I was just ten years old in 1977 and I didn't know who STEVE BANTU BIKO was, but as I grow up - teen years - I can remember vividly seeing that book, "I Write What I Like", on top of my brothers' wooden wardrobe---the only one in our single bedroom which we - five brothers - shared amongst ourselves and I did not see anything wrong with that, we were happy---at least that's how I saw it.
That book, I must say, it was in a bad shape---missing some pages---and my two brothers who seemed to own it treasured it so much that they aIways threatened to beat the hell out of me if somehow they would look for it and not find it.
Not that I took it, it never meant anything to me---in fact not a single book was important to me, except the Shoot Magazines. Well if you do not know what they are all about, let me tell you. These are Soccer Magazines, to be precise, English soccer; they informed me about Liverpool, Arsenal, my beloved Manchester United---in fact all my life I wanted to play for them---and other teams. These Magazines are imported from the United Kingdom, and I made sure that I purchase all of them---one weekly and in a month I ended up with four of them. Yes, I'll kill any of my two brothers who tore by mistake a page from these soccer magazines. Those were my treasures---I still look at the boxes that house them every time Iam home, because they form a very important history of my life. In fact I am here today because of them and what they contain inside - those dreams! It is a complicated story on its own. Let me go back to my subject, that was a digression.
[. . .] reading it. I never or one of them must say [. . .]
So it was only that my brothers have misplaced their important book and not that I've taken it. As a result, the only reason that I knew the title and the author is because they wanted to beat me every time they could not see it and that because of that I realized that it is significant to them.
Later on in my life I so wish they had at least told me a thing or two about what that book and its author were saying. But I console myself that maybe they were afraid that I'll take it to school - I was in Middle School then - and show-off my friends and somehow got caught by the 'system' (police), and ended up imprisoning them too. Those were the times.
I went through High School only knowing that data - title "I Write What I Like" and authored by Biko. That's all. I would not tell you a damn thing if you ask me what is inside that book.
[. . .] Content. 1987 [. . .]
I began my academic career at Unibo---now called and rightly so, North West University---and the following year, there in Mmabatho's Megacity Mall I saw the film, "Cry Freedom", about the life of Biko, or should I say, of Donald Woods? Surprisingly enough, I learnt from friends that in South Africa at that time the film was not shown. You must remember that then Bophuthatswana was another 'independent' country, and that chief, Mangope was, perhaps, trying to say: "we are free in my country, that's why the showing of the film which was banned in P.W. Botha's country." Amazing, isn't? And I remember some people there were perceiving that as a justification of that so-called independence.
So sitting in that bantustan cinema listening to Denzel Washington as Biko had a tremendous impact in my life. I remember it was very hard for me to keep my eyes dry---I sobbed out a lot. But I laughed a lot too!
That for me was a very important story. It was the beginning of my history of conciousness---the state of being awake and understanding or trying to comprehend what is happening. My self-education began! Mind you, it was a decade and two years after SEPTEMBER 1977, that's from then to 1988, and prior to that---at least due to my two brothers' promise to hit me every time they could not get their important book---I did not know anything about Biko.
But I was waking up every morning going to school, being taught, and History was one of the subjects. These are the things that I remember myself questioning when I walked out of the cinema and went back to campus---I was alone, I did not have a girlfriend then and though I had male friends or even female colleagues that I could have asked to join me for that film I think maybe I prefered to go alone. On my way back I was able to think without any disturbances from, say anyone whom I might have chosen to accompany me to the cinema. And I was free to cry or sob in my solitude without suffering any embarrassment---men are not supposed to cry! What a foolish statement.
Immediately - I think within a week's time - I purchased a book on that same film entitled "Cry Freedom" plus a record of the same film and on the latter's cover there was that moving episode when Biko walked with Donald outside Biko and Mamphele Ramphele's Community Clinic, called Zanenpilo---I doubt my memory on this one, how can I forget such an important name--- they took a long walk on an open refreshing countryside, and both time and again picking some long grass and cutting it with their tooth as they walk. They were engaged in discussions. And the wording on that record cover read like this: "The Friendship That Shocked The Country And The World"
In my life in 1993 when I was doing Teaching Practicals for my Higher Diploma in Education, in a predominantly white elite school, Glenwood Boys High, I had the honour and privilege to experience, what I think, was similar to that Biko-Donald Long-Walk-Not-To-Freedom, but to Understanding, when my History Methods Course Lecturer, Dr Robert Morrell, took me for a long walk around the well-looked after sports fields of that school, in order that we can talk freely about my teaching as he was my assessor or critique, because I was the only Black (Student) Teacher in the staff room---in fact the school then had not a single non-white teacher---can you imagine that?
