A street has been named after him in Durban, but there are pathetically few memorials to Bantu Stephen Biko, a highly significant political thinker but neglected figure of modern South African history. Seriously assaulted by Port Elizabeth security police, he died of extensive brain injuries in Pretoria on 12 September 1977. Black Consciousness (BC) organisations were then banned and their philosophy marginalised, just as the apartheid state desired. The armed struggle of the African National Congress was much easier to control.

Biko had harsh things to say about the colonial history of South Africa, about the role of missionaries and Christianity, and about the oppression and exploitation of the black population. But he drew a clear line between his view of past and present, and his hopes for a radically different future. South Africa has changed less than expected following liberation and, in some respects, has stayed very much the same, so it is worth considering Biko’s writings and the evidence he gave at the BPC-SASO trial of May 1976. How different might events have been?

His concern was empowerment, not power. Brought up as an Anglican, Biko believed it was a sin to be oppressed. As a sports enthusiast, he used a suitable metaphor: blacks were standing on the sidelines when they should have been playing the game. His view of pre-apartheid South Africa was shrewd. It was only after 1948, he wrote, that blacks became a defeated shadow of themselves and it was a sense of self, of pride and of dignity that needed restoration. The apartheid system produced pawns who needed to rediscover their own initiative and emancipate their identity.

The struggle was a matter of finding true humanity, of psychological liberation from apartheid, which of course applied in equal measure to all South Africans. Biko’s God was a fighter involved in day-to-day struggles. And the BC movement lived up to this belief through its local projects: the Zanempilo Health Clinic at King William’s Town was dedicated to curative and preventative medicine and community building. It operated openly and within the law, challenging injustice through communalism.

BC philosophy rejected the immorality of the system as a matter of principle, withdrawing into a separate realm where rehabilitation could be achieved and a modus vivendi established. The famous break with the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) in the early seventies was a strategic necessity of a particular time. Critics, especially liberals and radicals aspiring to non-racism, saw this as a reactive racism. But Biko himself opposed any form of racial monopoly. He examined critically the Martinican writer Aimé Césaire’s inspiring maxim – ‘there is room for all of us at the rendezvous of victory’ – and clearly carried a hope that this would indeed prove true.

He did not believe that a true consciousness of self would be emancipated from mental imprisonment through the barrel of a gun. Real change could emerge only from non-violence. The year before his death, he affirmed a belief in the power of ideas and persuasion in pursuit of justice. The problem was that his rationality was met by deaf ears, although he apparently continued to believe that John Vorster would eventually negotiate. His aim was not to turn the tables, but provide South Africa with a more human face, one open, shared society to which everyone would contribute on the basis of free participation and equal opportunity.

In a letter to American senator Dick Clark, he recorded his desire for a non-racial, just and egalitarian society. And in one of his last interviews, he repeated his wish to see race eliminated as a basic factor in any future dispensation. He emphatically rejected the classification of people and above all respected their humanity. His friend, the Anglican monk Aelred Stubbs, saw Biko as a selfless revolutionary, a martyr for righteousness and the embodiment of hope for South Africa. Indeed, Biko’s version of BC places great stress upon hope and its rekindling: to a significant extent his credo was a matter of faith as much as politics. Therein lay its great power; and perhaps also its potential defeat. Another close friend, Donald Woods, felt that South Africa became irrevocably a different place the day Biko died.

History is cluttered with unanswered and unanswerable questions about what might have been. Had Biko lived and BC thrived, what would South Africa be like today? There is too little trace of his political faith to be found now in a country in which racial nationalism and Leninist practice have squandered skill and goodwill, nurtured incompetence and corruption, and, worst of all, devalued humanity. Too much individual, grasping ambition and too little inspirational leadership have steered South Africa far away from that victorious rendezvous.

This article was first published in The Witness on 11 September 2009 and entitled ‘Lest we forget’.

Further reading: Stephen Biko, I Write What I Like: A Selection of His Writings edited by Aelred Stubbs (London: Heinemann, 1979); Donald Woods, Biko (New York: Paddington, 1978).