Biko on Religion and Black liberation – by Tinyiko Maluleke


May the Black God Stand Please! Biko’s Challenge to Religion

At some stage one can foresee a situation where black people will feel they have nothing to live for and will shout out into their God: ‘Thy will be done’. Indeed His will shall be done but it will not appeal equally to all mortals for indeed we have different versions of his will. If the white God has been doing the talking all along, at some stage the black God will have to raise his voice and make Himself heard over and above the noises from His counterpart (in Stubbs 1978:33)

1. The Biko Legacy

I am not old enough to have known Biko personally and to have understood him deeply during his life time. Nor was I geographically advantaged to have had even a distant kind of access to him. When Biko died in September 1977 I was only beginning high school and I was half his age. His influence on my thinking has however been phenomenal. I therefore think that his legacy is as much mine as it is anybody’s who feels compelled to appropriate it. The Biko legacy has –at times – been the subject of much contestation with some political parties and Biko’s contemporaries at the centre of the contestations. The establishment of a non-partisan Steve Biko Foundation has therefore brought a breath of fresh air to this atmosphere and hopefully it will ‘free the Biko legacy’ from unhealthy contestations. The Biko legacy is important for South Africa and for the world at large. As an activist social theorist, Biko stands proudly and firmly in the traditions of Frantz Fanon, Martin Luther King Junior and Malcolm X. In the mist of fierce contestations about the Biko legacy – many of which were but an aspect of the struggle against Apartheid – it is my view that his unique contributions both to social theory and to the ethics of political activism remain grossly underestimated.

2. From SOWETO 1976

I was an enthusiastic but naïve participant in the SOWETO 1976 uprising. The full political significance of the moment was not apparent to me then. I now know that the outbreak of the SOWETO uprising must have been somehow connected to the fact that since 1969 Black Consciousness had made serious inroads into student thinking. The 1976 uprising also came ‘within a month of Biko’s giving evidence in Pretoria’ and may indeed have been influenced by the utterances, stance and impressive poise of Biko at the trial.

What was very clear to me then was that the shift from mathematics to ‘wiskunde’, from ‘history’ to ‘geskiedenis’ and from general science to ‘algemene wetenskap’ was painful, annoying, inconvenient and most unacceptable. But for SOWETO students 1977 was in many ways a worse year. Whereas there had been some schooling during 1976, 1977 was a year in which schooling was so much a stop-start situation that for long periods there was in fact no schooling. Schools became battlefields between the police and students. Throughout the whole year we played cat and mouse games with the police. In my recollection, very few schools actually wrote exams at the end of that year – Lamola Jubilee Secondary in Meadowlands Zone Five, where I was, certainly did not. Then later that year, came the news – thanks to newspapers such as the Rand Daily Mail and The World – which Steve Biko had died in police custody.

Student anger reached new heights and many – especially the older ones (those doing Standards 8, 9 and 10) started looking for ways to ‘skip’ the country to join the liberation movements. Indeed some of us students in SOWETO, especially the senior students, had heard bits and pieces about Biko and his trial; it was through his death that many of us ‘discovered’ Steve Biko. In this way, to borrow Biko’s own words, his ‘method of death [was] itself a politicising thing’ (Biko in Stubbs 1978:173). Another consequence of the news of Biko’s death was that copies of his articles and essays became most sought after and would be passed from one student to another. We were both amazed and inspired by someone who, in that atmosphere of fear and intimidation, had decided to ‘talk frank(ly)’ about the South African situation. It was as if a whole new world was opening up to us. For the first time, liberation and freedom felt like an attainable goals to many young and angry minds.

When re-reading material on and by Biko in preparation for this paper, I was struck by a number of things.

First, by just how young he was both when he died and when he bequeathed us – through his writings and his initiatives – testimonies of his great intellect and his great love for this country and its people. In terms of the South African youth commission definition of a youth (which is up to the age of 35) – Steve Biko – died a youth. At Twenty five he was already a banned and a restricted man. But his legacy and contribution is that of grown man way above his chronological age. Indeed, the revolution Biko led was a revolution led by people in their early twenties, most of who were banned and restricted by the time they were barely 26. I consider this a great challenge to the youth of our times.

