Thu, Sep 13, 2007 - Page 13 News List

Going Che's way?

Steve Biko, a South African anti-apartheid leader, has appeared in Wyclef Jean's music and, more recently, on the T-shirts of young South Africans. Thirty years after his death, his message of racial pride is still going strong


Anti-apartheid militants attend the funeral of Steve Biko, Oct 3, 1977.


T-shirts bearing the image of Steve Biko, the worldwide symbol of black resistance who was killed by apartheid police, can be found for sale at flea market stalls and exclusive boutiques across South Africa.

The question is whether the latest fashion is a sign the post-apartheid youth culture is embracing Biko's message of racial pride and African unity, or just crass commercialization of one of the most important figures in South African history.

Biko died of a brain injury in a cell in Pretoria Central Prison on Sept. 12, 1977, after being beaten and tortured by apartheid police. The 30th anniversary of his death was to be commemorated in South Africa this week with events that include a speech by President Thabo Mbeki.

At 22, Kenneth Mulaudzi was born after Biko's death, and was still a boy when apartheid ended in 1994. In a trendy Johannesburg store over the weekend, Mulaudzi eyed a US$28 T-shirt bearing Biko's image, the bearded face dominated by eyes under a wide brow.

"It's not just a fashion statement. It is also a political statement," Mulaudzi said defiantly. "Young people are proud of him. He is a hero. He fought for us."

Mulaudzi, an aspiring journalist with a stud in his chin, knew quite a bit about Biko, but hasn't read I Write What I Like, Biko's seminal collection of essays.

He does have a poster of Biko in his home and can sing the lyrics to Haitian-American rapper Wyclef Jean's song Diallo which draws parallels between the 1999 shooting of an African immigrant by New York police and the murder of the South African activist.

"I was surprised when I heard that song. It means Biko has gone far," Mulaudzi said, adding that he thinks it is the disturbing nature of the activist's death that affected so many.

Biko's message of black pride appealed to many people in South Africa's townships. His death made him a martyr in the anti-apartheid movement and inspired films such as Cry Freedom, starring Denzel Washington and British musician Peter Gabriel's anthem Biko.

The end of white rule in 1994 saw Biko's appeal wane as South Africa's black majority reveled in new political and economic freedoms. The black consciousness movement in South Africa is in disarray and a recent wave of defections has decimated its main political party, the Pan African Congress.

However, today there is a growing disenchantment among young people who see the country's leaders embroiled in scandal and a new black elite growing richer while most blacks find it harder and harder to keep up with inflation.

Some observers see a stronger black consciousness message emerging in popular culture as young people develop their own sense of what it means to be African in today's world. A look around Sowearto, the Afro-chic store where Mulaudzi was browsing, supports that argument.

Dresses and tops celebrate singer Miriam Makeba as a "Great African" and carry the slogans of the black pride movement such as "The color of my skin is beautiful" and "Africa Must Unite."

Jackie Radebe, 23, bought a Biko T-shirt after reading I Write What I Like. He sees Biko as a selfless leader whose politics of brotherhood are still relevant to South Africa.

"He had genuine compassion for the plight of the people, genuine concern about poverty, crime and loss of pride," Radebe said.

While Biko would celebrate the "breakthroughs this young democracy has achieved," Radebe believes his hero would be disappointed in the country's leaders.

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