Rob is white and ever since Glenwood we've become good friends, especially that we love English soccer! That was another significant episode in my life, for a month I was consciously aware of my blackness in a consciously white environment and I had to teach a 95% white class, and as far as I'm concerned, that experience is not isolated from the Biko-Donald one. I don't know how to express it here, but I can feel it.
Those young white boys, more than any other thing, impacted, POSITIVELY, on my life. Our every day meetings in the classes and sports grounds taught us something important that, I think, Biko was trying to tell us all his life that WE ARE ALL THE SAME. I came became a better person---and I also hope that was the case with them, because I was told they've never been taught by a black person before. And the letters that they wrote me individually when I left implicated that we both had powerful and positve influence on one another. That I think is how I cannot see the life of Biko and his message as separate from my history of consciousness.
In a newspaper article (reprinted in Cape Times, 15.9.1977) Editor Donald Woods wrote "... In the years that I grew up to know him my convictions never wavered that this was the most important political leader in the entire country, and quite simply the greatest man I have ever had the privilege to know."
And Hilda Bernstein wrote in her book, No. 46 - Steve Biko, "Wisdom, humour, compassion, understanding, brilliancy of intellect, unselfishness, modesty, courage - he had all these attributes." p.23.
Dr Barney Pityana, Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission, then Biko's closest friend, wrote an introduction to another edition of "I Write What I Like" in 1987. He says: "That's how I prefer to remember Steve Biko: a man full of life, jocular and yet one who had the ability toexpress even the deepest thoughts in a light-hearted manner. We remember now becaues it's necessary to pause and take stock, to reflect. . .and in all that Biko and his legacy are crucial factors." If you can get a chance, read the whole introduction---just to feel his capacity to love, his capacity for feeling, his capacity to work.
Unfortunately and fortunately in the latter part of 1988 I was one of the hundreds of students who were expelled by Mangope government from the university, not because of our academic progress, but because, I think, he's a fool and second, because he is or was a puppet-dictator!---I don't have adequate time to dwell on this expulsion issue.
It was unfortunate first, because I was half-way to completion of my Diploma in Education to become a teacher and help my parents. I was fortunate because my fear of the unknown---a totally different language, to mention just one--- could not stop me from migrating to KwaZulu-Natal, hundreds of kilometres away from home and everything that I was familiar with.
Second, I came to an institution that made me to come into contact with some of the best teachers in their various fields of specialisation. Thirdly, and more fundamental to my subject, I was the last generation of Black students who arrived and got the opportunity to reside in the same University Residence, Alan Taylor, which was about five km from the main campus, and was an army barracks during the W.W.II and now turned into Residence by this university to accommodate Black and Asian Students, particularly the medical students.
Apartheid! It permeated all spheres of our society. Biko lived there as a student in the seventies and when we arrived in 1989 the Block of rooms where Biko himself lived was called BIKO BLOCK and we also got to experience and enjoy the Community-oriented life, the Caring Community that was implanted by the Biko Generation. We lived like a one big family (see Ramphele, M, A Life, pp. 56 -58).
I was very fortunate to be part of that Life---just one year was enough! The students we found there were activists and like Biko, read a lot. It was very important that you read, they did not tell you, you realised it yourself, and speaking for myself, that's where I began to read that important book that belonged to my brothers. I read I Write What I Like seriously, Biko's own work and not the film. My love for him deepened.
And I cannot end talking about Biko without mentioning my MA History colleague, Jabulani, who always mentions Biko when he explains the many serious difficulties that our society and particularly ourselves as individuals who are trying to make something out of our lives. For example, just last week, we were talking inside his car, and he said about his work---he is a teacher and he's going for the six year now---"I am working but I cannot even save some money. Steve Biko was right in saying 'black people live to work, they don't work to live'. "(Jabulani I hope am quoting you correctly).
