SELF­LESS BIKO 40 YEARS ON

While he was be­ing de­tained in jail in Port El­iz­a­beth, Bar­ney Pityana read in a news­pa­per about Stephen Biko’s death. Forty years later, he re­calls the shock and grief he felt that day, and how the Black Con­scious­ness Move­ment leader helped to shape a gen

CityPress - - Front Page - Pityana is pro­gramme ad­viser at the Thabo Mbeki Foun­da­tion

Au­gust 15 1977 was the fi­nal oc­ca­sion I had of speak­ing to Steve Biko. He was on the phone from his home in Gins­berg, King Wil­liam’s Town, and wanted coun­selling on a do­mes­tic sit­u­a­tion. I spent about an hour on the phone with him and his wife, Nt­siki. Steve was very re­laxed. No pol­i­tics, just fam­ily mat­ters.

No sooner had I hung up than a group of se­cu­rity po­lice­men barged into my of­fice at the law firm where I then served as a can­di­date at­tor­ney. I was de­tained and locked up at the Baak­ens Street Po­lice Sta­tion in the Port El­iz­a­beth. No rea­son was given for my de­ten­tion, ex­cept that I was be­ing held un­der sec­tion 6 of the Ter­ror­ism Act.

This was not the first time. I had be­come ac­cus­tomed to spend­ing time in de­ten­tion or un­der ar­rest for one con­tra­ven­tion of the ban­ning or­ders or an­other; held in­com­mu­ni­cado; or in soli­tary con­fine­ment with­out any con­tact with the out­side world.

A few days later, the po­lice told me with unashamed alacrity that my friends Steve Biko and Peter Jones had also been ar­rested. We were de­tained and ar­rested so fre­quently that it was no sur­prise that we were once again spend­ing time in jail.

But the morn­ing af­ter Septem­ber 12, the con­sta­ble who stood guard at my cell was changed with­out an­nounce­ment or cer­e­mony. A young white con­sta­ble re­placed him. No ex­pla­na­tion. Upon see­ing me, the young man ex­pressed shock to find me un­der ar­rest. It turned out that he had been the or­derly at the mag­is­trate’s court where I used to ap­pear. As a can­di­date at­tor­ney, I had by then been granted per­mis­sion to ap­pear in the court.

He had been warned that he was to guard a very dan­ger­ous ter­ror­ist. I do not think he be­lieved it any longer. Un­be­known to the se­cu­rity po­lice, he was in awe of me as an at­tor­ney. He al­lowed me to read his Afrikaans daily news­pa­per, some­thing he was not sup­posed to do.

Thus it was that, a few days later, I read a speech by then jus­tice min­is­ter JT Kruger ad­dress­ing a Na­tional Party con­fer­ence. There, he an­nounced that Steve Biko had died due to a hunger strike. Kruger and his au­di­ence in­dulged in a mock­ery of this tragedy.

Shocked to the point of numb­ness, I ran back to the cell, and cried and cried and cried. Never be­fore or since had I ex­pe­ri­enced such a to­tal sense of loss and lone­li­ness. Above all, I re­mem­ber the pain and anger I felt, and the help­less­ness and pow­er­less­ness.

As if by way of pre­mo­ni­tion, on the night that I now know that Steve died, I dreamt that he and I were in an an­i­mated con­ver­sa­tion. Once again, it was about his fam­ily and how he might not be there for much longer. I took this to be a joke in the con­text of the fri­vol­ity and ban­ter that char­ac­terised this con­ver­sa­tion. As fate would have it, that was the very last “con­ver­sa­tion” I had with Steve.

My re­sponse to these cat­a­strophic events – to deal with my anger, grief and sense of loss – was to go on a hunger strike, alone. I had not seen the se­cu­rity po­lice since they an­nounced the ar­rests of Steve and Peter. I was never in­ter­ro­gated. I did not have a clue about what hap­pened to both men. I did not even know where they were held.

A few days be­fore Steve’s fu­neral, I was re­moved from Baak­ens Street Po­lice Sta­tion, and driven to Alexan­dria Po­lice Sta­tion, far away, to con­tinue with my de­ten­tion. That meant I was not able to at­tend the fu­neral, or join com­rades and fam­ily in mourn­ing and see­ing to his last rites, and bid farewell to a dear friend and com­rade.

Later, I was moved from Alexan­dria to Gra­ham­stown. I was thus kept in de­ten­tion con­tin­u­ously un­til

Au­gust 18 1978. The pre­vi­ous ban­ning or­der hav­ing ex­pired while I was in jail, I was served with a new one on my re­lease. The lat­est one pre­scribed that I was not to be ad­mit­ted as an at­tor­ney or at­tend court, ex­cept as an ac­cused, or set foot in any premises where the prac­tice of a lawyer was be­ing un­der­taken.

It was not un­til Fe­bru­ary 6 1996 that I was even­tu­ally ad­mit­ted and en­rolled as an at­tor­ney at the Cape High Court.

