Remembering Steve Biko

Last month marked the 35th anniversary of the murder of a remarkable humanist, whom the world has sorely missed. Steve Biko is remembered primarily as a black agitator against South African apartheid, but there was a lot more to him than that. By necessity, he dealt with profound issues of religion and political power in ways that must never be forgotten.

Apartheid was a creature of Protestant religion, through and through. Its roots lay in the Calvinism of the Dutch Reformed Church, which taught that God had chosen his elect from the beginning of time, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. When Dutch colonists founded Capetown in the 17th century, their God experts quickly leapt to the implication that God had chosen certain races as well as certain individuals, and had no doubt that God preferred them over the filthy black natives. Aside from the fact that slavery was God’s will, it made life far easier and more pleasant, and soon there were more South African slaves than whites.

Slavery disappeared after the humanist-tainted British took control, but the conviction that God favored the white race over the black did not. In 1948, a former Protestant minister named Daniel Malan swept into power on a platform of “apartheid,” or strict separation of the races with the whites on top; as he put it, “We want to make sure that South Africa remains a white man’s country.” At its peak, Malan’s apartheid consigned the black 80% of the population to 13% of the land, and the poorest land at that, with whites retaining all subsurface mineral rights. Some 3½ million blacks were forcibly uprooted from their homes and jammed into overpopulated “homelands” to carry out God’s will.

Steve Biko, born a few months before Malan took power, upon reaching manhood determined that the only way 20% of the population could so thoroughly dominate the remaining 80% was because the 80% let them do it; and they let them do it because they had, in countless ways from birth, been brainwashed with their own inferiority. This logic led Biko to the extraordinary conclusion that blacks needed their own political organizations, without involvement of well-meaning but condescending white liberals; thus the black consciousness and black power movements were born.

Precisely because the principal justification for apartheid was religious, Biko focused at length on issues of religion. For someone who already had quite a bit on his plate in bucking the white establishment, by far the easiest course of action would have been for Biko to leave religion alone, or to say (as some God experts did) that “God is against apartheid, so I am too.” Yet take it on he did; for as Biko put it, “Too many are involved in religion for the blacks to ignore.”

Clearly, he was not a simplistic atheist; just as clearly, though raised as an Anglican altar boy, he did not accept the main tenets of conventional Christianity, e.g., the divinity of Jesus. “The most unbelievable aspects of organised religion,” he wrote, “are to do with the advent and subsequent role of Christ on earth.” He condemned Christianity for its role in instilling the black sense of inferiority that black consciousness sought to erase:

The acceptance of the colonialist-tainted version of Christianity marked the turning point in the resistance of African people. … Because the white missionary described black people as thieves, lazy, sex-hungry etc., and because he equated all that was valuable with whiteness, our Churches through our ministers see all these vices I have mentioned above not as manifestations of the cruelty and injustice which we are subjected to by the white man but inevitable proof that after all the white man was right when he described us as savages.

It wasn’t just the Dutch Reformed Church that was bad; it was organized religion in general:

I’ve also grown to question in fact that very need for worship in an organised way. In other words do organised churches necessarily have a divine origin or should one view them as man-created institutions probably in the same category as soccer clubs? … I can reject all Churches and still be Godly. I do not need to go to Church on Sunday in order to manifest my Godliness.

So what did he mean by “Godly?” Like Tom Paine, Biko accepted the idea of a God, but believed man could know nothing about it, other than through examination of the universe itself: “I find it completely unnecessary for me to even contemplate the nature of the God I believe in; whether he is spiritual, human or plant-like, I find completely irrelevant to the issue. … Suffice it to trace back to him all that happens around us and out of this to begin to understand somewhat his powers.”

Though man knew nothing about God, man could still have “religion”: “If one takes religion as nothing else but what it is – i.e., a social institution attempting to explain what cannot be scientifically known about the origin and destiny of man, then from the beginning we can see the necessity of religion. All societies and indeed all individuals, ancient or modern, young or old, identify themselves with a particular religion and when none is existent, they develop one” – in other words, religion as a moral code.

