Steve Biko’s legacy lives on in Swaziland’s civil society

Steve Biko

Looking at South Africa today, it is clear that the approach of the ANC has not ensured socio-economic justice for the majority of South Africa’s blacks. Indeed, the rich-poor divide has broadened, and South Africa has become the most unequal country in the world. The same can be said of many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. But as South Africa’s tiny neighbour, Swaziland, is finding out, the solution might lie in the past, so to speak, more than in a future that has failed the test of time. The ideas of Steve Biko certainly seem to be popular in Swaziland’s democratic movement. One of Swaziland’s prominent pro-democracy activists, student leader and political prisoner, Maxwell Dlamini, professes to be heavily inspired by Biko, and the main vehicle for civic education in Swaziland, the Foundation for Socio-Economic Justice, uses an approach to raising consciousness amongst people in Swaziland that is akin to, if not inspired by, that of Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement in the nineteen-seventies.

Steve Biko

Steve Biko grew up in the Ginsberg Location near King Williams Town, where nearly two hundred families shared around 40 communal taps and toilets. He also studied medicine and law at university, and was therefore acquainted with the plight of all walks of live in apartheid South Africa. Biko was the father of the Black Consciousness Movement, as well as its main thinker and key catalyst, although he deliberately tried not to be dominant to enable others to assume responsibility and discourage a personality cult. Biko’s general fearlessness in openly opposing the authorities such as during the SASO-BPC trial (where the apartheid government prosecuted and convicted nine members of the BCM for “subversion by intent”) in 1976, his unhesitant response to insult and his disregarding of his banning were probably contributing factors to his early death – he died in police custody in September, having been tortured and severely beaten. On the other hand, showing that he was not afraid of the authorities was also an important contributing factor in fostering the culture of fearlessness that helped end apartheid.

According to Biko, “the type of black man we have today [in the early seventies] … accepts what he regards as [his] inevitable position.” Biko believed that “the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor” was “the mind of the oppressed.” Black Consciousness was meant to enable blacks to fight this defeatism, develop hope, and build up their humanity and urging them to be their own “authorities rather than wait to be interpreted by others.” Black Consciousness “no longer seek[s] to reform the system because so doing implies acceptance of the major points around which the system revolves,” said Biko. Liberation is not simply being about freedom from material conditions, but about “liberation … first from psychological oppression … and secondly from physical oppression.” “Ill distribution of wealth” and “a mere change of face of those in governing positions,” said Biko, would make any political freedom meaningless.

The Black Consciousness Movement

Biko therefore helped form the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) – an all-black organisation (the term “black” including all the oppressed South Africans; Africans, Coloureds, and Indians) – in 1968, Biko began working for the Black Community Programmes (BCP) in 1972, and he remained thoroughly active within the movement to help facilitate concrete programmes and organisations that could and would bring about first psychological, and secondly material, change. The Black Community Programmes covered the fields of health, education, leadership training, publications, home industries and childcare, and especially the educational programmes were meant to introduce the message of self-reliance and Black Consciousness. The BCP were thus meant to give practical effect to the philosophy of self-reliance. The ideas and practice of Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement was an important contributor to the dismantling of apartheid, especially to the psychological side of the liberation movement, where they successfully helped to diminish the element of fear in the minds of black South Africans who, prior to the manifestation of Black Consciousness in the late sixties were terribly scared of involvement in politics.

One of Biko’s main legacies was thus that development – both at the national and the personal level – was not merely about economics or other material conditions, but also about consciousness and self-belief. He saw that any true liberation must be founded on a psychological one – an insight that is highly relevant to Swaziland.

Swaziland

A strict traditional hierarchy and conservatism, illiteracy, lack of access to education and poverty in general has hindered democratic and rights-based consciousness in especially the rural areas of Swaziland. Furthermore, a repressive society such as Swaziland’s is domesticating, so to speak, as the oppressed tend to internalise the oppressor’s image of themselves and become fearful of freedom. Civic education in Swaziland’s rural areas is therefore essential, not only for the struggle for democracy, but also to ensure that a mental liberation precedes a physical one, and that the nature of a future Swazi democracy is inclusive and ultimately successful once the fight for democracy has been won. Swazis are therefore in dire need of a political consciousness, that will help bring about democracy, observance of basic rights, and socio-economic justice in general. The problems in ensuring this are man-fold. Two-thirds of the population live below the poverty line – many on food aid from the UN, life expectancy is at under 40 years due to Swaziland’s extremely high prevalence of HIV, the country effectively bankrupt to serious financial mismanagement, the media is either heavily censored or self-censored, and the population has generally been unable or unwilling to connect their poverty and lacking influence to Swaziland’s filthy-rich monarchy.

All of this is changing, however, due to a combination of the population’s increasing desperation with the regime’s handling of the situation – cutting back on social services and brutalizing those within the democratic movement who dare to call for democratic reform.

The Foundation for Socio-Economic Justice

Until recently there has been no programme focusing specifically on inclusive civic education. For this reason, the Foundation for Socio Economic Justice was founded in 2003 as an organization to initiate “broad civic education programmes to encourage democratic participation and raise awareness on human- and constitutional rights amongst the rural populations, with an understanding on how this leads to poverty eradication”. The overall goal of the Foundation is to “build a mass-based democratic force” through a bottom-up approach that includes partnership with, and capacity building of, marginalized, rural based organisations. The Foundation’s Rural Civic Education programme is the cornerstone of the Foundation’s work and the civic educators are in the front-line of its work. The educational team covers a variety of democracy- and rights-related subjects on e.g. the history of Swaziland, the history of the unions, the political history of Swaziland, and issues about rural community organisation. The discussions that this education spawns also covers more concrete issues such as the lack of health facilities, schools, classrooms, water and employment that are then tied to the more overall topics.

As in apartheid South Africa, the conditions under which the lessons are given are difficult, however. Community leaders and Chiefs in some places victimize the educators and participants as they are seen as a threat to their authority and there is police surveillance of most meetings. The result of this education can be seen in the fact that people to a much larger degree dare speak up in the presence of authorities such as headmen, chiefs and police officers, and that some have even stopped partaking in the traditionally sanctioned system of forced labour by i.e. refusing to plough the chief’s land for free. And they can be seen in the persistent calls for democracy that have been heard in recent years – especially since this years so-called “April 12 Uprising”, where thousands demonstrated for democracy and socio-economic justice. The Foundation has thus made great strides and progress in areas where the discussion of political issues or standing up to the authoritarian traditional system was previously impossible – very much like Biko’s Black Consciousness did in apartheid South Africa in the seventies.

On 18. December 2011, Steve Biko would have been 65 years old. This article is written in commemoration of him.

 

Read Peter Kenworthy’s “Bikoism vs. Mbekism – the role of Black Consciousness in Mbeki’s South Africa” here. rudar.ruc.dk/bitstream/1800/2630/1/Bikoism%20or%20Mbekism%20%28thesis%29.pdf

 

© 2011, Peter Kenworthy. All rights reserved. – The views expressed here are purely those of the author and not necessarily those of the publishers. – Newstime Africa content cannot be reproduced in any form – electronic or print – without prior consent of the Publishers. Copyright infringement will be pursued and perpetrators prosecuted.

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