Millard W. Arnold (ed.), The Testimony of Steve Biko and No Fears Expressed: Quotes from Steve Biko (Picador Africa)

APARTHEID was a theatre of both fear and farce. Steve Biko, by then a banned person, was asked to give evidence for the defence at the South African Students Organisation/Black Peoples Convention (SASO/BPC) trial of Saths Cooper and eight activists accused of terrorism after organising the pro-Frelimo rally at Curries Fountain, Durban in September 1974. The trial took place in May 1976. One of the defendants was Strini Moodley, later a well-known Witness journalist; and the meeting that launched the BPC had been held in Edendale. Biko’s testimony stretched over five days and was part of an open court record, but its publication was banned until relaxation of censorship laws in the mid-1980s. Such were the absurdities of the time and Millard Arnold’s book has been reissued to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Biko’s murder by the police security branch.

Charges of terrorism against the SASO/BPC accused were also farcical. In effect, the State placed on trial the entire philosophy of Black Consciousness (BC), which was overtly non-violent. But its precepts were clearly revolutionary in their desire for a radically different South Africa: ‘a nonracial, just and egalitarian society in which colour, creed and race shall form no point of reference’. So Biko, led by David Soggot, had to tread a very fine line as a witness. In the process he presented a valuable history of the BC movement, albeit interrupted by some tedious, racist questions from Judge Boshoff.

Biko was anxious to disassociate BC from the banned ANC and PAC and their armed wings. He went to great lengths to explain how people reduced to the most basic of circumstances and served by inferior facilities had suffered a collective loss of self-respect and were truly powerless: ‘alienated, defeated beings’ who needed a ‘liberation of the mind’ that overcame psychological oppression and restored dignity and hope. He also emphasised that all BC organisations were above ground, legal and non-confrontational although engaged in vigorous dissent; trusting in vain that whites would listen. The verdict of history is that the police security branch, not Biko and his colleagues, were the terrorists.

The testimony shows that conscientisation through communalism and co-operation, of which the crèche at Ginsberg and clinic in Inanda were shining examples, was at the heart of BC in the 1970s. Biko’s testimony was full of optimism, but unfortunately such promise of community activism failed to develop.

It took a while to dawn on the authorities that BC was truly revolutionary in intent while peaceful in method. Ironically, Boshoff acquitted the defendants of revolutionary activity, but found them guilty of conspiracy to promote hostility and of organising rallies supporting Frelimo. The judge’s opinion of Biko was that he was an impressive and articulate witness.

The Testimony of Steve Biko also contains a contribution from Saths Cooper and an account of the inquest into Biko’s death, which forty years later still provides shocking reading. But for those who desire a shorter route to an understanding of Biko and BC, there is Millard’s No Fears Expressed, a categorised collection of quotations. One that sums up their philosophy is the belief that “the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”. Biko believed that “it is a sin to allow oneself to be oppressed” and exist in “spiritual poverty”; and to the cause of psychological liberation he gave his life.