Biko’s campaign to build an integrated culture with blacks as “co-architects” extended to building a new religion as well. “If the white God has been doing the talking all along, at some stage the black God will have to raise His voice and make Himself heard over and above noises from His counterpart.” Specifically, the black contribution to the religion/moral code had a powerfully humanist overtone:

One of the most fundamental aspects of our culture is the importance we attach to Man. Ours has always been a Man-centred society. … We believe in the inherent goodness of man. We enjoy man for himself. We regard our living together not as an unfortunate mishap warranting endless competition among us but as a deliberate act of God to make us a community of brothers and sisters jointly involved in the quest for a composite answer to the varied problems of life. Hence in all we do we always place Man first and hence all our action is usually joint community oriented action rather than the individualism which is the hallmark of the capitalist approach.

Most importantly, “God is not in the habit of coming down from heaven to solve people’s problems on earth.”

Biko’s final arrest occurred on August 18, 1977, when he and a friend were stopped at a roadblock. What happened after that is not clear in every detail, but the apparent plan of his captors was to persuade Biko that he was not fully human, after all. He was kept completely naked at all times, chained to a wall, and allowed no books, papers, communication, or exercise. He was repeatedly interrogated by police with a deserved reputation for using more than verbal traps to extract information. Biko may or may not have tried to fight back during his interrogation on the morning of September 6, as police decades later claimed he did. What definitely did happen was that Biko received a severe injury to the head, and for the rest of that day and several succeeding days drifted in and out of consciousness, all the while naked, manacled and chained to a grill. Doctors were brought in to look at him; having been informed by the police that he was simply “shamming,” they did nothing.

On September 11, Biko took a turn for the worse. His jailers responded by tossing him, still naked, into the back of a van, which set out on a grueling 700 mile journey to Pretoria. Biko died in his cell a few hours after arrival. Shortly afterward, the government attempted to erase Black Consciousness by outlawing all of Biko’s organizations.

The minister of justice, Jimmy Kruger, insisted that Biko had died of a hunger strike. He poured salt on the wound by saying of Biko’s death that “it leaves me cold,” then chuckling that black and white alike were given “the democratic right to starve themselves to death.” An inquest revealed the true cause of death as brain injury; a highlight was the jailer who testified that “No assault charges have ever been laid against my assaulting team.” He was allowed to correct his statement to “interrogation team.” Curiously, even after the results of the inquest were made public, Kruger continued to stick to the hunger strike line – mere facts never bother those doing God’s will.

The government would have been better off simply murdering Biko in an untraceable manner, as it did when it killed SASO leader Abram Tiro with a parcel bomb. As Biko had predicted, “You are either alive and proud or you are dead, and when you are dead, you can’t care anyway. And your method of death can itself be a politicizing thing. … So if you can overcome the personal fear for death, which is a highly irrational thing, you know, then you’re on the way. His death provided decisive impetus to the anti-apartheid movement worldwide. Over 20,000 mourners attended his funeral, where they were attacked by police who fractured a number of skulls.

Two months later, the United Nations, which had previously labeled apartheid a “crime against humanity,” slapped an arms embargo on South Africa. Ronald Reagan, the darling of America’s Christian right, opposed sanctions on South Africa while disingenuously remarking that South Africa had “eliminated the segregation we once had in our own country.” But in 1986 Congress overrode his veto and slapped full economic sanctions on South Africa.

The most important event of 1986, though, was that the Dutch Reformed Church finally caved into decades of worldwide opprobrium and announced that God really didn’t demand the continuation of apartheid after all. They neither apologized nor acknowledged past error; they just admitted that things weren’t working out well in practice. Whatever – the critical point was that once the moral underpinnings for a system that was obscene on its face were yanked out, the system could not possibly stand. Nor did it; Nelson Mandela was freed from jail just four years later, and four years after that he became South Africa’s first black president. Unfortunately, corruption and buffoonery have plagued South African politics since Mandela’s retirement. There is no certainty that things would have been different had Steve Biko lived – he would only be 65 years old today – but it would be nice to know what he would have done with the chance.

One Response to “Remembering Steve Biko”

  1. Marty says:

    I remember hearing his name when I was a kid. It was always as an ‘activist’ and ‘black power’ guy. I never looked him up or felt he was relevant to my world. Thanks for opening my eyes…

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