SYM­BOL OF FREE­DOM

Forty years af­ter Steve Biko’s death, his son Nkosi­nathi pays trib­ute

Sunday Times - - FRONT PAGE - By NKOSI­NATHI BIKO

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.

Pic­ture: Alon Skuy

THE MES­SAGE Nkosi­nathi Biko, the el­dest son of Black Con­scious­ness leader Bantu Stephen Biko, in Jo­han­nes­burg this week.

Pic­ture: Daily Dis­patch

LEGACY Steve and Nt­siki Biko with their son Nkosi­nathi in Gins­berg in 1973.

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