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This brief input deals with the meaning of Steve Bantu Biko for young people today and whether his vision of bestowing upon South Africa “a more humane face” remains valid. Biko is without doubt one of the most important figures of Black liberation of the past century. Today, 41 years after his murder, his mission of total independence for Black people, remains unfinished.

Opening remarks 

In order to argue this conclusion, we will reflect on critical moments in Black radical resistance that occurred during the month of September, provide a brief description of Biko’s philosophical character, suggest which of today’s young people may be described as having been “touched” by Biko, and attempt to illustrate the implications of Biko’s vision of a ‘human face’ for the advancement of the Black liberation project, today.

The theme under discussion concerns itself with the youth? Which youth is the theme referring to? All of South Africa’s youth or those who are the historical, continuing and direct victims of white supremacy? The theme also talks about a quest for “a more humane face”. Has a humane face been bestowed upon South Africa? If yes, by whom? If not, why has this not been possible and whose face must South Africa reflect? 

We propose to examine the theme and its supplementary questions by looking at four elements. Critical moments in Black radical resistance that occurred during the month of September; The philosophical character of Biko; Which of today’s young people may be described as having been “touched” by Biko? and The implications of Biko’s vision of a “human face” for the advancement of the Black liberation today.

Critical moments in black radical resistance during the month of September

We must embed our memory of the brutal murder of Biko in the broader Black memory of a number of other critical moments in the history of radical Black resistance that also occurred during the month in which he was murdered. This we must do for a number of reasons. One: to always show the connectedness of Biko to those who emerged before, at the same time or after him. And two, there is need for us as Black people to constantly fight against the anti-Black project that seeks to erase the very fact of our existence.    

For these and other reasons, the Black world must remember that September marks the 260th anniversary of the birth of one of the principal leaders of the Haitian Revolution, Jean Jacques Dessalines, on 20 September 1758. It marks the 190th anniversary of the mysterious of death of one of the great warriors of our race, Inkosi uShaka kaSenzangakhona, on 22 September, in 1828. 

It marks the 189th anniversary of the publication of David Walkers’ epoch- making anti-slavery essay titled “Appeal for a Slave Revolt” on 28 September 1829. It marks the 180th anniversary of anti-slavery leader, Frederick Douglass’s escape from slavery on 3 September 1838. It marks the 109th anniversary of the birth of one of the great pan Africanist theoreticians of our time, Kwame Nkrumah, on 21 September 1909. 

The Black world must remember that September marks the 94th anniversary of the birth of one of the finest revolutionaries and military strategists of our time, Amilcar Lopes da Costa Cabral, who was born on 12 September 1924. It marks the 85th anniversary of the birth of yet another outstanding revolutionary and military strategist, Samora Machel, on 29 September 1933. It marks the 57th anniversary of the founding of the forerunner to the Azanian People’s Liberation Army, Poqo, which was formed on 11 September 1961. And of course, the Black world must also remember that September this year marks the 31st anniversary of the assassination of one of the most uncompromising warriors of our race, Peter Tosh, on 11 September 1987.  

The philosophical character of Biko

Biko essentially concerned himself with Blackness as an ontological and phenomenological question. His concern was not just theoretical or intellectual. It was also a practical project to which he dedicated every ounce of his being. In his philosophical outlook, Biko was unapologetically pro-Black, anti-white supremacy, anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. 

In essence, Biko did neither dream of reforming the system nor was he lusting for integration or assimilation into the white world. He called for the total overthrow of the system. In fact, over 40 years ago, Biko warned Black people about the falsity and illusion of integrationist and assimilationist politics, when he observed:

“There is no running away from the fact that now in South Africa there is such an ill distribution of wealth that any form of political freedom which does not touch on the proper distribution of wealth will be meaningless. The whites have locked up within a small minority of themselves the greater proportion of the country’s wealth. If we have mere change of face of those in governing positions what is likely to happen is that black people will continue to be poor, and you will see a few blacks filtering through into the so-called bourgeoisie. Our society will be run almost as of yesterday.”

Biko was rebellion! Biko was revolution! Biko was bolekaja! And it is for this reason that it would be a monumental contortion of Black radical history if we were to situate Biko within the matshingilanish tradition that wants to make the essence of our fight about inclusion or accommodation within structures that are designed by white people and other non-Black groups.

In fact, we argue that, properly understood, Biko must be situated within the more than five hundred-year tradition of unapologetic-uncompromising-unbroken-fearless-iconoclastic Black radical resistance as represented by the anti-slavery rebellions of David Stuurman, Gogosa, Doman, Bambatha kaMancinza Zondi, Mbuya Nehanda, Mpande Nzinga, Yaa Asantawaa, Queen Nanny, Yanga Gasper, Zumbi Dos Palmeiros, François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, Jean Jacques Dessalines, Nat Turner, Dedan Kimathi, Samual Maherero, Paul Cuffe, Martin Delany, Edward Blyden, Marcus Garvey and many other Warriors of the Black race.

Which of today’s young people may be described as having been “touched” by Biko?

Today, we see the spirit of Biko in young Black warriors such as Andries Tatane of Meqheleng, Mgcineni Noki of Twalikhulu, the Black students who reignited the decolonisation project such as Londeka Gumede, Zukiswa White, Khululwa Mthi, Azania Tyhali, Busisiwe Seabe, Fatimah Moutlaetse, Mickey Moyo, Loyola Lihle, Ayabulela Mhlahlo, Lesedi Diseko, Funzani Tshivhazwaulu, Chumani Maxwele, Athabile Noxuba, Masixole Mlandu, Mokgweetsi Keibakile, Bonginkosi Khanyile, Mcebo Dlamini and many others. 

