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Steve Biko
September 12, 2007 5:05 PM   Subscribe

You can blow out a candle. But you can't blow out a fire. Steve Biko died 30 years ago today.
posted by Alec (40 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
Biko
posted by vronsky at 5:17 PM on September 12, 2007


On a day where there's a MeFi post in which some comments hail military snipers as "heroes," it's splendid to have a reminder of what makes a REAL hero. Thanks.
posted by FelliniBlank at 5:28 PM on September 12, 2007 [5 favorites]


Well, not to be too contrarian, but Marine Sniper Carlos Hathcock, who sustained 3rd degree burns over 90% of his body by repeatedly entering a burning vehicle & pulling seven of his fellow soldiers out to safety seems heroic to me.
posted by jonson at 5:36 PM on September 12, 2007


Stir it up
posted by anomie at 5:40 PM on September 12, 2007


Military snipers are heroes.

So are human rights activists

Just wish it was the sort of world where we didn't need either on a daily basis.
posted by timsteil at 5:40 PM on September 12, 2007 [2 favorites]


If it was a Hathcock thread, would you want someone to come and insert Biko?
posted by SaintCynr at 5:41 PM on September 12, 2007


Steve Biko Foundation.
posted by Abiezer at 5:46 PM on September 12, 2007


You're right; that was glib of me. Please disregard.
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:13 PM on September 12, 2007


Yes, the Peter Gabriel song made me aware of Steven Biko when it came out. His story is quite amazing. Later I watched the movie "Cry Freedom". The amount the man gave for his beliefs is awesome, and I wish I had such strength of convictions for something. As it is, I am a bland, spoiled product of an easy life.
posted by Eekacat at 6:27 PM on September 12, 2007


Oh, Biko, Biko.

Amandle awethu!
posted by rtha at 6:31 PM on September 12, 2007


It's easy to glorify those who died for a cause before their goals were achieved, because that way you don't have to balance your opinion of them with an assessment of the consequences of their politics. That's why Che is easy to make into an icon but Castro is more problematic, and ditto Biko versus, say, Winnie Mandela. As for the crime-ridden "new South Africa", I sure as hell wouldn't want to live there.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 6:39 PM on September 12, 2007


If it was a Hathcock thread, would you want someone to come and insert Biko?

You're right, my apologies.
posted by jonson at 6:46 PM on September 12, 2007


That's why Che is easy to make into an icon but Castro is more problematic, and ditto Biko versus, say, Winnie Mandela

Interesting choice of Mandelas, there.
posted by bunglin jones at 6:50 PM on September 12, 2007


I don't want to glorify anyone, what does that even mean? But surely we can honour the memory of someone who tried to do good. Can't we?
posted by Alec at 7:33 PM on September 12, 2007


It is a good question: what is the value of an activist's life, for the cause? What is the benefit of a martyr, the value of a hero's death?
posted by Riverine at 7:41 PM on September 12, 2007


once the flame begin to catch
the wind will blow it higher
posted by CitizenD at 7:45 PM on September 12, 2007


You can beat us with wires
You can beat us with chains
You can run out your rules
But you know you can't outrun the history train

- Paul Simon, "Peace Like a River"
posted by New Frontier at 7:46 PM on September 12, 2007


As for the crime-ridden "new South Africa", I sure as hell wouldn't want to live there.

I'm pretty sure the majority of South Africans would chose the current situation over apartheid.
posted by rdr at 7:50 PM on September 12, 2007


It's easy to glorify those who died for a cause before their goals were achieved, because that way you don't have to balance your opinion of them with an assessment of the consequences of their politics. That's why Che is easy to make into an icon but Castro is more problematic, and ditto Biko versus, say, Winnie Mandela. As for the crime-ridden "new South Africa", I sure as hell wouldn't want to live there.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 9:39 PM on September 12 [+] [!]


This guy was killed, by agents of the state, for fighting for basic human rights. I believe in those basic human rights. I'm not sure what else I need to know about him, to know that I should honor him.

Yes, post revolutionary political management is complicated and a lot of people are bad at it. Does this mean Biko was wrong to fight the apartheid government of South Africa? Does it mean he wasn't actually killed for advocating basic human rights?
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:53 PM on September 12, 2007 [3 favorites]


Che was easy to make into an icon 'cause he made a good stencil and t-shirt. Iconographic in the truest sense of the word. If anyone scratched beyond his pretty picture I don't think he'd get the adoration he does. L.P. Hatecraft, I do imagine being a white person you'd have liked the old South Africa when they kept the "sulky's" in line. As a black person, perhaps not so much. Whether it is comfortable place for you to live really is inconsequential to what Mr. Biko fought for and represented. The fact that he was arrested under Terrorism Act No 83 of 1967 is interesting considering what's going on here in the states right now. Amazing how fashions keep coming back. I do choose to honor him, and the Mandela you didn't mention honored him as well.
posted by Eekacat at 7:59 PM on September 12, 2007


Biko was a Communist and a terrorist. Sure, he died in custody and some defeatocrats claim he was "tortured", but I say he was arrested under the Terrorism Act of 1967 and was merely subject to harsh interrogation methods that were perfectly legal under the legal findings of the time.

