STEVE BIKO: An Enduring Legacy
A fact that is often lost sight of in much that one reads about Steve Biko, is that he was a mere 23 years when he developed his own thinking and ideas about black consciousness. He not only developed the ideas in splendid isolation, he worked with friends and fellow students who gathered around him and formed what was clearly an intellectual cell. It was out of that cell that a movement developed much along the lines of similar social change and revolutionary intellectual movements throughout the history of Europe.
This came about not because Steve Biko was any more brilliant a scholar than any of his colleagues. He was not. He did not possess wealth of resources and financial backing to attract others to him and to his ideas. He did not. What he did extremely well was to read. Steve was a voracious reader. He read everything he could lay his hands on. As a medical student, he could debate with me an English major the finer points of literary criticism of Shakespeare and the novels a of George Eliot. He understood the politics of decolonisation in Africa and India. He had insight into the anti-imperial wars throughout Africa and in Vietnam. And he had a critical understanding of the politics of the civil rights movement in the United States. Black Consciousness for him was moulded by a diversity of intellectual forces and fountains: from the liberation history of South Africa, the pan Africanism of Kwame Nkrumah, the African nationalism of Jomo Kenyatta, the negritude of the west African scholars like Leopold Sadar Senghor, Aime Cesare and others in Paris. Biko taught himself a political understanding of religion in Africa. He devoured John Mbiti. Ali Mazrui. Basil Davidson, he understood the critical writings of Walter Rodney and he interpreted Franz Fanon. He laid his hands on some philosophical writings like Jean Paul Sartre and made ready use of some philosophical concepts like syllogism in logic and dialectical materialism in Marxist political thought. All this by a young medical student.
It is remarkable, with the benefit of hindsight, that in the particularly brutal circumstances of the South Africa of the 1970s, there could emerge out of the inauspicious social environment of his home, township and schools, someone with a precautious mind, a public intellectual ahead of his time and a philosopher whose ideas were to shape the future. I believe that the second gift of Steve's was instrumental. He could write well and he loved writing. His loved for the written word translated into his ability to craft words and ideas. It is important to realize that unless one can write and write words and ideas that have a precision of expression and a beguiling simplicity, one will never be able to reach one's audience. Steve would sit through the night, often after an all-night party and wrote articles and pamphlets to the student unions and SASO branches across the country. An interesting aspect of this and his method of engagement was that the pieces he wrote would most likely have be the subject of furious debate in his room over a glass of beer. He would engage the debate largely in an interrogative mood. In the process discussion was participative and all contributions were valued. I have no recollection of Steve lording it over everyone else. But he was relaxed among peers and comrades. The Allan Taylor Residence in Merebank, Durban had a group of students who practiced the Platonic art of the rhetoric. This rhetoric was also translated in the dialogues Steve engaged in with a large number of others: David Russell and Fr Aelred Stubbs, CR; Richard Turner and the NUSAS leadership, Chief Gatsha Buthelezi (as he was then known as), Donald Woods in later years and many other overseas correspondents. His letters have become a mine of information and insight into his own evolving thinking.
Black Consciousness was ultimately not about mind games. It was as is now common knowledge, a "way of life. That explains why BC had such a strong commitment to community development. That helps one to understand how transformational intelligence was possible during the repressive and claustrophobic atmosphere of the 1970s That is how he could appeal so successfully to the intellectual curiosity of young, black and proud South Africans. To be with Steve was a life-changing experience.
N Barney Pityana
Principal and Vice Chancellor
University of South Africa
Pretoria, 1 October 2002.
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