Second, I was struck by the fact that Steve was essentially a college student leader who used student campus politics to leverage a national political agenda, at a time when ‘Black resistance was fragmenting ’. Although Steve is said to have regarded the SOWETO uprisings as a complete surprise, his leadership in particular and that of SASO in general, appears to have inspired a symbiotic and coherent relationship between college student politics and high school student politics . This was a remarkable achievement at that time. It is remarkable that Black Theology was born – not through the pen or mind of a solitary academic, but was a product of the selfsame college student politics; inspired by SASO and born from within the University Christian Movement.

Thirdly, I was struck once again by the sharpness of Biko’s mind, breadth of knowledge, clarity of his thought and simplicity of his expression. He was also a very well read man. To make the same point in a slightly different manner, SASO the BPC and their associate organisations were not merely student, or community organisations, they also had an accompanying intellectual thrust. In my estimation, in his leadership and thinking, Biko ranks alongside such postcolonial thinkers as Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, Sékou Touré, Nkrumah and others.

Fourth, I was struck both by the brutal circumstances in which Steve died as well as the absence of bitterness among those closest to him. The white policemen in whose custody Steve was during his last days were vicious and cruel – he was battered, kept isolated and naked for more than three weeks; then in that state, thrown into the cold floor of a Landrover to be driven for eleven hours; only to be dumped and left for several hours on a cell floor in Pretoria.

Biko on Culture, Christianity and Religion: The Challenges

1. Black but White-led

In February 1970, Steve Biko, in his capacity as SASO president, wrote a letter to SRC presidents in which he makes several notable references to the University Christian Movement (UCM) an organisation from which formal Black Theology was to emerge. Biko notes that calls the UCM ‘a religious group concerning itself with ecumenical topics and modernisation of archaic Christian religious practice’ (:15). He noted with delight, the fact that the UCM – established in 1967 – had a black majority within one year of its existence. However, Biko (:15) was cautious:

We believe to a great extent that UCM has overcome the problems of adjustment to a two-tier society like ours. However, we still feel that the fact that the blacks are in the majority in the organisation has not been sufficiently evidenced in the direction of thought and in the leadership of the organisation. We nevertheless feel that the UCM’s progress is commendable in the direction of provoking meaningful thinking amongst the clergymen and its members.

The concern about black majorities in the church not turning into leadership majorities was also shared by Biko with Black ministers at a conference in Edendale in a talk titled: “The Church as seen by a Young Layman”. ‘It is a known fact that barring the Afrikaans churches, most of the churches have 70, 80 or 90% of their membership within the black world. It is also a known fact that most of the churches have 70, 80, and 90% of controlling power in White hands’ (p62). It can be argued that in making this observation Biko was diagnosing in the church and church organisations the same problem he had observed in NUSAS. The absence of Black leadership even in organisation where they formed a majority was a generalised social problem. The latter caused him to walk out and form SASO. Biko was unflinching in his conviction that as long as Black people looked for and accepted white leadership in all spheres, including religion; they were not yet ready to take their future in their own hands. This brought into question whether so-called black churches, were really black. In its in this context that we should understand Biko’s observation – in the opening quote – that ‘the white God has been doing the talking all along’ and that the time had come that ‘the black God will have to raise his voice and make Himself heard over and above the noises from His counterpart’. It was indeed about much more than just Black leadership. It was the very content and form which the Christian faith had taken in the Black community. Black churches were therefore white led in terms of their ethos, practice and outlook.

2. ‘God is not in the Habit …’

To conclude his address to ministers of religion in Edendale Biko quipped ‘I would like to remind the black ministry and indeed all black people that God is not in the habit of coming down from heaven to solve people’s problems on earth’ (in Stubbs, Aelred ed 1978:65). Having inherited this adage in textual form we are unable to tell whether it was told in all seriousness or in jest. But it was not the first time that Biko had used this statement. It was also used, in an adapted form in his essay titled ‘We Blacks’ where it was linked with the white liberal ‘theory of gradualism’ which was meant keep ‘blacks confused and always hoping that God will step down from heaven to solve their problems’. It seems therefore that this was a most earnest concern of his. It is in fact a rather pithy, apt if also stingy adage. In the context of the Edendale talk, it meant at least two things; firstly, that black people had to take the initiative if ever the church was to retain relevance for fellow blacks, especially young blacks; secondly that God does not do theology, human beings do and that the time had come for ‘our own theologians to take up the cudgels of the fight by restoring a meaning and direction in the black man’s understanding of God’ (in Stubbs 1978:65).

