Biko and the right to happiness

saul_lealAuthor: Saul Leal
Vice-Chancellor Postdoctoral Fellow, Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa (ICLA)

Stephen Bantu Biko occupies a singular place in South African history, precisely because of the manner in which his legacy affected South African constitutionalism.

Biko fought for equal treatment under the law, and proudly founded the Black Consciousness Movement in order to achieve this goal. Biko engaged in a fearless debate related to the victims of racism and colonialism which encompassed the degradation of self-esteem and the inflicted inferiority complex of black South Africans. Biko’s struggle against white authority in order to promote and defend democracy has left a legacy of ideas which would influence future South African generations, including the sentiment of “one man, one vote”.

In 1970, Steve Biko stated that “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 freeing, the progress and the happiness of Africa”.[1] At the time, Biko was a doctoral student and political activist. He was arrested in August 1977. Biko was kept naked and manacled, and died twenty-five days later from brain damage.

Biko envisioned a more inclusive and deeper interpretation of democracy, as opposed to its purely material application. For him, “material want is bad enough, but coupled with spiritual poverty it kills. And this latter effect is probably the one that creates mountains of obstacles in the normal course of emancipation of the black people”.[2]

In the BPC-Trial, of May 1976, Judge Boshoff blamed the illegal settlers as being the cause of the violence in townships. Biko responded that “there is a much more fundamental reason; it is absence of abundant life for the people who live there. With abundant life … people get the things that they want”.[3]

Biko spoke about happiness, spiritual poverty, and abundant life, and emphasizes “the sense of insecurity which is part of a feeling of incompleteness; you are not a complete human being; you cannot walk out when you like, you know, that sort of feeling; it is an imprisoning concept itself”.[4] This is part of Biko’s legacy, which serves as a testament to him as the founding father of the Black Consciousness Movement. Happiness and an abundant life do not fit into spiritual poverty and feeling of incompleteness.

The struggle’s triumph and the collapse of apartheid saw Biko’s dream realized. South Africa was re-established as a rainbow nation, a place where all colors are able to be bright together. During Biko’s trial in 1976, Advocate Soggot asked him: “once the struggle is over, what is the attitude of SASO?” Biko answered firmly and directly: “an open society, one man, one vote, no reference to colour”.[5] Then, he promised that “it is not our intention to generate a feeling of anti-whitism amongst our members”.[6] Biko promised that black and white will vote as individuals in society.[7]

The South African Constitution was built upon history, facts, and values. Steve Biko urged his community to stand firm for the happiness of Africa.

Biko claimed that “what we want is not black visibility but real participation”.[8] Real participation presumes effectiveness. It is a material aspect of democracy, rather than a formal aspect. Biko addressed this integration and implementation through stating that “if … by integration you mean there shall be free participation by all members of a society, catering for the full expression of the self in a freely changing society as determined by the will of the people, then I am with you”.[9] For Biko, “one of the principles that are normally entrenched is a feedback system, a discussion in other words between those who formulate policy and those who must perceive, accept or reject policy”.[10]

Biko addresses the real meaning of democracy through affirming that “I have a right to be consulted by my government on any issue”.[11] This is his sincere perception of any democratic system, that people deserve respect and consideration. In this regard, section 195(1)(e) of the Constitution of South Africa provides that public administration must be governed by the democratic values and principles enshrined in the Constitution, including the principle according to which people’s needs must be responded to, and the public must be encouraged to participate in policy-making.

Being part of a connected community is a way to share common problems, through maintaining a sense of civism as political beings. In this regard, Steve Biko stated that “I am happy to say that most centres realize the exciting possibilities of this meaningful form of communication. We hope in time we shall all be able to join in the happy community of those who share their problems”.[12]

Public happiness constitutes the satisfaction felt when one perceives oneself as being part of a society, and when one participates in decisions that have a collective impact. From the conception of this civic sense, a strong connection is established between a common cause and the human being.

For Biko, “on the broader political front, blacks in South Africa have not shown any overt signs of new thinking since the banning of their political parties”[13]. There is no happiness when the right to be seen in action is denied. The core of this happiness and its inherent action may be the tenet of “one man, one vote”, something for which Biko gave his life. Biko’s ideal encompassed the commitment to the implementation of a democracy based on this principle, and he fought to shed light upon the reality of the enforced inferiority of the segregated people in South Africa.

During the 1976 BPC-trial, Judge Boshoff interrogated Biko’s principle of one man one vote. Having insisted on the lack of natural capacity of voting from the black community, Judge Boshoff tested Biko’s limits. Nevertheless, Biko was unwavering in his defense of his sincere belief in a system that recognizes this universal rule of any democracy: one man, one vote.[14]

Judge Boshoff appealed against democracy. He expressed that democracy was not working perfectly in many countries, while Biko sustained his argument that the principle of one man, one vote allied with good democratic channels, are the best mechanisms with which to make society flourish.[15]

Public happiness is the basis of democracy. Participating in public life, effectively interfering in the decisions that affect one’s life, brings about the opportunity for an elevated form of pleasure, a civic pleasure.