I'm sure the harsh treatment of Biko was required by reasons of national security, and so I feel no remorse for it; I'm sure that the democratic South African government was only doing what was necessary to secure its continuity and to protect the country from terrorism.

Surely no one attributes the fall of that government and its minority rule, to anything at all having to do with its treatment of terrorist detainees, and surely no patriotic South African today regrets that terrorists like Biko were not coddled by giving them "rights" or quaint "Geneva Convention"-style protections.

Surely every South African today, white black mixed, Jack Bauer or David Addington or John Yoo or Jay Bybee, is proud that the South African government had the resolve -- indeed the courage -- to treat Biko as terrorists deserve.
posted by orthogonality at 8:10 PM on September 12, 2007 [2 favorites]


It's the subtle sense of sarcasm that I enjoy most about Metafilter, the deft touch so light & dry.
posted by jonson at 9:09 PM on September 12, 2007 [2 favorites]


I don't see L.P. Hatecraft's comment as critical of Biko, I think the observation is interesting. What happens when our heroes outlive their causes? What would our opinion be of JFK or MLK or RFK had they lived into old age, had more time to make mistakes?

This is not to say Biko would have been reassessed as anything less than a hero had he survived. But a discussion of a martyr is an appropriate place to talk about the idea.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 10:22 PM on September 12, 2007


The corruption and violence of Winnie Mandela's political career are far more representative of the new South Africa than Nelson's humanity.

Of course Biko was killed for advocating "basic human rights", and died a hero because of it. But that doesn't mean that the current situation is necessarily better than apartheid, and also doesn't mean that there aren't alternatives to both (e.g. partitioning South Africa into smaller ethno-states). A corollary is the break-up of Yugoslavia. Certainly it was good to get rid of Communism, as it was good to get rid of apartheid, but that doesn't mean that the post-Communist situation of little factions murdering each other couldn't be improved on by splitting it up into smaller countries. Another example is Iraq. I think that opponents of Saddam who were killed by the Ba'athist regime are heroes and martyrs, but as harsh as it may sound I still think that Iraq would be better off if Saddam was still in power. It doesn't look like US-backed "democracy" is going to work, and eventually it will probably fracture into separate Kurdish, Shia and Sunni homelands. Perhaps something similar will happen in SA, with different homelands for the Xhosa, Zulu and Boer/English Whites. Perhaps not.

South Africa obviously isn't quite as bad as either of those two examples (yet), but it's certainly bad, and it's a little flippant to dismiss it as a few hiccups in "post-revolutionary management". Literally thousands of Boer farmers have been murdered, and the crime rate is through the roof. The number of murders since apartheid ended dwarfs the number of deaths under apartheid, and while that isn't the only important metric (freedom is important too) I wouldn't take for granted that everyone, black or white, agrees that apartheid was worse. Plenty of blacks in Zimbabwe want the old white regime back, and that's where SA could be in 10 years time. In any case, why should the Boers have to put up with being murdered just because the black majority prefers the new regime? The minority have rights too, and a lot of them have roots in the country going back further than some of the blacks (who migrated down from the north).

When I was a kid growing up in New Zealand, I remember my parents marching against the Springbok tour. 25-odd years later, I'm reading about all these former South African anti-apartheid campaigners leaving in droves for Australia, NZ and the UK because it's just not safe to live there any more (no matter what your race). Do they ever admit they were wrong to bring about the current situation? Of course they don't. By all accounts (from friends who have visited, or used to live there), South Africa is a shit hole. Whenever you point this out you get these blank stares, like "what are you, a racist?". It's like you can't knock everyone's favourite cause, because that's pissing on their fond memories of righteous activism back in the 70s and 80s. That's part of what I'm getting at by my earlier comment. Honouring Biko is great, but it's also a way of avoiding having to deal with the post-revolutionary complications of the present.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 12:32 AM on September 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


I don't see L.P. Hatecraft's comment as critical of Biko

I don't either, but his comparison is still infelicitous, because Che really was an authoritarian thug. He didn't die before his ideals were put into place, he just died pursuing them in other locales than Cuba, where he had already become what he should be remembered as: an instrument of State oppression.
posted by OmieWise at 5:34 AM on September 13, 2007


Plenty of blacks in Zimbabwe want the old white regime back, and that's where SA could be in 10 years time.

