Still Loving Steve Biko – 30 years later

12 September 2007 is exactly thirty years after Bantu Steve Biko, revolutionary, founder of the Black Consciousness movement and genius was killed in detention by the apartheid state. Apart from the many events that are scheduled to mark the thirtieth anniversary of his death at the age of thirty, his words and life remain with us even if we never knew him personally.

I was four years old when he died, so I cannot claim to remember anything about him as a concrete historical being. However, I know that his thinking, life and writing continue to shape my life three decades after apartheid forces killed him. I know that much of how I feel about the world and my place in it owes much to the thinking that went into the Black Consciousness movement (BCM). I do remember all those black fists on white walls at the historic Black university that my father taught organic chemistry at. I do remember my parents’ amusement that even though I spoke no English then, I would repeat “Black power”, having heard the Fort Hare students repeat it.

Biko’s words that survive offered me a skin that I can hug, a voice that I am not apologetic about and confidence to claim the world as mine too. His thinking of psychological liberation – obviously also thought through in conversation with his comrades and co-founders of the BCM -were nothing short of world-altering. Unlike Bessie Head who prefered a comfortable skin offered by Pan Africanism over the proud one offered by Black Consciousness, I like that I can live within a skin shaped by both. Of course, it helps tremensdously that I was raised by a man who embraced BC and a woman who is an unwavering Pan Africanist – they would choose belong to the same organisation later on, but ideologically these stances did not change. I am glad I do not have to choose between the two because they offer me freedoms that I allow me to love my various selves in infinite ways.

And it is hard not to love Steve Biko, a man that left behind such a beautiful gift of love. bell hooks says loving blackness is a revolutionary act because Black people still have to learn to love ourselves. In other words, loving self for Black subjects is a process rather than a given. Biko left us a way to walk that journey to self-love and his vision remains more than relevant today.

Once, when Kimberley A Yates and I interviewed Mamphela Ramphele, co-founder of the BCM, feminist, academic and leader, who was at the time in office as the first Black and woman (and therefore first Blackwoman) Rector (Vice-Chancellor) of the University of Cape Town, she said one of her biggest sources of sadness was that “Steve’s voice had not left a larger imprint on the South African landscape” noting that it was always so hard to get him to write. Kim and I were graduate students both writing dissertations on aspects of Black Consciousness inspired South African literature published in English. I was working on Staffrider literature and she on political biography. That interview was included in the appendices to both our dissertations, and also published as Yates, Kimberley A., and Gqola, Pumla Dineo. 1998. ‘Some kind of madness: Mamphela Ramphele on being Black, female and transgressive’, in

    Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity

, no. 37, pp. 90—95.

This is amazing to me considering how much that young man was able to achieve in just three decades of his life, and how powerful the “little” that he wrote continues to be thirty years on. Biko’s wisdom and insight was far-reaching because it allowed us – Black people – to locate ourselves at the centre of our own lives, thinking, love, politics, stories and spirituality. This is why his thought had as much relevance as an affirming place of resistance against oppression and erasure, as it does for how we chose to treat ourselves and other Black people. It reminds us that love is political, and in a world that continues to devalue Black people’s lives, that how we relate to ourselves and each other matters in profoundly political ways.

Biko’s vision also is the embodiment of hope and joy in discovery, in communion. It reminds us that we are not just Black because white racism exists in the world, that we are never “non-white”. It also reminds us that the most sophisticated intellectual enterprise is political and livable, one day at a time.


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