The Steve Biko co­nun­drum

Fes­tiv­i­ties that mark an­niver­sary of Black Con­scious­ness leader’s birth­day are largely ig­nored by the me­dia

The Sunday Independent - - METRO - LETEPE MAISELA Letepe Maisela is a man­age­ment con­sul­tant and pub­lished au­thor.

OVER the long week­end of De­cem­ber 14-17, I was priv­i­leged, along with oth­ers, to be in­vited to at­tend an in­trigu­ing yet ful­fill­ing event in King Wil­liam’s Town. We had been in­vited to at­tend the in­au­gu­ral First Black Con­scious­ness Move­ment Re­union, which was or­gan­ised by the Steve Biko Foun­da­tion, un­der the stew­ard­ship of his first-born son, Nkosi­nathi Biko.

The theme of the event was “In­spi­ra­tion be­yond a Life­time”, and it sought to kick-start the cel­e­bra­tions of Biko’s own birth­day, on De­cem­ber 18. It also con­tin­ued with the trac­ing and ar­tic­u­la­tion of Bantu Biko’s ac­tual po­lit­i­cal life cy­cle, which was snuffed out pre­ma­turely when he was only 30 years old, by the erst­while apartheid regime.

Lis­ten­ing to the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of The Man, it is some­what un­be­liev­able that Biko achieved so much in such a brief pe­riod.

The co­nun­drum I’m high­light­ing is that, through sheer co­in­ci­dence of his­tory, per­haps, Biko’s birth­day co­in­cides with cer­tain dates on our gov­ern­ment’s an­nual cal­en­dar of events. This en­sures per­pet­ual con­flict or a clash of in­ter­ests be­tween our govern­ing party, the ANC, and Black Con­scious­ness for­ma­tions.

Biko’s birth­day is perched pre­car­i­ously close to De­cem­ber 16, pro­claimed by the new demo­cratic or­der as the Day of Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, and Jan­uary 8, the found­ing date of the ANC in 1912, which is cel­e­brated an­nu­ally.

The event around De­cem­ber 16, in par­tic­u­lar, has cre­ated a se­ri­ous con­flict with the Fourth Es­tate with its close prox­im­ity to Biko’s birth­day an­niver­sary. That is prob­a­bly why such a sig­nif­i­cant event that took place at King Wil­liam’s Town over that long week­end was com­pletely ig­nored by our main­stream me­dia, caus­ing some ruc­tions among some in Black Con­scious­ness cir­cles. This in­cluded the sub­se­quent scant cov­er­age of Biko’s birth­day an­niver­sary.

No prizes for guess­ing where most of the main­stream me­dia were; they were prob­a­bly chas­ing politi­cians cel­e­brat­ing the Day of Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. For­merly the day was sim­ply known among Africans as Din­gaan’s Day. The gov­ern­ment of the day, how­ever, sig­nif­i­cantly named it the Day of the Covenant in hon­our of De­cem­ber 16, 1838. This was the day when the Voortrekkers un­der the com­mand of An­dries Pre­to­rius ex­acted vengeance on Din­gaan, who had ear­lier lured Piet Retief and his gar­ri­son into his kraal and mas­sa­cred them.

To the African peo­ple, how­ever, the day de­fi­antly be­came known as Din­gaan’s Day, this in hon­our of the Zulu king and war­riors who bravely fought off the Euro­pean in­va­sion in a se­ries of bat­tles. Years later Din­gaan’s Day was en­dorsed as a sym­bol of re­sis­tance to white rule, when on De­cem­ber 16, 1961 the ANC formed its mil­i­tary wing, aptly named Umkhonto we Sizwe – Spear of the Na­tion.

The re­cent King Wil­liam’s Town event was pa­tro­n­ised by the who’s who of found­ing mem­bers of the Black Con­scious­ness Move­ment (BCM). They in­cluded the likes of Pro­fes­sor Bar­ney Pityana, for­mer Unisa prin­ci­pal, and Bishop Malusi Mpuml­wana, the gen­eral sec­re­tary of the SA Coun­cil of Churches. The two are most fa­mous as Biko’s right-hand men. The BCM en­tourage in­cluded Dr Mam­phela Ram­phele and am­bas­sador Then­jiwe Mt­intso.

