Understanding Steve Biko: Race, Class and Struggle in South Africa

On the anniversary of Steve Biko’s murder, ROAPE’s Remi Adekoya speaks to South African scholar and activist Mosa Phadi. Phadi reflects on the legacy of Biko’s radical and important thought, but also discusses how he did not consider cohesive alternatives that could now serve as a counter to neoliberal ideas. In a wide-ranging interview Phadi also looks at the political and economic crisis in South Africa, the Economic Freedom Fighters, the failures of the ANC and the possibilities of a solution in the militancy and consciousness of working-class struggle.

Remi Adekoya: Today is the anniversary of Stephen Biko’s murder by apartheid state security operatives. He has since become a hugely symbolic rallying figure for many black people, especially in Africa, but not only. What is your take on Biko’s legacy today and how he is being historically positioned?

Mosa Phadi: I have a problem with how Stephen Biko is positioned by the likes of Donald Woods, his friend and biographer, who ascribes the whole philosophy of Black Consciousness to Biko as if he emerged in a vacuum. His argument is basically that at the time Biko emerged, the Pan-African Congress (PAC) and the African National Congress (ANC) were both banned organizations, and so Biko’s arrival filled a void in the struggle for black freedom.

However, if you think about the historical context of that time, this was not the case. Biko along with other students started the South African Students’ Organization (SASO) movement in 1968. If you think about 1968, this was a year of global protests; you had the anti-Vietnam war protests, huge civil rights demonstrations, student protests. Also going back, there was the background of Ghana becoming the first African country to gain independence from colonial rule in 1957, an event which bolstered other pro-independence movements across the African continent. There was Julius Nyerere in Tanzania talking about an ‘African socialism’.

Prior to the 1960s even, there was the 1954 Women’s Charter in South Africa demanding equality between men and women, there was the Women’s March of 1956, the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, civil disobedience during that period and many other instances of struggle against oppression. So, portraying the South African struggle as essentially being fought by the PAC and the ANC, and thus once these organizations were banned, there was some sort of a lull in the fight against oppression and apartheid is a false analysis.

Another underreported issue about Biko and the era he came of age in is how caught up it was in the unravelling contradictions of Stalinism and the Soviet Union in general. Clearly, this was no longer an alternative as many had imagined after WWII and most black activists, including the Black Panthers were thinking about stretching Marxism, using its insights when it came to party organization, but viewing the lumpen-proletariat in primarily racial terms as Fanon did.

There are similarities between Biko and Stokely Carmichael in terms of organizing students initially using non-violent tactics but later becoming militant and asserting blackness or ‘reclaiming blackness’ as Stokely would call it. At the same time Malcolm X was also in the picture, claiming blackness as the oppressed but also as the revolutionary agent. Workers were also organizing.

Acting as if nothing existed before, during or after Biko is a failure in analysis. It is important to emphasize that he emerged in a period when a splintering of ideas and ideological eruptions were occurring elsewhere and these in turn informed his ideas. 

Biko’s idea of Black Consciousness even though original in the context for South Africa, was very similar to Carmichael’s ideas. My point is that I am critical of those who try to sanitize that history by decontextualizing the progression of his political ideas. 

Having said all that, Biko was a very important thinker whose ideas have been adopted by many movements. His ideas of black consciousness were important in focussing on what apartheid did to the psyche of black people. He talked about reclaiming blackness, but also put thought into how we as black people in South Africa should relate to coloureds and Indians as the oppressed. He emphasized that while there was a hierarchy of racial oppression, we all needed to approach the system as an oppressed collective. 

Black consciousness is an idea that works best in a racist white-supremacy capitalist setting. However, its interpretation today is very neo-liberal. You hear talk of ‘black excellence’ for instance, there’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it is a concept tied to a neo-liberal framing that focuses on the individual. Such an approach will not help break with the system, but rather perpetuates inequalities, as capital by nature produces these inequalities. If you view yourself as an individual focused on achieving ‘black excellence’ forgetting about structures which produce inequalities, then you are not helping solve the problem. If such views prevail, then a few successful individual blacks will be put on a pedestal by black people as symbols of black excellence and black power while a system perpetuating inequalities continues to produce mass poverty.

Biko’s solutions to black problems were twofold: black consciousness and black economic empowerment. The second part is much emphasized recently, we see this even in the now popular ‘township economy’ in South Africa which is fundamentally neo-liberal in its philosophy.  The Provincial government in the economic hub of South Africa seeks to encourage entrepreneurial culture in various townships. Hence, wants to support Black businesses. This idea of growing Black businesses was part of Biko’s emancipatory approach. Biko wanted to create Black markets and expand Black business ownership. Once a radical idea it is currently used to justify elite formation especially among politically connected individuals.

