A slap in the face for nonviolence? Musings on nonviolence 2

Steve Biko

  • martyr of the anti-apartheid movement: check
  • founder of the Black Consciousness movement: check
  • practitioner of violent action??? errrr, not so sure

Why do I ask this? Well previous musings on self-immolation took me hop, skip and jumping (mentally, that is) to a scene from Biko’s life. Biko’s in police custody being interrogated by 3 white police officers after giving a speech the South African state didn’t approve of. Whilst 2 officers hold him, the sergeant back-hands him across the mouth because he has failed to be as submissive as white police expect a black man to be. Biko appears to submit and the officers release him. Immediately he springs forward and back-hands the sergeant.

Remember, this is apartheid South Africa and such action could be tantamount to a death sentence – it could make you just one of the many black prisoners to “fall down the stairs”, or “fall from an upper storey window” whilst in police custody or be “shot whilst escaping”. And indeed Steve Biko was killed in custody shortly afterwards.

So the question: violent action? retribution? revenge? I’m still not sure. I know the action inspires me and so maybe I want to see it as nonviolent so it conveniently falls within my belief system.

On what level does it feel nonviolent to me? It directly confronts power and subverts the dominant paradigm that white has power over black, including the power to beat and kill with impunity. It suggests an alternative model – one of equality where Biko is as human as the sergeant and can demand equal treatment. As such it speaks truth to power. These are all qualities I see in the best nonviolent actions, but does that mean they’re exclusive to nonviolence?

“whites must be made to realise that they are only human, not superior. Same with Blacks. They must be made to realise that they are also human, not inferior.” Steve Biko

Was Biko’s intention violent or malicious? We’ll never know, but I can’t help feeling he was asserting his right to equality rather than seeking to injure or hurt the police officer. The police, not Biko, framed the interaction as an exchange of blows. Biko merely reflected their action…but if their action was violent, isn’t his reflection? Over to you….