The Biko fam­ily was led by ma­tri­arch Nt­siki Biko and Biko’s only sur­viv­ing sib­ling, Nobandile. Res­i­dents of the lo­cal Gins­berg town­ship were also there in their droves.

The four-day event was hosted at the im­pres­sive Steve Biko Com­mu­nity Cen­tre, which dom­i­nates the cen­tral part of dusty Gins­berg town­ship, Biko’s home base. Ac­tiv­i­ties for the pe­riod in­cluded pre­sen­ta­tions and ro­bust de­bates. These fo­cused on the phi­los­o­phy of Black Con­scious­ness and the cen­tral role played by Biko in its in­tro­duc­tion and pro­lif­er­a­tion within South Africa dur­ing the early 1970s.

The pro­gramme was quite im­pres­sive and cov­ered top­ics such as the legacy of the Black Con­scious­ness Move­ment in South Africa, the role of women in the Black Con­scious­ness Move­ment, and many more.

The fi­nal day was re­served for a tour of the Biko Her­itage Trail. The first stop was the Kei Road po­lice sta­tion, where Mapetla Mo­hapi was de­tained and sub­se­quently mur­dered by stran­gu­la­tion in 1976. After a brief ser­mon and paci­fy­ing words by Bishop Mpuml­wana, a wreath was laid by Mo­hapi’s daugh­ter, Moth­iba Mo­hapi, in the murky and badly ven­ti­lated cell where he was mur­dered. There was hardly a dry eye in the au­di­ence.

The fol­low­ing stop was Zanem­pilo Com­mu­nity Clinic, which was Biko and Dr Ram­phele’s pet project. Though now owned and man­aged by the provin­cial De­part­ment of Health, the fa­cil­ity still stands as a sym­bol of de­fi­ance and re­silience against the for­mer apartheid gov­ern­ment’s op­pres­sive poli­cies.

The next stop was, in my opin­ion, the most heart-rend­ing. This was the burial plot, now turned into a mu­seum, of the high-pow­ered anti-apartheid ac­tivist cou­ple Grif­fith and Vic­to­ria Mx­enge, who were bru­tally as­sas­si­nated by apartheid gov­ern­ment agents at the height of PW Botha’s To­tal On­slaught strat­egy in 1986. A wreath was laid by the last-born daugh­ter of the Mx­enges, Namhla.

Our visit ended at Biko’s fi­nal rest­ing place. It has now been de­clared a na­tional mon­u­ment in the grave­yard now re­named The Steve Biko Gar­den of Re­mem­brance.

Though the tour evoked bad mem­o­ries and opened old wounds in some of us, in a way it also ush­ered in a sec­ond round of heal­ing. The fi­nal heal­ing, in my opin­ion, will only be achieved when the per­pe­tra­tors of those vile deeds against in­no­cent and de­fence­less peo­ple, whose only sin was to fight for a place un­der the sun, are fi­nally brought to book 24 years into our demo­cratic era. Are you lis­ten­ing, ad­vo­cate Shamila Ba­tohi?

I also rec­om­mend that the tour of the Biko Her­itage Trail be­comes en­dorsed as a once-in-a-life­time pil­grim­age by all South Africans keen to get to grips with the real ex­pe­ri­ences of po­lit­i­cal ac­tivists from the apartheid era, who fought against in­sur­mount­able odds, with some of them man­ag­ing to pre­vail.

Fi­nally, with re­cent talk by our De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion to re­write South African his­tory and make it a com­pul­sory sub­ject in our schools, it is also not too late to in­tro­duce Black Con­scious­ness into that mix as an elec­tive course mo­d­ule, to of­fer a bal­anced his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive.

That, to me, will be the most com­mend­able gift to the legacy of Bantu Stephen Biko.

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