Biko’s ideas, while radical at that time don’t get me wrong, nevertheless played into this bourgeoise democracy we find ourselves in, his ideas were radical and important at that time, but he did not think much about cohesive alternatives that could now serve as counters to neoliberal ideas.

Which of Biko’s ideas are popular today among South African intellectuals?

His death in 1977 sparked militancy amongst people, for example when you think of the 1980s insurgence, I think part of the courage emerged from Black Consciousness ideas of reclaiming Blackness. His thoughts about what black freedom should look like, what type of mentality we need to achieve it and via which methods, still permeate today through various social movements. For instance, the Fees Must Fall student movement sparked in 2016 about statues which still perpetuate symbols of black inferiority quoted Biko extensively and his views were manifest in their demands. They demanded that first and foremost statues of people like Cecil Rhodes must go, the curriculum must change and there should be a higher representation of intellectuals who look like us teaching us, for example.

People still gravitate towards Biko today because when you read his work you can relate to it as a black person. Even though he wasn’t a traditionalist who believed in fixed cultures, he was very aware of the role cultural norms and values play for everyday Africans in their everyday lives. For instance, he knew religion was important to people and his spiritual outlook moved beyond Christianity and incorporated ideas of ancestors. He talked about how music can enlighten the wounded soul, he tapped into daily experiences realizing the potential of everyday culture to radicalize and galvanize people into action.  When you read him, he sparks the radical spirit in you to say: ‘yes, we can fight the system, yes we have the right to fight the system.’ But then apart from this, you need to think what kind of world you want to replace the current system with. This is where his limitations were. But as a light to spark action, he was very important.

What are some of the most popular ideas among South African intellectuals today regarding the way forward for the country?

In academia, especially after the Fees Must Fall movement, the most popular issue is that of decolonization. Seminar after seminar, conference after conference and article after article have been written on this. The main inspiration comes from Latin American scholarship emphasizing the need to decolonize, for example, the knowledge system amongst other broader structural issues in South Africa which are inherently Western-oriented and steeped in racism. This is the most popular school of thought today.

Marxist ideas have been rejected, as indeed Biko rejected them in his day. The link between class and race has not been integral in our analysis, Marxism failed to incorporate race into the equation. Meanwhile, issues centred around our history and oppression are very important to people. People use terms like ‘triggers’ to refer to pain that has been inflicted upon us in the past and emphasize that we need to remedy that. However, Marxism in South Africa is unable to offer an analysis of how a history of racial oppression and being black frames how people relate to various struggles beyond the workerist approach.

Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are quite popular today both among the Working Classes and some black intellectuals.  This is due to the failure of ANC to radically change peoples lives in the townships where there is huge unemployment. I come from a town called Kagiso. When I go home, on a weekday, it seems like a weekend there, young men and women on the streets with no jobs. There are protests virtually non-stop, people demanding services. In the 1990s, people waited patiently for change, but by the 2000s, they started realizing it was not happening. This has sparked some xenophobic attacks like recent ones on Pakistani shop-owners which were looted by people complaining they were selling stale food. Taxes have increased, VAT was increased this April leading to steep hikes in food prices. There is tension everywhere. 

This is the crisis we’ve been in since Ramaphosa became the president, squeezing not just the poor but the middle-class as well. This has created space for EFF, especially with Malema forcing the conversation about race into the public forum. Up till then, the left had been fixated with class while the conversation about race had been muted. The left focussed on economic structures, neglecting the everyday manifestation of being black. They missed the feelings young people had about being not just poor, but poor and black as well. Malema exploited this very well. He too uses Black Panther methodology, utilizing a Marxist-Leninist model of party structures combined with Fanonian elements incorporating race and treating the racially-oppressed individual as a revolutionary subject. Again, this goes back to 1960s ideas before and during Biko’s activist period. Although embroiled in some corruption scandals themselves, EFF has attracted young unemployed people, mainly men, but also some middle-class people who have experienced racism in the corporations they work in, which are still largely owned by white people. Some black intellectuals have also been drawn to EFF.

However, many of the protests on the streets demanding basic services like water and electricity are not organized by any political party or movement, they have no specific policies, they simply want services. The new student movements, meanwhile, are not only using Biko as a symbol, but also challenging gender dynamics, ideas of feminism have become key debate in struggles with power and patriarchy. Women are protesting against domestic violence and patriarchy, again taking us back to the ideas of the 1960s which are coming back in different ways. In general, revolutionary ideas about race and gender dating back to the 1950s and 60s are returning, the only difference is that they are emerging today in modern form and style, especially with the proliferation of social media which can be used to spread a message very rapidly.

Is there any party who, in your opinion, if they came to power, would best deploy that power towards the betterment of the people? You’ve mentioned EFF in a rather positive light but said yourself they have been implicated in corruption scandals too. On what basis do you do associate them with any hopes of true positive change for downtrodden South Africans? As you know, history is replete with examples, plenty in Africa unfortunately, of people riding to power on the back of all sorts of equalitarian slogans only to gorge themselves on the state’s resources once they get there.

