A Liv­ing Legacy

Find it on the Steve Biko Her­itage Trail


Gins­berg town­ship is on the wrong side of the rail­way tracks in

King Wil­liam’s Town – and its most fa­mous res­i­dent was on the wrong side of the law. He was la­belled a ‘ter­ror­ist’ and deemed a threat to the apartheid state for ad­vo­cat­ing equal rights for all and self-re­liance, en­cour­ag­ing black peo­ple to lib­er­ate them­selves by throw­ing off their psy­cho­log­i­cal shack­les of in­fe­ri­or­ity.

‘Black is beau­ti­ful’, and ‘Be black and proud’ were some of the phrases Bantu Stephen Biko, known as the fa­ther of the Black Con­scious­ness move­ment in South Africa, bor­rowed from the Amer­i­can civil rights move­ment. A charis­matic man of great charm, when he spoke peo­ple lis­tened, whether they were fel­low stu­dents or for­eign diplo­mats. He was ex­pelled from med­i­cal school and de­tained nu­mer­ous times be­fore be­ing banned and re­stricted to his mother’s small house in Gins­berg town­ship in 1973.

“The po­lice used to hide in the banana plants along the fence,” says a neigh­bour, Nombeka Mabuya. She was just a teenager then, but re­mem­bers ‘Buti Bantu’ as a so­cia­ble chap who loved danc­ing.

“The se­cu­rity po­lice used to stop all his vis­i­tors at the gate here and ques­tion ev­ery­one who wanted to go in,” says my Steve Biko Cen­tre guide for the day, Asanda Mbaxa.

“It was like be­ing in prison in his own home.”

With the dawn of democ­racy, Biko was recog­nised as a hero of the strug­gle, and his home at 698 Mbeki Street (for­merly Tyamza­she Street) is now a na­tional her­itage site, with a bust of the late leader mounted on a brick plinth in the front gar­den.

This hum­ble town­ship home is one of the sites on the Steve Biko Her­itage Trail in the East­ern Cape. It starts in East Lon­don at the Biko statue out­side the city hall and the Biko Bridge over the Buf­falo River at the har­bour (lib­er­ated on the 20th an­niver­sary of Steve’s death with an ex­quis­ite touch of irony, from

its apartheid-era ti­tle of the John Vorster Bridge af­ter the ex prime min­is­ter).

I know both sites well, so skip straight to the heart of the Biko Trail in King Wil­liam’s Town and make a bee­line for the Steve Biko Cen­tre, a Na­tional Legacy Project. It’s a mod­ern build­ing at the en­trance to the dusty town­ship of Gins­berg, with its rows of neat box houses, and would not be out of place in New York City. Dis­tinc­tive mu­rals dec­o­rate the multi-storey build­ing, which houses a li­brary and ar­chive, au­di­to­rium and am­phithe­atre, mu­seum, shop, of­fices, con­fer­ence and train­ing rooms, and a classy restau­rant.

It is some­thing of a per­sonal pil­grim­age, as I’m of Steve’s gen­er­a­tion and was in­spired by his ideals of self-em­pow­er­ment and non­ra­cial­ism when I was a jour­nal­ism stu­dent at Rhodes Univer­sity. I also worked for his good friend, ed­i­tor Don­ald Woods, at the Daily Dis­patch one va­ca­tion.

Asanda wel­comes me to the mu­seum ded­i­cated to the man who changed so many lives with his lively in­tel­lect and abil­ity to unite peo­ple. The ex­hi­bi­tion theme, The Quest for a True Hu­man­ity, is taken from his writ­ings, and is or­gan­ised into eight sec­tions, start­ing with the African in­tel­lec­tual tra­di­tion and the in­de­pen­dence move­ment. Steve’s po­lit­i­cal awak­en­ing came when he was ex­pelled from Lovedale Col­lege.

