The Steve Biko conundrum
Festivities that mark anniversary of Black Consciousness leader’s birthday are largely ignored by the media
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.