Jabulani, in more ways than one has made me to comprehend Biko, practically, in our day to day experiences. And because of that I call him by this name, "UmAfrika", and knowing him and listening to him intergrating Biko in his conversations---serious ones about us and what we are---has increased my level of consciousness. For that "UmAfrika-ship" I am most grateful.
Presently, the students who reside in one of the my campus' Hall of Residence, called Louis Botha, have taken the decision that they are renaming it STEVE BIKO, they've also printed T-Shirts with Biko's name at the back---I sometime see them wearing them, I hope they to do that TODAY! Now it is the Universtity that has to rubber-stamp that significant decision taken by the students of that Residence. Our HOPE is that one day this university, in particular, would come to recognise one of its former student---that he did not get his medical degree is immaterial. His contribution to South Africa as a whole, I think, is immeasurable.
"Steve Biko represented to black people that which we all wished we could be, but which very few had the courage to become. It was not only in his persuasive political arguments and the sharpness of his wit, but rather in his ability to lead a simple life governed by his ability to free his mind the yoke of mental slavery and the love of his people. He was not just a black man, but the name was BEAUTIFULLY BLACK"(City Press Newspaper September 10, 1995).
I love Biko because he made me to want to read for my own self-knowledge and real education. And I read and I'll continue to do that. Seeing my fellow Black students on campus these few days doing some, what am I going to call it, strange stuff. And I think of Biko. I wish they've read him, and not only that, but understood him. But if nobody taught me about Biko and, say,they do not have similar experiences as me, who's going to teach them about people---female and male---of the calibre of Biko? I wish we all had one-tenth of Biko's courage, insight and wisdom. If we had all read him, he would have taught and exposed us to deter us from the bullshit that we cause in our own streets, libraries, resources, because we'll be more interested in being real women and men by making something out of ourselves and adding something to our community instead of being burglars of our own lives.
In March this year I attended a wedding of my partner's sister in King Williams Town, Ginsberg, home to Biko. Her mother is a nurse and works with Biko's wife, Ntsiki who also came to wedding , and actually they live not very far from each other, so I got the chance to see Biko's street and my memories raised back to that cinema.
This brings me to the point that I should have mentioned at the beginning. To tell you what made me to write this history---yes, I think it is history.
The reason is that I've read a moving open letter by Biko's eldest son, Nkosinathi, who, like my partner, was six years old at the time of his father's death. [It was published] in Tribute Magazine of this month, September 1996, to mark the 19th year since Biko's murder. Nkosi shares fond and sad memories. The result: a heart-rendering piece that will move rven the most hardened cynic, like Jimmy Kruger, the then Minister of Justice.
And I wanted to share that letter with you. Here we go:
Nineteen years ago on September 12, Black Consciousness leader Steve Bantu Biko was murdered by his security police captors. The unspeakable brutality of his untimely death will linger with us always, but so will the profound, powerful voice and clarity of meaning he gave to the Black Consciuoness philosophy through his speeches and writings. What would he be doing today if he were still alive, and what memories andpolitical lessons did he leave with his children? Here, Biko's eldest son, Nkosinathi, 25, writes an open letter to his father...
Should I begin with "Dear Tata"? Was that what I called you 19 years ago? It strikes me now that Iam a man, I don't have a name for you. I cannot immagine what I night have called you. Recently, I went to the funeral of a very dear friend's brother. Before the pulpit lay the body of a young man. Next to his coffin sat his beautiful young wife and not far fromher, his two sons. I was disconcerted, distracted. I was thrown back in time but not before I chuckled at how maMcethe, my grandmother, must smile from heaven at my concerted effort to pay attention, to keep in harmony with the music. But as I say, it was another, similarfuneral that I was thinking of as I sat in the church.
And then reeled, "uTata ufile", said the speaker, quoting the deceased's six year-old son. At this stage I no longer bothered to sing, so strong were the feelings that overtook me. The picture I saw before me was a carbon copy of the day we put you torest. Nineteen years ago I am said to have uttered these very same words albeit in manner less refined and more suitable to a child of six. "Amabhulu zizinja, ambulele uTata." (The boers are dogs, they have killed my father.)
