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Biko: A Man for His People

Biko by Donald Woods Paddington Press, Ltd.; 284 pages; $10.95

By Gay Seidman

UNTIL HIS DEATH last September, few people outside South Africa had heard of Steve Biko. Their ignorance was understandable; the white minority government of his country had done its best to silence him, by restricting his movement and the circulation of his ideas, and by threatening him with detention. Finally, it silenced him in the most permanent way possible: he died on a jail cell floor, one more victim of a system that is as ruthless as it is racist.

Donald Woods, a white South African journalist, was responsible for much of the public outcry after Biko's death. South African officials tried to pass the death off as the result of a hunger strike; later, they attributed it to self-inflicted injuries. But Woods and other South Africans forced the government to conduct an inquest into the death--an inquest that was closely watched from abroad as well as from within South Africa. As the judge did not find anyone in South Africa guilty of mistreating Biko, or of covering up mistreatment, the rest of the world reached its own conclusions: if no individuals were to be blamed for the murder of Steve Biko, we could only indict the apartheid system as a whole, and all who supported it.

But even now, little is known of Biko's place in South African history, of the role he played in the struggle for the liberation of the African majority. Woods's Biko, written immediately after Biko's death while Woods himself was prohibited from writing, is the first widely-circulated attempt to answer these questions. More than a biography, Biko is a description of Steve Biko, of the ideas on which the Black Consciousness movement is based, and of the reasons those ideas are so important. In the end, we need wonder no longer how Biko could have inspired the 20,000 people who came to his funeral; we have to wonder, instead, how a government like the one that exists today in South Africa can be tolerated by the international community.

The Black Consciousness movement began in the late 1960s, based on the idea that South African blacks had to break out of the psychological chains created by a racist system before they could win the struggle for full liberation. Biko and other black students at the universities of South Africa argued that until blacks learned attitudes of self-reliance and dignity--attitudes that have been suppressed by centuries of legal white supremacy--they could not win the fight against economic exploitation. It was not enough, they said, to work with liberal white students for majority rule. Black South Africans had to free themselves of any sense that they were dependent on whites, or that they had to prove they could be just like the whites.

It is worth quoting at some length Biko's own early coments on the movement, written in the late 1960s:

The philosophy of Black Consciousness...expresses group pride and the determination by the blacks to rise and attain the envisaged self. At the heart of this kind of thinking is the realization by the blacks that the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. Once the latter had been so effectively manipulated and controlled by the oppressor as to make the oppressed believe that he is a liability to the white man, then there will be nothing the oppressed can do that will really scare his powerful masters. Hence thinking along the lines of Black Consciousness makes the black man see himself as a being, entire in himself, and not as an extension of a broom or additional leverage to some machine. At the end of it all, he cannot tolerate attempts by anybody to dwarf the significance of his manhood. Once this happens, we know that the real man in the black person is beginning to shine through.

Biko's ideas may not have been entirely new; the idea that a racist society has psychological as well as sociological effects appears in Frantz Fanon, in West Africa's Negritude movement, and in the Black Power movement of the United States, among other places. But in South Africa--where courageous and outspoken black leaders have been regularly killed and jailed by the white rulers--the Black Consciousness movement meant a great deal. The Black Consciousness movement, as expressed by the all-black South African Students Organization and by the Black People's Convention, meant that South African blacks had a vocabulary with which they could define themselves as human beings in their own right, with their own culture to be proud of. They would no longer define themselves in the negative, as non-white.

Woods does not explain why Bantu Stephen Biko, a medical student who was raised in the Transkei and attended a Catholic secondary school, developed the consciousness he did. We do not learn, for instance, why Biko himself was not bound by the psychological restrictions he described, or, if he was, how he freed himself. Woods may not have known. Although he was acquainted with Biko, and counted Biko one of his most valued friends, Woods does not claim that Biko confided many personal details to the white editor of the East London Daily Dispatch.

