Although a great deal of reverence should be allocated for Anton Lembede and Robert Sobukwe who decidedly anchored their emancipatory cognitive maps on Pan-Afrikanism; I hold the view that Steve Biko stands heads and shoulders above any other black subaltern this country has ever produced.
This is largely because Biko didn’t formulate and/or predicate his cartography upon an existing conceptual framework, as Lembede and Sobukwe did. Rather, he became a moving mind, body and spirit in assembling the oppressed masses that gave birth to an authentic thought. This was informed by their lived experiences, and not necessarily based on their diverse ideals. Additionally, Biko’s intellectual desire was to particularize a thought which resonated with the masses, without any negation of their piously held ideals or cultural identities.
This way, Biko could summon a black Marxist who coveted a Communist Utopia, a Christian Zulu; a Venda; a Pan-Afrikanist and so on, on the same black consciousness pedestal. This while still being able to accomplish unanimity apropos to the desired outcome within his ranks. What was at stake, which is also what took preponderance, was these diverse people’s relation to the fundamental antagonism. Here he grappled with anti-blackness which did not take into cognizance whether one was a black Marxist or Pan-Afrikanist or Zulu or Venda in its performance.
I also hold the view that the footpath Biko carved should be pursued to the very end he envisaged it will lead us. Not only because of its obvious superiority but also for its relevance in the post-1994 era. While many can readily identify that path and deduce its desired destination, they simply do not fully appreciate how and why Biko took it and laboured to furrow it. And this accounts for many black intellectuals today who do not situate Biko and his vision in the lofty status they belong and, most importantly, why we don’t pick up the cudgels he bequeathed us and soldier on.
In an endeavour to understand what Biko stood for, I contend here that we must first, as a rule, interrogate who he was and what informed his gestures at the levels of theory and praxis. Biko was an existentialist who concluded that the world alienated him because of his blackness. That the only way to respond to this problem was to gather all blacks under a single canopy and one cognitive map. What is key here is that there’s purposeful chronology, which is the order in methods. Firstly the assembly of blacks and secondly giving birth to and ruminating on ideas accrued from the assemblage which established a cognitive map.
This is how SASO (the people and the revolutionary subalterns) and the BCM (the black subalternity, the cognitive map) were birthed. Another masterstroke that Biko pulled was to firstly include Coloured and Indian people in his definition of black; secondly to designate the term “non-white” to every Afrikan, Coloured and Indian who aided and worked within the anti-black system, and thirdly his reference of white people who benefited from white privilege simply as “white”.
I refer to this as a masterstroke for three reasons:
The first is that at the time, Biko’s rejection of white thought and white participation was seen as “reverse racism” and with Afrikans, Coloureds and Indians converging under the same aegis, that accusation could no longer hold any integrity. The second reason is that Biko had identified the problem as white supremacy and this was in how Afrikans were relegated to the bottom, with Coloureds and Indians, respectively, above blacks, and with whites elevated above everyone. Thus, Biko reasoned that Coloureds and Indians, too, were seen as subhuman relative to white oppressors. The third reason, which singularly indispensable to headline because it is opportunistically disavowed today, even in the radical black milieu, is that Biko was unapologetic in his repudiation of black political parties, black individuals and black intellectuals who served within the system. He saw such blacks as the hydraulics which legitimized the anti-black machinery in all its ugliness. In fact, he charged them of being, “The extension of the enemy into our ranks!”
Biko died at the time when he was zigzagging across the country to organize blacks into a solid nucleus foregrounded upon black consciousness philosophy. In military-speak, Biko had already conducted reconnaissance, assembled an army, drawn a battle plan and was recruiting more useful soldiers to his thought and to his army. From the words “to organize blacks” we see Frantz Fanon who held a devout conviction that it is the people who liberated themselves. From the words “foregrounded upon black consciousness philosophy” we see Italian Marxist thinker, Antonio Gramsci. He postulated that the prerequisite for any revolutionary gesture was to win and influence people’s hearts and minds at the market place of ideas.
This accounts for why Biko had not once organized a confrontational activity to make certain demands against the colonialist apartheid regime. In his revolutionary rhetoric, he circumvented any talk of a post-revolutionary order at the time of his demise. As alluded to above, Gramsci teaches us of the two vital steps which are characteristic in any revolutionary setting. That is “War Of Position” (organizing the people, exchanging ideas about the program of action), and “War Of Maneuver” (implementation, physical action).
Accordingly, we can lament that Biko’s death robbed us of the second phase of his revolutionary gestures which could have seen him providing programs of action. This is the same man who had argued that downtrodden people cannot be conscious of their true worth and positionality and still remain inert in bondage. At a higher scale of abstraction, Biko was at labour to empower the masses as brilliantly encapsulated by Fanon in his magnum opus, “The Wretched Of The Earth”:
“[P]olitical education means opening their minds, awakening them, and allowing the birth of their intelligence…To educate the masses politically does not mean, cannot mean, making a political speech. What it means is to try, relentlessly and passionately, to teach the masses that everything depends on them; that if we stagnate it is their responsibility, and that if we go forward it is due to them too, that there is no such thing as a demiurge, that there is no famous man who will take the responsibility for everything, but that the demiurge is the people themselves and the magic hands are finally only the hands of the people”. Fanon. The Wretched Of The Earth.
From the above synopsis, what is worthy to note is that Biko sanctified the people and their pivotal role in the overthrow of an oppressive system. His desire to unite blacks under one ideological lens and his unbridled rejection of any dalliance with and/or within the system. With regard to the last remark, it is my contention that, had Biko started his revolutionary path in the post-1994-era, he would have still rallied all black people around the black consciousness philosophy. He would still interpellate blacks to the level of the architect of the revolution. He would have still expressed his disavowal of the ANC. He would still reject participation in parliamentary politics (under whatever guise) in the same way he rejected the tri-cameral parliament and Bantustan administrations. Finally, he would have also seen these multitudes of political parties as the enemy’s stratagem to divide us.
After all, nothing has changed since his death which merits the change of approach, tactics and cognitive map.
Lavittude Ramphomane is a black studies student, Afropessimists, blogger, social commentator and activist.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Vernac News.