Biko’s legacy lives on in Swaziland’s civil society

Linked on our blogs with A tribute to Steve Bantu Biko. – Published on Pambazuka News, by Peter Kenworthy, December 20, 2011.

Father of South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement Steve Biko would have been 65 on 18 December. Peter Kenworthy looks at the influence of his ideas on Swazi civil society today. Looking at South Africa today, it is clear that the approach of the ANC has not ensured socio-economic justice for the majority of South Africa’s blacks. Indeed, the rich-poor divide has broadened, and South Africa has become the most unequal country in the world. 

The same can be said of many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. But as South Africa’s tiny neighbour, Swaziland, is finding out, the solution might lie in the past, so to speak, more than in a future that has failed the test of time.

The ideas of Steve Biko certainly seem to be popular in Swaziland’s democratic movement. One of Swaziland’s prominent pro-democracy activists, student leader and political prisoner, Maxwell Dlamini, professes to be heavily inspired by Biko, and the main vehicle for civic education in Swaziland, the Foundation for Socio-Economic Justice, uses an approach to raising consciousness amongst people in Swaziland that is akin to, if not inspired by, that of Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement in the nineteen-seventies.


Steve Biko grew up in the Ginsberg Location near King Williams Town, where nearly two hundred families shared around 40 communal taps and toilets. He also studied medicine and law at university, and was therefore acquainted with the plight of all walks of live in apartheid South Africa.

Biko was the father of the Black Consciousness Movement, as well as its main thinker and key catalyst, although he deliberately tried not to be dominant to enable others to assume responsibility and discourage a personality cult.

Biko’s general fearlessness in openly opposing the authorities such as during the SASO-BPC trial (where the apartheid government prosecuted and convicted nine members of the BCM for “subversion by intent”) in 1976, his unhesitant response to insult and his disregarding of his banning were probably contributing factors to his early death – he died in police custody in September, having been tortured and severely beaten. On the other hand, showing that he was not afraid of the authorities was also an important contributing factor in fostering the culture of fearlessness that helped end apartheid … //


Until recently there has been no programme focusing specifically on inclusive civic education. For this reason, the Foundation for Socio Economic Justice was founded in 2003 as an organization to initiate “broad civic education programmes to encourage democratic participation and raise awareness on human- and constitutional rights amongst the rural populations, with an understanding on how this leads to poverty eradication”.

The overall goal of the Foundation is to “build a mass-based democratic force” through a bottom-up approach that includes partnership with, and capacity building of, marginalized, rural based organisations.

The Foundation’s Rural Civic Education programme is the cornerstone of the Foundation’s work and the civic educators are in the front-line of its work. The educational team covers a variety of democracy- and rights-related subjects on e.g. the history of Swaziland, the history of the unions, the political history of Swaziland, and issues about rural community organisation. The discussions that this education spawns also covers more concrete issues such as the lack of health facilities, schools, classrooms, water and employment that are then tied to the more overall topics.

As in apartheid South Africa, the conditions under which the lessons are given are difficult, however. Community leaders and Chiefs in some places victimize the educators and participants as they are seen as a threat to their authority and there is police surveillance of most meetings.

The result of this education can be seen in the fact that people to a much larger degree dare speak up in the presence of authorities such as headmen, chiefs and police officers, and that some have even stopped partaking in the traditionally sanctioned system of forced labour by i.e. refusing to plough the chief’s land for free.

And they can be seen in the persistent calls for democracy that have been heard in recent years – especially since this years so-called ‘April 12 Uprising’, where thousands demonstrated for democracy and socio-economic justice.

The Foundation has thus made great strides and progress in areas where the discussion of political issues or standing up to the authoritarian traditional system was previously impossible – very much like Biko’s Black Consciousness did in apartheid South Africa in the seventies.
(full long text).

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