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Monday, 12 September marked 34 years since the assassination of South African black consciousness leader Steve Biko. Imrann Moosa remembers his legacy.

‘Afrika, we will only move forward if we are united.
Afrika, do not stop caring ‘cause that would be the end.
Afrika, you were there when they took everything from us.
Me and you cried together.
Me and you have been to hell and back in our dreams and in the struggle.
May we always look for The Way.
In our thoughts and in our religious spaces it would do us good to look for The Way.
So go on.
Do not be afraid.
‘Cause it must be done.
Hurry up before the sun sets.’

Simphiwe Dana penned these words as the chorus to her song ‘Bantu Biko Street’ in her album bearing the title ‘The One Love Movement on Bantu Biko Street[1]’.

We are gathered here today to commemorate and celebrate the life and works of Bantu Stephen Biko. Steve was born on 18 December 1946, and assassinated by the Pretoria regime on the 12 September 1977. On Monday, 12 September 2011, we will observe the 34th anniversary of Steve’s assassination.

We are not here merely to honour Steve as a martyr, and to remind ourselves of how his blood has nourished the tree of freedom. We are here to re-dedicate ourselves to the cause of creating Azania and liberating the world.

The philosophy of Black Consciousness (BC) mapped out by Steve encompasses the emancipation of the wretched of the earth. It is neither time bound, nor is it geographically bound.

Mao Tse Tung incisively remarked:

‘We think too small, like the frog at the bottom of the well. He thinks the sky is only as big as the top of the well. If he surfaced, he would have an entirely different view.’

Steve had the uncanny ability of stepping right outside the unthought thought patterns of lifetimes, of aeons[2]. He did not fear surfacing, and surface he did. He liberated his mind from the habits of thought, and he relentlessly interrogated the presumptions, assumptions, predilections and biases that keep us in bondage. Steve’s brilliant mind was able to penetrate to the core of, and annihilate, the densest of deceptions and misconceptions. He understood perfectly Paulo Freire’s equation of ‘right’ and ‘left’ sectarianism in his preface to ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’[3]:

‘...[C]losing themselves into “circles of certainty” from which they cannot escape, these individuals “make” their own truth. It is not the truth of men and women who struggle to build the future, running the risks involved in this very construction. Nor is it the truth of men and women who fight side by side and learn together how to build the future - which is not something given to be received by people, but is rather something to be created by them. Both types of sectarian, treating history in an equally proprietary fashion, end up without the people - which is another way of being against them.’

BC enables us to see the world in an entirely new light, and liberates us from dogma. BC exposes that herstory and history, philosophy and rhetoric have all been stunted in their very genesis, and have been forced into cramped and confined spaces. This has impoverished their potential and stultified their role.

Steve thus exposed in thought and action the tendency to impose doxography - this is the way it was, this is the way it is and so forever shall it be, amen! - onto reality, to impose a rigid framework and order which seeks to avoid and obscure what is uncomfortable. Steve unhesitatingly wrangled in the realm of ideas, thus contributing to an intellectual and ideological ferment which resulted in an epistemological rupture with the negative aspects of the herstory and history of the liberation movement in occupied Azania.

Steve taught us that there is no reason to expect the struggle for liberation to proceed in a one-to-one, immediate and linear trajectory.

To be sure, the analysis (or is it erronasis?) of many of even the mainstream proponents of BC today finds itself mired within the current state hegemonic discourse, and offers nought by way of critical analysis and a radically different and substantive view of freedom. Mao Tse Tung would use the word ‘lazybones’ to describe the dogmatists and reformists who, in the main, profess to be South Africa’s ‘public intellectuals’.

It is a matter of utter fascination, and profound regret, that BC - which has been at the cutting edge of the struggle for a liberated Azania, and which has offered us exhilarating and inspiring insights and a galaxy of creative thinkers – has been allowed to degenerate in the manner that it has in recent years. Renegades and impostors pretend to uphold Steve and even to lionize him, while overtly and covertly trampling on that which he stood and fought for.

