Biko, the Thorn, The Flame

By MATHATHA TSEDU – Daily Dispatch, 30 November 2012

THE policemen and their political masters who killed Bantu Biko in prison on September 12 1977 had at least two aims in mind. First, to remove the man who was a trouble-maker, a thorn and a "communist", who was threatening white supremacy with his black consciousness (BC) ideology. Second, to stem the tide of resistance through the subjugation of BC because the philosophy and ideology had created what was effectively the only resistance instrument operating above board in all spheres of life across the country. And it was towards the fulfilment of the latter that a month and seven days after killing Biko, they banned everything that had any connection to him.

They sat back and expected the black population to be cowed and relent and buy into the tribalisation of Africans which was the underpinning point of bantustans. It did not happen, because, as Peter Gabriel sings in his song, Biko, "You can blow out a candle, but you can't blow out a fire; once the flames begin to catch, the wind will blow it higher." Biko at 29 had started the flame and the wind of resistance was just blowing higher.

It was to turn into an avalanche of recruits for the ANC, PAC and later BCMA, in exile, thus rejuvenating what was in all seriousness a moribund armed struggle. The liberation of Mozambique two years before Biko was killed had added impetus to the hope of victory. And after Biko was laid to rest, it took Zimbabwe only three years to overthrow Ian Smith and his Rhodesia and the creation of a democratic Zimbabwe under Zanu. Zimbabwe's liberation was a "yes-wetoo-can" moment, energising South Africa. The energy of the youth, both in the training camps in Angola, Libya, Tanzania and Zambia, and inside South Africa through different youth formations, testified to the flame lit by Biko, who was himself a youth when he was killed, according to the age limit of political organisations, which is 35. But Biko was no ordinary youth.

The clarity of thought and the totality of commitment, judged against the youth leadership of today, is mind boggling. Whether it was politics or culture or rugby, he knew his stuff. His writing even today speaks to what T D Allman, an American journalist, calls getting not only the facts of today right, but "the meaning of events right. It [the writing] is compelling not only today, but stands the test of time. It is validated not only by reliable sources but by the unfolding of history." Indian writer Vandan Shiva speaks of "subjugated knowledge" that fights for space against "dominant knowledge". Biko was the epitome of both. His analysis of the black condition and what needed to be done then, over 30 years ago, stands even more relevant today as those in power behave as if 1994 and liberation still have to happen.

The need to shake off inferiority complexes amongst blacks that keep many of us in awe of whites, is a demand made for 2012 South Africa, as we see government officials loot state coffers, fail to deliver books to their own children, and use state resources to build resorts for their large families. Biko could have gone middle class but didn't. He could have cut a deal with Colonel Piet Goosen and his torture team, but didn't. Instead he fought for subjugated knowledge, the need for blacks to be called blacks and not what they were not, like "non-whites", despite the fact that in both media and official policy, "bantu" and "non-whites" were the dominant knowledge and usage.

And so, beaten to a pulp, dragged dying on a 1 600km ride in the back of a van with water as his only provision, he was to die in Pretoria prison, being given Panado to heal brain damage. His killers hoped they would stem the tide, that they would obliterate him from the face of the earth and our memories. How wrong! The opening of the Steve Biko Centre in his home township of Ginsberg outside King William's Town in the Eastern Cape today is a testament of the staying power of Biko. The stone, as Bob Marley sings, that had been rejected by the builder, has become the cornerstone of our rehabilitation as a people.

TODAY our country marks yet another milestone in its cultural renewal. The Steve Biko Centre, in Ginsberg , will be officially opened. Built to honour, celebrate and promote Biko's legacy, the centre is the second of its kind, after the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Its successful construction of the centre is remarkable in more than one way. For one, it underscores the multiplicity of actors and diversity of moments that propelled South Africa into liberation. Some within South Africa's liberation movements have felt their role in liberation politics has not been sufficiently recognised. Official attention and prominence, they lament, has been lavished more on events and individuals associated with the party-in-government.

The unveiling of the Biko Centre not only sets the record straight, but goes a long way in bridging the schism among the liberation movements. The construction of the centre has been funded largely by the Department of Arts and Culture, following a decision by cabinet that the centre must be adopted as a legacy project, alongside Robben Island and Freedom Park. Of course, much more still remains to be done. PAC founder Robert Mangaliso Sobukhwe, has not been memorialised in any telling manner. At another level, the centre is befitting of Biko's acute appreciation of the importance of memory and identity in the life of individuals and a nation. A sense of selfworth is critical for self-agency. People develop self-confidence that they can do whatever they set their minds to do.

Self-confidence, however, comes from knowing oneself. Apartheid ideologues knew this. Hence, they erased pre-colonial history and distorted the history of Africans during colonialism and apartheid. Biko was alert to this distortion. People's identity is formed by what they know of themselves. Thus Biko insisted that, rather than believe what the Bantu Education curriculum told them, black people had to independently study their own history. Recalling the heroic history and civilisations of pre-colonial Africa would disprove racist assertions that precolonial Africa was without any achievements prior to the arrival of settlers. Consequently, blacks would develop a positive self-image.

The student uprising in 1976 validated Biko. Black students refused to be taught in a language - Afrikaans - that sought to make them feel inferior, and demanded equal education instead. Once they believed they were worthy of equal treatment, black students could never tolerate oppression. Their actions reinvigorated the liberation struggle and some left the country to join liberation movements in exile. South Africa was never the same. The centre, therefore, is more than a memorialisation of Steven Bantu Biko. It is a monument to memory and identity. The centre will boast of, among other things, a museum and an archival centre, as well as a commemorative garden "honouring human rights activists". The centre will be connected to other heritage sites linked to Biko such as the Biko Statue, Zanempilo Clinic and Biko's home, office and grave. Each of these sites tell a different episode of Biko's life.

Equally important is that the centre is part of the Liberation Heritage Route being spearheaded by the National Heritage Council. The route connects Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement to the broader anti-colonial struggle dating back to the wars of resistance at the close of the 18th century into the 19th century. The idea is to illustrate that resistance did not only start in the 20th century Union of South Africa. Biko is as much a part of that 18th and 19th century anti-colonial history, as he would be of the 20th century. Not only was he inspired by the heroic history of the anti-colonial warriors, but he was also a product of the missionary schools built as part of spreading colonialism. As the historian Noel Mostert tells us in his book on the Eastern Cape, Frontiers, Biko represented the last generation of missionary graduates. The Eastern Cape is indeed a "province of legends". We hope the centre will bring pupils, scholars and tourists from throughout the world to experience the life of Steve Biko, and that businesses too will take advantage of the facilities offered at the centre. This is a new beginning not only for Ginsberg, but our country as a whole.

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