Steve Biko, the celebrated political activist, has been the subject of a number of books. But a new one, written by Xolela Mangcu, is set to become a seminal biography. And this is not just history – as Mangcu explains. Biko’s life and the Black Consciousness Movement are as relevant to South Africa today as they were during the anti-apartheid struggle.
Xolela Mangcu and I had scheduled just 30 minutes to discuss it, but we ended up talking for hours about his new book, Biko – A Biography. It is an account of a fascinating life, but a life brutally cut short by agents of the police state of apartheid South Africa. It was also one full of brilliant accomplishments.
Mangcu was just a 10-year old boy when he became acquainted with Biko, who was a neighbour of his in the Ginsberg location of King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape province. As he puts it, “no single individual shaped my life in the way that Steve Biko did”.
Not that he remembers Biko telling him very much, or even him asking, just distant memories swirling around with the imagery of Black Consciousness activists in Ginsberg in the 1970s – and riding with Biko in his car, an exciting experience for any young boy.
As for Mangcu’s schoolteacher parents, they, like almost everybody else in the community, adored Biko and were undoubtedly more than happy that their son should be spending leisure time with him. But loved as he was, Biko was clearly a complex character.
Author Mangcu makes a number of observations about others who have known and written about Biko, and believes that many simply take from Biko’s life what is most important to them.
It is the same with Mangcu’s book. “What I have found is that people read it in the same way that people listen to a music CD,” says Mangcu. “They are not really seeking a continuous narrative, rather they are choosing specific, favourite chapters – and that has something to do with the way that Biko reached so many different sectors of society.
“You will find that historians will go to the chapter where I attempt to locate Steve [Biko] within the long trajectory that goes back to the wars of resistance by the Khoi-Khoi and San people on the Northern Cape frontier in the 17th and 18th centuries, right up to the anti-colonial resistance of the Xhosa people on the Eastern Cape frontier throughout the 19th century.
“For the white, liberal left guys, they will go to the chapter called The trouble with NUSAS, which tells something about the student movement of the day, the ostensibly multiracial, but predominately white, National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) – and Steve’s decision to instead align himself with the South African Students Organisation.
“I didn’t write the book with different interests of readers in mind, but for me it is one of the most pleasing aspects of the book, bringing out all of Steve’s complexities and contradictions. There has been a tendency by some people who have claimed to know him of projecting their own ideas onto him.”
But turning to contemporary issues, I asked Mangcu whether he believed that today, with the absence of an enemy, or the absence of an objective such as overturning a racist apartheid government, today’s South Africa lacks direction?
“Well, I don’t like the assumption of the first part of your question – that there was a clearly defined enemy,” Mangcu responded. “It was never like that. People were divided in the way they responded to apartheid, people were scared and there were divisions within the black community. There was never a clearly defined enemy.
“There is a chapter in this book titled ‘Fear’, and that had a lot to do with it. Some blacks simply said they wanted nothing to do with the struggle. They were afraid, including being afraid of each other. And it caused of lot of white people to also say ‘no, we don’t want to lose our privileges’.
“I’m wary to give the impression that there was a glorious past where everyone walked in lockstep. It took leadership to persuade the people to calm those fears. But the ‘absence of an objective’ is wholly relevant to today’s generation. And I put that down to the current absence of real political leadership in South Africa!”
I asked Mangcu that some might claim that the leadership vacuum is now being taken up by the populist ex-ANC Youth Leader, Julius Malema. Mangcu has some interesting observations on
“Malema typifies this lack of leadership. It boggles the mind that this young man with really no political sophistication – well, I am going to rephrase that, as he has political sophistication in his own way, but not a political sophistication that we have always had in our leadership – should now emerge.
“He just comes up and fills the void. And I think it is frankly hypocritical for the ANC now, having used him to protect the leadership, to protect the government, and to have used him to unseat Thabo Mbeki, to now expel him.
“Remember, Malema was making far, far more radical statements when he was in Zuma’s favours, when Mbeki was president, than what he is saying now.”
Given that South Africa has had such a traumatic last few months, with the Marikana disaster fresh in everybody’s memory, when police shot dead 34 miners, an obvious question to put to Mangcu was to ask how Biko’s legacy might serve to inspire a way forward.
Mangcu said he had always been dismissive of this question, as Biko was no longer with us, “but so many people have been asking this question, I have come to the conclusion that the most defining element of Steve’s leadership was his continuing and total involvement with the local community. That is something I saw with my own eyes.
“He was always using his mind, churning out ideas. He was, in my estimation, an intellectual leader as much as a political leader. Even when he switched his studies from medicine to law, believing that law was a more appropriate subject for him and his activist work, he was failing academically as he was spending so much time with the Black Consciousness Movement, and with his community projects.”
This determination that Biko had to build the Movement up from the grassroots – to provide essential services to the otherwise disadvantaged people in the community – would probably come as a revelation to many readers of this new biography.
Quoting from the book, we learn: “According to Steve, there were three dimensions to the work of the Black Consciousness Movement in his area.” These are defined as a community clinic; developing home industries for employment creation; and the setting up of an education fund and creche. He was empowering the people through establishing projects – health centres, income earning jobs and schools. These were delivering the sorts of social services that the minority apartheid government was continually failing to.