We have seen the spirit of Biko in the anti-white supremacy activist of Brazil, Marielle Franco, who was regrettably assassinated on 14 of March this year. We have seen the spirit of Biko in the anti-white supremacy activist of the United States of America, Sandra Bland, who was unfortunately also killed by the police in July 2015.

We have also seen the spirit of Biko in the two anti-white supremacy activists, Bree Newsome and Jimmy Tyson, also from the Unites States, who in 2015, were arrested for removing the confederate flag from a pole. When asked why she climbed up the pole to remove this diabolic flag, Newsome replied:

“We removed the flag today because we can’t wait any longer. We can’t continue like this another day. It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy and building toward true racial justice and equality.”

In my humble view, it is of Black young people like these that it can be said with certainty that they have been “touched” by Biko—for they are not just outraged by the structural violence that is unleashed on the Black body—they are also actively confronting such violence.

What are the implications of Biko’s vision of “a more humane face” for the advancement of the black liberation today?

We think it is dangerous to assume that, just because we regularly speak or gather in Biko’s name or wear T-shirts with his face—we automatically share his understanding of what constitutes the fundamental problem in South Africa. If we are to advance the Black liberation project (as defined by Biko) as a collective—then we must make it a habit to always verify whether we who speak in his name or wear his face, stand on the same philosophical platform as he.

What then is wrong with the face of South Africa? According to Biko:

“There is nothing the matter with blacks. The problem is WHITE RACISM and it rests squarely on the laps of the white society. The sooner the liberals realise this the better for us blacks. Their presence amongst us is irksome and of nuisance value. It removes the focus of attention from essentials and shifts it to ill-defined philosophical concepts that are both irrelevant to the black man and merely a red herring across the track. White liberals must leave blacks to take care of their own business while they concern themselves with the real evil in our society—white racism.”

He goes on to say:

“I am against the superior-inferior white- black stratification that makes the white a perpetual teacher and the black a perpetual pupil (and a poor one at that). I am against the intellectual arrogance of white people that makes them believe that white leadership is a sine qua non in this country and that whites are the divinely appointed pace-setters in progress. I am against the fact that a settler minority should impose an entire system of values on an indigenous people.”

Drawing from these two observations, we wish to argue that the polity South Africa as currently constituted, is not a creation of the natives. It is an invention of the European invaders and its anti-Black and in particular, anti Black woman. Therefore, in Bikoian terms, Black people have no valid reason to embrace the polity called South Africa. They must reject it and work towards replacing it with one that is reflective of their image. Most importantly, a polity whose essence is made up of the most basic aspirations of the Black majority.

To achieve this monumental task, those who claim to stand on the same philosophical platform as Biko, will have to, among others, organise Black people under a common Black agenda. This agenda must have as its core objectives, the following:

  • The unconditional repossession of the land by its rightful owners (Black people). You will notice I didn’t say expropriate. You can’t expropriate what is yours. It is illogical. You simply take it back; 
  • The building of sustainable and unapologetically Black institutions that will seek to restore the spiritual, cultural, economic and political dignity of Black people. These will include institutions that will ensure the dismantling of the toxic Eurocentric content of South African education and ensure Black people stop their dependence on non Black groups for their medical treatment and food production; and 
  • The revival of the anti-imperialist project in Africa so as to deal with both classical (Arab and European imperialism) and neo-classical, Chinese imperialism.

Concluding remarks

There will be no real possibility of bestowing upon South Africa or Africa “a more humane face” if our general deportment (as Black people) seems to be one that continues to give greater importance to our party-political or ethnic affiliations- as opposed to an approach that is based on the realisation that we are members of a race that has a unique, complex, profoundly traumatic, interconnected and globalised history of capture, oppression, exploitation and erasure.

The totality of Biko’s life effortlessly embodies the fearless and indefatigable spirit of rebellion of the battered Black soul against all that seeks to castrate, decimate, mutilate and bury it. Therefore anybody who is said to be touched by Biko must be imbued with the spirit of rebellion. The spirit of revolution. 

Someone whose knees won’t lock or voice won’t quiver when they have to confront those who wish for the Black body to remain a grotesque representation of absence, invisibility and nothingness. Above all, someone whose commitment to truth and justice is so deep that, if need be, they won’t think twice about defending such truth and justice with their bodies. This, in our humble view, is what being touched by Biko should mean!


*Veli Mbele is an essayist and Secretary of Black Power Front.

* Reflections by Veli Mbele delivered at the Biko memorial lecture of Azapo and the Nelson Mandela University, Ebhayi, 12 September 2018

Selected references  

1.Brewer, R. (2010), Black Radical Theory and Practice: Gender, Race, and Class. Accessed on 3/09/2018.Retrieved from

2. Biko, S. (2004). I Write What I Like, (Picador Africa–Johannesburg).

3. Biko, S. (1972). Interview with Gail M. Gerhart, Durban.

4. Fanon, F. (1952).  Black Skin White Masks, (Editions de Seuil, France).

5. Gordon. L.R. (2015). What Fanon Said, (New York, Fordham.).  

6. Jeffries, M. P. (2014), Ferguson Must Force Us To Face Anti-Blackness. Accessed 3/09/2018.Retreived from force-face-anti-blackness/pKVMpGxwUYpMDyHRWPln2M/story.html.

7. Welsing, F.C. (1990). The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors. (Third World Press.) 

8. Welsing, F.C. (1970). The Cress Theory of Color Confrontation: White Supremacy: Psychogenetic Theory and World Outlook, (Washington D.C.)

9. on 2/09/2018.

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14. 3/09/2018