He went on to be­come one of the driv­ing forces be­hind the es­tab­lish­ment of the South African Stu­dents’ Or­gan­i­sa­tion and the Black Peo­ple’s Con­ven­tion, and had many brushes with the apartheid po­lice. His last ar­rest and de­ten­tion in Port El­iz­a­beth led to his tragic death on 12 Septem­ber, 1977.

They couldn’t break his spirit or make him change his be­liefs, so his tor­tur­ers banged his head against the wall and slung his co­matose body into the back of a van and drove all the way from Port El­iz­a­beth to Pre­to­ria. He was de­clared dead soon af­ter ar­rival.

The care­fully stage-man­aged in­quest found ‘no one to blame’ for his death and it wasn’t un­til years later that the truth emerged of the cal­lous mur­der of the young ide­al­ist who pleaded for non-vi­o­lence while push­ing for black rights.

The soundtrack of Peter Gabriel’s song Biko echoes through the mu­seum:

‘You can blow out a can­dle

But you can’t blow out a fire

Once the flames be­gin to catch

The wind will blow it higher’

It’s a mov­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and af­ter­wards Asanda and I walk out­side into the sun­shine to the com­mem­o­ra­tive gar­den filled with indige­nous heal­ing plants, where a sym­bolic kraal of­fers a place to sit and re­flect be­side a wall of re­mem­brance list­ing the names of the dozens of po­lit­i­cal ac­tivists who died in de­ten­tion – this is said to be the most com­plete list avail­able.

Asanda and I got to dis­cussing what South Africa would be like if Steve had lived to be pres­i­dent, as he un­doubt­edly would have been. “Peo­ple would be free and se­cure, es­pe­cially women,” says Asanda thought­fully. “And we wouldn’t have had the fees must fall cam­paign – free ed­u­ca­tion was one of his pri­or­i­ties.”

More sup­port for black en­trepreneurs, em­pow­er­ing young peo­ple, real equal­ity, more in­tegrity in govern­ment and no xeno­pho­bic at­tacks are phrases that roll off her tongue eas­ily. “Just a more hu­man face to so­ci­ety,” she sums up. I’m happy to see Steve’s val­ues have taken root in the younger gen­er­a­tion.

The Biko Cen­tre car­ries on his legacy in a con­crete way, run­ning many of the com­mu­nity sport, ed­u­ca­tion and wel­fare projects that Steve started. It’s a pop­u­lar venue for film screen­ings, book launches, con­certs, fes­ti­vals and ca­reer days. “School­child­ren can also get help with their home­work at the li­brary and use the com­puter lab, and a busi­ness in­cu­ba­tor as­sists en­trepreneurs,” says Asanda.

The cen­tre is the brain­child of Nkosi­nathi Biko, Steve’s el­dest son who was only four when po­lice killed his fa­ther. The un­veil­ing

of the Biko statue in East Lon­don in 1997, fi­nanced with help from those in­volved in the Cry Free­dom movie star­ring Den­zil Wash­ing­ton as Steve, was a light-bulb mo­ment for Nkosi­nathi. A crowd of 2 000 had been ex­pected, but about 20 000 pitched up. He re­alised this huge in­ter­est in his fa­ther’s legacy could trans­late into an eco­nomic re­source for the Gins­berg com­mu­nity, one of the least­de­vel­oped town­ships in an un­der­de­vel­oped province.

He set up the Steve Biko Foun­da­tion in 1998 and started rais­ing funds for the cen­tre in Gins­berg to be an in­tel­lec­tual and cul­tural re­source for the com­mu­nity and a tourist draw­card. His dream was re­alised in 2012 when the cen­tre was of­fi­cially opened.

Our sec­ond-last stop on the route is the spot where Steve had an of­fice, cour­tesy of his great friend Rev David Rus­sell. It was just a room be­hind the An­gli­can Church at 15 Leopold Street in King Wil­liam’s Town but, as the branch ex­ec­u­tive for the Black Peo­ple’s Con­ven­tion, Steve ran a swathe of com­mu­nity projects from here, in­clud­ing the Zanem­pilo Clinic in the vil­lage of Zinyoka out­side King, which is also part of the her­itage trail.

