Populism and Steve Biko

My “something new” highlights populist rhetoric in Steve Biko’s Fear – an Important Determinant in South African Politics

“This is the basis of the vandalism, murder, rape and plunder that goes on while the real sources of the evil – white society – are suntanning on exclusive beaches or relaxing in their bourgeois homes.”1

Revolution cannot be achieved among individuals that are systematically disconnected. Even today, populist movements inspire massive social change by emphasizing similarities among repressed groups. The passage above comes from Steve Biko’s Fear – an Important Determinant in South African Politics, one of his many subversive pieces against apartheid. The quote uses language that highlights both the racial and socioeconomic differences between white and black groups. By using this rhetoric, Steve Biko employs traditional populist methods to inspire passion and unity among black communities in South Africa.

The government of South Africa first used populist ideas that racially united the white population. However, C.R.D. Halisi notes in his article, From Liberation to Citizenship: Identity and Innovation in Black South African Political Thought, that white populism “discouraged African support of universal political ideals,”.2 So, instead of succumbing to the fearmongering methods of white government, the black elite of South Africa came to understand the features of populism as a tool to oppose apartheid. Racial unification and collective economic aspiration could be used against the system that had been abusing it for decades. Among this black elite was Steve Biko, who was essential to the Black Consciousness Movement, or BCM. This group advocated for black autonomy and total independence from white leadership. It believed that for South African blacks to fully escape the shadow of white supremacy, they would have to separate themselves from the white community entirely. Halisi writes that the movement gained momentum by using populist strategies that dealt with the “dynamic interaction between racial identity, political domination, and personal life,”.3 This passage is an example of the distinct types of populist strategies that leaders like Steve Biko used.

The violent words used at the beginning of the quote offer the reader an immediate idea of the types of communities that black populations were forced to inhabit. The list of “vandalism, murder, rape and plunder” gives the audience a repulsive impression of black society’s lifestyle before anything else.4 Biko quickly transfers this negativity, though. By describing white societies as the “real sources of evil”, he places the negative impression of black society on white oppressors.5 Additionally, using the phrase “white society” between hyphens creates a stark separation between white societies and black ones for the reader.6 Halisi believes that strategies of racial dissociation such as this are an effort by the BCM to “rekindle an indigenous tradition of racial populism,”.7 Attempts to muster ubiquitous black nationalism could only be achieved by separating white and black communities entirely. The rhetoric that achieved this goal was successful because it was so gripping. As Halisi writes, it “harnessed emotions that were pervasive among black South Africans.”8 It is used at the beginning of the quote to promptly grab the attention of the audience.

The second part of the passage builds upon racial separation by mentioning the socioeconomic difference between white and black communities. Biko further alienates white society from his black audience by recognizing their “exclusive beaches” and “bourgeois homes”.9 Instead of focusing exclusively on race, this style of populist rhetoric uses socialist themes, which Halisi believes imply ideas to “resolve the dilemmas of racial and ethnic conflict,”.10 This is perhaps more effective at unifying black groups in South Africa. Attempting to motivate black South Africa using only race can be difficult considering the multiple black ethnicities that identify as South African. The idea of a black community in racial solidarity would have been an ambiguous idea to most. However, populism that focused on socioeconomic status demanded black solidarity through nearly universal destitution. By using this at the end of the passage, Biko is able expand upon his preliminary racial separation to emphasize the necessity of black unification and autonomy.

This quote is a sample of the extensive populist literature that Biko and other revolutionaries produced against apartheid. However, this passage alone shows that there are different strategies to populism. By identifying a group through multiple commonalities, members are more receptive and connected to others. Populist methods can unite individuals through race, socioeconomic status, and more. Using multiple methods together can better create a collective identity that is hard to dissipate. Additionally, analyzing different styles of diction can better elucidate the methods that are used to mobilize communities both in South Africa and internationally.

 

Notes

  1. Steve Biko, I Write What I Like (New York: The Bowerdean Press, 1978), 75.
  2. C. R. D. Halisi, “From Liberation to Citizenship: Identity and Innovation in Black South African Political Thought,” Comparatvie Studies in Society and History 39, No. 1 (1997): 64
  3. Ibid. 75
  4. Steve Biko, I Write What I Like (New York: The Bowerdean Press, 1978), 75.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. C. R. D. Halisi, “From Liberation to Citizenship: Identity and Innovation in Black South African Political Thought,” Comparatvie Studies in Society and History 39, No. 1 (1997): 75
  8. Ibid.
  9. Steve Biko, I Write What I Like (New York: The Bowerdean Press, 1978), 75.
  10. C. R. D. Halisi, “From Liberation to Citizenship: Identity and Innovation in Black South African Political Thought,” Comparatvie Studies in Society and History 39, No. 1 (1997): 80

Bibliography

  1. Biko, Steve. I Write What I Like. New York: The Bowerdean Press, 1978.
  2. Halisi, C. R. D. “From Liberation to Citizenship: Identity and Innovation in Black South African Political Thought.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 39, No. 1 (1997): 61-85.