Steve Biko and informal and community education. Steve Biko is remembered as a founder and martyr of the Black consciousness movement in South Africa. Here Barry Burke assesses his significance for informal and community educators.
Steve Biko (1946-1977) was born in Kingwilliamstown, Cape Province, South Africa. As he described in I write what I like Steve Biko went to local primary and secondary schools and finally moved to Natal to complete his higher education. He entered the medical school of the University of Natal in Durban in 1966. (As a black student at a white university, he could only be accepted in the Non-European section). In the middle of 1972, his course was closed down by the authorities. Biko became active in the National Union of South African Students, broke with them in 1968 and formed the South African Students’ Organisation of which he was elected its first president in July 1969.
From about 1971, his heart was increasingly in political activity and from then on until his death in police custody in 1977, Steve Biko was one of the most prominent activists in the struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa and a leader of the Black Consciousness movement.
In 1973, together with seven other student leaders, he was banned and had to return to his home town in Cape Province. There his movements were restricted and he was not allowed to travel, speak in public or write for publication. Despite this, he busied himself in community organisation until, at the end of 1975, his banning order had an added clause inserted so that this activity was also prohibited to him.
In January 1977, he was appointed Honorary President of the Black People’s Convention, and six months later, he was arrested under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act. He was taken to Port Elizabeth where he was kept naked and chained. He was tortured by the police and he finally died about four week later whilst still in detention, aged 31.
Steve Biko’s importance for informal and community educators lies in the emphasis he placed on the role played by consciousness and awareness-raising in his work as a black activist. Like Marx in the Nineteenth Century, Biko thought that only the oppressed could liberate themselves, no one could do it for them. Like Gramsci, earlier in the 20th Century, he saw the role of organic intellectuals and the need to pose a counter hegemony to that of the ruling power in his country.
Steve Biko wanted more than anything, an end to the apartheid regime in South Africa but he was against a hastily arranged political compromise which was styled as integration. He maintained that only ‘once the various groups within a given community have asserted themselves to the point that mutual respect has to be shown then you have the ingredients for a true and meaningful integration’. The main problem, Biko felt, was that ‘as long as blacks are suffering from inferiority complex – a result of 300 years of deliberate oppression, denigration and derision’ this could not be done.
… what is necessary as a prelude to anything else that may come is a very strong grass-roots build up of black consciousness such that blacks can learn to assert themselves and stake their rightful claim.
He was scathing of the white liberals who attached themselves to the black cause but shied away from the notion of Black Power because they saw it as an example of extremism and just as bad as white supremacy. Steve Biko saw the white liberal as someone who viewed the oppression of blacks as ‘a problem that has to be solved’ whilst ‘the blacks are experiencing a situation from which they are unable to escape at any given moment. Theirs is a struggle to get out of the situation and not merely to solve a peripheral problem …’. Biko felt that ‘no matter what a white man does, the colour of his skin – his passport to privilege – will always put him miles ahead of the black man’. Biko was adamant that there was no ‘black problem’ in South Africa. ‘There is nothing the matter with blacks. The problem is WHITE RACISM and it rests squarely on the laps of white society … 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’.
What, therefore, was ‘their own business’?
Biko felt that the logic of white domination in the country meant that that blacks had to be prepared for a subservient role. This, they had largely succeeded in doing. He maintained that what apartheid had produced was ‘a kind of black man that is man only in form’ – a process of dehumanisation had taken place. ‘The black man has become a shell, a shadow of man, completely defeated, drowning in his own misery, a slave, an ox bearing the yoke of oppression with sheepish timidity’.
‘The first step therefore is to make the black man come to himself; to pump back life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity, to remind him of his complicity in the crime of allowing himself to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of his birth’. This is what Steve Biko meant by Black Consciousness.
‘Part of the approach envisaged in bringing about “black consciousness” has to be directed to the past, to seek to rewrite the history of the black man and to produce in it the heroes who form the core of the African background.’ Biko claimed that African history had been distorted by white historians to ensure that African children learned to hate their heritage which had been disfigured so that African culture became to be seen as akin to barbarism and reduced to tribal battles and internecine wars. He made the point that ‘a people without a positive history is like a vehicle without an engine’.
Black consciousness, according to Steve Biko, sought ‘to show black people the value of their own standards and outlook …to judge themselves according to these standards and not to be fooled by white society who have whitewashed themselves and made white standards the yardstick by which even black people judge each other’. At a student conference held in 1971, Biko made the point that ‘the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed’.
In a paper produced for a student leadership training course in the same year, Steve Biko spelt out in more detail what he meant by black consciousness. He defined blacks as ‘those who are by law or tradition politically, economically and socially discriminated against as a group in South African society and identifying themselves as a unit in the struggle towards the realisation of their aspirations’. This illustrated the point that ‘being black is not a matter of pigmentation – being black is a reflection of a mental attitude’ and that ‘by describing yourself as black you have started on the road to emancipation, you have committed yourself to fight against all forces that seek to use your blackness as a stamp that marks you out as a subservient being’. Being non-white, for Biko, was not the same as being black. If your aspirations are white but the pigmentation of your skin makes this impossible, then you are non-white not black.
The paper continued by emphasising that black consciousness sought ‘to infuse the black community with a new-found pride in themselves, their efforts, their value systems, their culture, their religion and their outlook to life … Liberation, therefore, is of paramount importance in the concept of Black consciousness, for we cannot be conscious of ourselves and yet remain in bondage.
Steve Biko was a community educator and as such a community activist. In his evidence at a trial in 1976, he spelt out the kind of role that activists like himself played within the black community: ‘We try to get blacks … to grapple realistically with their problems, to attempt to find solutions to their problems, to develop what one might call an awareness, a physical awareness of their situation, to be able to analyse it, and to provide answers for themselves. The purpose behind it really being to provide some kind of hope.’
Biko, Steve (2002) I Write What I Like. Selected writings, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Also published by Heinemann International 1989)
Malan, R. (1999) The Essential Guide to Steve Biko, David Philip.
Pityana, B. et al (eds.) (1992) Bounds of Possibility: The Legacy of Steve Biko and Black Consciousness, London: Zed Books.
Woods, D. (1979) Biko, London: Penguin.
Acknowledgment: Steve Biko statue by Bfluff – Wikimedia Commons licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
How to cite this article: Burke, B. (2004) ‘Steve Biko and informal education’, the encyclopedia of informal education, www.infed.org/thinkers/biko.htm .
© Barry Burke 2004