Today marks the 37th year since Steve Bantu Biko’s funeral. On this day, in 1977, more than 10000 people attended his funeral – including diplomats from 13 countries. The attendance number would have been higher if the police had not stopped many who were attempting to enter the funeral to pay their respects.
A revolutionary, a father and a doctor, Biko was 30 years old and one of the pioneers of the Anti- Apartheid movement. He died in prison because of brain damage caused by the beatings he received by the prison officials. The official cause of death declared by the racist government in charge at the time was that he died because of a hunger strike. He was one of many to die in prison by the hands of the officials since the 1962 ‘Detention Without Trial’ convention was introduced.
The Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), of which Biko was a leader, was a movement that urged black people to be aware of the value of their humanity, and to feel pride in being black. Part of the idea was that a ‘psychological’ liberation was an essential step towards black liberation. A fight for the political and social change alone, were not enough to bring liberation forwards.
Years of oppression and injustice had inevitably resulted in a huge inferiority complex felt by many black people in South Africa, even though they were the majority. The movement stimulated many to confront the cultural and psychological realities of the Apartheid regime, seeking black participation in society and in political struggles. For example, whilst many movements looked for whites to cooperate with them to achieve civil rights, the BCM wanted blacks to lead in the elimination of the regime and obtain rights for the black South Africans.
The movement was often criticized as having very little impact on policies and laws, and therefore often labeled as ineffective. However, I think it is a mistake to underestimate the significance of the intellectual aspect that comes with wanting change; in a society where most trails of identity and pride for black South Africans were trashed by the racist government, it was a crucial first step in regaining consciousness and an identity.
A movement with a similar approach is the Gay Pride, which has taught us that true change comes when people are not afraid to speak up, when people are aware and conscious of their human and civil rights. Until the first half of the 19th century, homosexuality was closeted. Homosexuals were individuals without a collective conscience. To declare one’s homosexuality, or to be ‘outed’ meant serious consequences in the workplace, at home and in society.
Women’s rights movements have also grown from women’s collective awareness of their own rights. Not to be underestimated is also the huge importance of the feeling of support that people get in being part of a movement.
Yesterday, I saw a documentary following the biggest climate change march in history that happened just a few days ago. In it, the power of people’s collective action and solidarity was highlighted as a huge catalyst for change. People all over the world marched to show that they are aware of what is happening to our planet, and that they demand change. If we become aware of what we can do, then there is no stopping us.
In a country that offered black people very few opportunities, Steve Bantu Biko managed to raise his voice and urge black people to be proud of their ‘blackness’, to expect respect and freedom and to be conscious of what they deserved. It takes courage and perseverance to follow the pursuit of justice in a society where you are given barely any space, and it takes much more to have thousands of people respect and follow you through that path.
History has taught us that humanity is capable of changing the unchangeable. We are the ones responsible for the way the world is now (good and bad) and we are the ones responsible for changing the things we want changed.
If you want to change the world, first change yourself. The rest will follow.