Interestingly Zimbabwe under Mugabe was hailed as a model state for many years (decades?) It was a net food exporter, called the breadbasket of Africa, etc. I would be very surprised if blacks in Zimbabwe would prefer the brutal oppression they felt by the Rhodesian government to the "20th century" Mugabe. I'm sure most of them would like him gone now. But that's beside the point.

That's part of what I'm getting at by my earlier comment. Honouring Biko is great, but it's also a way of avoiding having to deal with the post-revolutionary complications of the present.

Are you saying that racial integration inherently causes crime and soforth? Because that's what you're argument is implying, that Biko is responsible for the crime because the policies he advocated would lead directly to widespread lawlessness.

"Things are bad in South Africa now" is not enough to criticize the end of Apartheid, since Apartheid itself was a crime.
posted by delmoi at 7:10 AM on September 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Arguing that the blacks were better off under Apartheid would be like saying "European Jews were better off under Hitler, because look at how bad they've got it in Israel now!"
posted by delmoi at 7:11 AM on September 13, 2007


The number of murders since apartheid ended dwarfs the number of deaths under apartheid, and while that isn't the only important metric (freedom is important too)...

Wow. Thanks for that.

I wouldn't take for granted that everyone, black or white, agrees that apartheid was worse.

You're probably right. Tell you what: find me ten residents of South Africa - five white, and five black - who want apartheid back. Full apartheid, mind you, with 100% citizenship for 10% of the population, and brutal repression for everyone else (but hey! the trains ran on time!).

Yeah, cuz you know what? Unless a revolution to overthrow a murderous, racist, brutal regime comes out absofuckinglutely perfect for each and every person, then it's obviously a worthless endeavor, and anyone who pushed for changed was obviously a deluded idiot who deserved whatever was coming to them.

The murder rate in the black community in the U.S. is much higher now than it was during Jim Crow, so obviously we should bring back segregation, poll taxes, and all that other good stuff.
posted by rtha at 8:54 AM on September 13, 2007


L.P. Hatecraft, you're talking a lot of nonsense. "Literally thousands of Boer farmers" have not been murdered since the end of apartheid., nor do the number of murders dwarf the number of murders under apartheid - unless maybe - I suspect - you're just talking about the number of whites murdered by blacks.
Yes, things did get worse in the big cities, quite quickly, as crime that was once rife and endemic only to the townships spilled out, and suddenly bad things started happening to people who 'mattered', who had a voice. But now this type of crime is falling, and by other indexes - property values, GDP, education levels - things in SA are looking up.
My father is a South African farmer, just outside of Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape, and he certainly isn't complaining about the new South Africa. Business is good and the value of his property has soared. Yes crime is a concern, but no more than it's always been - he doesn't even have burglar bars on his house. He's gotten by just by being seen as a good oke by the people who live around him.
Things aren't perfect in South Africa now, but they're not so bad as to write the whole country off, and they're getting better.
posted by Flashman at 12:51 PM on September 13, 2007


I'm reading about all these former South African anti-apartheid campaigners leaving in droves for Australia, NZ and the UK because it's just not safe to live there any more (no matter what your race). Do they ever admit they were wrong to bring about the current situation? Of course they don't.

As others have pointed out, why does the bad current situation mean that it was wrong to end apartheid? You seem to be suggesting that the current situation was the inevitable result of ending apartheid, so anyone advocating an end to the old regime was wrong to advocate for that. But why believe that the current situation was inevitable?

I wasn't being flip when I said that post-revolutionary management is hard. It is. Really really hard, easy to get wrong, with dire consequences etc. I'm well aware that S.Af. is in bad shape today. That could be for many complex reasons, and decisions made well after Biko's death. No reason to suppose, as you seem to suggest, that he was irresponsible to fight for freedom.

And even if the current situation were an inevitable result of the end of apartheid , it seems like that's the fault of the people who instituted and upheld apartheid in the first place -- for creating a situation where the majority had insufficient education and terrible living conditions, which resulted in violence etc once they were no longer brutally repressed. I don't see any scenario in which the current bad situation is the fault of people who wanted an end to apartheid.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:00 PM on September 13, 2007


"The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed."
Biko’s always been a hero to me. His position on confrontation is extremely compelling. And I don’t know that it’d matter to him how he is regarded today ("You are either alive and proud or you are dead, and when you are dead, you can't care anyway.")

