SYMBOL OF FREEDOM
Forty years after Steve Biko’s death, his son Nkosinathi pays tribute
We are a people immersed in a culture of symbolism. One such symbol is that which marks the grave of the departed. A tombstone is designed to mark the end of life, but many African communities believe that the end of one form of life is the beginning of another. Solace is often derived from the conviction that, having been beckoned to the world of ancestors, one’s dearly departed join those before them, and, from their ancestral world, continue to cast an eye over their erstwhile earthly home.
Forty years ago the Biko family erected a tombstone to mark the grave of one of their sons, Bantu Stephen Biko. He is buried in what has become known as the Biko Garden of Remembrance, on the edge of Ginsberg township in King William’s Town. In August 1977 he had left his home a healthy 30-year-old man. By September 12 1977 he was dead, a victim of police brutality. For many, Biko’s murder signified the end of an era. They defined September 12 1977 as a sunset moment in South African history.
Recently, I walked past the graves that have since filled the cemetery, on the way to his. I noticed for the first time something that is otherwise glaringly obvious: that most of the tombstone messages were of a personal nature — “Rest in peace”, “missed by . . .”, “survived by . . .”.
On his tombstone, the message is: “Bantu Stephen Biko Honorary President Black People’s Convention. Born 18-121946. Died 12-9-1977. One Azania One Nation.” It is so because his death was a loss to the nation. Biko himself had argued that “death can itself be a politicising thing”. Hand-washing ceremony Since the funeral on September 25 1977, I have been a regular at his grave, to carry out various duties or pay my homage. In our tradition, a close relative of the deceased has the responsibility to conjure the spirit of the family ancestry and to announce the presence of visitors at a graveside. In Xhosa this act is referred to as ukubika and the message umbiko ,a word at the root of my family identity. It is then and only then that the visitor may place a pebble on the grave as a gesture of salutation. The visitors may also proceed to convey such messages as they deem appropriate, either audibly or in quiet contemplation, in augmentation of umbiko. Lastly, following a visit to the grave, the visitors are expected to go to the home Unlike Jimmy Kruger who was left ‘cold’ by the death of Steve Biko, for many Biko is, as one elder described him, a ‘warm feeling’ of the deceased for a hand-washing ceremony.
Over the years I have come to learn that legacies that live in people’s hearts are most resilient. Unlike Jimmy Kruger who was left “cold” by the death of Steve Biko, for many Biko is, as one elder described him, a “warm feeling”. Thus, as important as commemorative days are, it is what happens between them that is of more significance.
In the case of Biko, thousands of visitors make this annual visit and participate in the traditional homage. These visitors come from all over the country and the world.
Refreshingly, it is young people who, for the most part, visit the Biko Trail, which includes his home, No 698 Leightonville, now known as the Biko Monument.
This was our grandparents’ house, to which Biko was banned and banished for the last five years of his life. His house therefore was a room within this home, which was shared by the broader family. It is the location of many fond childhood memories, including the tugging smell of my grandmother’s freshly baked bread, which still comes alive at every visit, long after her death in November 1995.
Following the birth of my brother Samora in August 1975, my parents, then with a growing family, were on the lookout for a house and had in fact secured tenancy at No 700 Leightonville from the local rent office, shortly before my father’s death. At the time, full-title tenure was not available to black people.
Death struck sooner
This was to be our new home and my father was to seek an amendment to his banning order to allow him to move house, but death struck sooner than occupation. In fact, transfer to our new family home coincided with our father’s to his ancestral home.
The Biko Trail also passes his former office, No 15 Leopold Street, the regional offices of the Black Community Programmes. Biko was its regional executive director. The office ran a number of self-reliance initiatives including Njwaxa, which made leather products, Zimele Trust Fund, which supported families of political prisoners, as well as bursary schemes and other initiatives. This is one of the unique aspects of Black Consciousness — its ability to take ideas into the practical realm. It is a skill one wishes had had enough time to take root; its absence explains the yawning gap between the poetry of our current policies and the efficacy of projects that flow from these policies.