Issa G Shivji is entirely apposite when he writes in his ‘From Neo-liberalism to Pan-Africanism: Reconstructing an East African Discourse’ (2005) that:

‘[t]he public intellectual, whose vocation is to comment, protest, caricaturize, satirize, analyse, and publicize the life around him or her is rapidly becoming history, which history, by the way, has no historian to record…’

In South Africa today, we see the perfect combination of ignorance and arrogance, to borrow the words of American author and humorist Mark Twain. Note that I do not harbour or entertain the belief that neither wood grew nor water ran prior to that glorious day, the 27 April 1994. What that day marked was a mere change of the guard, and the guard finds itself powerless in power. In our planet today, we are witnessing the perfect combination of rapaciousness and self-righteousness.

I suspect that on 27 April 1994 a virus was unleashed amongst Black people causing us to abandon our capacity for critical thinking, causing us to suffer political amnesia, causing us to allow reactionaries and the politically retarded to become the ladies and lords in our land. Those of us who struggled with might and main in the struggle to create Azania must answer as to why we have abrogated our historical responsibilities and are not proceeding with work in progress. We must account as to how it is that we have allowed settler colonialism including white liberalism to re-assert ideological hegemony when Steve and BC consigned it to well-deserved ignominy. We must account for allowing a ‘negotiated settlement’ which criminalises, amongst others, the liberation struggle, BC and Steve’s life and work. We must account for allowing the oppressor and those who collaborated with settler colonialism to presume to reverse correct historical verdicts, and to invert and pervert the Azanian reality. And we must answer to Mangaliso, to Biko, to Shezi, to Tiro and the host of martyrs in the struggle to create Azania on how we intend to restore the gains made by us and achieve the tasks we dedicated ourselves to achieve.

Let a million Bikos and Mao Tse Tungs emerge to take up the cudgels. These revolutionaries will have to ponder not only what is to be done, but also what has been done hitherto. Reality constantly undergoes change, and this requires and demands the continuous deepening of knowledge.
The magnitude of Steve’s immortal contributions to, inter alia, philosophy, to herstory and history, to culture in its multifarious forms and to community development has barely been appreciated and acknowledged. There is an urgent need to redress this, and to arrest the bastardisation and perversion of Steve’s message. Listen well to Steve[4]:

‘Blacks are out to completely transform the system and to make of it what they wish. Such a major undertaking can only be realized in an atmosphere where people are convinced of the truth inherent in their stand. Liberation therefore, is of paramount importance in the concept of Black Consciousness, for we cannot be conscious of ourselves and yet remain in bondage. We want to attain the envisioned self which is a free self.’

The spirit of Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe, Malcom X (a.k.a. Malik al Shabazz), Bantu Stephen Biko, Abram Onkgopotse Ramothibi Tiro, Mthuli ka Shezi and the host of revolutionaries illuminating our firmament will stride into the future and emancipate humanity, the Azanian people and their allies on this planet will see to that. Let us heed Simphiwe’s call to ‘hurry up before the sun sets’ as we ‘take nothing from the dead and choose wisely from among the dying[5]’.

Biko Lives!
Azania Ke Ya Rona!


* This was an address by Imrann Moosa on the occasion of ‘Verses for Biko and Tosh’, organised by the Slam Poetry Operation Team in conjunction with the September National Imbizo at the Uprising Restaurant, Bat Centre, Durban on Saturday, 10 September 2011. This piece is a re-worked version of the address, concentrating only on Bantu Stephen Biko.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.


[1] Black Carrot Publishing, Gallo Music Publ SA.
[2] I have borrowed freely from A Sivanandan and Hazel Waters, ‘Cedric J. Robinson,’ ‘Race & Class’, (2006) Volume 47(2).
[3] Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos, Penguin Books: London: 1996.
[4] ‘The Definition of Black Consciousness’ [December 1971">. See ‘Frank Talk’ Volume 1 Number 1 at 3 – 4.
[5] Cedric J. Robinson, ‘Black Marxism’, Zed Press: London: 1983 at 450.