Mangcu describes the way his own family interacted with the Movement, as a farm owned by his family provided the borehole and water pipes used at the Zanempilo Health Clinic. In charge of the clinic was Mamphele Ramphele, Steve Biko’s girlfriend.
The book quotes Biko in describing the ambitious nature of the Zanempilo project: “[Its creation] is part of a wider and more general health project introduced by the Black Community Programmes in Eastern Cape. The aim of the project is to provide the black community with essential services of a medical nature, both curative and preventative, which are often sadly lacking in the ‘resettlement areas’.”
We also learn from Mangcu that a Mrs Nonezile Nondalana, who worked as a cleaner at the clinic, calling Biko endearingly “umntana ka mama” (“my mother’s child”), confirms that Biko totally transformed the community.
People came from far and wide to the clinic because it was the only primary health care centre in the region. According to Ramphele: “Zanempilo could be said to have been the earliest primary health care project in South Africa.”
Yet Mangcu says that Zanempilo was more than just a clinic: “It soon became the place where the nucleus of the Movement would converge to discuss important matters.”
Ramphele also confirms that “Zanempilo became a guesthouse for visitors from far and wide who came to see the project or consult with Steve Biko over a range of issues. These visits increased as Biko’s stature increased both nationally and internationally.”
However, as this book makes clear, while Biko was certainly a great leader, he was never above criticism. While Ramphele would probably hesitate to comment on Biko’s private life, many do, including on the matter of the many women he had relationships with, as well as the drinking, the bad temper, the stubbornness and, at times, arrogance.
Mangcu quotes one of Biko’s many friends, Bokwe Mafuna, who described him as “a prophet, not a saint”. He was also a prankster, according to Mangcu. “He was a funny, easygoing guy. He had a great sense of humour. He did not take himself too seriously. He was persuasive.
“He also had white friends, which was anomalous. I have personal experience of that, as I used to see them coming to his house, and I used to play with their children. He was a Black Consciousness Movement leader, and he did not want white people in the movement, but on a social basis he had many white friends. And he had a lot of white girlfriends.
“People try to dismiss Steve as anti-white, but nothing is further from the truth. He was not afraid of his political interlocutors; he could disagree with someone but still be a friend. That’s something that is completely missing in South Africa today. That’s a sign of real leadership.
“He saw no contradiction in his relationship with white people. He used to say to his white friends: ‘The relationship I have with you, which is based on the principle of mutual respect, is the kind of relationship that I want black and white people in this country to have in general, and that is why I am leading the Movement.”
The Movement also had a pivotal role in saving the now ruling African National Congress (ANC). Mangcu describes how: “In 1976, following the student uprising, a lot of young people went into exile and they were aligned with the ANC. But the ANC was divided, between the ‘Africanists’ (or nationalists) and the communists.
“For the first time, there was an infusion of Black Consciousness Movement youths that strengthened the hand of Oliver Thambo who was having a tussle with the communist wing.
“I would say that the ANC, in effect, piggy-backed on the work that the Black Consciousness Movement had undertaken in the country, and that is why there is some anger at the ANC’s failure to recognise the Movement’s role in supporting the party to survive in exile and return to the country when it was unbanned to take over power.”
Nevertheless, Biko’s death at the hands of the police ensures that the Movement’s leader will always be remembered by South Africans.
Arrested by the police at a roadblock on the Grahamstown-King William’s Town Road (he was defying a banning order to stay within the confines of King William’s Town), Biko was taken to a police station in Port Elizabeth were he was stripped naked and manacled. Transferred to the security force’s notorious Sanlam Building in Port Elizabeth, he was interrogated and brutally assaulted. Some three weeks after his arrest and detention, Biko, having sustained a massive brain haemorrhage, was put in the back of a police van to be driven to Pretoria, naked, manacled and unconscious.
He was to die shortly after arriving at Pretoria’s prison hospital. As Sydney Kentridge describes it, he died “a miserable and lonely death on a mat on a stone floor in a prison cell”.
Towards the end of this impressive book, Mangcu writes that “the essence of South Africa’s current malaise [is that] interests instead of values have taken over our political culture. This is a far cry from Steve Biko’s approach to politics.”
To Mangcu, the Black Consciousness Movement is a way of life. “It is more than an ideology. The Movement is just as relevant now; it is a way of creatively engaging with a hostile world,” Mangcu says.
“Biko was 20 or 21 when he began the Movement. He was 31 when they killed him. He was a member of that generation. He posed the question: ‘How do we develop consciousness about our place in the world, and how can we change it?’
“I cannot think of a more relevant political philosophy than that. What the Black Consciousness Movement did was to equip us with a new way of progressive thinking, on a mass scale … now that is unusual.”
As Nelson Mandela states in a tribute he penned that opens Mangcu’s book on Biko: “Steve lives on in the galaxy of brave and courageous leaders who helped shape democratic South Africa. May we never cease celebrating his life.”