Who ‘owns’ Steve Biko’s legacy?

Steve Biko is a towering figure in the South African mythos.

Biko used his voice to communicate ideas about race and power in 1960s and 1970s Apartheid South Africa. The ideas he so eloquently articulated had been moulded by a young, black intelligentsia centred around the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) and these ideas made core ideological contributions to South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement, of which Biko was a leader.

The SASO collective thrashed out ideas of black empowerment by mashing up arguments from American thinkers such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (interestingly, Carmichael was married to Miriam Makeba for five years which highlights the level of cross-pollination of ideas between the USA and South Africa), amongst others, together with the unique South African context of Apartheid. The result was a liberating vision that built on that of nationalist thinkers such as ANC Youth League founder, Anton Lambede, and the aforementioned Americans. The SASO collective tapped into the zeitgeist and their ideas were given powerful eloquence in written form by Biko, who regularly wrote a column in the SASO newsletter under the pseudonym, Frank Talk.

“Black Activist Steven Biko, founder of the Black Consciousness Movement in King William’s Town, South Africa on September 3, 1976 ( John Burns/The New York Times). Sack# 28802. Date: 9/03/1976.” Source: TimesLive 

The black consciousness (BC) ideology played an important role in overthrowing Apartheid. Black South Africans were given a newfound confidence in themselves which, when combined with dogged efforts to organise labour into unions, created a formidable opposition to the Apartheid regime. While Biko and co. liberated black minds, thinkers such as Rick Turner provided the philosophical framework for transmuting labour into power, starting with the Durban Moment. Biko and his coterie were deeply intertwined with Turner’s scions, all working to common goals. As a result, both were assassinated (most likely) by the Apartheid regime in 1976; Biko while in police custody while Turner was shot through his kitchen window a few months later by an anonymous gunman.

Biko’s legacy clearly lives on though. As he, and so many others have stated, before and since, in order to be free, the black (wo)man must first free their own mind, and driving this realisation was Biko’s and the SASO collective’s greatest contribution. While these ideas were forged under the yoke of a brutal, race-based regime that no longer exists, the echoes of that system still resound through our society today, which has lead to the flowering of BC-inspired movements and ideas such as the ‘woke‘ concept, Rhodes Must Fall, Fees Must Fall (see my past analyses here and here), the decolonisation movement, and many more.

Let’s take a look below at who is continuing – and perhaps rewriting – Biko’s legacy in contemporary South Africa. And, no, the irony of a white, liberal South African writing about Biko is not lost of me, so let’s see how this goes…

The main communities discussing Biko

I started collecting data about Biko on a whim. I wanted to see the extent to which he was being discussed and who was doing the discussing. To my surprise, I collected 85,438 tweets mentioning Biko between September 2018 and March 2019 (seven months); a solid amount for any topic in South Africa. Granted, about half of these tweets were generated over just a few days in September 2018 around the anniversary of Biko’s death, but this still leaves a significant volume for the rest of the period. Biko’s ideas are truly alive in South African discourse. Let’s take a look at who is invoking Biko’s name the most and laying claim to his legacy.

The below interaction network summarises the main communities discussing Biko. Every Twitter user in this network mentioned “Biko” or a related term. Users were connected together when they interacted with each other by retweeting or @mentioning each other, and a community detection algorithm highlights the main communities (each in its own colour). The size of a user represents how influential that user is based on how many retweets and @mentions they received.

Interaction network of conversations around Steve Biko

So who is the most vocal in the above interaction network? The below chart shows us the proportion of users in our data that fell into each of the top communities as well as the proportion of tweets generated by each community.

We’d expect communities to generate tweets in proportion to the number of users that they have, which would put them on the diagonal line below. Communities that generate more tweets than we expect given how many users are in that community are particularly vocal and passionate. They sit above the diagonal line. Conversely, communities that are just consuming content (usually by retweeting it) without discussing it, sit below the diagonal line.

As we can see, the Radical Economic Transformers community sits far above the other communities in terms of the volume of Biko discussions they are generating given their size. This seems to be the most cohesive melting pot within which Biko is being discussed. The question then arises of how they are framing his legacy and ideas? We’ll delve into this below…

The quality of the conversation

The above chart gave us an idea of the volume of conversation happening around Biko within each community, but just as important as volume is the quality of the conversation and this is the area that truly distinguishes the communities from each other.

