Steve Biko On My Mind
by Xolela Mangcu
Born in South Africa in 1946, Steve Biko co-founded the South African Students' Organization in 1968, subsequently spearheading the nation's Black Consciousness Movement, and co-founded the Black People's Convention in 1972. Biko was arrested many times for his anti-apartheid work and, on September 12, 1977, died from injuries that he sustained while in police custody.
My home was the only one in our street with a verandah, or at least a verandah nice enough to draw the attention of other township kids. It was also the only home with as many books, mainly because we were the only family with university graduates in the township. As late as the 1970’s our township had no graduates other than my two brothers and my sister, all of whom had graduated from the historically black University of Fort Hare.
With all of that education, we were higher up on the totem pole. As a little boy I enjoyed the attention that came with it, and listening to the sound of my own voice, as I read out newspapers and magazines to the other kids, to whom I was nothing if not a wunderkind.
This historically privileged position owes in turn to a long tradition that goes back to my great grandparents, who were the first graduates of the Lovedale Mission school and co-founders of the Native Educational Association and the South African Native Congress in the 19th century. Over time the latter mutated into the South African National Native Congress in 1912 and the African National Congress in 1923.
“You are either alive and proud or you are dead, and when you are dead you can’t care anyway. And your method of death can itself be a politicizing thing.” - Steve Biko
This privileged position created a number of rivalries in the community, including one between my oldest brother Mzwandile and Steve Biko. Biko, who had been expelled for political reasons from university, was annoyed at the fact that my brother was the only graduate in the township—with all the privileges that came with that.
But in all fairness, it was also Biko who would make sure that my other brother Mthobi got his university education. As Mthobi tells it, the family had no money to send him to university after he finished high school. On his own he went to see Biko, who was then banished to our township but also allowed to run the Black Community Programmes. The only thing he was not allowed was the company of more than one person at a time. So Mthobi had to wait his turn in the line of the people who would come to see Biko.
Mthobi remembers Biko picking up the phone to call someone he kept referring to as Frank, and telling him there was a young man he was sending over for help. When Mthobi got to the office he found Frank waiting with a check that would allow him to register at the university. As it turned out, Frank was Mapetla Mohapi, who was brutally murdered by the apartheid security police in August 1976, just a year before Steve’s own murder. I once hosted Chinua Achebe in South Africa, and he spoke of the shame he felt for a country that killed people who did such good things for the community.
This is the kind of presence that Biko had in our community throughout my boyhood. To me he was nothing more than what is now called a community organizer—on several occasions we would hop on the back of his van to the community projects he was working on in the rural areas. Sometimes we would just wait for him to return from his office in town, and chase his car shouting Amandla (Black Power). He would roll down his window and put a big black fist into the air. Little did we know that he was the big figure he was until his death, as twenty thousand people descended on our township for the funeral on September 25, 1977. It was South Africa’s first political funeral, to be followed by bigger ones in the 1980’s.
Sitting from the vantage point of my home’s verandah I often watched Biko coming to visit the house opposite my home, which was also his favorite watering hole. That house belonged to the Mbilini family. One of the Mbilini brothers, also named Mzwandile, was one of his most trusted comrades. I remember that he was always dressed in military fatigue of one type or the other. I wondered no end about where he was getting this uniform. Surely that was illegal? The police would come and pick him up but he would never go into the car without raising his fist.
Later in life, with his body riddled by alcohol and years of police beatings, he would regale anyone who cared enough to listen about his closeness to Biko. There are many people who claim to have been Biko’s closest comrades but I can testify that Mbilini was authentic. I saw it with my own eyes. One of his favourite lines, after he had had a few was this: “In our days I would have Thami Zani on my left and Peter Jones on my right, and Biko in front of me, and we were carrying the country on our shoulders.” Thami Zani and Peter Jones—with whom Biko was travelling when he was arrested and subsequently killed—were also a permanent presence in our little township.
