In recent years there’s been serious contestations for and about the legacy of Bantu Biko; concerted efforts by both intellectauls as well as politicians to approprite Biko for their own agendas.
Various groups and individuals, whether political, social or grassroots, have all claimed Biko – his ideas, his philosophy and his very soul – for themselves, for one motive or another. In attempts to concretize the misappropriation of Biko, mythologies, lies and misconceptions have been constructed about him.
The most recent of these obnoxious and false misconception about Biko is the alleged claim made by the Eastern Cape Premier, Phumulo Masaulle, that Bantu Biko was a leader of the ANC alongside Oliver Tambo.
While perusing news reports about President Zuma’s ironic unveiling of Bantu Biko’s memorial gravesite in Ginsberg, I came across an article titled ‘Zuma To Handover Biko Gravesite’ published on the New Age website on the 02nd March 2017, talking about the government’s planned ‘human rights day’ unveiling of Biko’s new grave.
The author of the article quotes Premier Masaulle as having said that “both Oliver Tambo and Steve Biko were beloved leaders in the revolutionary movement in the African National Congress”.
This statement by the Premier, if true, is misleading, outrightly opportunistic and a distortion of historical facts. Bantu Biko was never a member, let alone a leader of the ANC.
In the chapter titled ‘Our Strategy for Liberation’ in the book I Write What I Like, Biko says “I am a member of the Black Consciousness Movement, I was amember of the Black People’s Convention (BPC) before I was banned, and now I’ve been, I’m told, appointed honourary president of BPC”. No where does Biko ever claim to have belonged to the ANC.
President Zuma’s unveiling of Biko’s new grave memorial tombstone should also not be mistaken as Biko’s signature to ANC membership, nor as the ANC’s endorsement of the Black Consciousness Philosophy he expounded.
There is also significant theatric irony and drama in the government’s celebration of ‘human rights day’ at the Victoria grounds where Biko’s funeral was held, and President Zuma’s unveiling of Biko’s new government sponsored tombstone, in that, in a very subtle manner, the events reenact the killing, silencing and erasure of both Mangaliso Sobukwe and Bantu Biko.
The Sharpeville-Langa massacres which occurred on the 21st March 1960 was a result of decisive political action taken by the leadership of the Pan-Afrikanist Congress of Azania (PAC) led by Sobukwe against the dehumanizing Pass Laws.
But President Zuma did not mention Sobukwe’s name anywhere during his ‘human rights day’ celebrations in Ginsberg; Sobukwe remained, once again, isolated, hidden, silenced and erased.
There was not even a mention of Nyakane Tsolo, the unknown and forgotten leader of the PAC in Sharpeville who led the march which resulted in the ruthless massacre.
Renaming the Sharpeville-Langa Massacre to ‘human rights day’ is part of the efforts to rewrite and inscribe a whitewashed lukewarm version of the history of Black people’s experiences in this country, a version pallattable to white supremacy, neo-liberal democracy and rainbow nationalism.
But it is also part of the silent conspiracy to mute the great contributions of men like Sobukwe who resigned from his position as Lecturer at Wits University and initiated the call for a Position Action campaign against the Pass Laws in 1960; Marumo Molusi, one of the men who led the 1960 anti-Pass Law march along with Sobukwe; and Nyakane Michael Tsolo who heeded Sobukwe’s call and led the PAC march to the Sharpeville Police station.
What followed Sobukwe’s Positive Action campaign is history. No amount of sanctioned hegemonic ‘çleaning-up’ and concealment can deface histories written on the blood and sacrifices of the innocent.
As South Africa celebrates ‘human rights day’, it erases the painful memory of the ordinary masses of Black people massacred in Sharpeville, they remain the nameless ‘69’ whose dead bodies are today’s sites of political contestation; it constitutes false narratives in which the State ensures the writing out of PAC leaders and their historic contributions from national memory; and it sterilizes Bantu Biko all at the same time. Call it “killing three birds with one stone” if you will. Literally, figuratively.
Biko would have wanted the true history of Black people’s experiences in Sharpeville, Langa and other townships told to the younger generation and not distorted under renovated concepts like ‘human rights day’ which erase the memory of those massacred.
Moreover, Biko would have been utterly disgusted at how unjustly the ANC government has treated Black people while advancing and protecting white interests since 1994 in this country.
Speaking about the ill distribution of wealth in South Africa as well as the meaning of political freedom for him, Biko said “if 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 as of yesterday”. This is precisely what has befallen South Africa under the reign of the ANC. Biko’s vision has been completely subverted and his Black Consciousness philosophy abandoned. Today, his work of Black community development through self-reliance programs lies in tatters. Our society is run as of yesterday, serving the interests of white people and those Blacks who have graduated into the echelons of the economic elite.