Bantu Stephen Biko be­come a part of my life’s jour­ney from the time we were to­gether in the IVa class at Lovedale in 1963. Steve was, as al­ways, a per­son­able char­ac­ter; easy to make friends with. As a stu­dent, he was highly in­tel­li­gent. We be­came very good friends. But that was cut short when we were all ex­pelled from school in Au­gust that year. I com­pleted school at Newell High in New Brighton. Steve was for­tu­nate enough to trans­fer to St Fran­cis School in Mar­i­annhill, Na­tal. We en­coun­tered each other when we were both at univer­sity. Steve went to the Univer­sity of Na­tal Med­i­cal School. I en­rolled to study law at the Univer­sity of Fort Hare.

What brought us to­gether at this time was stu­dent pol­i­tics. We found each other once again at stu­dent con­fer­ences. At these events, we took po­si­tions that sought to chal­lenge both the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem of apartheid, and the pol­i­tics of both church and the sec­u­lar lib­eral or­gan­i­sa­tions we at­tended for be­ing mod­er­ate and fo­cus­ing on the in­ter­ests of white stu­dents and the sen­si­tiv­i­ties of the white es­tab­lish­ment. Steve was vi­va­cious – a pop­u­lar lad, so­cia­ble and the soul of the party. Dur­ing hol­i­days, I stayed at Steve’s home and, at least once, he stayed at our home in Port El­iz­a­beth. What, in ret­ro­spect, I think at­tracted me to him was what made him at­trac­tive to girls – he was in­tel­li­gent, en­gaged in con­ver­sa­tion and de­bate, and was knowl­edge­able. He was fun to be with. Above all, Steve had em­pa­thy, treated friends with re­spect and showed a great deal of feel­ing. Yes, he was, as ev­ery­one else knows, a charis­matic fig­ure.

Our jour­ney as stu­dent ac­tivists saw us de­bate and dis­cuss some of the strate­gic mat­ters that oc­cu­pied our minds. He led the walk-out from the Na­tional Union of SA Stu­dents (Nusas) con­fer­ence at Rhodes Univer­sity in July 1967. He led a black cau­cus at the Univer­sity Chris­tian Move­ment con­fer­ence in Stut­ter­heim in 1968. On cam­pus at the Al­lan Tay­lor Res­i­dence in Went­worth, Dur­ban, he was an in­flu­en­tial stu­dent leader, even though he held no of­fi­cial po­si­tion at first. How­ever, he man­aged to draw the stu­dent body to his way of think­ing.

At Fort Hare, we had him as a guest speaker at the Cam­pus Mis­sion we held in Au­gust 1968. This mis­sion led to a stu­dent protest days later, which re­sulted in our ex­pul­sion from the univer­sity.

Steve and some friends from the Al­lan Tay­lor Res­i­dence – Charles Sibisi, Aubrey Mokoape, Chappy Pal­weni, Mam­phela Ram­phele, Vuyelwa Masha­l­aba, among oth­ers – made ar­range­ments to hold the in­au­gu­ral con­fer­ence of what be­came known as the SA Stu­dents’ Or­gan­i­sa­tion (Saso). I was in­vited to be one of the speak­ers. It was then that Steve stood down as pres­i­dent, mak­ing way for my elec­tion as pres­i­dent in 1970. He was very per­sua­sive, Steve.

Be­fore long, with the re­fusal of a pass­port for me to take up a schol­ar­ship at Durham Univer­sity in Eng­land, I re­lo­cated to Dur­ban. This was to re­lieve Steve of the bur­den of car­ry­ing the load of Saso and al­low him to con­cen­trate on his med­i­cal stud­ies.

Re­cently mar­ried, it meant that I left my wife and our daugh­ter back home. It meant that I shared Steve’s room at the res­i­dence and we shared the same bed for months. Later, Steve got mar­ried and, the fol­low­ing year, we moved with our fam­i­lies to Um­lazi, where we shared a house. I be­came full-time sec­re­tary-gen­eral of Saso, and we man­aged to per­suade the Amer­i­can Board Mis­sion to al­low us to oc­cupy premises at 86 Beatrice Street – such was Steve’s power to per­suade.

That was a life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for me. We spent so much time to­gether that we be­came not so much a clique, but a com­mune. We spent long evenings in de­bate, con­ver­sa­tion and plan­ning, and week­ends par­ty­ing.

Steve in­tro­duced me to much of the Dur­ban elite, and to­gether we trav­elled the length and breadth of the coun­try, talk­ing to stu­dents, but also in­tro­duc­ing our po­lit­i­cal ideas to many ac­tivists of the lib­er­a­tion or­gan­i­sa­tions – ANC, Pan African­ist Congress, Unity Move­ment.

Many of them were re­cently re­leased from prison, while oth­ers were banned. Steve was not just ar­tic­u­late and per­sua­sive, he had a rad­i­cal way of ex­press­ing him­self frankly, which was well be­yond his years. Yet he drew one into his way of think­ing and rea­son­ing. It left many of these ac­tivists as­tounded.