Freedom is not easily found, nor attained, because in order to exercise freedom it is necessary to have access to a certain level of material goods without which freedom remains a remote, abstract concept. This freedom requires equal opportunities in addition to a sincere commitment to the minimization of social inequality. There can be no right to happiness if the conditions to enact it are insistently denied. In addition to the right to the pursuit of happiness, the people need the assurance that they will not suffer from hunger, that they will not be homeless, that they will be able to consume clean water, and enjoy education.

The second dimension of the right to happiness in light of Biko’s legacy is a commitment to the satisfaction of basic human needs. Biko stated frankly that “it does not need to be said that it is the black people who are poor”. [16] Material needs are means to the pursuit of happiness. They are the objective component of the well-being, and this is applicable to a South African context.

The second dimension of the right to happiness in light of Bikos legacy is a commitment to the satisfaction of basic human needs

By instating well-being as a goal to be achieved, modern Constitutions take the responsibility to put the human being in the centre of the public debate, leaving behind economic interests. Happiness falls within the ambit of basic goods, as it can be applied to the material aspects of well-being, such as socio-economic rights.

Happiness is an immaterial part of well-being and a crucial element of the quality of life. In this regard, when a Constitution recognizes well-being and quality of life as a justiciable good, it creates the opportunity for human self-realization in terms of popular participation, freedom, socio-economic rights, and human dignity. The triumph of human dignity sees happiness reappearing in the continuity of fundamental rights; evidence of the pursuit of the mitigation of a painful history, as well the pursuit of an elevated meaning of life.

Biko’s ideal was to be free from oppression, not to have the right to oppress. For Biko, “South Africa is a country in which both black and white live and shall continue to live together,”[17] and, he continued to argue that “the present South African society is a plural society with contributions having been made to its development by all segments of the community, in other words we speak of the groupings both black and white”. Biko’s intention was clear: “we’ve got no intention whatsoever of seeing white people leave this country”;[18] “we intend to see them staying here side by side with us, maintaining a society in which everybody shall contribute proportionally”.[19]

This is the root of the main value embodied by South Africa constitutionalism, and it is a principle shaped as a fundamental right present in the Constitution of the country. The Constitution provides for happiness in terms of well-being, quality of life, and welfare services, as well as democracy, freedom, socio-economic rights, and inhibiting sadistic pleasures from eradiating the principle of human dignity.

By acknowledging the importance of humanism in constitutionalism, the State promotes the right to happiness as more than a material and objective value. This movement sees the fulfillment of the dimensions of the right to happiness in light of the Steve Biko’s ideal, thus constructing a new Constitutional pathway which is supported by the main pillar of happiness.

This is the first article in a series by Saul Leal.


[1] S Biko I write what I like: A selection of his writings (ed. A Stubbs) (Johannesburg, 2015) at 35.

[2] Biko (n 3) at 30.

[3] Biko (n 3) at 122.

[4] Biko (n 3) at 124.

[5] Biko (n 3) at 138.

[6] Biko (n 3) at 39.

[7] Biko (n 3) at 171.

[8] Biko (n 3) at 5.

[9] Biko (n 3) at 26.

[10] Biko (n 3) at 144.

[11] Biko (n 3) at 145.

[12] Biko (n 3) at 7.

[13] Biko (n 3) at 73.

[14] Biko (n 3) at 140-141.

[15] Biko (n 3) at 145.

[16] Biko (n 3) at 107.

[17] Biko (n 3) at 136.

[18] Biko (n 3) at 136.

[19] Biko (n 3) at 136.

About the Author:
Saul Leal was recently awarded by the University of Pretoria with the Vice-Chancellor Postdoctoral Fellowship, to be conducted at the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa (ICLA). He was a visiting researcher at the University of Cape Town and at SAIFAC (the South African Institute for Advanced Constitutional, Public, Human Rights and International Law). In Brazil, he translated into Portuguese the book ‘The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law’, by Albie Sachs, winner of the 2010 Alan Paton award.

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7 Comments on “Biko and the right to happiness”

  1. Philip van der Merwe says:

    I am not sure that Steve Biko would d have wanted to be be remembered in American, rather than English. I don’t think that ‘color’, ‘recognize’ and so on would have suited him well.

    He was a decent guy, with whom I ended up in, and lost, a fistfight in the late 1960s at a National Union of Students (Nusas) seminar at Cedara Agricultural College outside Pietermaritzburg, KZN, It involved my views on the importance of liberalism as the way forward for South Africa, with which he did not agree.. As can be seen from the quotations in this piece, he was far more of a pragmatist and realist.

    Be that as it may, would that the leaders of this country today had a smidgeon of his intelligence, articulateness and decency. We would be better off, and with us millions of poor people who have been cheated by the current self-enriching ANC government out of their legitimate inheritance.

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