But Biko explains clearly why Biko's ideas were accepted so easily, and why they became a major element in the recent struggles in South Africa. Long excerpts from Biko's articles and speeches, as well as anecdotes about him, show that he was both articulate and persuasive, easily able to bring his audience to understand his ideas and to sympathize with his goals. At times, Woods seems ready to canonize Biko. Yet one can hardly blame him, for Biko seems to have brought Woods and many other South Africans, both black and white, to a new awareness of the more subtle levels at which apartheid functions.

One of the most awesome aspects of Biko's career is the extent to which he managed to spread the Black Consciousness movement, despite government efforts to silence him. They placed a banning order on him, which restricted his movements, his writing, and his public speaking. As Biko once told Woods, if the government could not catch him acting illegally, it would encircle him so that it was almost impossible for him to avoid breaking the law. But Woods reports that Biko still moved fairly freely around the country, and often held illegal meetings at his home in King Williams Town. As he told Woods, "It's our country, man."

THE SOUTH AFRICAN police arrested Biko last August for venturing outside the area to which he was legally restricted. According to Woods, Biko had often left the area, but this time the police had set up a blockade to catch him. They had given no reason for the original banning order, but now they could say they were detaining him for trespassing. In early September, after 22 hours of interrogation--90 pages of notes from the inquest describing that process are included in Biko--he had suffered severe brain damage, from which he died six days later. Woods reports that Biko was not treated as a particularly dangerous enemy of the South African state while in prison. He was simply another black, and as such, had no rights, not even the right to die with dignity.

IT IS NOT an easy story to read, this tale of depersonalized murder. It is made somewhat more hopeful only by the inclusion of another, related story--that of Donald Woods's own transformation. Woods describes in detail his own responses to the South African situation. Born in the Transkei--not far, incidentally, from where Stephen Biko would grow up several years later--Woods did not begin to question his superiority to the blacks around him until he went to college, where he was introduced to the concepts of Western liberalism and humanism. He was persuaded to question the apartheid system with which he had been brought up; in a few years, he became one of South Africa's white liberals, writing for and later editing a newspaper that consistently spoke out against the Nationalist Party's efforts to subjugate the country's black majority.

When he met Biko, however, Woods was forced to reevaluate his position once again; Biko seems to have shown him what apartheid really meant to South African blacks. Even so, the shock that Woods conveys in Biko suggests that it was not until his friend died in detention that Woods was fully aware of the brutality of the South African regime. When Woods himself was placed under virtual house arrest and prohibited from writing--prohibited, that is, from earning a living in the only way he knew--the last vestige of legitimacy was stripped from the government.

South Africa has always touted its legality and its press freedom, as if a system of injustice that is conducted with due process, and that allows a press to scream at abuses within the system, is less evil. But Biko and Woods's experiences together served as final proof for Woods that South Africa's white minority would not give up its privileges without a bitter fight. If he once believed liberal white South Africans could act as a voice of reason within the country, he does so no longer. The story of Woods's escape is too well known to require repeating. He has left South Africa and argues that only international pressure against the regime, brought to bear in any way possible, will bring majority rule closer.

Steve Biko, Woods concludes, was killed by all who permit the system of apartheid to continue, by all who continue to profit from that system, Biko closes with a call to arms:

Help to finish the work of Steve Biko. Help to smash the remaining links of the chains he broke, and let the sound of this work echo around the world so that chains may be broken wherever they hold in bondage the bodies and minds of men.

International sanctions, such as corporate withdrawal from South Africa, may hurt South African blacks temporarily. But as Biko once said in response to that objection. South African blacks are used to suffering, and temporary damage would be worth it if the result was the end of apartheid. At 30, Stephen Biko became another martyr for the liberation struggle. It is hard to believe that, so long as apartheid continues to impose injustice daily on the people of South Africa, there will not be many more, dying in jail cells and on the streets, so that their children can walk tall and free.

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