[News] Black Brazilians learn from Steve Biko

News at freedomarchives.org News at freedomarchives.org
Tue May 31 11:21:17 EDT 2005


By Alejandra Martins

Published: 2005/05/25 11:59:50 GMT


STEVE BIKO sought to set black South Africans free from oppression and he 
died for it.

He probably never imagined that 30 years on, his message would be setting 
free the minds of young men and women thousands of kilometers away, in Brazil.

The STEVE BIKO INSTITUTE in Salvador, the capital of BAHIA state, aims to 
help black Brazilians achieve what many never dared to dream of - to enter 

Brazil boasts some of the best universities in Latin America, but passing 
the country's tough university entrance exam, the vestibular , is not an 
option for most black Brazilians.

They make up almost half the country's population - far more than that in 
Bahia state - and the majority live in poverty.

"Here in Bahia, 70% of the population is of African descent, but more than 
80% of those who graduate from university are white, so you can see clearly 
there is a situation of exclusion," explains Lazaro Passos, a young 
mechanical engineer who is the institute's project coordinator.


Mr. Passos says the poor quality of state primary and secondary schools 
means black students end up with only a remote chance of passing the 

Many white students, on the other hand, not only grow up in the private 
school system, but can also afford expensive one-year courses that prepare 
them for the exam.

Paradoxically, it is mostly these students who secure the coveted places in 
Brazil's federal universities, which are funded by the federal government 
and charge no fees.

The BIKO INSTITUTE aims to redress the balance, offering cheap courses to 
prepare black students.

"BIKO is a reference for us because of his activism as a student, and above 
all, because he saw education as a weapon against oppression", explains Mr. 

The institute's T-shirts bear BIKO’S words: "The most potent weapon in the 
hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed."

The message has changed the lives of hundreds of students, like young 
mother Karina de Souza, who attended a course at the institute and is now a 
university student specializing in literature.

"We grow up seeing only white people having success as professionals. We 
learn at history lessons in school that black people were brought as 
slaves, and all they left as a legacy is traditional foods, and dances like 
samba or capoeira," she says.

"Here at the BIKO institute we learn about many blacks who succeeded 
through education."

All the students at the BIKO institute attend lessons in "citizenship and 
black consciousness", where they learn about great black Brazilian 

"Black people need to learn about these figures and many others. It is part 
of the process of raising their self-esteem," says Mr. Passos.

"We realized if we don't work at this very deep level, students never aim 
to be doctors, or engineers, because they believe they can only apply for 
less prestigious courses."

BAHIA was at the heart of the slave trade that shaped Brazilian history. It 
is estimated that four million slaves were sent across the Atlantic to shed 
their sweat and blood in the fields of Brazil, eight times the number of 
slaves shipped to the US. Their legacy is alive in every corner of BAHIA.


"Brazil was one of the last countries to abolish slavery in 1888 - you can 
imagine how this system molded society. Even now, the black population is 
suffering the consequences," says Mr. Passos.

Students at the institute come from poor backgrounds and most of them are 
the first ever in their family to aim for university.

"My mother worked very hard washing clothes, selling food on the street. 
She couldn't finish primary school, but made sure all her kids completed 
secondary education. I was working from an early age, helping my mother," 
says Karina.

George Oliveira's future also changed thanks to the BIKO institute. When he 
arrived there he had abandoned his studies and was working, like everyone 
else in his family, as a cook.

Today he is studying economics at university. He is convinced his country 
has to overcome what he says is a disguised form of apartheid.

"There are no laws here saying this place is for whites only and that place 
is for blacks only, but if you go to the rich neighborhoods you see whites 
and if you go to the slums you see mainly blacks.

"Even in the media, the soap operas seem to depict life in Europe rather 
than Brazil."

The education ministry acknowledges that the exclusion of black students is 
a serious problem in Brazil.

ELIEZER PACHECO, president of the National Institute of Educational 
Research, says:

    * "Poverty in Brazil has a color, and that color is black. That is why 
the Ministry of Education has been strongly defending the introduction of 
quotas for black students at university. Even though universities are 
autonomous according to the constitution and there is a lot of resistance, 
some universities have started adopting this system."

The BIKO institute enrolls about 300 students a year, of whom about 35% 
enter university.

Deep down the message remains like a delayed time bomb: education is the 
---Lazaro Passos

I put it to Lazaro Passos that this is a low success rate.

"Students come here after 11 years of bad schooling, often with their 
self-esteem at rock bottom. We reach out to human beings and that's what 
matters. We always leave our mark.

"Often we meet former students who after many years are back at their 
studies. Deep down the message remained like a delayed time bomb: education 
is the answer".

The legacy of Steve Biko has empowered people like Karina and George.

Karina is making sure her five-year-old son grows up proud of being black.

George, the first of his family to enter university, wants to become a 

For Lazaro Passos, what is at stake is not only the future of students such 
as George, but the development of Brazil.

"If there are no black students at university then we are excluding minds 
that could be thinking up a new and more competitive Brazil," he says.

"It's not only a loss for the black population, but for the whole of this 

If blacks don't have access to university then Brazil is excluding 45% of 
its own people."






BIKO, STEVE: ‘I WRITE WHAT I LIKE’: Selected Writings.
Edited by Aelred Stubbs, C.R.
Introduction by Malusi and Thoko Mpumlwana.
Preface by Desmond Tutu.

240 p. 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 1978, 1996, 2002
Paper    CUSA    $17.00sp    0-226-04897-7    Spring 2002


"The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the 

Like all of STEVE BIKO’S writings, those words testify to the passion, 
courage, and keen insight that made him one of the most powerful figures in 
South Africa's struggle against apartheid. They also reflect his conviction 
that black people in South Africa could not be liberated until they united 
to break their chains of servitude, a key tenet of the Black Consciousness 
movement that he helped found.

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