BIKO: BREAKING THE SILENCE
1987 55 minutes. Produced by Tripod Productions, Mark Kaplan, Richard Wicksteed and Olley Maruma. Directed by Edwina Spicer. Distributed by Filmakers Library; California Newsreel.
TOPICS: Politics, Apartheid, South Africa, Resistance, Sociology, Human Rights, Film Making.
USES: U, G and A.
The organizations mentioned in the film should be explained prior to viewing.
Explains the rise and development of Black Consciousness (BC) in South Africa and Steve Biko's role in it. This is a powerful and dramatic biography of Steve Biko, the BC leader who was brutally tortured to death by the Security Police in 1977. The film weaves into its narrative interviews with Biko's BC associates, and Donald Woods, whose books on Biko internationally popularized his humanist message. Further interviews with film director Richard Attenborough while in production in Zimbabwe of Cry Freedom during 1986 explain Attenborough's rationale in the making of the film, and what he and Woods' hoped to achieve by bringing the terrifying impact of South African police repression to the cinema screen for the first time. Attenborough explains that he needed a subject about apartheid that would not become immediately outdated. The fact that Biko's story is about both black and white situations offered additional advantage he says. The documentary is illustrated with excerpts from Cry Freedom, often accompanied by voice over commentary of the actual participants in many of the events re-enacted. The producers of Biko, South Africans and Zimbabweans, use the fact of Cry Freedom's Zimbabwean location to discuss the development of film making in that country. Attenborough refers to the expedient rhetorical challenge by the South African government that he make the film in South Africa. Woods complains that Reagan and Thatcher see apartheid "as no more than a misguided mistake", and that Cry Freedom was made to alert "this segment of the world" as to the real nature of apartheid oppression.
Biko fills in many of the gaps unarticulated in Cry Freedom. These relate to Biko himself, BC philosophy, the transference of philosophies from BC into the United Democratic Front, especially following the Soweto '76 uprising. Still, a lot more background is needed for a full understanding of Biko. This film could be shown after Cry Freedom to illustrate concepts, organization and strategies simplified by that film's narrative which foregrounds Woods' perspective of Biko. Interviews with Woods and Attenborough show how Cry Freedom negotiated the contradictions of big-budget film making through using the Woods character as the mediator between the black reality on screen and international white audiences in the cinema. This was a tactical move to secure finance and distribution to ensure that the film was made.
Biko has a complex political structure which may create the impression of "disconnected and poorly organized" sequencing ( Choice, 1988). At the level of form, the film fails to distinguish between re-enactments from Cry Freedom and actual newsfootage. Sources of newsphotos, especially of Biko's corpse are not identified.
The textual ideology works at three inter-related levels: the white liberal interventions of Woods and Attenborough, the non- racial ideology of the UDF which dominates the documentary's perspective, and BC which is used to background the popular UDF shift away from black exclusiveness. This latter strand is edged out of the film's explanatory thread.
The link from BC to UDF is provided through an interview with Cheryl Carolus who acknowledges BC as a formative influence in her political activism and the black cultural arena generally. She argues that BC filled the vacuum caused with the banning of the PAC and ANC in 1960. Carolus, however, now sees the importance of the UDF's racial inclusivism. Mandla Langa, a writer, also states that the broader struggle is more important than the narrow exclusivisms that developed in BC after the passing of Biko.
The relationships between anti-apartheid organizations were not understood by the police. Biko had called for unity between his internal Black Peoples Convention (BPC), the Pan Africanist Congress and ANC. Thabo Mbeki, of the ANC's Dept of Information, tells that the police learned of this call, and incorrectly assumed that BPC fell within the ANC, and that Biko was killed because he did not have the information on ANC structures the police wanted. Sidney Kentridge, council for the Biko family, observed that had the police known of Biko's local black and international reputation, they might not have killed him, or allowed Kruger to get away with his infamous comment on Biko's death `leaving him cold'. This statement is illustrated with a scene of a political meeting from the film re-enacted from an actual incident where a National Party functionary congratulates Kruger for allowing Biko the democratic right to starve himself to death.
The idea of a race war as suggested by Cry Freedom is cautioned in Biko which emphasizes the non-racial ideology that emerged out of the June 1976 Soweto uprising. The AZAPO National Publicity Secretary, Muntu Myeza, re-frames the black/white dichotomy as privileged vs underprivileged, suggesting that capital, rather than only the white state, is implicit in the causes of repression. BC was not at that time anti-white, the lesson learned by Woods, after being summoned by Biko after he was banned to King Williamstown in 1973.
The sequences on the rather abruptly introduced split between the predominantly white liberal National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) in 1967 and its black members need clarification. Biko and other blacks were members of NUSAS but led a break-away because they were unable to actualize themselves within a predominantly white institutional structure. The racially differential legislation which imposed different conditions on the various race groups produced a different set of conditions for white students, including black students at the `white' liberal English-language universities. The conditions experienced in the newly developing `tribal' colleges added another level of state control. The film ignores the subsequent working relations that occurred between NUSAS and the SA Students Organisation (SASO), and the fact that the black students were intellectually trained by NUSAS. The split between NUSAS and SASO was not a confrontational one as suggested by the film, but rather one of strategy.
Biko differs from films made by liberal directors who suggest that state violence is an aberration and ad hoc. Rather, it shows the systematic nature of police violence in South Africa that is usually overshadowed by what the populist media reductively call `black-on-black' violence between blacks themselves. The culpability of doctors Tucker and Lang, who did nothing to prevent the police from abusing Biko, is mentioned, though nothing is said of the 8 year, extremely acrimonious struggle that occurred between the liberal and conservative sections within the Medical Association of South Africa, on disciplining these medical apologists for the police. An interview with Dr Wendy Orr, who publicized the continuing abuse of prisoners after Biko's death by police and prisons personnel with the tacit approval of these state employed doctors, hints at the institutional nature of torture.
The methods of torture and humiliation used by the police are chillingly described by Orr, and by Langa, who was himself tortured. Woods reveals the cooperation occurring between the West's intelligence agencies, especially Argentina, and the South African security police spreads international complicity for structural repression. Biko, and the films about him, alerted audiences to these connections between the West's intelligence agencies. The justification for the use of "constructive violence against the regime" (Langa) after the killing of Biko in 1977, began to be accepted, the BC's prior commitment to working within the law notwithstanding. As Biko states in the film "A struggle without casualties is not a struggle".
Finally, the relationship between the myth of Biko and that of Mandela needs elaboration. The discourse of the man representing the "idea" mentioned in Remember Mandela is also found in Biko. Biko talks of "An idea (BC) whose time has arrived". Later, the narrator tells viewers that in the eyes of the state "ideas were now acts of terrorism". This is said in the context of the re-enacted courtroom scenes, reminiscent of how Mandela used the courts to make statements which would otherwise be censored. By killing Biko, the state hoped to kill the idea - BC. Biko, as the narrator, intones, "was to become one of the greatest symbols of resistance to apartheid rule in South Africa". The idea encapsulated by Biko later transferred to Mandela, as the international media and diplomacy resurrected this living symbol in place of the now dead one.
Choice (May 1988), p. 563
Landers Film Reviews (Fall 1988)
Tomaselli, K.G (1993). Disarticulating black consciousness: a way of reading films about apartheid, Communicatio, 19(2), 45-51.
Woods, D. 1987: Filming With Attenborough. Penguin