STEVE BIKO, the 30-year-old "Black Consciousness" leader who died on September 12, 1977, while being detained by the South African security police, was not a legend in his lifetime. Many blacks knew his name only vaguely, and only the cognoscenti among South African whites and in the international community knew that potentially he was a man of destiny.
But Biko is indeed a legend now. This is partly because, since his death, his contribution to the Black Consciousness movement in South Africa has been widely acknowledged and publicly recorded, and partly because of the horrific circumstances of his death -- he sustained a fatal brain injury in a "scuffle" with his security police interrogators, and was then driven, naked and manacled, 740 miles from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria, where he died "a lonely and miserable death."
Since Biko's death, four books have appeared about him (five if one includes a mysterious publication, issued in Holland under a fictitious name by an allegedly black author, designed to smear him -- as a sexual athlete and in other ways.)
The first book was by Donald Woods, the white South African editor who formed a close friendship with Biko and barnstormed the country after Biko's death, demanding a public inquiry. Woods earned a banning order for his troubles and now, after a melodramatic escape from South Africa, is living in exile in London.
The second book was by Hilda Bernstein, another South African exile -- No. 46 -- Steve Biko. Biko was the 46th South African, all of them blacks, to die while in security police detention. The figure has risen since to 50.
Now two more books have appeared: Father Stubbs' compilation of speeches and articles by Biko From the 1969-72 period, when Black Consciousness was in its infancy, as well as extracts from the Pretoria trial in 1976 when the very ideas of the movement were in the dock; and Millard Arnold's fuller presentation of the evidence Biko gave at the Pretoria trial when he explained the origins and aims of Black Consciousness.
Arnold, a black American and director of the Southern Africa Project of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, includes two appendices in his valuable book: Biko's essay on "fear -- an Important Determinant in South African Polities," and a report to the Lawyers' Committee by Louis H. Pollak, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's law school, on the Biko inquest.
Among them these four books contain most of the written and spoken words of the founder and chief theoretician of the Black Consciousness movement in South Africa. Black Consciousness has been the most important development in black politics in South Africa since the emergence of African Nationalism.
The significant difference between the two movements is that, whereas African Nationalist leaders, like Nelson Mandela (serving a life sentence on Robben Island,) joined forces with whites in a common anti-apartheid struggle, Biko insisted that the black man would find his salvation only if he could muster enough self-respect and black pride to go it alone.
This was Biko's historic contribution to black politics: that in a vast outpouring of words he explained to his fellow blacks why they should sever their links with white liberals, turn their blackness into an instrument for their liberation (instead of being ashamed of it), and realize that "the biggest mistake the Black world ever made was to assume that whoever opposed apartheid was an ally."
Biko's words mortally offended many white liberals (including such veterans of the fight against apartheid as the author Alan Paton), who were dismayed to be told by young blacks that they were a distration in the struggle, that they led it into cul-de-sacs, and that necessarily, because of their superior resources, they had dominated black policies and tactics.
But much water has passed over the bridge since them. Black Consciousness went out into the streets of Soweto and other black townships in 1976 to ebgage the police in a trial of strength, and for almost a year it created turmoil in South Africa. The police eventually scattered the movement, sending many of its members into exile and (temporarily?) subduing the rest.
This is an appropriate time for scholars to examine Black Consciousness more analytically. There might be room for just one more compendium of Black Consciousness writings -- an all-embracing, definitive one -- but the time has come to ask some questions.
For example, accepting that there now has to be a parting of the ways between blacks and whites for strategic reasons, will there in fact be a "Homecoming," as Biko promised, once the black struggle has been won? Or will anti-whiteism have bitten irrevocably into the black psyche by then, dooming South Africa permanently to black-white conflict?
Also, what is the future of Black Consciousness? Can a mass movement, which seeks to override differences of dogma, be forged into an effective anti-apartheid bludgeon, or will it be left to more tightly organized and conventionally structured underground cells, like those of the African National Congress, to pierce the armor plating of apartheid with more lethal precision?
In other words, has Biko's contribution to the black struggle run its course? Having cleared out of the way the whites who were obscuring the issue, does Black Consciousness, as a concept, have anything more to offer? It is time the scholars took up this inquiry.