Steve Biko is still relevant in the 21st century, his words have echoed and have been heard by today’s youth. Student and youth movements centralised around black consciousness are still present. These movements revolve around the same concept as Biko’s, they’re just done a bit differently due to massive technological and pop culture influences.
Steve Biko was an activist during the Apartheid era who co-founded the Black Consciousness movement in the 1960s. Black Consciousness is the cultural pride of a black person’s identity. Through his political views and influences, Biko formed a following who took part in student protests and movements. These youth movements were focused on the resistance of Apartheid and resulted in arrest, much controversy and an overall change in mindset. Clearly Biko’s drive didn’t fade when he passed away under Apartheid police custody as student movements have become quite prominent in the 21st century.
Montage from Apartheid and into 2015: the breakout of youth and student movements all over South Africa, in the form of resistance movements that are fighting against the oppressors, similar to Biko’s movement. We’ve seen campaigns such as the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement, which was a movement against racism at the University of Cape Town (UCT) with the focus of transformation. The ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement sparked controversy as one of the main issues was to take down the Rhodes statue which many believed was a symbol for white supremacy and privilege.
Next was the ‘I Am Stellenbosch’ campaign, which saw students from the University of Stellenbosch holding up signs with descriptions of themselves in a way to combat stereotypes. Signs read things such as “I am white and I listen to rap music.” The response to this campaign caused chaos across social media platforms as many accused the sign-holders as racist. Open Stellenbosch’s spokesperson, Mohammed Shabangu said the campaign ‘resembles a grave act of apartheid denialism. This denialism is coupled with a negation of the legitimate grievances of black people.”
The most recent and biggest youth movement of 2015: ‘Fees Must Fall’, focused on a 0% fee increment for tertiary education fees as well as a fight for free education in South Africa. Universities all over South Africa are taking part in this movement and it’s probably the biggest youth movement in comparison to Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness liberation movement and the Soweto Uprising of 1976 where our parents fought for freedom, psychological liberation and stood up against racism and oppression.
In the ‘Fees Must Fall’ protests we’ve seen the South African youth stand up against corruption and make use of Biko’s 1960 ideologies and incorporate them into the 21st century. Many young activists are making use of Biko’s famous quote: “The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” – This quote has been printed on t-shirts and posters seen throughout the ‘Fees Must Fall’ protests on different campuses.
Pop culture plays a huge role in protests as young individuals try to express themselves in a way that they feel comfortable. One particular sign at the ‘Fees Must Fall’ protest read: “Blade, what’s good?” to publicly call out the minister of higher education, Blade Nzimande to ask what he was going to do about the fight for 0% university fee increments. The “Blade, what’s good?” sign was in reference to controversy between American singer Miley Cyrus and rapper Nicki Minaj earlier this year, in which Nicki called Miley out on live television at the Video Music Awards (VMA’s) by saying, “Miley, what’s good?” because she spoke badly about her in an interview. The phrase later became a global popular meme and was seen all over social media, mostly used to ‘troll’.
Police brutality was quite evident throughout the ‘Fees Must Fall’ protests in the form of Apartheid riot tactics: police dressed in full riot gear with shields, choking students, throwing stun grenades, firing rubber bullets and using full-force water cannons to physically force students to stop protesting. This is highly unfair as students were not armed with any weapons and were protesting peacefully, so this gave the police an unfair advantage as they took their police authority to an excessive point. Over 100 students were arrested across South Africa and faced charges such as illegal gathering and even treason (the treason charge was thrown out because it was clearly ridiculous, this isn’t the 1950s).
Photographers captured the student protests and showed how students vs SAPS was the main focus at all the protests (instead of the students vs the government). The photographers showed the students and SAPS as if they were on a frontline: either side ready for battle, anxiously waiting for the opposing side to make its move. Images shot from an aerial view showed students doing the ‘Whip/Nae Nae’, which is a dance from Atlanta based on Martin Lawrence’s character in the ‘90s comedy show, Martin. In 2015, Silentó’s chart-topping song ‘Whip/Nae Nae’ dropped and it quickly became a trend: everyone and their dance crews were seen uploading ‘Whip/ Nae Nae’ dance videos to YouTube and it became one of those songs that you can’t get out of your head, no matter how hard you try (or how annoying it may be.)
The ‘Fees Must Fall’ protest photographers captured students doing the ‘Whip/Nae Nae’ in response to police barricading streets to stop the protestors from moving forward. Someone on Facebook even said that the ‘Whip/Nae Nae’ in 2015 is equivalent to the toi toi, a protest in the form of dance to express political views that started during Apartheid.
I think that Biko would’ve been proud to see the 21st century youth protests and how students have adopted their own struggle songs and forms of expression, just as Biko and the youth did during Apartheid. Biko is relevant now because his words fit well into the 21st century as it encourages individuals and gives them a call to action to stand up against corruption and inequality. Biko gave individuals a voice and his message echoes far into the 21st century and hopefully stay relevant for years to come.