South African leaders on Tuesday marked the 40th anniversary of the death of Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid activist and black consciousness leader who died in police custody after being severely beaten. The 1977 killing deprived the campaign against white minority rule of a dynamic, youthful leader whose legacy has been overshadowed by Nelson Mandela and other prominent figures in the fight against apartheid.
Politicians hailed Biko as a symbol of the fight against racial oppression in South Africa, which held its first all-race elections in 1994. Biko was not a member of the African National Congress, the main anti-apartheid movement and current ruling party, and his advocacy of black self-reliance was overtaken by the message of multi-racial reconciliation embodied by Mandela, who became South Africa’s first black president.
The apartheid authorities of South Africa denied any wrongdoing in Biko’s death, which ignited fresh outrage around the world just over one year after a bloody crackdown on an uprising started by thousands of high school students in the Soweto area of Johannesburg. Biko inspired a hit song by musician Peter Gabriel that became an anti-apartheid anthem, and actor Denzel Washington starred as Biko in the 1987 film “Cry Freedom,” based on accounts of Donald Woods, a journalist who befriended the activist.
As part of Tuesday’s commemorations, President Jacob Zuma laid a wreath at the Pretoria prison where Biko died at the age of 30 and said the slain leader stood for racial and economic transformation.
“No one must criticize you if you say, ‘Let us change the ownership, the institutions, the control of the economic heights’ – he stood for that,” Zuma said, according to Eyewitness News, a South African media outlet. The president added that the struggle for South Africa’s black majority is not over, “not when there are people who sleep under bridges and when society is talking to itself without discussing how to solve the problems of the country.”
Zuma was referring to the fact that the white minority still has a commanding role in the economy of a country with a big gap between rich and poor, although the ruling African National Congress has touted its record in providing housing, electricity and other benefits to the majority since it took power 23 years ago. Even so, critics on social media questioned whether Zuma, who has been embroiled in corruption allegations, had the moral authority to speak about Biko’s legacy.
The African National Congress has dominated the narrative of liberation from apartheid at the expense of other groups that also contributed, commentator Matthew Graham said in an analysis in The Conversation Africa, which posts news and opinion about issues on the continent.
“So even though Biko became a martyr for the anti-apartheid struggle in his day, he is too often left out of the story,” wrote Graham, a history lecturer at the University of Dundee in Scotland. “The same goes for other figures who helped topple the system, especially those who worked outside the ANC. It’s long past time to properly celebrate these other elements of the struggle – of whom Steve Biko was surely among the strongest.”
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