Steve Biko: The Intellectual Roots of South African Black Consciousness

Alexander Christopher Habibi


This research project examines the intellectual influences of South African anti-apartheid activist and Black Consciousness leader, Steve Biko using a history of ideas approach.  Central to the project is G.W.F. Hegel’s ‘lord – bondsman dialectic’ and how Biko applied the dialectic to the situation of blacks under apartheid.  The lord – bondsman dialectic, introduced by Hegel in the Phenomenology of Spirit, involves a struggle for recognition when two independent self-consciousnesses meet.  The consciousness that succumbs to fear of death becomes the bondsman, while the consciousness that overcomes this fear becomes the lord.  The lord desires recognition of his freedom through the bondsman’s consciousness but this desire is self-defeating because the lord’s consciousness cannot be recognized by a consciousness that has no freedom of its own.  Biko’s principles of Black Consciousness directly drew from this concept as he viewed psychological liberation as the first step towards black freedom.  Viewing blacks’ consciousness as dependent on white recognition, Biko viewed Black Consciousness as a means of developing a black way of thinking that would instill pride not contingent upon white recognition.

Hegel’s dialectical method was central to how Biko organized his anti-apartheid group, South African Student Organization (SASO).  In this dialectic, the thesis is an accepted intellectual proposition that is actually incomplete or contradictory.  The antithesis is the negation of the thesis, but it is also inadequate.  The synthesis resolves the conflict through reconciling common truths and overcoming differences in the thesis and antithesis, forming a new thesis.  Biko viewed the thesis of apartheid as white dominance over the inferior, dehumanized black subject.  For Biko, the creation of SASO was a necessary step in creating an antithetical black movement to the thesis of white supremacy.

Biko’s reception of Hegel’s ideas and their relevance was shaped Frantz Fanon’s writing on how colonized people were to achieve recognition.  Fanon’s description of colonial power relations was more pertinent to Biko’s evaluation of apartheid South Africa than Hegel’s description of the bondsman.  Hegel’s bondsman could achieve self-recognition through seeing himself in his labor.  Fanon did not think this was possible for the colonized subject; instead he would have to violently confront the colonist and prove his humanity by overcoming his fear of death.  Biko was influenced by this sentiment; knowing the strength of the apartheid regime, he viewed physical liberation as the second step.


Steve Biko; Hegel; Fanon; Apartheid; South Africa

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