I’ve isolated the main communities discussing Biko below, paying careful attention to the ‘shape’ of each community’s network. Highly centralised network shapes tend to form around single accounts that are good at broadcasting a packaged message while messy, inter-connected network shapes indicate numerous individuals engaging in a grass-roots discussion. Let’s see where each of the main communities sit in this regard.

Note that Biko references came up often in the context of the Steve Biko Academic Hospital and in relation to accusations that President Cyril Ramaphosa was a sell-out. I have mostly ignored these oblique references to Biko, focusing instead on direct references to the man and his ideas below.

The Steve Biko Foundation community

The Biko Foundation is doing a good job of putting out content however it only receives shallow engagement – lots of retweets but not much two-way conversation

The Steve Biko Foundation is doing an admirable job of pushing Biko-focused content but they appear to treat it as a media campaign rather than a community building exercise. Theirs is a fairly one-directional broadcast affair that is receiving lots of retweets but it is not engendering as much discussion as some of the other communities are.

Here is the top Biko content from this community:

The Radical Economic Transformation (RET) community

The Radical Economic Transformation community engaged in the most two-way discussion around Biko

Close on the Biko Foundation’s heels in terms of volume is the Radical Economic Transformation community, made up of Zuma-faction ANC supporters and associated black nationalists such as the Black First Land First (BLF) party.

The BLF in particular see themselves as the natural successor to Biko with their leader, Andile Mngxitama, having previously published on Biko’s ideas and even created a now-defunct journal called New Frank Talk (as an interesting aside, Biko’s name appears in the Gupta Leaks data since Mngxitama used a Biko-inspired email address likely created for the journal when asking for funding from that family).

This community emphasizes the juxtaposition of white versus black over the mental emancipation of black folk.

Here are some of the most retweeted tweets from this community (excluding tweets by accounts @luthoza and @mngxitama as these have been suspended by Twitter for contradicting their community guidelines):

Mzilikazi wa Afrika’s community

Journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika often invokes Biko, leading to many retweets but little two-way discussion

The community around journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika had the third most Biko mentions. Again though, this is somewhat of a broadcast community. wa Afrika regularly shares inspirational Biko quotes that focus on mental emancipation. They receive many retweets but they do not spur on a large level of conversation:

@KatlehoMK and co’s BC community

@KatlehoMK and co’s black consciousness community shows decent levels of engagement

Anonymous influencer, @KatlehoMK, and the community around them are an interesting group as they straddle the EFF and RET communities. Their content is highly racialised and they often amplify users in the RET community. However, if you look at their position in the upfront interaction network, much of their engagement is with users in EFF-aligned communities whose content they also amplify. This seems to make them a bridge influencer between these two communities.

Note that the account @yung_theologysa has been suspended by Twitter for repeatedly breaking their community guidelines so that account’s tweets are not shown below, even though they were some of the most popular:

EFF-aligned communities

EFF-aligned communities mostly invoked Biko around the anniversary of his death in September 2018

Rounding out the list of the most prominent communities who invoke Biko, we have many EFF-aligned groups and individuals, including some of that party’s leaders such as Julius Malema and Dali Mpofu, and Twitter influencer, Tumi Sole. Most of their Biko tweets were posted on the anniversary of his death in September 2018.

Here are the most retweeted examples:


Biko’s legacy lives on in two ways in South Africa, including a primary emphasis either on emancipating the black mind, or on black versus white conflict.

The mental emancipation version of Biko’s legacy is being kept alive through easily digestable and shareable aphorisms that focus on the emancipation of the black mind, turning him into a larger than life figure in that great pantheon of South African leaders that also includes Mandela and Tambo. This is the main way in which we experience Biko today across a variety of communities and influencers.

What does it say about the state of Biko’s legacy though when the single loudest, most engaged community emphasizes black versus white racial rhetoric, as is the case with the Radical Economic Transformation community? Indeed, some of the most strident voices discussing Biko believe that a grand millenarian reset of our society through violence is inevitable. They are certainly keeping Biko’s legacy alive, but to them, the key take-outs from his philosophy speak to the need to equalise relationships between black and white. Fair enough, but they take it one step further by saying that this should be done through violence if necessary. Biko was not an advocate for violence so perhaps they are drawing more from Frantz Fanon here than Biko? The end result though is an extension of Biko’s own ideas into uncharted territories.

As with any interpretation of a great thinkers’ ideas, different readers take different things from their philosophies. Biko longed for a non-racial South Africa where all races could sit at the table as equals. How we get there though is a matter of contestation even amongst self-described Bikoists.

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