“There is one striking commonality between [1977 and now] a widespread sense of powerlessness that justice is not being secured for all,” she said in a speech prepared for delivery at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. “This feeling of powerlessness can be seen in three ways: Our judicial institutions are being weakened by those with political power, individuals feel unable to use their freedom because they lack opportunities, and leaders feel free to ignore the wishes of the people of who elected them to office.”
Zille said that for Biko’s legacy to be honoured, difficult questions needed to be asked, and that these could make people uncomfortable. She said the country’s success was threatened by the perceived and real powerless of millions of South Africans.
In September 1977, Biko was arrested by police at a roadblock in Port Elizabeth. He later died of a brain haemorrhage resulting from head injuries. Zille visited the holding cell at the Walmer police station where Biko was held, and encouraged the public to visit it too.
She said there were parallels which could be drawn between the South Africa in September 1977 and that in 2013. “Biko’s murder in detention was as much a reaction to 1976 as it was an abhorrent intervention to strangle the fight against apartheid,” Zille said.
“Keep this notion of reaction in mind and go back with me to August 16, 2012. But the big difference, of course, is that today we are a constitutional democracy, guided not by secrecy and terror, but by the rule of law.” On August 16, 2012, police shot dead 34 people, almost all striking mineworkers, while trying to disperse and disarm them. Ten people, including two policemen and two security guards, were killed in the preceding week.
Zille said 932 people had died in police detention between 2011 and 2012. She said this and the events in Marikana were symptomatic of how the constitution and judicial institutions were “being hollowed, bit-by-bit”.
“The danger is that the incursions into our rights and liberties are becoming so frequent and deep, we may be becoming collectively anaesthetised.” Zille said if the Secrecy Bill was passed in 1977, journalists would not have been able to report on Biko and would have been arrested for exposing the circumstances surrounding his death.
Zille was a journalist and covered Biko’s death. The constitution and judicial institutions had to be protected, and all South Africans had a role to play. “Steve Biko taught that we are not passive bystanders, but authors of our destiny as individuals and as a country,” Zille said.
“This self-realisation or consciousness also offered the tools to end apartheid and begin building an ‘open, opportunity society’ for all, based on a democratic government and the rule of law; a society in which every person has the opportunity and the means to improve his or her circumstances,” she said.