The Biko Trail further incorporates Zanempilo Clinic, a project of the Black Community Programmes. It was designed to demonstrate to the apartheid government how little it took to provide quality basic healthcare services, even in
the most rural of settings. I have a scar on my forehead to remember Zanempilo by, following a bicycle accident at our neighbour’s house. After that and other boyhood injuries I remember being stitched together at Zanempilo.
On a recent visit to King William’s Town I ran into one Zanempilo Madikana, who was among the first babies to be delivered at the clinic, on September 22 1977, three days before Biko’s funeral. He is 40-plus now and the clinic continues to operate to this day, albeit now under the Eastern Cape’s public health department.
The Biko Trail also includes a visit to the Steve Biko Centre. This was opened in December 2012. Here visitors are taken on a tour of the museum as well as treated to live stage performances by the in-house theatre group, Abelusi (the Shepherds).
Alternatively, there are film screenings, with a focus on educational titles that teach our youth about struggle icons and historic moments from our long tradition of resistance.
Even the restaurant, Aluta, is a canvas that celebrates inspiring world leaders in the tradition of Biko.
The public library and archives and the adjoining children’s library house the largest collection of material by and about the Black Consciousness movement and provide a useful resource to an increasing number of master’s and doctoral students researching the subject.
Otherwise, one story at a time, it lays a foundation for the little people who come in daily for assistance with homework and for reading classes, which are conducted by the library interns, much to the delight of my mother, Ntsiki Biko. In five years the library has collected more than 40 000 titles through the generosity of people around the world.
When Chinua Achebe delivered the Biko Memorial Lecture, he made an interesting observation. He urged that we should remember Steve Biko, “not because it is important to him. He is all right where he is. We must do it because it is important to us.”
It is for this reason that evoking the spirit of the founders of our democracy is a developmental imperative, not a luxury. Every day I spend at the centre I witness its mantra come alive, defying the perception that young South Africans are a lost or disengaged generation.
The quality of reflections that take place on these visits is enthralling, be they dialogues, poetry sessions, theatre, book launches, lectures and many other activities.
Given that Biko is a man young people relate to as “their” political symbol, it is natural that their reflections on him tend
How could one possibly convince Biko that the fact that more than 50% of the South African population lives below the poverty line is what he struggled for
towards sociopolitical content. #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall both referenced him extensively as a source of inspiration.
He might have been pleased, especially when the discourse went beyond what must fall to what, in fact, must rise.
The youth are frank — and accurate — about the concerning political trajectory the country is on and the interconnection between the leadership deficit and the continued entrapment of millions in poverty and diminishing life chances.
A valuable experience
Listening to them would be as valuable for the writers of the state of the nation address as it would be to those strategising to capture the imagination of the public in the build-up to the next cycle of elections.
Interestingly, international visitors have found echoes here of the Black Lives Matter message. They have found a vocabulary against the rise of conservatism in the US, Britain, France and other European countries that seem to have followed a wanton step to the right.
A few moons ago I happened upon yet another group visiting the grave. I did the usual wondering what Biko would have to say were he to respond to them.
I imagine that he would have something to say about his call 40 years ago — “One Azania, One Nation” — particularly given the corrosive inter- and intra-party politics that have relegated national imperatives to a status lower than that of crass personal priorities.
How could one possibly convince Biko, Sobukwe and Tambo and the thousands who sacrificed, that the findings of the statistician-general that more than 50% of the South African population lives below the poverty line is what they struggled for?
Second, I imagine him arguing that the ritual of washing hands has two meanings. First, it serves the literal purpose of cleansing; in the case of a visit to a grave, it symbolically cleanses one’s contact with death. Perhaps national cleansing is what we need to ward off the death of the nation.
However, hand-washing also bears a second and perhaps paradoxical meaning, of the Pontius Pilate order — washing our hands of our responsibility to keep this nation alive. In this regard, we cannot choose not to choose.
Thus the ancestral Biko would remind the thousands of young people who visit his grave that the journey through a purposeful existence requires us to “avail ourselves to history for history to work through us”.
May his spirit live through the hearts and the informed actions of our young people.
THE MESSAGE Nkosinathi Biko, the eldest son of Black Consciousness leader Bantu Stephen Biko, in Johannesburg this week.
LEGACY Steve and Ntsiki Biko with their son Nkosinathi in Ginsberg in 1973.