For me Mzwandile Mbilini’s statement signified the centrality of the black consciousness movement in the story of South Africa’s freedom—a role that the African National Congress would actively seek to erase and ultimately deny.
A year after Biko was killed, I left my township for boarding school. Suffice it to say I was immediately expelled for joining older boys in organizing a commemoration service of the first anniversary of Steve’s death in 1978. And here I am still, thirty-six years later, doing the same. I have often wondered about my “obsession” with Biko. One of my interlocutors even called me a Biko publicist—thinking I would take it as an insult instead of the honour it actually was.
One answer of course is that I find his ideas prophetic, given the state of South Africa today. But it is more likely that I have never gotten over the cruel manner in which he was removed from my life. As Nelson Mandela puts it in the preface to my biography of Biko, “His life was snuffed out with more callousness and casualness than a person snuffing out a candle flame between calloused thumb and forefinger.”
According to the writer Njabulo Ndebele, Biko’s murder “let us deep into the ethical and moral condition of Afrikanerdom” at the height of apartheid. But just like a photographic image issues from a negative print, to paraphrase Richard Sennett, Biko’s death threw the spotlight on the evil nature of that regime, and got the world to turn its screws on it. As Biko put it himself rather prophetically shortly before he died: “You are either alive and proud or you are dead, and when you are dead you can’t care anyway. And your method of death can itself be a politicizing thing.”
Those words galvanized a new generation of activists into action in the 1980’s, which is the time I also got to university, at the then predominantly white Wits University in Johannesburg. I laugh sometimes when I hear young people talking about joining fraternities and sororities when they arrive at universities. For us it was a question of which movement you were going to sign up with. At the time the choice was between the African National Congress and the Black Consciousness movement or, since they were banned, their proxy organizations, the United Democratic Front and the Azanian People’s Organization.
The senior students at Wits could be quite cynical in their recruitment methods. I joined the Black Consciousness movement because the guy who came to recruit me said I had a choice between the organization of Mandela and the organization of Biko. He knew exactly what he was doing. I was only seventeen and felt Biko’s death probably more personally than anyone on campus. It was an absurd way to sign up for a revolutionary cause.
I occupied the same privileged position on the university campus as I had when I was a little boy on my home’s verandah. I immediately became the chairman of the Black Consciousness movement on our campus, and continued enjoying the sound of my own voice, this time with a national and sometimes international audience.
When there was a little bit of a hiatus in the struggle in the early 1990’s I came to the United States for graduate studies at Cornell, MIT, and Harvard. At the end of that decade I returned to South Africa and became the founding director of the Steve Biko Foundation—the Biko bug just would not let go. The guy had been killed when I was eleven, and I was now approaching middle age. I decided that writing a book would probably give me the catharsis I needed. But here I am still beating the drum for a man who had the greatest impact on my life outside of my family all those many years ago. To him I owe so much, but you will probably hear many black South Africans speak about him like that. You would be forgiven for thinking we were all his best friends. That was the power of his charisma.
Xolela Mangcu is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Cape Town and a 2014 Fellow at the Hutchins Center. He is the author and co-author of seven eight books, including the recently published, Biko: A Life (IB Tauris, 2013). Biography (Tafelberg, 2012), His other books include: The Arrogance of Power: South Africa’s Leadership Meltdown ( Tafelberg Press: 2014) To the Brink: The State of Democracy in South Africa (UKZN Press 2008), The Meaning of Mandela (essays by Wole Soyinka, Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.), (HSRC Press, 2005),. A collection of his columns over the past twenty years – Arrogance of Power: Twenty Years of Disenchantment is being published by Tafelberg Press (2014), and he is in the process of completing his book, Harold Washington’s Chicago.
Mangcu was for a long time a regular columnist for the Business Day, the Weekender and the Sunday Independent, and currently writes a bi-weekly column for the Sowetan. He was also the Founder of the Platform for Public Deliberation and Founding Executive Director of the Steve Biko Foundation.