JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – T-shirts bearing the image of Steve Biko, the symbol of black resistance worldwide 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, 30, 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 including 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 $28 T-shirt bearing Biko’s image. “It’s not just a fashion statement. It is also a political statement,” Mulaudzi said. “Young people are proud of him. He is a hero. He fought for us.”
Mulaudzi, an aspiring journalist, 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,” Mulaudzi said. “It means Biko has gone far.”
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. 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.
Jackie Radebe, 23, who bought a Biko T-shirt after reading “I Write What I Like,” sees him 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.
“As far as morals, integrity and principles … contemporary political leaders seem to be driven by money and self-interest,” he says. June Josephs-Langa, managing director of the African-focused Xarra Books in Johannesburg’s Newtown Cultural Precinct, says those wearing Biko T-shirts are making a statement. “In the same way many don’t know much about Cuban politics, the revolutionary status of Che Guevara is someone they want to identify with, want to parade,” she said.
But Johannesburg-based academic and cultural commentator Achille Mbembe, who is delivering a lecture in Biko’s honor this week, doesn’t see fashion as a fitting tribute to a man whose “death and life dramatically embodies the idea of freedom.”
“I think South Africa could commemorate Biko’s contribution to black emancipation in more powerful ways,” he said. Nkosinathi Biko, who was 6 when his father died, takes a more reconciliatory tone. He points to the tradition in the anti-apartheid movement of using T-shirts to spread political messages or pay tribute to fallen comrades. He also acknowledges the wealth of artistic material created in his father’s name has been important in keeping the memory of Biko alive.
“He is one of the attractive symbols of popular culture. Not just here but on the streets of New York, Brasilia and Liverpool, he is someone who resonates well,” he said.