September 12, 1977, holds profound lessons of struggle through a thinker, a struggle icon, a human philosopher and realist who was brutally murdered 46 years ago. It brings closer the privilege and the presence of mind of having been in the same space, four decades ago, of a man who when he learnt that Steve Bantu Biko took his last breath of life on that day, dropped everything where he was in Lesotho and rushed back to South Africa where he shared his pain and great hope. That person was Bishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu. At the time, he was based at the University of Lesotho where I was a second-year student majoring in statistics and economics.
Joining more than 20 000 mourners, Tutu presided over the funeral of Steve Biko. Little did I know, I will be shouldering the burden of memory of that monumental day which changed our trajectory of struggle and raised immense hope today. Regrettably, this moment of insatiable hope in despair has metamorphosed into unbearable disappointment of morbid interregnum today.
The dying is refusing to die and that which is to be born is doing very little to be ejected from its mother’s womb. Society is anxious about what the birth might deliver – will it be a still born or a moron?
The question is, though, are we going to implode as a nation? We are going to if we continue to fiddle whilst Rome is burning. The theme “Activating the agency of the people to free the land, mind, and the spirit,” seeks to capture our moment of despair of mourners who followed the ox-wagon that carried the remains of Biko to his resting place.
Tutu’s address to the multitudes, and specifically his elevation of Biko to a Jesus like character, irked the apartheid regime. The regime returned the favour by elevating the man of the cloth to the enemy of the apartheid state.
In his interview with Bernard Zylstra in July 1977, Biko left no snow chance in hell for the homeland apartheid architecture ever receiving compatible standing in the liberation project. Biko, who died by torture, in police custody was arrested with PC Jones on that fateful day of the 18 of August 1977.
Standing on the theme marking Biko’s passing 46 years ago, I hereby affirm Land is the sum total of life encompassing not only a geometric feature of earth, but as a giver of life. In the Setswana idiom land is tied to cattle. The idiom says: “Oa na naeo oa thloka boroko, oaetlhoka oa thloka boroko.” It translates to “If you own cattle – be certain that you will lose sleep, but equally when you do not own cattle – you will lose sleep over not owning them.”
It is this responsibility that life demands from us to fulfil our life mission. It is an endeavour that Biko fulfilled with excellence in the very short three decades of his life. He remains a towering figure in our heads and hearts. He brought the chemistry of theory, practice, empathy and revolutionary spirit with such political dexterity that advancing the cause and course of struggle became second nature despite all the life-threatening dangers it all entailed.
Biko’s interview with Bernard Zylstra, three months before his cold-blooded murder, the nuggets of his responses provide important pointers towards understanding what we face as the biggest precipice of our time. There were 11 issues he had to address.
Biko cut through the subject with an incredible clarity of mind. Delivering on the scale of complexity and pathways to addressing these massive challenges became his oyster. On the birth of black consciousness, he ably advanced the idea of cultural and political revival as an important first step for oppressed people to liberate themselves. He emphasises the cultural depth of black consciousness in that it forces black people to ask themselves “Who am I? Who are we?
This is especially so in the context of the demise of invincibility of white people. When the façade of whiteness fades, the nakedness of their brutality and acquiescence gets revealed dramatically – their birth brings us to the true conclusion that “people are people” and therefore let us be people.
Regarding Black Consciousness and Christianity, Biko said this is a vexed question that troubles our fundamental orientation in life. Christianity for most black people is purely a formal matter. In that respect, Christianity in essence as the bedrock of colonialism, dispossession and injustice meant natives had to abandon cultural practices, which included abandoning dress codes in favour of the colonisers’ dress, food and means of livelihood.
The founder of the Basotho nation’s encounter, King Moshoeshoe, with French missionaries is a case in point. On the missionaries wishing to abolish polygamy, which would have forced him to divorce his wives, he refused to be a convert. The pertinent question the King asked was what then happens to his responsibility over the covenant he has with my wives. Biko as a Calvinist navigates this with excellent dexterity especially deploying Beyers Naude’s contradictions as he traversed this transformational journey of apartheid.
