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Narrative: Steve Biko - Psychological and Cultural Liberation

Bantu [i.e. - a member of any of a large number of linguistically related peoples of Central and South Africa] Stephen Biko's brilliance and courage to design a lifestyle for the psychological and cultural liberation of the Black mind was a fundamental presupposition for political freedom. If we are to explore the idea of lifestyle as a means to achieve greater independence and freedom in life, then the style of living fostered by Biko's insights and the authentic application of those insights represent a model of excellence...

Steve Biko and the Mythic Narrative

Biko's style of living brings us into immediate contact with the mythic - the heroic - a universal cause to which Biko gave his life when he was murdered in a South African jail in September of 1977. As I continue to return to Biko's thoughts and ideas, I am reminded again of the critical importance of narrative in learning.

Steve Biko: Community Education?

Barry Burke has written a good short essay called Steve Biko and Informal and Community Education. In this essay he makes the link between community education and community activism:

Steve Biko was a community educator and as such a community activist. In his evidence at a trial in 1976, he spelt out the kind of role that activists like himself played within the black community: "We try to get blacks to grapple realistically with their problems, to attempt to find solutions to their problems, to develop what one might call an awareness, a physical awareness of their situation, to be able to analyse it, and to provide answers for themselves. The purpose behind it really being to provide some kind of hope."
- The Testimony of Steve Biko

While there are elements in Biko's strategy that may be referred to as education, it seems to me that the idea of "community education" falls short of capturing what Biko did and what he achieved. To say that Biko was an "informal educator" or promoted ideas about Black Consciousness via informal education is a useful line of thinking, but incomplete. The two books I have found most engaging are The Testimony of Steve Biko and Black Consciousness in South Africa. Both of these books should be requisite reading for any educator, and perhaps students as well.

Language and Identity

Biko: No, no, I am not complaining against the language. I am merely explaining how language can help in the development of an inferiority complex. I am not complaining against the language.

Language is often a tool leveraged in cultural warfare, but it also represents a battle for the mind. The preservation of a language is frequently viewed as a means to preserve both cultural and individual identity. By imposing a language on people that is not native to their intelligence they are disadvantaged. But this is not to say that they are not intelligent, it is merely a way of placing them at a disadvantage. Language and learning are intimately connected in ways that extend far beyond traditional notions of literacy [i.e. - learning to read and write as as end unto itself]. Biko's point is clear and present; if a group of people are forced to use a language that is not idiomatic to them they are placed at a distinct disadvantage. And if that imposition is autocratic then those people can be made to feel inferior (see Chris Corrigan's comments).

We see a similar effect today. English has become the default for many cultural systems. In my own experiences in Europe, I found the english-speaking ability of various people to be quite extraordinary. At the same time it became clear to me that translation had it's limits in terms of developing a shared understanding. Many words do not translate easily across cultures and therefore many ideas do not resonate in the minds of people in the same way. This brought a new light to the idea of the global community and that was that the idea of a global community was more fragile than I had first realized.

Biko: The purpose behind it [i.e. - Black Consciousness] really being to provide some kind of hope... People often look like they have given up the struggle. Like the man who was telling me that he now lives to work - he has given himself to the idea. Now, this sense of defeat is basically what we are fighting against; people must not give in to the hardship of life. People must develop hope. People must develop some form of security to be together to look at their problems, and people must in this way build up their humanity.
- The Testimony of Steve Biko

Community Engagement

This comment as a universal resonance to it and can easily be transported to other situations and circumstances. Perhaps it is the sense of the universal that makes narratives like Biko's so profound. He lived a life of mastery in his particular circumstances, yet the principles he developed and lived by speak to all of us. In other words, Biko is still very much alive.

Biko: People must be aware of their problems in a realistic way. They must be able to analyze their problems and to work out common solutions. In other words a community is easily divided when their perception of the same thing is different. But if they all speak with one voice [such as] this is our problem here in the roads and the schools and so on, and this is our solution here, and they project this voice to whatever local authority, for instance, has to take care.
- The Testimony of Steve Biko

Community development and engagement are common themes in many cultures today. Processes and systems are being formulated to inspire a greater sense of unity among people. Yet many of these processes lack connection to those models of excellence already present in our world. There is more to reference and build upon in Biko's ideas about community engagement and lifestyle development than the display of quotations. Today we speak of networks and communities of learners, yet many of these pale in comparison to the vast network and communities of authentic experience inspired and designed by Stephen Biko.


  • Burke, B. (2004) 'Steve Biko and informal education', the encyclopedia of informal education, . Last updated: January 28, 2005
  • South Africa Alive With Possibility: The Essential Steve Biko
  • Steve Biko Foundation
  • The Testimony of Steve Biko
  • Black Consciousness in South Africa
  • Movie: Cry Freedom
  • Peter Gabriel: Biko
  • Gabriel, Peter: Biko (MP3)

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