Wednesday, January 18, 2012

128. I Write What I Like by Steve Biko

Title: I Write What I Like
Author: Steve Biko
Genre: Non-Fiction/Essays/Letters
Publishers: Picador Africa
Pages: 244
Year of First Publication: 1978
Country: South Africa

On January 8, 2012, the African National Congress, the ruling party of South Africa marked its centenary and to celebrate that I decided to read this book. Though Steve Biko ran parallel organisations, The Black Conscious Movement, which was basically to empower blacks to stand for themselves and fight for what they believe in and its political wing the Black Peoples Convention, he has come to symbolise the South Africa's fight against the barbaric and inhuman attitudes meted by the white minority, Boers and even in his writings recognised the ANC has the main group for the old guards like Mandela, Sisulu and others. Thus, instead of talking about Mandela, who is already known, I chose to talk about Steve Biko.

I Write What I Like is a compendium of articles, essays, letters and memoranda by the freedom-fighter-turned-martyr, Bantu Steve Biko. In this collection, put together after his death in police detention in 1977, Steve Biko shares his views and aspirations for a country under apartheid. He visualises and cuts the path that would see blacks move from their lethargic acceptance and grumbling to an energy state where they would see themselves as the only saviours they have and need. As a do-it-yourself person, Steve Biko, early on, saw the struggle against apartheid not as a liberalist fight. For the liberals, mostly white, through no fault of theirs have been born into a system that gives them privileges and rights not earned by any other South African, black or coloured. It is this realisation and his philosophising of the black man's conditions that would become the core of his actions. He saw the liberals as not doing enough to change the status-quo they enjoy, as trying to tell the black man what is good for him. 
Nowhere is the arrogance of the liberal ideology demonstrated so well as in their insistence that the problems of the country can only be solved by a bilateral approach involving both black and white. [21]
As a testimony to their claim of complete identification with blacks, they call a few 'intelligent and articulate' blacks to 'come around for tea at home', where all present ask each other the same old hackneyed question 'how can we bring about change in South Africa?' The more such tea-parties one call the more of a liberal he is and the freer he shall feel from guilt that harness and binds his conscience. [23]
The liberal must understand that the days of the Noble Savage are gone; that the blacks do not need a go-between in this struggle for their own emancipation. [27]
Liberal organisations such as the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) whose executives were mostly white and which push 'no harder' the problems blacks faced were seen as ineffective in the struggle against apartheid. It was only fitting that the first organisation Steve Biko would form would be a Students' organisation, for he saw the lacuna between the old and young black South Africans. Whereas some of the old were afraid to act, were torn between the Bantustan policies that was trying to divide and rule the country by diverting black South African's attention from the fight against apartheid to a struggle amongst themselves, and some were too slow for young, Biko saw an opportunity to bridge this gap. The South African Students' Organistion (SASO) was formed as a platform to address and push problems facing non-white students.

Biko's ideology was to awakened the catatonic soul of the black man that has made him unresponsive to the daily abuse he receives at the hands of the white man in South Africa. He challenged a system that deemed it best to preserve jobs for a certain category of people based on their skin colour. He criticised a system where blacks were deemed to be illiterate even though the system prevented them from receiving proper education. And his expansive knowledge of issues made him walk in and out of courtrooms and trials a happy man even though he received several detentions and bans. He saw the social vices of blacks, like stealing, murder, fighting, sexual promiscuity, not as an inherent or congenital trait - as preached about by the Nationalist party and some Priests - but as a consequence of the system; a system where the influx control or 72-hour clause restricts Africans to a given district and prohibits movement from one district to the other without government permit to last for more than 72 hours. 

Again, Biko - though religious in a broader sense of the word - saw the harm that Christianity was causing. According to him, the black man does not find himself in the bible and the preaching does not reflect his situation. He made several statements that highlighted the incongruity between the Christianity the white missionaries brought and the practice of that Christianity. For instance, he bemoaned the daily atrocities meted out to blacks in South Africa and intimated
The anachronism of a well-meaning God who allows people to suffer continually under an obviously immoral system is not lost to young blacks who continue to drop out of Church by the hundreds. [34]
To him the bible must be seen to preach against white supremacy and allow blacks to see the evilness of that system rather than making them 'soul-dead' citizens who are seen to be eternally carrying the cross of Christ, waiting for their reward somewhere in heaven. He writes
The bible must not be seen to preach that all authority is divinely instituted. It must rather preach that it is sin to allow oneself to be oppressed. The bible must continually be shown to have something to say to the black man to keep him going in his journey towards realisation of the self. [34]
It is in view of this that Steve Biko advocated for Black Theology, which according to him
... seeks to depict Jesus as a fighting God who saw the exchange of Roman money - the oppressor's coinage - in His father's temple as so sacrilegious that it merited a violent reaction from Him - the Son of Man. [34]
Because a larger population of the South African society were Christians and because the individual priests - black or white - wield enough power in their communities, Steve Biko avoided antagonising them but rather prep them with what is wrong, to work to awaken the self of the African rather than continuously preaching the of Jesus walking water, among others.

Later, Biko formed the Black Conscious Movement, with its political wing the Black Peoples Convention, whilst still working for the Black Community Programme. With BCP Biko worked with the people to build clinics, to let them know that there is more they can do for themselves. All these were done under the watchful eyes of the security system. There several arrests, several deaths in detentions, several demonstrations and several shootings and deaths.

