An enduring influence, but nation divides over legacy of Steve Biko

Conflicting views emerge after security police seek amnesty for leader's killing
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The Independent Online
Two decades after his murder Steve Biko's influence endures. But the real nature of the black consciousness leader's legacy - and who carries his torch - still arouses bitter controversy.

As a new row erupted last night over the confirmation that five former security policeman had applied for amnesty in connection with Biko's death, very different Bikos seemed about to be resurrected by opposing camps.

Biko, a former student leader, founded the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) in 1969, and gave up medical training to devote himself to the struggle. The radical black pride philosophy came into its own in the mid-1970s, when the liberation movement appeared to be faltering and many ANC leaders were in jail or exile.

Biko's message inspired a generation and fired the confrontation between schoolchildren and the apartheid authorities in Soweto and other townships. The resulting violence shocked the world, as did Biko's death a few years later from brain injuries, after 21 days in police detention.

Although the ANC leadership was never comfortable with Biko's message, or the confrontations it sparked, the new radicalism changed the course of black liberation.

In Sir Richard Attenborough's 1987 film Cry Freedom, which told the story of the friendship between Biko and Donald Woods, then editor of the East London Daily Dispatch, Biko was presented as a figure resembling Martin Luther King.

But the portrayal divided his old associates. Some dismissed it as saccharine- sweet "Hollywoodisation". Woods, they argued, was a prominent member of the white liberal establishment, which was a prime target of Biko's anger.

Though Woods had to flee South Africa following Biko's death, after running anti-government editorials, these old political allies claim Biko could not help but see Woods as part of the problem.

Strini Moodley, a founder member of the BCM, insists Biko believed that whites could not help blacks. "In his last television interview [Biko] made it clear that black people must pull themselves up by their own bootstraps rather than rely on the assistance of whites," said Mr Moodley. "There was no accommodation for white people in the BCM and that is why Steve was murdered."

But Malusi and Thoko Mpumlwana, former political allies of Biko, distinguish between the early and late Biko. They argue that he softened his stance before he died. His early beliefs, they admit, were that blacks had to withdraw from "partnerships" with whites because such associations were unequal. But the Mpumlwanas say that the later Biko saw that growing black confidence made a partnership possible.

The ANC strengthened this view of a softer Biko at a recent hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), when it claimed that before his death Biko had been poised to meet Oliver Tambo, then president of the ANC. The ANC believes that the planned meeting, not his inability to accommodate whites, was connected with his death, because it held out a promise of greater black unity.

The two women in Biko's life, his wife Ntsiki and his lover Mamphela Ramphele (recently appointed vice-chancellor of Cape Town University), also have different views of the man and his teachings. Ms Ramphele insists he was never anti-white. But Biko's widow, Ntsiki, says the TRC will rob her of justice. Yesterday's confirmation of the amnesty application was another blow. Last year Mrs Biko complained the ANC did not mark the anniversary of her husband's death and that his grave was unattended and overgrown. "Many politicians in high places seem to have forgotten what they owe Steve," she said.

Ironically, she added that life would have been harder for her and her two sons, Nkosinathi and Samora, without the help of Biko's old white liberal friend, Donald Woods.

Biko on the philosophy of Black Consciousness

In his book I Write What I Like, Biko wrote:

Being black is not a matter of pigmentation - being black is a reflection of a mental attitude.

"Merely by describing yourself as black, you have started on a road towards 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.

"The philosophy of Black Consciousness therefore expresses pride and determination by blacks. At the heart of this kind of thinking is the realisation by blacks that the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.

"Once the oppressed has been so effectively manipulated and controlled by the oppressor to make him believe that he is a liability to the white man ... there will be nothing the oppressed can do that

will really scare the powerful masters."