Opinionista Chris Desmond 19 September 2017

A failure to think: Steve Biko and Rick Turner frozen in time

This month we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the murder of Steve Biko. Numerous articles have been written commenting on how relevant his ideas remain. Certainly, his ideas remain critically important, but they must not be allowed to remain frozen in time or we allow the apartheid state an important victory.

It is hard to stop ideas which have already been expressed. Even if you murder their originator, expressed ideas have a life of their own. The apartheid state knew this, but they probably had something else on their mind. They wanted to stop the evolution of Biko’s ideas. The ones already out there were damaging them enough, they did not want more.

If we are to respect the memory of Biko we must ask how the line of thinking he was taking would have developed over time. At the heart of his argument was a truly human vision. He saw and brilliantly described how the apartheid state was dehumanising, how it oppressed people not just through violence and material deprivation, but through the systematic denial of their humanity. From this clear understanding emerged the critical conclusion that the victim of the story must also be the hero. True liberation comes from the oppressed, it cannot be handed to them. Are we asking what this human-centred thinking would conclude today?

The apartheid state has fallen, but oppression remains. Racism is alive and well – not just in offensive outbursts on social media, but in the way in which our society operates. White and black South Africans have come to expect a certain level of treatment, both within and between groups. The assumed value, honesty and competence of white South Africans makes professional and personal interactions that much easier. Black South Africans are so often viewed, even by other black South Africans, as needing to prove themselves, and indeed, prove their worth. Racism, while a huge part of the story, is only one part. Women, particularly black women, suffer oppression daily – from systematic discrimination to sexual violence. Sexual identity introduces another layer of discrimination. Then there is the economic inequality – high rates of poverty, with the constant reminder of what wealth looks like. And of course, violent crime, something Biko warned us is a product of an unliberated society.

How does this oppressive environment affect people? What does it do to the person who has lived through this oppression all their lives? What toll does it take? What role do the oppressed have in reversing that toll? What role do they have in taking on the oppressive system and fighting back? These are the questions that Biko might have asked. Who is trying to answer them now? If we are to learn anything from Biko, and indeed Freire and Fanon who argued similar points, it is that these questions cannot be answered through cold academic analysis. They must be answered by, or at least in dialogue with, the oppressed themselves. But this is not happening, and as a result we are doing a disservice to Biko, we are handing the apartheid state a posthumous victory, and we continue to deny the humanity of the oppressed.

In January of 2018 we will remember the 40th anniversary of the murder of another great South African thinker, Rick Turner. Again, murdered to stop the evolution of his ideas. Among many lines of argument, Turner described the importance of imagining the South Africa we want post-apartheid. He saw how political liberation alone would only be part of the process towards a more human country. And again, we must ask, who is continuing with this line of thought? Or are we handing out another posthumous victory?

Post-1994, government has focused on improving the material conditions of the poor. A critically important focus, but one which stops far short of dismantling oppressive systems, and supporting the oppressed to overcome the hurt they have endured. Without an express focus on true liberation, improvements in political and material conditions will have limited success. They are reforms to a system designed to exploit – they neither change the system or build the strength of the oppressed to change it for themselves. Calls for politicians and a wealthy elite to be and do better can only, at best, hope to lead to further reform. If we are to honour Biko and Turner, we need to do some thinking. We need to ensure that their thinking was not frozen in time by their murders. We need to accept the uncomfortable fact that they told us that what we are doing to address material deprivation will not be enough to end oppression. But we can draw hope from their belief that if we put humanity at the centre of our thinking, we can imagine, and build, a better place to flourish as people and as a country. DM

Chris Desmond is the Director of the Centre for Liberation Studies, a Lead Investigator and Senior Economist at the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence on Human Development at Wits University and a Research Fellow of the FXB Centre for Health and Human Rights, Harvard University. He holds a PhD from the LSE and a Masters from UKZN. He writes in his personal capacity.

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