“The Spe­cial Branch mon­i­tored ev­ery­one com­ing to the side gate, so his vis­i­tors had to pre­tend they were on church busi­ness and go through the front door, then go out the back to the lit­tle of­fice,” says Asanda. The church is now a li­brary for the Du­misani The­o­log­i­cal In­sti­tute, serv­ing var­i­ous de­nom­i­na­tions.

The last stop on the route is the most heart wrench­ing. Steve was buried in the seg­re­gated ceme­tery out­side town af­ter a packed fu­neral ser­vice at the Vic­to­ria sports ground. His cof­fin ar­rived on a hum­ble ox cart, fol­lowed by some 20 000 mourn­ers from around the coun­try. Po­lice blocked thou­sands more from at­tend­ing.

To­day the ceme­tery has been up­graded and it’s now the Steve Biko Gar­den of Re­mem­brance. Steve’s orig­i­nal grave­stone has been re­placed by a grander mon­u­ment in som­bre, black gran­ite. Stand­ing silently at his grave­side, my thoughts went be­yond the loss suf­fered by his mother, his wife and sons, and my own mem­o­ries of our stu­dent protest at los­ing an ad­mired leader.

The sor­row that bit deep­est was the great loss to this coun­try, the land for which he sac­ri­ficed so much. Steve’s words en­cour­ag­ing us to march forth with courage and de­ter­mi­na­tion took on an even greater poignancy, ‘In time we shall be in a po­si­tion to be­stow on South Africa the great­est gift pos­si­ble – a more hu­man face’.

A fitting trib­ute to a gi­ant of a spirit.

Map ref­er­ence F6 see in­side back cover

TOP LEFT: Asanda Mbaxa is proof of the op­por­tu­ni­ties the Steve Biko Cen­tre has brought to Gins­berg she started as a cleaner on the staff and worked her way up to tour guide. TOP RIGHT: Nkosi­nathi Biko, el­dest son of Steve, and founder of the Steve Biko Foun­da­tion and Cen­tre. (Photo Steve Biko Foun­da­tion) ABOVE LEFT: The strik­ing mu­rals dec­o­rat­ing the walls of the Steve Biko Cen­tre were de­signed to a brief fol­low­ing a com­pet­i­tive process man­aged by Artist Proof Stu­dio of Cape Town. ABOVE RIGHT: School stu­dents can get help with their home­work at the li­brary at the Biko Cen­tre.

TOP: The Quest for a True Hu­man­ity is the theme of the ex­hi­bi­tion at the mu­seum ded­i­cated to the Black Con­scious­ness leader, Steve Biko. BE­LOW: The Biko Cen­tre’s gar­den is a heal­ing oa­sis in Gins­berg town­ship.

ABOVE LEFT: The cen­tre’s gar­den over­looks the bridge over the Buf­falo River that di­vides Gins­berg from King Wil­liam’sTown. ABOVE RIGHT:The An­gli­can church in Leopold Street is where Rev David Rus­sell gave Steve an of­fice from where to run his Black Com­mu­nity Pro­grammes. RIGHT: A bust of Steve Biko stands out­side his mother’s hum­ble house in Gins­berg, one of the na­tional her­itage sites on the Steve Biko Her­itage Trail.

ABOVE RIGHT: Li­brar­ian Onke Ma­gada wel­comes vis­i­tors to the li­brary and ar­chive at the Steve Biko Cen­tre. LEFT: Som­bre, black gran­ite marks the last rest­ing place of ide­al­ist and ac­tivist Bantu Stephen Biko.

LEFT: Per­form­ers at one of the reg­u­lar Aluta Restau­rant Jazz Ses­sions. RIGHT: A sym­bolic kraal in the gar­den pro­vides a place for re­flec­tion and dis­cus­sion. (Pho­tos Steve Biko Foun­da­tion)

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