Someone recently said that when Steve Biko died 34 years ago, his philosophy of Black Consciousness died with him.

They went on to charge that his inspiring and life-affirming psycho-political programme had been badly mangled by the Azanian People’s Organisation, which could not comprehend its essence beyond their obsession with the politics of skin colour.

Azapo, as the organisation was known, was the self-appointed custodian of Biko and his philosophy of BC. They claimed to be the heirs.

I was asked what I thought about Biko and his BC now that they’re both dead and irrelevant in a non-racial society.

This was a strange question to someone who is not a legendary freedom fighter.

But as a so-called black person, I too like millions of others have been mistreated in my fatherland for no other reason than being born black.
As a youngster growing up in the 1970s, I participated in memorials for Biko and was chased and beaten for singing songs that revived his memory.

I neither escaped to exile nor was imprisoned on Robben Island.

As far as I am concerned, Biko and his BC philosophy will never die for as long as we live in a society that reminds people their skin is black or white.

In fact, the BC philosophy will never fade or go out of fashion for as long as we live in a society governed by race.

It is an open secret that in the global village black people will always be afflicted by discrimination, injustice, exploitation and oppression, no matter how much freedom, democracy and self-government they enjoy.

As long as black people are afflicted by the legacy of colonialism and apartheid wherever they go, the intuitive connection with Biko and what he represented will always be present.

This is the inheritance he left for the black world: a philosophy of self-awareness.

If this self-awareness among black people were to die, it would mean that blacks, as a collective, are no longer subjected to joblessness, poverty, crime, disease and illiteracy in this world.

It is these social ills that create a particular consciousness among black people who, for centuries, have been mistreated for nothing else but their skin colour.

This is the meaning of Biko and the relevance of his BC philosophy.

Still, detractors of Biko are always quick to justify the death of his philosophy by pointing out the failure of so-called black leadership in a free and democratic society.

They claim that his BC has failed to make black leaders across the spectrum be accountable, honest and transparent and thus a shining example to the world.

“If this BC was not dead,” they assert, “what has it brought for black people in the 17 years of freedom and self-rule?”

They then point to the corruption, rampant greed, love for material accumulation and how, increasingly, black people are in a far worse state than they were under unjust white rule.

Also, they point to the widening gap between rich and poor, especially in the black community, and how black schools, houses, clinics and roads are of a poorer quality than those built under apartheid.

They say that except for the few with political connections, the lot of black people has become worse.

They point to black politicians who know BC but are more interested in what they can get for themselves from state coffers than what they can do for the people that Biko loved so much.

They speak of service-delivery protestors who have no respect for property or the lives of fellow human beings as all they seem to know is how to trash, burn and destroy instead of using proper channels to address their grievances.

They speak of a Black Consciousness that has seen many black people embrace foreign languages like English while they condemn their mother tongue to the margins.

They speak of a black people who have not got their land back and the economy of their country is in a few white hands except for small group of BEE beneficiaries.

But you never her them talk about how, in the last 35 years, black people assert their rights to self-respect and demand to be treated with dignity.

Black people have undergone radical psychological changes that no longer see them subserviently “roll over and die” when subjected to inhuman treatment by both black and white.

Something in the hearts and souls of black people has awakened that makes them know who their true enemies are.

They now understand that it never was the white person per se but anyone — irrespective of skin colour, political creed or party affiliation — who puts their selfish individual interests before those of the nation.

Above all, black people know that freedom is not about having black people occupy the highest political offices in the land only to do the same things that were done by the colonialists and apartheid cohorts.

Rarely do they talk about blackness as a reflection of a mental attitude than an over-emphasis on skin colour to hide one’s personal failures.
What we need to understand is that Biko did not die in vain.

Real black people will continue to keep his legacy alive by claiming their position as their rightful owners of this country. Belonging and owning this beautiful land is not about living large at the expense of the poor and downtrodden.

If Biko and his BC were about putting yourself No 1, they would have long ceased to exist, especially in the minds of the majority.

The philosophy is not dead because it never was about relying on one man for its survival.

BC is and always has been a way of life, an intuitive understanding that everybody deserves the best life has to offer.

Perhaps it is time to stop and wonder who claims that Biko and BC are dead. It can only be people who have much to gain from the perpetuation of negative stereotypes and prejudices about black people.

The spirit of Biko lives in all men and women who believe in self-responsibility and the right of everyone to enjoy the best that this country has to offer.

Let us always remember Biko!



Sandile Memela

Sandile Memela is a journalist, writer, cultural critic, columnist and civil servant. He lives in Midrand.

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