Biko Speaks to the Mission of the Church! Will Biko Live through the Praxis of the Church?

The SACC is an instrument and servant of its members.

It is now 41 years since that fateful day when Bantu Stephen Biko was made to breathe his last by the action of his tormentors in the interrogation chambers of the apartheid repressive machinery. In much of the commentary on the significance of the Biko episode in South Africa’s body politic, little has been said about his quest for a truly non-racial and more equitable society; and how that quest continues to haunt if not challenge us in the present day. In a rather obscure way we might with hindsight say that this man’s “fault” might well have been to threaten the apart-heid (apart-ness) power structure as a prophet for a non-racial society. Also, his views on the pastoral approach of the church against the reality of the sub-cultural tendencies of communities in poverty remain of moment today.

As we mark the 41st anniversary of his tragic demise, we look at three areas of his messaging, and their relevance for our apostolate today if we are to Reimagine, Redesign and Reorganise the South African experience of life.

1. On Non-Racialism and Racial Integration: Lest we forget, Biko’s first act of public political activism was to challenge the conference of the multiracial National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) meeting in Makanda (formerly Grahamstown), to adjourn until they could find a non-racist venue. This instead of going ahead with the unsatisfactory segregated accommodations with blacks in a township church hall and whites in the university residences. A resolution to condemn the Rhodes University Council was not enough for Biko, there had to be a cost for the principle of a non-racial rather than a multi-racial order.

Biko was to be known to champion Black Consciousness, which was about awakening black people to the self-recognition of their worth and their inalienable right to human dignity against the denigration of the dehumanising disposition of colonialism and apartheid. As he said, “consciousness is essentially an inward-looking process.” For Biko, Black Consciousness was a necessary ingredient, which in turn would engender and meet with White Consciousness for a positive national consciousness. Blacks had to recognise and conscientise each other of their human worth and stand up for it and shake off the fear and inferiority complex that shackled them. This is Black Consciousness. Whites had to recognise and persuade others to recognise their misplaced superiority complex, the inordinate privileges and benefits they enjoy out of the oppression of their black compatriots. This is white consciousness, a consciousness with which people like Horst Kleinschmidt identified in their anti-apartheid campaigns. The combined totality of this consciousness would amount to a healthy National Consciousness of mutuality.

In a memorandum to U.S. Senator Dick Clark who came to visit South Africa in 1976, Biko said: “We are looking forward to a non-racial, just and egalitarian society in which colour, creed and race shall form no point of reference.” And in 1971 he had written, “If South Africa is to be a land where black and white live together in harmony without fear of group exploitation, it is only when these two opposites have interplayed and produced a viable synthesis of ideas and modus vivendi.”

It is this modus vivendi that we have to seek to facilitate as the contribution of the churches and people of goodwill, to the re-imagination of “The South Africa We Pray For!” – a just, reconciled, peaceful society, free of racism, tribalism, xenophobia and gender prejudices…

To this end we have to ask questions like: “What will it take to develop a common overarching South African identity, over and above our individual family, ethnic and race identities?”.

Biko would say to us, “out of mutual respect for each other (as different races) and complete freedom of self-determination there will obviously arise a genuine fusion of the life-styles of the various groups. This, he would conclude “is true integration.” Are we even at this time, promoting such genuine fusion of our society? It can be argued that as the churches of South Africa and our ecumenical commitment, we have a greater emphasis on reflecting on the demands of the High Priestly Prayer that instructs our unity – which we can barely approximate; than commit to the New Commandment to love “one another”, where love has meaningful social and institutional impacts in the ordering of our physical lives. In the last third of the way for the National Convention of South Africa Process, we seek to respond to Biko by focusing on the values necessary to emphasise, such as our Constitution lays out in the preamble, instructing that we “heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights.” We are to specify what actually needs to be done socially across our society to meet the standards necessary to sustain, not only the principles of the Constitution, but to be true to the spirit of the New Commandment in a society that is more than 70% Christian, and where our Lord’s injunction is:

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:32-36, NIV)

2. On The Case for Economic Transformation: Steve Biko believed that national reconciliation must needs be related to the re-ordering of the economic fortunes to right the wrongs of the past. Steve Biko said: “There is no running away from the fact that now in South Africa there is such an ill-distribution of wealth that any form of political freedom which does not touch on the proper distribution of wealth will be meaningless. The whites have locked up within a small minority of themselves the greater proportion of the country’s wealth. If we have a mere change of face of those in governing positions what is likely to happen is that black people will continue to be poor, and you will see a few blacks filtering through into the so-called bourgeoisie. Our society will be run always as of yesterday. So for meaningful change to appear there needs to be an attempt at reorganizing the whole economic pattern and economic policies within this country.” This has remained the major unresolved aspect of our democratic order, destabilising the prospects of a “just, reconciled, peaceful, equitable and sustainable society” that is the promise of the post-apartheid South Africa, and “The South Africa We Pray For!” One of the four themes of the National Convention Process is Economic Transformation, to address in earnest economic reordering and the matters of poverty, inequality, spatial reorganisation that includes land reform, and regional economic integration – SADC and Africa.

3. On the Socio-economic Contextualisation of Pastoral Messaging: There is something to be said about the contextual conditioning of socialisation; or the socialisation into contextual habits, practices and even sub-cultures. Sociologists talk of the culture of poverty, by which they mean the prevalent ways of living conditioned by poverty. These might include the necessity to lie, steal, and even murder for survival. The reality of life in a dense and overcrowded location of families in single-roomed shacks without the luxury of functional privacy must have an impact on the growing children who might be invariably exposed to adult practices ahead of their development pace. Shall it be said that poor communities are necessarily more sinful than wealthy neighbourhoods because of the different socio-economic conditions in which they are variously socialised? This is the case of the contextual conditioning of socialisation, to which Biko was speaking when he addressed a conference of clergy in 1972. He lamented: “Stern-faced ministers stand on pulpits every Sunday to heap loads of blame on black people in townships for their stealing, stabbing, murdering, adultery etc. No-one ever attempts to relate all these vices to poverty, unemployment, over-crowding, lack of schooling and migratory labour. No one wants to completely condone abhorrent behaviour, but it frequently is necessary for us to analyse situations a little bit deeper than the surface suggests.”

Do we have any evidence of a better analysis of our pastoral context, 41 years after Steve Biko’s death, and 46 years since he expressed this lament to our clergy? How more evangelical might it be for us to practically adopt the direct messaging of Jesus to “proclaim good news to the poor” (Luke 4: 16-20); “that they may life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10), and meet the standard of the Lord when he says:

‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat,… whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25: 34 – 40, NIV)

As we initially use the Electoral Integrity 2019 campaign right now, we are actually seeking to build a functional infrastructure of local churches working together in an organised way to collectively witness to the love of Christ in public ministry for public good – on poverty, on economic transformation, on health, education support, and the promotion of public values for a reimagined social reality – that the church may, in the humility of Daniel, be truly be the salt and the light of our society.

Biko continues to speak to us today; but oh, why didn’t we listen earlier? Indeed one wonders where South Africa might have been today had Biko’s quite prophetic messaging on race, economic transformation and pastoral sensitivity to the gospel of Christ over people in need, found fertile soil in our church and society. Can the praxis of the Church make Biko’s sentiments come alive today?