Black people remain poor and destitute in one of the world’s richest countries. Politicians are fat-cats and multi-millionaires who care only for their families and friends. Black people are on their own!
So, to a great extent, the statement by Premier Masaulle appropriating Biko as an ANC leader can be read as part of these post-1994 efforts to sanitize Biko and make him more palatable in a society that continues to be unjust against Black people, going against his noble values and Black Consciousness philosophy.
We know definitely for sure that Biko never joined the ANC. In an interview with Gail Gerhart he said “we have refused for three years now, four years, to identify ourselves in any direct sense with any group. Those who claim we are pro-PAC, we sue them… And those who say we are pro-ANC, we still sue them”.
Biko further stated that he “would like to see groups like the ANC, PAC and the Black Consciousness Movement deciding to form one liberation movement”.
In the 70’s, his strong belief in Black solidarity and unity birthed his vision of obliterating the political fragmentation of Black people by seeking to unite the major political voices – the ANC, PAC and BCM. This vision was aborted with his brutal assasination.
But in the 80’s, the ANC affiliated United Democratic Front (UDF) sought no cooperation nor coexistence with contrary ideologies, but complete destruction, affiliation or consumation of other liberation movements into its ranks. To achieve their hegemonic objective of dominating the political space, the UDF used violence against its political ‘opponents’ and ‘enemies’, including many Black Consciousness activists who were ruthlessly hacked or stoned to death, butchered, shot or necklaced with burning tires soaked in petrol – a weapon they used against many Black people deemed to be spies of or collaborators with the racist regime.
Bantu Biko would have been completely appalled by this black-on-black violence and would have condemned it with the fierceness it deserved. He certainly would have condemned and rejected any organization which encouraged or inflicted violence on other Black people.
Talking about his preparations for the South African Students’ Organization (SASO) conference held around 1970-71 in an interview with Gail Gerhart, Biko talks about how extensively he delved into the history of South African political movements – from the religious breakaways of the 1890’s, the Ethiopianist Movement, the foundations of the ANC and the history of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union.
In the same breath he further says “that type of early history, right up to the time of the Congress Alliance and ANC; infact this is when I began to reject definitely elements of ANC”. Here Biko provides a crystal clear statement of his position regarding the ANC, he rejected what he called “elements” of it.
Biko also had a very clear understanding of colonial history and would have never agreed with the ANC’s ‘Freedom Cheater’ (freedom charter) which asserts the lie that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, both Black and White”.
In fact Biko responded, almost prophetically, to this political lie when he said that “we Black people should all the time keep in mind that South African is our country and that all of it belongs to us”.
Biko’s position contradicts and exposes the ANC’s political ethos as enshrined in the ‘Freedom Cheater’ that dispossesses Black people perpetually by declaring that this land “belongs to all who live in it, Black and White”.
Biko believed in the restoration of the land back to its rightful owners, the dispossessed and dehumanized Afrikan people, and in the self-determination of Black people in order to restore their dignity and humanity.
Contrary to what some would have us believe today, the ANC was hostile to the Black Consciousness Movement and Biko. Perhaps they felt threatened by his potent ideas or were jealous of him because they sought to retain political monopoly.
We read in Patrick Stevens’ book Politics is the Greatest Game that “according to the ANC, the blacks-only line of Steve Biko was outdated, a relic of consciousness raising from the sixties”. Steven goes on to reveal that reports in the United States claimed that “recruits in the ANC training camps were taught that Steve Biko was a CIA agent”. This point is further reiterated by Xolela Mangcu in his book Biko: A Biography. Mangcu gives his personal account, writing that “of relevance to this book were the attacks on the name of Steve Biko. It is hard to know when the denigration of Steve Biko’s name started within the ANC… Neville Alexander told me he ran into Mac Maharaj during this time. He remembered how contemptous Maharaj was of the Black Consciousness Movemment, describing Biko as ‘CIA’. This only served to fuel hostility towards the BCM in the country”.
So as we mark the 40th anniversary of Biko’s assasination by the white supremacist police, many attempts and cheap efforts to bastardize his name, legacy and memory will surface from different quarters.
We must be on guard and expose opportunists who seek to prostitute the leader of the Black Consciousness Movement to gain political currency. Biko’s political ideas of blackness were, and still are, an anathema to the ANC and its multi-racial stance.
By Thando Sipuye
The writer is an executive member of The Ankh Foundation and the Africentrik Study Group based at the University of Sobukwe (Fort Hare). He is currently a post-graduate History Masters candidate at the Govan Mbeki Research and Development Centre under the South African Research Chairs Initiative at the University of Sobukwe. He writes in his personal capacity.