A fea­ture of our com­mu­nity in Dur­ban was that it was truly black. In other words, we lived what we preached. Strini Mood­ley, Saths Cooper and their wives and girl­friends, as well as stu­dents from Zu­l­u­land, of­ten joined in dur­ing hol­i­days. We spent long hours so­cial­is­ing with the white stu­dents from Howard College, and de­bat­ing fever­ishly with Rick Turner and his clique of Wages Com­mis­sion stu­dents who were not of­fi­cially a struc­ture of Nusas.

My rec­ol­lec­tion of those days is that we were con­fi­dent, rad­i­cal and in­no­va­tive thinkers – full of life – and we did not suf­fer fools gladly. This com­mu­nity of mixed black peo­ple was a sight to be seen in all so­cial and po­lit­i­cal events in Dur­ban. It was a time to be young, gifted and black.

Then, on Fe­bru­ary 3 1973, this idyl­lic com­mu­nity was dis­rupted and scat­tered. Eight of us were banned and ban­ished from Dur­ban, where Saso had its head­quar­ters. We were ban­ished to our par­ents’ homes. I was sent to Port El­iz­a­beth and placed un­der house ar­rest. Steve was con­fined to King Wil­liam’s Town.

In typ­i­cal style, Steve was able to gather around him a com­mu­nity of young stu­dents and ac­tivists who joined him in his quest to make a dif­fer­ence. Among these were his former col­leagues at the med­i­cal school, such as Mam­phela and Malusi Mpuml­wana. There were oth­ers from Fort Hare, such as Then­jiwe Mt­intso and Thoko Ma­ban­jwa.

What had been bud­ding in Dur­ban was now be­ing fo­mented in King Wil­liam’s Town. Steve had a very rad­i­cal and ag­gres­sive dis­dain for the re­stric­tions we were placed un­der. When­ever he felt it was nec­es­sary, he would com­man­deer com­rades to drive to meet me in Port El­iz­a­beth. He made no se­cret of the con­tempt he had for the po­lice. In my case, per­haps be­cause I was a law stu­dent, I pre­ferred to abide, as much as one could hu­manly do, by the ban­ning or­ders.

Nev­er­the­less, I was sub­jected to in­tense and, at times, vi­o­lent mon­i­tor­ing by the po­lice. This made Steve very an­gry. So con­cerned was he about my fre­quent ar­rests that he or­gan­ised a group of com­rades to keep watch as a sort of pro­tec­tive force.

I al­ways ad­mired Steve’s friend­ship, his hon­esty and his faith­ful­ness over many years. By the way, he was to me like he was to many of our other friends and com­rades. He was con­stant and con­sis­tent. Per­haps, I have to say, that fun­da­men­tal to Steve was the value of friend­ship. From him I learnt what it was to be a good friend.

A fea­ture of the Black Con­scious­ness Move­ment era was that a bond of loy­alty de­vel­oped among us such that po­lice were un­able to per­suade anyone to serve as an impimpi or an in­former. Yes, we were young – in our 20s – and full of en­ergy, cre­ative ideas and rad­i­cal in­stincts about the pol­i­tics we pur­sued. Loy­alty was supreme. I know of no Black Con­scious­ness ac­tivist who be­came a state wit­ness.

We were con­fi­dent we would take black so­ci­ety by storm – per­suade, or­gan­ise, con­front, strate­gise. Al­though we dis­agreed, we con­tin­ued con­ver­sa­tions and de­bates, even with se­lected Ban­tus­tan lead­ers and with some white lib­er­als. We firmly be­lieved that apartheid could not sur­vive a black on­slaught. We were very dis­ci­plined. The near­est we came to se­ri­ous dis­agree­ment was when Themba Sono, then Saso pres­i­dent, was ex­pelled from the or­gan­i­sa­tion in 1972.

Among our­selves, we were un­shak­able about what the truth was, and we were aware that we shall over­come. For about three years, Black Con­scious­ness sur­vived wave upon wave of ban­nings and ar­rests, and new cadres emerged as lead­ers. To think that such a level of in­tel­lec­tual and po­lit­i­cal out­put and ma­tu­rity came from mere 20-year-olds is a les­son to pon­der.

It al­ways fills me with pride to ob­serve that none of the Black Con­scious­ness com­rades I re­mem­ber is to­day en­gaged in any self-en­rich­ment pur­suits. Only one or two are in a lead­er­ship po­si­tion in pol­i­tics. Many are to be found in the pro­fes­sions, oth­ers in the mil­i­tary or in diplo­macy, church, busi­ness or sport – use­ful, car­ing and en­gag­ing, crit­i­cal cit­i­zens.

All of this stands as a trib­ute to and is in mem­ory of Bantu Stephen Biko.

HIS­TORY Bar­ney Pityana and Steve Biko’s mother, Alice

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