Well, what are the options? There is the Democratic Alliance which is a very liberal party, so you are assured of a set of liberal economic policies if they get into power. Additionally, they seem to place no emphasis on our history and don’t recognize the psychological scars apartheid has left on black people. Ideologically, this is thus not a viable option for me. Then you have the ANC and the EFF. EFF wants state capitalism. They should be understood as a party that is left of the ANC, not that leftist you understand, but simply left of the ANC. I will vote for them. Not because I believe they, or any other party, can emancipate the working-class. No, the working-class have to find the agency in themselves to fight for themselves.

No politician or political party will save the working class or the poor, let’s not be delusional. For me, the hope is that the working-class will organize and fight for themselves. EFF wants state capitalism and this can go two ways as history shows. It can become very authoritarian or focus on building new forms of elites. EFF is important for debates linking race to class, but I don’t naively believe they will be our saviours. As always, the working-class will continue trying new parties, hoping for something better. But only their militancy can force change. EFF is a child of the ANC and they cannot break away from the corrupt links of the ANC. 

What then would be the value added of the EFF for regular South Africans were they to one day win power?

If they come to power, of course there will be reforms, they wouldn’t be able to just rule in a business-as-usual fashion. They would have to make concessions to the poor. The land question would be addressed, land would become state-owned. With regards to key financial sectors like mining, they are currently trying to propagate a 3-way ownership system in which the state would own say, 50% of a mine, the community 10% and the rest would be privatized. They want to show capital they are ready to negotiate with it while at the same time trying to sustain their radical image. 

But they have opened a space in the debate, emboldened people to believe they have a right to push. I know the militancy they came with can’t be sustained if they win power. If they win, there will be some big reforms, but there would be contradictions too, no doubt. And yes, there is the danger of dictatorial tendencies in them. That is the risk involved with them. Yet, I still think the working-class should vote for EFF demanding some specific reforms. 

So, basically you accept they are a risk, but think they are a risk worth taking?

Yes, I do. Also, one major issue they deserve credit for pushing onto the agenda as well is that of land reform, the idea of the expropriation of land without compensation. Even though there were various landless people’s movements in the 2000s, EFF emboldened that demand and now parliament has passed a resolution to amend the constitution allowing for land expropriation without compensation. However, right now, public consultations are being held, expected to end with a report by end of September.

If President Ramaphosa eventually signs that amendment into law, is there any plan in place for how exactly this process would look?

No, right now there has not been any debate on who would get what and on what grounds. The politicians are simply caught up in the militancy of the people who are demanding reforms. This whole land issue also reflects ideas popularized by Biko years ago. Apart from the physical desire people have to get their lands back, it is also part of a psychological recognition that this is your land. The planning of our cities today is still the same as it was under apartheid with developers able to keep certain areas exclusively rich and white. Or even in the rural areas, you have a situation where all the best farmland is owned by whites, so they are the farmers while the blacks are simple village residents with a few black people who managed to carve their space in the agricultural sector. People are now imagining a different kind of space; a different kind of South Africa and politicians are rushing to respond because they want votes. But the discussion about who will get what and whether this process will really empower the poorest South Africans has yet to be started. 

Mosa Phadi completed her PhD at the University of Johannesburg in 2017. She has worked for years on questions race and class, including two ground-breaking reports on the local municipalities of Mogalakwena and Lephalale. She has worked as a researcher for over six years, published peer-reviewed articles and producing a research documentary film focusing on the idea of a middle class in Soweto.

Feature Photograph: a photograph of Steve Biko from South African History Online.


  1. As regards the role of Steve Biko in the anti-Apartheid struggle, one should definitely read Glenn Moss’s book, “The New Radicals”, published in 2014. It is interesting to note that Moss knew Biko in person. But most importantly, the book does speak of a “lull” in the struggle following the banning of the ANC and PAC in 1960. No, there was no “permanent revolution” at all [which would of course have made things sound a bit more “romantic”]. We all know that it was the Durban strikes of 1973 and the Soweto uprising of 1976 that constituted the rupture in such “lull”. Now, within such context, the Black Consciousness Movement did play a highly important role in this resurgence, and it did so at three levels: 1. At the level of student activism [SASO, with Biko as its charismatic leader]. 2. At center-stage, with the much under-researched Black People’s Convention, but also the later AZAPO. 3. Very importantly, at the level of mass worker organization, with the founding of the Council of Unions of South Africa [with the Urban or Union Training Project as its major educational apparatus]. Biko’s life and work did play an important ideological role in “informing” these on-going devopments. By the way, France’s May ’68 events had a much greater impact on white students [NUSAS, and especially via Richard Turner] than they did on blacks.


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