Furthermore, Biko rejected the tendency of making theology ‘a specialist job’. Indeed in his introduction to the address at Edendale Biko had presented three main aims to his talk namely to provide a young person’s perspective, a layman’s perspective and to make common the concept of religion. His approach therefore was to foreground the problems faced by South Africa in general and by blacks in particular and challenge church people to use the Bible and their faith to respond in a relevant way\y. If they did not do anything about it, they should give up any hope on God doing it on their behalf. This was a profound critique of certain forma of religiosity which seemed to encourage an attitude in terms of which God was expected to come and intervene on behalf of Blacks.

3. What to do with the White Man’s Religion: An agenda for Liberation in Religion

Biko’s basic problem with Christianity was not so much its given content as was the refusal of those who peddled it to adapt in to local needs and conditions. Worse still, it was used as the very instrument of deculturization and colonisation. He was therefore fearful that it was fast becoming irrelevant – especially for the young.

Whereas Christianity had gone through rigorous cultural adaptation from ancient Judea through Rome, through London, through Brussels and Lisbon, somehow when it landed in the Cape, it was made to look fairly rigid. Christianity was made the central point of a culture which brought with it new styles of clothing, new customs, new forms of etiquette, new medical approaches, and perhaps new armaments. The people among whom Christianity was spread had to cast away their indigenous clothing, their customs, and their beliefs which were all described as pagan and barbaric. (in Stubbs, Aelred ed 1978:60)

It is my view that in the essay titled ‘We Blacks’ Biko outlines the most complete list of agenda items for a Black response to Christianity – the White man’s religion in South Africa. Central to such a response was the creation of a Black Theology of Liberation. Firstly, he suggests that Africans converted to and practicing Christianity should consider the Black Theology proposition and

  1. ‘get rid of the rotten foundation which many missionaries created when they came’
  2. move away from focussing on ‘moral trivialities’
  3. revise destructive concepts of sin and stop making people find fault with themselves
  4. try being true to Jesus’ radical ministry
  5. try and resolve the situation in which while blacks sing mea culpa the whites are singing tua culpa.
  6. Deal with the contradiction of a ‘well-meaning God who allows people to suffer continuously under an obviously immoral system’
  7. ‘redefine the message of the Bible … to make it relevant to the struggling masses’.
  8. revisit the biblical notion that all authority is divinely instituted
  9. make bible relevant to black people to keep them going in their long journey to freedom
  10. deal with the spiritual poverty of black people
  11. adapt Christianity to local culture
  12. stop the use of Christianity as ‘the ideal religion for the maintenance of the subjugation of people’

Elsewhere he calls Christianity a ‘cold cruel religion’ whose early proponents preached “a theology of the existence of hell, scaring our fathers and mothers with stories about burning in eternal flames and gnashing of teeth and grinding of bone. This cold cruel religion was strange to us but our forefathers were sufficiently sacred of the unknown impending danger to believe that it was worth a try. Down went our cultural values!’ in (Stubbs, Aelred ed 1978:49). For a ‘layman’ as Biko called himself he had a thorough and incisive understanding of the challenges facing theology in the Black Churches. It is perhaps for this reason that Dwight Hopkins (1991:195) described Biko as:

A theologian from and with the masses of black people. He never became bogged down with strict doctrinal or theological categories of thought or elaborated long-winded treatises. Quite the opposite … he involved himself in theological issues pertaining to the very life and death of his community.