Steve Biko also fought the Bantustan policy where about 13 percent of the land were given to over 80 percent of South Africa population (the non whites) to form homelands. Though some of the leaders like Gatsha Buthelezi, Lucas Mangope, Kaizer Matanzima accepted and later ruled the Zulu, Tswana, and Transkei territories, Steve saw a divide and rule tactics inherent in the system. He saw how the National Party was fighting to divert the struggle to among the people so that instead a united Azania, Steve's name for South Africa, they would be approaching the struggle as different units of people making it ineffective.

After 101 days in detention under Section 6 of the Terrorism, Biko was again banned and restricted to his locality of King but not before he sent a memorandum to a visiting American diplomat, Senator Dick Clark, on American policy towards South Africa. In it he made some demands; but before those remarks, Steve wrote:
Besides, the sin of omission, America has often been positively guilty of working in the interests of the minority regime to the detriment of the interests of black people. America's foreign policy seems to be guided by a selfish desire to maintain an imperialistic stranglehold on this country irrespective of how the blacks were made to suffer. [159]
His restriction to King meant that he does not talk to not more than one person at a time, that two people in addition to him is a crowd, that his name is not mentioned anywhere that nothing he writes is ever to be read at any place. These were to wipe his name from the minds of the people. But Biko survived it all, including death. In August of 1977 he was arrested and through the usual police brutalities sustained brain injuries. Here the evil of apartheid was seen in all its 'glory'. For after the police had hit his head against the wall he was left, chained to the window grille, to recover so that the interrogation would proceed. On September 11, 1977 he, he was loaded in the back of a police Land Rover, naked and chained and was driven on a 1100-km journey to Pretoria to a prison with hospital facilities. He died on September 12, 1977 at the Pretoria prison.

This version by Picador Africa includes a memoir, Martyr of Hope: A Personal Memoir, by Aelred Stubbs an Anglican Priest Steve had close friendship with, sharing his fears and aspirations and considering him as his father.

Steve's death, at the age of 31, caused international protests leading to the UN arms embargo on South Africa. I Write What I Like was a column Steve Biko wrote in SASO newsletters under the pseudonym of Frank Talk. It is through these writings that he shared his visions. This book is recommended to all those who love international politics, who want to know more about a young man's quest for equality. 
Brief Bio: Bantu Stephen Biko was born in Tylden in the Eastern Cape on the 18 th December 1946, the third child of the late Mathew Mzingaye and Alice Nokuzola “Mamcethe” Biko. He attended primary school in King William's Town and secondary school at Marianhill, a missionary school situated in a town of the same name in KwaZulu-Natal. Steve Biko went on to register for a degree in medicine at the Black Section of the Medical School of the University of Natal in 1966.

Very early in his academic program Biko showed an expansive search for knowledge that far exceeded the realm of the medical profession, ending up as one of the most prominent student leaders. In 1968, Biko and his colleagues founded the South African Students' Organisation (SASO).

With the seeds of Black Consciousness having been sown outside of student campuses, Biko and his colleagues argued for a broader based black political organization in the country. Opinion was canvassed and finally, in July 1972, the Black People's Convention (BPC) was founded and inaugurated in December of the same year. Inspired by Biko's growing legacy the youth of the country at high school level mobilized themselves in a movement that became known as the South African Students Movement (SASM). This movement played a pivotal role in the 1976 Soweto Uprisings, which accelerated the course of the liberation struggle. The National Association of Youth Organizations was also formed in order to cater for the youth more generally. (Read more here)

Rating: 6.0/6.0


  1. Sounds like an excellent collection, Nana. Thanks for the review!

    1. It's a good book. When read, one is likely to leave it with a positive feelings.

  2. I need to read this book. Yes, he survived it all and now we get to read him. The struggle continues...

    1. You've got to. Though it is just a collection of his writing, it reveals a lot. Not like he started to write a book but he was consistent and he knew where to start his movement. He knew the people's attitude, their mentality had to change. Something the successive post-apartheid government had failed to do. If you oppress a people for over 300 years you need more than normal fiscal and monetary policies, more than cheap houses, to reconstruct them and let them come to an understanding of whom they really are and what they can do.

  3. I am glad you enjoyed this. Infact, to digress a bit, I'm particularly happy to have visited the hometowns of Mandela, Sisilu and Biko all in the Eastern Cape and it seems to me as though there are many great leaders from this province. Anyway, I commend you for talking about Biko instead of the other 'big' names although I must say that Biko's has not faded out of South Africa's political history. He is studied in schools at various levels. I am doing a personal research on some of this leaders and would be posting some pictures on my blog too. Thanks for this review.

    1. Thanks Geosi. I would be looking forward to it. To me Biko's quest is still very important. It is still what we need to become a people. Even now most Africans still don't have the faith in themselves. If we start reawakening the mind and stop that get-rich at all cost attitude which only lead to greed, we'd definitely achieve a lot.

  4. This book sounds really interesting, thanks for the review of it. I really must read it.

    1. Try it under your BAND. You will like it.

  5. A great look inside the mind of a martyr of African liberation. It's amazing how these writing are still applicable today.

    Ketterman Rowland & Westlund


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