I would like to believe that my childhood naivety insulted me against the full impact of your death. My nature is quite and my manners shy; that I had to utter these words indicates the blow to my little heart. I could not associate death with you. Still vivid were the memories of our races down to Green Grass, our popular play spot. I was elated whrn you taught me to fly my first kite; I flew higher than it in your company. I remember how you towered above me as you took the kite to even greater heights. I remember the long discussions you used to hold with your friends and comrades as I sat on your lap stoking your beard. Oh, the secrets I heard! The intrigue! I felt very important to be included. I remember your words, "Never, even mention that so-and-so was here." We, kids, enjoyed withholding this information from the nosy police who practically camped on our doorstep eargerly waiting for you to break your banning order. I remember how my childhood mates from Ginsberg, KingWilliams Town, would converge on our house to watch the movies you showed on the wall at the back of the house. Karate movies were the rage then. I remember you sitting up late into the night reading or writing stuff. And oh, my brother! I remember how we met on my way from school. You had the biggest smile and you ordered me to go home and meet my "new and ugly brother". New he was, but ugly? Never. He was my brother, Samora.
These were some of the flashes I had as I looked into your coffin. Your eyes and nose had sunken in, your lip was slightly injured, the brightness in your face no more, and you lay so perfectly still, very still, I could have paused for a lot longer and perhaps reached out and touched you, particularly your eyes, they worried me. But there were thousands queuing behind me, all awaiting their turn to take their last glimpse. I have often said that the moment you closed your eyes, my childhood was gone.
September 12 1977 is a day I shall always remember for three reasons: the extraordinary dark clouds that covered the sky, the journey to pick up my mother and the sight of my mother in tears. Never before had I seen tears roll down her cheecks. You know she is not one to cry and as your ancestral spirit perceives, she still isn't. For me, the sting of your death lay not in the moment surrounding your death. It lay in the many years that followed. Despite mother's best attempts to play both roles, there were moments I longed to have you by my side, to be by your side. Mother took us towhat I BELIEVE WERE THE BEST SCHOOLS AVAILABLE FOR A BLACK CHILD. AT JUNIOR SCHOOL, EVERY FIRST SUNDAY OF THE MONTH WAS VISITING day. The day was spent with the family, usually picknicking at the nearby stream.
Occasionally I used to watch my peers with admiration as they played football and other games daddies play with their sons. ( You would have been more along the lines of "Bra Steve" for that's how you were.) Anyway, the best consolation Mother could offer was herself, the best of herself. She couldn't play football but on any visiting Sunday she would leave home at around four in the morning so she could arrive at our school in Qumbu, Transkei, at 8am. Because Monday is a working day, she would have to drive back again. In those days, as you know, that kind of drive through the Transkei was a tall order.
We've done the best we could. And my mother, with the purity and dignity suitable to your widow, has been faithful to us and to your memory. I have often said to her that rhe best present she ever gave me was the ceremony she organized when I came down from circumcision school. Before I went, she said, "I am going to do it in the manner only your father would." Perhaps you helprd her. That day as I walked down that mountain, I peered through the rough blanket that covered my cold body and saw the huge crowd that had turned out to welcome me to the world of adulthood. If ever there was a moment I missed you most, there could ne no other than that. [when I finished the latter, I couldn't resist to keep my eyes dry anymore: Neo's words]
As I grew up, I came to appreciate the hours you invested in writing. Your writings were a source of comfort in the moments I longed to converse with you. Through them I began to acknowledge the power of the pen. Through them you became the father I will always have. In 1990 I was to receive something else that meant the world to me. You will recall that in 1977 shortly before your final arrest, you drove into a filling station, the owner of which fell in love with a necklace that you wore, the one in the form of a clenched wooden fist. Well, 13 years from when you took off that necklace and placed it around the neck of Solomon Saloojee, I befriended his son. He invited me to meet his father and,as you placed the necklace around his neck, so he placed it around mine. [Again I had to sob] Thew circle was so vituous, it was as though you planned it.