“It's the subtle sense of sarcasm that I enjoy most about Metafilter, the deft touch so light & dry”

“Sarcasm: the last refuge of modest and chaste-souled people when the privacy of their soul is coarsely and intrusively invaded.” - Dostoyevsky

“What would our opinion be of JFK or MLK or RFK had they lived into old age”

I have a dream. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will be able to sleep without waking up because they can adjust their bed with their head and shoulders raised. Raised enough to keep acid reflux from bothering their stomachs. I have a dream.
And I had a great dream last night because I slept so well.
Hello everybody, I’m Martin Luther King for Kraftmatic Adjustable Beds.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:02 PM on September 13, 2007


I live in a world today in which Mother Teresa was a sadomasochistic aethist, Steve Biko was a communist terrorist instead of a freedom fighting revolutionary, and Angelina Jolie is a beautiful angel of mercy for third world countries and she and Brad Pitt and Bono go around showering the world with happiness and love and rainbows and cute little bunnies.

Shoot me now.
posted by ZachsMind at 6:59 PM on September 13, 2007


Tariq Ali claimed (at a speech I attended) that one of Biko's killers was killed in Iraq, where he was working as a mercenary.

Does anyone know if this is true?
posted by Gnatcho at 8:33 PM on September 13, 2007


Firstly, comparing apartheid South Africa to Nazi Germany is hyperbolic and ridiculous, since the apartheid regime did not make any systematic attempt to exterminate black people as Nazis did to Jews (on the contrary, immigrant labourers were accepted into the country). Secondly, of course it is possible that a situation that replaces an oppressive regime may in fact be worse, or at least bad in it's own right. An obvious example is Iraq, which was better under Saddam. Does anyone here disagree with that? Saying so doesn't mean I "support Saddam", any more than saying I think the new South Africa sucks means I "support apartheid". However I would accept it as a lesser evil if the alternative was a complete breakdown of society, which is not the same as supporting it as an ideal. In reality apartheid isn't coming back, but there are other alternatives such as separatism. Separation into sovereign nation-states is not the same thing as segregation or apartheid, where two groups exist under the same government but with one given second-class status.

As for the claims that South Africa isn't all that bad and I'm just talking nonsense, I haven't been there myself, but I have several friends who used to live there, and information about the current state of affairs from objective sources is readily available. South Africa has the second highest murder rate in the world. Over 1,400 farmers have been murdered since 1994. Just because someone's father lives there and says everything's fine doesn't change the facts. Tens of thousands of both whites and blacks have been murdered since the ANC assumed power. Comparing the murder rate in present day South Africa to apartheid-era South Africa, the increase in deaths far outweighs the number of politically-related killings perpetrated by the apartheid regime.

Ideally I think everyone should live in a free society with political freedoms and so on... eventually. In the meantime, certain groups of people aren't fit (due to cultural reasons, not racial ones) for democracy, and need an authoritarian form of government until they are. Before the Iraq War people who meekly suggested that Iraqi society might not be ready for liberal democracy were scoffed at as 'racists' for implying that Arabs were not capable of maintaining a democratic society (of course, it doesn't imply that), but subsequent events have shown them to be correct, so perhaps it would have been a good thing if these 'racists' had been listened to. I feel sorry for Steve Biko and all, but if granting the freedoms he demanded leads to a situation where thousands are murdered, were they really just demands on his part?
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 11:26 PM on September 13, 2007


I haven't been there myself, but I have several friends who used to live there...

I have two friends from college who do live there - one is black, and the other is of Indian descent. The last time I heard news from or about either of them, they were certainly not lamenting the end of apartheid.

In the meantime, certain groups of people aren't fit (due to cultural reasons, not racial ones) for democracy, and need an authoritarian form of government until they are...

You seem to be coming from a position of such high privilege and entitlement that it's a wonder you can breathe at all. You also seem to be under the impression that the apartheid-era White South African government had any interest in helping the 90% or so of its "citizens" (I put that in quotes because nonwhite South Africans were not full citizens, and after the passage of the Bantu Homeland Citizens Act of 1970, actually stripped blacks of South African citizenship) reach a state of educational and financial fitness so that they could rule their own country effectively. The government was actively repressing most of the population - the government did not want to help them become more independent. They did everything in their power to see that nonwhites remained un(der)educated and poor. For instance:
Bantu Education Act, Act No 47 of 1953 - Established a Black Education Department in the Department of Native Affairs which would compile a curriculum that suited the "nature and requirements of the black people". The author of the legislation, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd (then Minister of Native Affairs, later Prime Minister), stated that its aim was to prevent Africans receiving an education that would lead them to aspire to positions they wouldn't be allowed to hold in society. Instead Africans were to receive an education designed to provide them with skills to serve their own people in the homelands or to work in labouring jobs under whites.* (emph. mine)
Information about what the apartheid-era government actually did - and did not do (prepare people to be full, contributing members of society) - is widely and freely available. Maybe while you're looking up crime stats, you should do some reading in that area as well, since you seem to think that the governnment just, you know, had a strong hand, and how bad could it have been?
posted by rtha at 8:50 AM on September 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


I feel sorry for Steve Biko and all, but if granting the freedoms he demanded leads to a situation where thousands are murdered, were they really just demands on his part?

