voice allowed me to make sense of the world I was entering, becoming an adult in late apartheid South Africa, studying at a then-still white liberal South African university, and having to assert a self in a world designed to deny my right to do so. It was powerful to see, in print, his assertion that "[t]here is nothing the matter with blacks. The problem is WHITE RACISM [sic]".
As I learned to read and reread text, sitting in seminars meant to inculcate the rituals of philology, I also had to confront how I was being read by the University of Cape Town staff and students. It was a space of ‘integration’, or its liberal white South African version of it. Elsewhere in the Republic of South Africa, where the Mixed Marriages Act, the Immorality Act, the Group Areas Act, and the Separate Amenities Act, among others, had been abolished, ‘Model C’ schools had been invented as ‘progress’ away from legislated white supremacy. Even at the time, it struck me as odd that piecemeal abolition of a crime against humanity without giving up the privileges accrued under it could be seen as taking the moral high ground.
The official end of legislated apartheid coincided with my working life in universities in 1994. Biko was now among the writers in the curricula for undergraduates reading for degrees in English literature at a formerly white liberal English South African university trying to reinvent itself in post-apartheid guise. But old habits were not as easily unlearned it seemed. Black people like me were still in the minority among the teaching and research staff, and even twenty years later, when I left full-time university employ when our numbers were improved, the whiteness at the heart of the organisations making up the institution of higher education had not been displaced or abolished.
Biko’s warning from the 1970s reads like a prophetic description of contemporary South Africa and its troubles: "I think there is no running away from the fact that now in South Africa there is such an ill distribution of wealth that any form of political freedom which does not touch on the proper [re]distribution of wealth will be meaningless. The whites have locked up within a small minority of themselves the greater proportion of the country’s wealth."
Rereading Steve Biko in post-millennial South Africa is not easy. Much of what he warned against more than a generation ago we have not only achieved, but institutionalised, and memorialised as victories, despite the evidence of the defeat they represent for millions every day. However, he is no prophet: he is of this time, and may speak to ours, but is not useful if reduced to anything like a lost saviour. Such a gesture would domesticate him in ways as offensive as do claims to his life and death by politically ambitious figures in the contemporary landscape.
Biko, as a product of his time, and what he has to teach us, must be critiqued in terms of what we have learned since he wrote so presciently and incisively about the South Africa of his time, and its potential futures. We inhabit one of those futures, but we need not do so inevitably. We have become more attuned to the complexities of gender, sexuality, geography, class, and generation in our embattled and embroiled relationship with late capitalism. It would be foolishly unproductive to want to hark back to the 1970s for simple solutions, or convenient denunciations. That would disrespect the excoriating intellectual achievement of Biko’s writing.
He did, after all, warn us against ourselves, we who identify as Black, and see the potential for a liberatory politics in such collective identification in a world where white supremacy is resurgent, and in a country where possessive investment in whiteness is only one of several challenges to Black people’s realisation of our full humanity. We also face the challenge of the consequences of the political transformation we have settled for. To quote Biko, "[i]f we have a mere change of face of those in governing positions, what is likely to happen is that Black people will continue to be poor, and you will see a few blacks filtering through into the so-called bourgeoisie. Our society will be run almost as of yesterday."
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?
Every year, on September 12, it may be important for South Africans grieving his death to recognise the losses of the people who lost a father, a husband, a lover, a close comrade, or a friend. That deeply personal, intimate grief can never be comprehended by those of us who did not know him, and should not be occluded by our need to claim Biko for ourselves. However, in recognising the primacy of their grief, we would be signalling our respect for the man himself. And lastly, instead of wanting to use him as an alternative father of the nation, or a Christ-like lost saviour who may only need to be resurrected, we could ask ourselves what we have learned from him, and how we can take that work seriously in taking on the problems of our own time in terms that take cognisance of his, but are not limited to them.
Could we in South Africa benefit from renewed Black Consciousness in the post-millennial post-apartheid period? Indeed, but one geared for these times, that speaks to our current dilemma as a country attempting to abolish the remnants of racism and work towards economic and social justice. After all, Biko’s own definition of Black Consciousness in available to us in I Write What I Like (1978) can still serve as the basis for helping those of us who identify as Black to exercise our political right to hold our current government to account. And his insights into whiteness in South Africa then could be instructive for those so dismissive of the value of critical race theory or of the need to analyse the making of whiteness now, despite their invocation of his name in their own political self-legitimation. After all, he warned us, "you cannot in pursuing the aspirations of Black people achieve them from a platform which is meant for the oppression of Black people".
Steve Biko, 1946-1977. Forty years later, some of us still have much to learn from him, even as we can take critical positions on the issues he did not address in his time, but that we have to address in ours.