TRAVELLING SIMILAR PATHS: GARVEY AND BIKO

There seems to be a common thread among the stories of freedom fighters, regardless of their nationality, as they often share similar characteristics and experiences. Freedom fighters are synonymous with liberating an oppressed group, whether on a national or international level. The freedom fighter themselves usually face ridicule and abuse of all types. Consequently, aspects of the story of anti-apartheid activist, Steve Biko, seem to mirror aspects of Marcus Garvey’s life story.

Steve Biko was the founder of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and was one of the main players in the fight against apartheid during the 1960s and 1970s. His involvement in the struggles began when he was in medical school where he founded the South African Student Organisation (SASO), a Blacks-only group, in 1968. Like Garvey, Biko saw the need to bring about awareness in his fellow Blacks that their race was equal to all. He founded the organisation to empower Black students and reinforce their economic and political power. Through this organisation, Biko reinforced the idea of “Black Consciousness” and self-empowerment, just as Garvey did with the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). He travelled all over South Africa spreading the notion of black consciousness through his speeches and his writings, similar to how Garvey promoted the ideologies of the UNIA when he toured the various states in the United States in 1916.

The tenets of the SASO resounded among Black students in tertiary institutions as they all shared the same experiences with segregation and racism. So, SASO provided a medium for them to organize themselves as a formidable force against the system of oppression, which was Apartheid. The organisation grew quickly and significantly. So, much so that it spread beyond the walls of the universities in South Africa, and into the general population. As a result, a new arm of the organisation was established in 1972, The Black People’s Convention (BPC). This new arm attracted persons from all walks of life, including labourers, church leaders, artists, and other prominent members of the Black community. In support of his ideology of self-reliance, Biko established several community projects that would motivate Blacks to be their own bosses and determine their own economic wealth. This was also what Garvey did when he established various enterprises through the UNIA.  

However, with the rapid growth of the BPC came increased attention from the very persons that they were opposing. Just as in the case of the UNIA’s development, the authorities in South Africa were wary of the collective power of the organized Blacks, and as such, they imposed bans which would restrict their movement and muzzle them. Biko was singled out. He was expelled from medical school in 1972 and banned in March 1973 from participating in any gatherings, over 2 persons, including social gatherings. He was also deported to his home town of King William’s Town and had to seek permission from the police to leave the area.

It was as a result of the violation of the latter restriction that caused him to be arrested on August 17, 1977, the 90th anniversary of Garvey’s birth. He was tortured and beaten while being interrogated for 22 hours and suffered severe brain damage from the blows he received to his head. The severity of his injuries resulted in his lapsing into a coma for about three weeks. He succumbed to his injuries on September 12, 1977. Biko is seen as a martyr for his cause, not only in South Africa, but globally. His death brought much attention to the situation in South Africa and resulted in much backlash against the South African government.

Biko and Garvey fought a similar battle and suffered similar fates. Though Garvey was not physically killed by his oppressors, he too was a victim of those who were not in support of his philosophies and opinions. Both men sought to uplift the members of the Black race through educational, social, economical and political liberation. They fought for racial equality and championed self-reliance of the Black people through the establishing of a Black identity, the building of Black value systems and the recognition of Black worth.

Though their paths never crossed, Biko and Garvey travelled similar paths and their impact on black conscious thought is far-reaching and should never be ignored or trivialized.

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