On the Black people’s Convention, which was a national coordinating body for the Black Consciousness Movement of SA, Biko connected black aspirations with an action by the intellectuals. However, fully mindful of the propensity of these intellectuals falling prey to being manipulated by the dominant white system.
On the homelands, Biko concluded that this was a mixed bag of sympathy for people, dilution, and division of the cause of struggle. The latter being the instrument in the hands of the colonising agent made him conclude that this was betrayal of the struggle. Biko was specifically worried by the stance that then Chief Minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi took. For a long time, Biko said Shenge opposed apartheid, but is today the governmentally paid leader of the Zulus.
“We oppose Gatsha. He dilutes the cause by operating on a government platform.” Shenge left this world on the 9th of this month, after a long and colourful career in the political landscape. As Biko receives him, I believe we have the possibility of oozing with wisdom.
With respect to communism, Biko said as a theme confronting the strategic options such as the conscious choice the BCM made to operate within the law and communism on the other hand as a banned concept, it is not possible to administer in practice. It is thus not an option. On South Africa and the US, Biko said the country stood out as a pawn in the politics of pragmatism in the game of power between the two countries. The US is waking to the reality that it is losing power with Russia ascending in circles of post-colonial Africa.
Regarding Black Communalism, Biko said in contradistinction to capitalism versus communism – South Africa must seek what best suits it. Whilst the details of an alternative are not clear, the true north is the search for a just system and Black Communalism captures this ideal.
Regarding the future, Biko said it can only be escalation of hostilities. This is so because the Afrikaners have cornered themselves in an untenable situation of hoarding power. If they backtrack from that position, they will lose credibility with their constituencies.
Biko, the thinker, was very much aware of the weaknesses of the oppressor and recognised the limitations of arrogant ignorance of oppression. This included their vulnerabilities. He left apartheid era Justice Minister Jimmy Kruger paralysed, and in fact, intellectually frozen on the subject of confrontation and violence. He advocated for confrontation and saw no violence in confrontation.
“The line that BPC adopts is to explore, as much as possible, non-violent means within the country, that’s why we exist. But there are people, & there are many people, who’re despaired of the efficacy of non-violence as a method”#WeAreBiko #SteveBiko #BikoLecture pic.twitter.com/UbJJlhzl8X
— SteveBikoFoundation (@BikoFoundation) September 20, 2020
We are in that space where we must confront, without violence, our demons today over the lack of system design and paucity of design thinking, which are largely responsible for corruption, bribery, poor service delivery and unemployment. Regarding the role of foreign individuals, Biko contended that albeit their abroad is limited however, they are privileged with analysis and insights that can influence amongst others, policies in the foreign lands on South Africa.
On the future of America, Biko said what the US can do is to support the struggle as a legitimate instrument for universal human rights. Otherwise, the US will continue to lose ground to Russia. On Beyers Naude, Biko said although Dr Naude might be seen as a turncoat because of how he changes, there is a remarkable consistency in the way he changes – he listens to the scriptures and those readings influence his propensity to change. He is therefore worth listening to, Biko concluded. Finally on the Human bond, Biko said it is about identifying and unifying the elements of struggle.
Biko has provided a laboratory of 11 pointed issues that vex us today. This and many initiatives in our nation should and keep the spirit of Steve Biko alive.
The solutions to our challenges lie with the citizens of this country. South Africa is our nation, our responsibility. As communities we have what it takes within us, to work together to reconfigure the trajectory of our nation. Let us come together to craft the pathway from a divided and racially and ethnically polarised past, to one South Africa for a dignified and secured living! Edited version of Pali Lehohla’s Biko Memorial Lecture
“AS ANGRY AS WE HAVE THE RIGHT TO BE, LET US REMEMBER THAT WE ARE IN THE STRUGGLE TO KILL THE IDEA THAT ONE KIND OF MAN IS SUPERIOR TO ANOTHER KIND OF MAN.” ~ BANTU STEPHEN BIKO 12/0977 pic.twitter.com/HZjOKPbhR9
— BolingoProject (@BolingoProject) September 12, 2021
Written by: Lindiwe Mabena