Biko’s Intellectual Finesse Left Apartheid-Era Justice Minister Jimmy Kruger Paralysed  

September 12, 1977 holds profound lessons of struggle through a thinker, a struggle icon, a human philosopher and a realist who was brutally murdered forty-six years ago. It brings closer the privilege and the presence of mind of having been in the same space, four decades ago, of one who, when he learnt that Steve Bantu Biko took his last breath of life on this day, dropped everything where he was in Lesotho and rushed back to South Africa where he shared his pain and great hope. 

That person was Bishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu, based at the University of Lesotho, where I was a second-year student majoring in statistics and economics. Joining more than 20 000 mourners Tutu presided over the funeral of Steve Biko. Little did I know, that I would be shouldering the burden of memory of that monumental day which changed our trajectory of struggle and raised immense hope today.

Regrettably, this moment of insatiable hope in despair has metamorphosed into the unbearable disappointment of morbid interregnum today. The dying is refusing to die, and the to-be-born is doing very little to be ejected from its mother’s womb. Society is anxious about what the birth might deliver – Is it a stillborn or a moron. 

The question is, are we going to implode as a nation? We are going to if we continue to fiddle whilst Rome is burning. The theme, “Activating the agency of the people to free the land, mind, and the spirit,” seeks to capture our moment of despair of mourners who followed the ox-wagon that carried the remains of Biko to his resting place.

Tutu’s address to the multitudes, and specifically his elevation of Biko to a Jesus-like character, irked the apartheid regime. The regime returned the favour by elevating the man of the cloth to the enemy of the apartheid state. Challenged by the topic, I was terrified by the prospect of being Jonas, who was thrown overboard into the sea by fellow seafarers as he attempted to run away from being a messenger of the good lord. Finding himself in the same circumstances, Moses was advised to lean on his brethren, in particular Aaron. 

Renowned anti-apartheid struggle stalwart, Steve Bantu Biko, brought the chemistry of theory, practice, empathy and revolutionary spirit with such political dexterity that advancing the cause and course of struggle became second nature despite all the life-threatening dangers it all entailed, says the writer.

There were many an Aaron around me who could ease delivery of this 13th Steve Biko Memorial Lecture arranged by CANRAD and AZAPO. Amongst them are Dr Saths Cooper, Journalist Oupa Ngwenya, Advocate Mojanku Gumbi and the late PC Jones who had embraced me as part of the 70s Movement. Less deserving I thought I was, having fled Leabua Jonathan’s soldiers in Lesotho in September 1982, my destination to Botswana, cut by a hundred and fifty kilometres, ended in Mmabatho, Bophuthatswana.

In his interview with Bernard Zylstra in July 1977, Biko left no snow chance in hell for the homeland apartheid architecture ever receiving compatible standing in the liberation project. My pedigree into the 70s movement leaves a lot to be desired. But we are here now. The three Aarons were there to listen and interrogate our thoughts. Today opens that unfinished business that the late PC Jones attentively listened to. Biko was arrested with PC Jones on that fateful day of the 18 of August 1977.

Standing on the theme marking Biko’s passing forty-six years ago, I hereby affirm Land is the sum total of life encompassing not only a geometric feature of the earth but as a giver of life. In the Setswana idiom, land is tied to cattle. The idiom says Oa na naeo oa thloka boroko, oaetlhoka oa thloka boroko. It translates to “If you own cattle, be certain that you will lose sleep, but equally, when you do not own cattle, you will lose sleep over not owning them.

It is this responsibility that life demands from us to fulfill our life mission. It is an endeavour that Biko fulfilled with excellence in the very short three decades of his life. He remains a towering figure in our heads and hearts. He brought the chemistry of theory, practice, empathy and revolutionary spirit with such political dexterity that advancing the cause and course of struggle became second nature despite all the life-threatening dangers it all entailed.

A mourner carries Steve Biko’s portrait during his funeral in King William’s Town, Eastern Cape, in 1977. The writer says Biko ably advanced the idea of cultural and political revival as an important first step for oppressed people to liberate themselves.

Biko’s interview with Bernard Zylstra, three months before his cold-blood murder in police custody, the nuggets of his responses provide important pointers towards understanding what we face as the biggest precipice of our time. There were eleven issues he had to address.

These were 1. Black consciousness, 2. Black consciousness and Christianity, 3. Black People’s Convention, 4. The homelands, 5. Communism, 6. South Africa and the US, 7. Black Communalism, 8. Role of foreign individuals, 9. The future of America, 10. Dr Beyers Naude and 11. The Human bond.