4. Locating our Praxis, Religious Studies and Theology in Africa

To take part in the African revolution, it is not enough to write a revolutionary song, you must fashion the revolution with the people. In order to achieve real action you must yourself be a living part of Africa and of her thought; you must be an element of that popular energy which is entirely called forth for the freeing, the progress and the happiness of Africa. There is no place outside that fight for the artist of for the intellectual who is not himself concerned with, and completely at one with the people in the great battle of Africa and of suffering humanity (Biko quoting Toure in Stubbs, Aelred ed 1978:35)

Through his use of the work of Touré, Fanon, Malcolm X and Kaunda, Biko wanted to locate his thinking and nourish his intellect in Africa. His notion of Blackness was therefore one that included Africanity and African culture. His idea of Black Theology was therefore quite amazingly not totally exclusive of what has come to be known as African Theology today. This is how Biko defined African religiosity, pointing out the discords with Christianity, but always holding out the hope of a fusion in the process of making Christianity relevant to Black people.

… We did not believe that religion could be featured as a separate part of our existence on earth. It was manifest in our daily lives … We would obviously find it artificial to create separate occasions for worship. Neither did we see it logical to have a particular building in which all worship would be conducted. We believed that God was always in communication with us and therefore merited attention everywhere and anywhere. It was the missionaries who confused our people with their new religion. By some strange logic they argued that theirs was a scientific religion and ours was mere superstition … They further went on to preach a theology of the existence of hell, scaring our fathers and mothers with stories about burning in eternal flames and gnashing of teeth and grinding of bone. This cold cruel religion was strange to us but our forefathers were sufficiently sacred of the unknown impending anger to believe that it was worth a try. Down went our cultural values! Yet it is difficult to kill the African heritage (in Stubbs, Aelred ed 1978:49)

This is a thorough-going and devastating critique of Christianity – a religion to which Africans turned in fear rather than joy! The contrast between African religion and missionary Christianity are painted in stark terms. It is a communal religion pitted agains a ‘cold and cruel’ religion. With these words, Biko sought to challenge Black Christians to begin making Christianity relevant to the people – changing it from being a ‘cold and cruel’ religion into a warm and communal religion. To this end Biko remained firm in his belief that while the West may excel in military hardware and technology, Africa would ‘in the long run, the special contribution to the world by Africa will be in this field of human relationships …giving the world a more human face’ (in Stubbs, Aelred ed 1978:51). These harsh words should not make us think that Biko disregarded or underestimated religion. He believed in the significance of religion, including Christianity – hence his friendship with several priests. For him ‘all societies and indeed all individuals, ancient or modern, young or old, identify themselves with a particular religion and when none is existent they develop one (in Stubbs, Aelred ed 1978:60).’ He also believed that ‘no nation can win a battle without faith, and if our faith in our God is spoilt by our having to see Him through the eyes of the same people we are fighting against, then there obviously begins to be something wrong in that relationship’.

5. The Black Theology Challenge

Biko’s critique of the church, especially the black church always included an invitation and a challenge to the construction of a Black Theology of Liberation. He saw black Theology as the only way to salvage Christianity for the black masses. Otherwise Christianity would remain an imposed religion whose role was the maintenance of subjugation – always making Blacks feel like the ‘unwanted step children of God’. Therefore, Black Theology was seen as ‘a situational interpretation of Christianity [meant to restore) meaning and direction in the black man’s understanding of God’. He therefore advocated waging an intellectual and theological battle within Christianity because ‘too many are involved in religion for the blacks to ignore… the only path open for us now is to redefine the message of the Bible and to make it relevant’. Central to the making of the Bible relevant was the reimagination and reinterpretation of Jesus as a ‘fighting God’ – the beginnings of a search for a Black Christology. Such were Biko’s feelings on this matter that though he did not provide a complete outline of Black Theology, he drew tantalising and passionate anecdotes of the sorts of problems such a theology would have to confront.