Yes.
Join me over here by the wall chart, where I will explain the difference between a just but chaotic society, and an unjust but orderly society. I have a laser pointer and everything.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:12 AM on September 14, 2007


You seem to be coming from a position of such high privilege and entitlement that it's a wonder you can breathe at all.

On a global scale that's probably true, but that goes for most here I imagine. I'm just a hick from a medium-sized country town though, not some monocled aristocrat.

Information about what the apartheid-era government actually did - and did not do (prepare people to be full, contributing members of society) - is widely and freely available. Maybe while you're looking up crime stats, you should do some reading in that area as well, since you seem to think that the governnment just, you know, had a strong hand, and how bad could it have been?

I don't want to mount a defence of apartheid, because it was certainly an unjust and immoral system. However that doesn't mean there aren't alternative systems that could have been put in place upon its destruction that are superior to what's there now, for example breaking SA up into smaller nations with genuine independence & sovereignty. Why is it widely accepted (for example) that being critical of the current situation in Iraq doesn't mean endorsement of Saddam, but can't recognise the same principle in other situations? Granted, the violence in SA is not as bad as Iraq, but that is simply a matter of degree.

Join me over here by the wall chart, where I will explain the difference between a just but chaotic society, and an unjust but orderly society. I have a laser pointer and everything.

Nice snark, but I don't think the concept of justice is very meaningful in a chaotic society where you can be killed at random whenever you walk down the street. In any case, even if apartheid was unjust, there is nothing unjust about separating groups into different states if putting them together in one nation leads to ongoing strife and conflict. Was it "unjust" to separate Kosovo from Serbia? Be aware that the number killed in massacres in Kosovo was actually less than the murder victims in post-apartheid SA.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 6:24 PM on September 14, 2007


I think you're moving the goalpost of your argument.

Initially you were suggesting that Biko and others who sought an end to apartheid were guilty of creating the current situation, and so they were wrong to seek an end to apartheid -- and so we shouldn't think so well of Biko. And, you said, maybe apartheid was actually a more just system than the current situation because -- you say -- people were safer from random violence under apartheid.

I say "no" to those claims.

Now you have a new claim. You say it might be just to have separation of groups into different political entities. Ok, that's an interesting question that we can talk about. But it's an altogether different point from the point you were making above.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:28 PM on September 14, 2007


Now you have a new claim. You say it might be just to have separation of groups into different political entities. Ok, that's an interesting question that we can talk about. But it's an altogether different point from the point you were making above.

No, right from my second post I said that separating the groups into different political entities was preferable (in my opinion) to either apartheid or the current situation. That is NOT a new claim on my part.

I do also think that apartheid was a better system in some ways to the current situation (with which you obviously disagree). Like I said, that's not an endorsement of everything that went on under apartheid any more than outrage at the current situation in Iraq is an endorsement of Saddam Hussein. It's not fair to blame Steve Biko for modern SA, but I think it is legitimate to ask with the benefit of hindsight whether the evil of apartheid was as black-and-white as commonly assumed, and the justness of the anti-apartheid campaign can legitimately be weighed against the objective consequences of its success. This is why martyrs for a cause are tricky, because by dying before their cause succeeds it's not really fair to blame them for what happened in the aftermath (my original point).
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 10:25 PM on September 14, 2007


P.S. In case the distinction between separatism-versus-apartheid or multiracial-democracy-versus-separatism seems like an abstract and post facto bit of nit-picking, just remember that the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party was opposed to the ANC model of the post-apartheid South African state, and wanted power to be devolved to an independent and sovereign Zulu King in KwaZulu. Chief Buthelezi's IFP even initially opposed the new state envisaged by the ANC, pragmatically preferring the apartheid status quo as a lesser evil. The ANC was responsible for the necklacing of hundreds of IFP supporters in the townships, and carried out what by today's standards were unquestionably terrorist attacks (i.e. on civilians), so some criticism of ANC activists like Mandela (but not Biko) is definitely justifiable along with all the hagiography.

Separatism > Apartheid > current mess
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 10:59 PM on September 14, 2007


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