Biko cut through the subject with an incredible clarity of mind. Delivering on the scale of complexity and pathways to addressing these massive challenges became his oyster. On the birth of black consciousness, he ably advanced the idea of cultural and political revival as an important first step for oppressed people to liberate themselves. He emphasises the cultural depth of black consciousness in that it forces black people to ask themselves; who am I? Who are we? This is especially so in the context of the demise of the invincibility of white people. 

When the façade of whiteness fades, the nakedness of their brutality and acquiescence gets revealed dramatically – their birth brings us to the true conclusion that “people are people; and therefore let us be people. Regarding Black consciousness and Christianity, Biko said this is a vexed question that troubles our fundamental orientation in life. Christianity, for most black people, is purely a formal matter. 

In that respect Christianity in essence, as the bedrock of colonialism, dispossession and injustice meant natives had to abandon cultural practices, which included abandoning dress codes in favour of the colonisers’ dress, food and means of livelihood. The founder of the Basotho nation, King Moshoeshoe’s encounter with French missionaries is a case in point. On the missionaries wishing to abolish polygamy, which would have forced him to divorce his wives, he refused to be a convert. 

Steve Bantu Biko, the founding father of the guiding philosophy of Black Consciousness, was brutally murdered in police custody by the racist apartheid regime on September 12, 1977.

The pertinent question the King asked was what then happens to his responsibility over the covenant he has with my wives. Biko, as a Calvinist, navigates this with excellent dexterity especially deploying Beyers Naude’s contradictions as he traversed this transformational journey of apartheid. On the Black People’s Convention, Biko connected black aspirations with an action by the intellectuals, however fully mindful of the propensity of these intellectuals falling prey to being manipulated by the dominant white system. On the homelands, Biko concluded that this was a mixed bag of sympathy for people and dilution and division of the cause of the struggle. 

The latter being the instrument in the hands of the colonizing agent made him conclude that this was betrayal of the struggle. Biko was specifically worried by the stance that Chief Minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi took. For a long time, Biko said Shenge opposed apartheid, but is today the governmentally paid leader of the Zulus. “We oppose Gatsha. He dilutes the cause by operating on a government platform.” 

Shenge left this world last Saturday after a long and colourful career in the political landscape. As Biko receives him I believe we have the possibility of oozing with wisdom. With respect to communism, Biko said as a theme confronting the strategic options, such as the conscious choice the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) made to operate within the law and communism, on the other hand, as a banned concept, it is not possible to administer in practice. It is thus not an option. 

On South Africa and the US, Biko said the country stood out as a pawn in the politics of pragmatism in the game of power between the two countries. The US is waking to the reality that it is losing power, with Russia ascending in circles of post-colonial Africa.

Regarding Black Communalism, Biko said in contradistinction to capitalism versus communism South Africa must seek what best suits it. Whilst the details of an alternative are not clear, the true north is the search for a just system, and Black Communalism captures this ideal. Regarding the future, the Biko said it can only be an escalation of hostilities. This is so because the Afrikaners have cornered themselves in an untenable situation of hoarding power.

Former Statistician-General Dr Pali Lehohla says South Africa will implode as a nation if it continues to fiddle whilst Rome is burning.

If they backtrack from that position, they will lose credibility with their constituencies. Biko, the thinker, was very much aware of the weaknesses of the oppressor and recognised the limitations of arrogant ignorance of oppression. This included their vulnerabilities. He left apartheid-era Justice Minister Jimmy Kruger paralysed, and in fact, intellectually frozen on the subject of confrontation and violence. 

He agitated confrontation and saw no violence in confrontation. We are in that space where we must confront our demons today of lack of system design and paucity of design thinking, which are largely responsible for corruption, bribery, poor service delivery, and unemployment without violence. Regarding the role of foreign individuals, Biko contended that albeit their abroad is limited, however, they are privileged with analysis and insights that can influence, amongst others, policies in foreign lands on South Africa. 

On the future of America, Biko said what the US can do is to support the struggle as a legitimate instrument for universal human rights. Otherwise, the US will continue to lose ground to Russia. On Beyers Naude, Biko said although Dr Naude might be seen as a turncoat because of how he changes, there is a remarkable consistency in the way he changes – he listens to the scriptures, and those readings influence his propensity to change. 

He is, therefore, worth listening to, Biko concluded. Finally, on the human bond, Biko said it is about identifying and unifying on the elements of the struggle. Biko has provided a laboratory of eleven pointed issues that vex us today.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the director of the Economic Modelling Academy, a Professor of Practice at the University of Johannesburg, a research associate at Oxford University, a board member of the Institute for Economic Justice at Wits and a distinguished alumnus of the University of Ghana. He is the former Statistician-General of South Africa.



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