…one notes the appalling irrelevance of the interpretation given to the scriptures. In a country teeming with injustice and fanatically committed to the practice of oppression, intolerance and blatant cruelty because of racial bigotry; in a country where all black people are made to feel the unwanted stepchildren of a God whose presence they cannot feel; in a country where father and son, mother and daughter alike develop daily into neurotics through sheer inability to relate the present to the future because of a completely engulfing sense of destitution, the church further adds to their insecurity by its inward-directed definition of the concept of sin and its encouragement of the mea culpa attitude. Stern-faced ministers stand on pulpits every Sunday to heap loads of blame on black people in townships for their thieving, housebreaking, stabbing, murdering, adultery etc. . . . No one ever attempts to relate all these vices to poverty, unemployment, overcrowding, lack of schooling and migratory labour. No one wants to complete condone abhorrent behaviour, but it frequently is necessary for us to analyse situations a little bit deeper that the surface suggests.’ (Stubbs, Aelred ed 1978:61).

If we earlier quoted Biko dishing out a devastating critique of missionary Christianity, he censure is here directed at the practice of the Black church. It is the ‘stern-faced’ Black ministers whom Biko fingers and it is the prevailing and ‘inward-directed’ concept of sin which he faults. He challenges Black preachers to engage in deeper analysis. Black Theology is necessary in order to change this situation. Instead of church practice adding to the burdens of the Black masses, the question was how to make the Black church and its praxis more supportive of the harassed black masses. The challenge was one of developing a theology that would provide better analytical tools than those that were being used at that time. These, together with the least we have constructed in section 3, was the agenda which Biko put forward for Black Theology.

6. Challenges and Conclusion

The wealth of theological insights in Biko’s thought is – for a layman – breathtaking. It is remarkable that more than thirty years ago, he framed a theological agenda which in all honesty we have yet to exhaust. Tribute must indeed be paid to those who took up the challenge – Sabelo Ntwasa, Mokgethi Motlhabi, Nyameko Pityana, Mpho Ntoane, Buti Tlhagale, Itumeleng Mosala, Takatso Mofokeng, Simon Maimela, Bonganjalo Goba, Lebamang Sebidi, Shaun Govender, Manas Buthelezi, Gabriel Setiloane, Allan Boesak and others. My contention is that none of the challenges I highlighted above have expired. Work remains to be done in each of them. Above all I want to suggest in conclusion that if Biko and his generation helped us with tools with which to understand the role of religion, the psyche and consciousness in a violent colonial situation we now need similar but news tools with which to analyse the role of religion in the postcolony called South Africa often misnamed a young democracy. A postcolony is still a colony. We find ourselves in a situation in which the colony continues even after the colonial period. We see this in the way in which women are regarded and dealt with. The violence in which we live is postcolonising all of us, especially women and childrem. Similarly the sourge of poverty in a world which has more than enough for all is another sign of the continuation of the colony. We are now faced not merely with the scourge of HIV/AIDS but with devastating consequences of the interface between HIV/AIDS and Gender, between HIV-AIDS and poverty. Issues of identity, and self-esteem with which Biko and his colleagues occupied themselves have returned in the form of sexuality and sexual orientation debates of our times. Indeed, I want to suggest that the very fact that our young seem to be forgetting the likes of Biko is a symptom of the problems we do not even acknowledge to have. In the atmosphere in which we live, religion runs a real risk of becoming an opium both for the rich and the poor. Perhaps the challenges which Biko put before Black Christianity can and should be extended to all religions and to all of Christianity today. To what extent are our religions revitalising and equipping people rather than chopping their spirits down with false promises and blame-the-victim strategies?


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Ngugi wa Thiongo. 1993. Moving the Center. The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms. London: James Curry.

Said, Edward 1993. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

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Said, Edward 1983. The World, the Text and the Critic. Cambridge: Havard University Press Setiloane, Gabriel M. 1975 “I am an African” Risk Vol 27, 128-131.

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Professor Tinyiko Sam Maluleke Executive Director: Research, University of South Africa and President: South African Council of Churches

22 November 2007


3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by poobendran naidoo on October 2, 2012 at 11:23 pm

    Steve Biko’s life and thinking was essentially spiritual. That is why The Apartheid Regime could not accept his phlosophy for which they killed him.Brilliant article many challenges remain post apartheid and we have the legacy of Biko, Turner, Mandela and OR to keep us focussed and grounded by their examples of expansive love and insightful intellects.



  2. Hi there! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be okay. I’m undoubtedly enjoying your blog and
    look forward to new updates.



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