You would be turning 50 on December 18 this year. I have often wondered how the years would have sat on your body and face. Recently, I met a former high school mate of yours whom I thought was reasonably close. He wore his age well, had a fine trim for a "timer" and a grey-to-back sprinkle on his head in the ratio one:three. But guessing your looks is perhaps as evasive as trying to guess your probable role in the new South Africa. I must tell you that difficult as that task may be, I have very little patience for people who deliberately freeze your process of political thought to the day you died. If I were to make a calculated guess, you would probably be involved in one or other aspect of community development , for this was the mainstay of Black Consciousness. My guess, I may add, is as goog as anyone's. From what political vehicle you would be doing this, is known only to you and your God.
The BC philosophy is perhaps bigger than any single political organization. Its relevance may be far more than meets the eye. Your example taught me that socialisation often introduces news terms for old concepts and the human nind can hardly be relied upon to be free from selective amnesia.
Last year, I visited your death cell at Pretoria Central Prison. As I walked into the prison I counted about 18 maximum security gates to your cell. I would like to be believe that the fittest prisoner at the time would have found it a demanding task to break free. Yet, in that physical state you were. You lay there on a cement floor, naked, manacled and dying all behind 18 gates. Perhaps we failed to realise the fear that the "system" had for the might of the black people. I have since met the prisoner who looked after you, and his recollection of your condition is not for the faint-hearted. The saddest thing about the history of our country, is that just as you think that life has been unfair, if there is such a thing, along comes someone of similar, if not worse, experiences. I speak here of the numerous South Africans who for love of their country, laid down their lives. The list, as you know, is endless.
It is 19 years since your death and as I like to say, it is not easy to stay angry even if my intentions were to do so. If you were to ask how we should reconcile with the past I would tell you: "Only in the manner that best serves our future." I believe that as a country that has just emerged from an era of state recklessness with human life, we are in need of structures to facilitate transition.
Therefore, in my view there might be room for platforms from which our past can be given none but the best treatment - with the inherent costs that come with it. Our country is still beset by violence. In KwaZulu-Natal, the First Citizen, the King, was a recent victim, and there ought not to be a safer person in that province.
I am concerned that the level of violence among our people that runs so deeply cannot be healed by sending the wrong signals to the criminals who continue their misdeeds under the banner of the political.
I am not sure if our focus should be on helping perpetrators of crime to be at peace with themselves. Rather we should be sending a very unambiguous message to victims in KwaZulu-Natal that many years from now their killers will remainaccountable for their deeds. One has to ask oneself what kind of settlement lets a self-confessed killer of 35 people continue to roam the streets freely, hold public office and draw income from the very pool to which victims of his actions are contributors. If you were able to speak with me now and if you asked for my most cogent thoughts,this is what I would tell you. I have often been asked if you were violent or not. I t occurs to me that you were thoughtful in your approach toviolence, advocating exhaustion of the other options first. The wisdom behind this I find rather obvious, for violence even in its organised formcan easily be derailed and then misdirected. In irs degenerate form, it corrodes the fabricof society and blunts moral sensitivity. There's an era in our history with which we are both intimately faniliar that bears perfect testimony to this assertion. The concept of comtsotsis emanates from this era. However, like the other organs of the liberation movement there came a time at which all options were indeed exhausted. Thousands of young people, most of them freshly baptised with the waters of BC, took to neighbouring countries to pursue the struggle for liberation.The rest is,as they say, history. There will always be more to say to a father whose legacy runs so deeply in my heart. I can only hope that you have not departed to a place so remote that you are unable to feel our love and respect. I am also able ro report that your other children, all of whom are studying in South Africa, have honoured your testimony and your memory. They grew up quickly, but they grew up well.
Always in our memories,
If we - black and white- are to build on the best of Biko, the world can be a better place for us all. Yes, ALL!
At the beginning, or rather the title of this Biko-thing, is "Let Us Remeber The Great Men (And Women) Who Fought For Our Freedom" ---I salute the women in the life of Biko, starting with his dear mothe, from who he learnt to love and care so much about people, to Ntsiki and Mamphele, and the others.