Steve Biko Memorial Lecture 2012 Speech by Ben Okri




Biko and the Tough Alchemy of Africa

The Sharpeville massacre of 1966 with its unforgettable images that seared themselves into the consciousness of the world was one of those world events that awoke us from our moral sleep. I was roughly the same age as the children being slaughtered in that famous picture and it instantly made me aware that our fates are one. I don't know how other people in other continents saw that picture but from that day I too became a black South African and we suffered with you in your sufferings and willed you on in your struggles.
You have no idea what you mean in the historic consciousness of the world. Sometimes it seems that awful things in history happen to compel us to achieve the impossible, to challenge our idea of humanity. Your struggle mirrored around the world, is one of the greatest struggles of our times. It poses and continues to pose the biggest questions facing humanity; massive philosophical questions that have never really been tackled by the great thinkers of the human race. These are some of the questions which your history posed: Are human beings really equal? Is justice fundamental to humanity or is justice a matter of law? Is there evil? Can different races really live together? Is love unreal in human affairs? Why is there so much suffering? Why do some people seem to suffer more than others? Can the will of a people overcome great injustice? Can a people transform their lives and their society through the power of a new vision? Does God exist and is God unfair?
All across the continent and everywhere where human love responds to the suffering of others, these questions were nagging kind of music. All across Africa these questions troubled us - and among the voices that articulated a profoundly bold and clear response to these big questions of fate, injustice and destiny, one big voice pierced our minds was that of Steve Biko. One of my points of affinity with Biko is with his rigour and his high-standards of expectation of the human and the African spirit. He asks fundamental questions like: Who are you? What are you? Are you what others say you are? What is your selfhood? What makes you a man or a woman? He asks questions which will be relevant in hundreds of years time, questions which are an inevitable part of a free society. We need to reincarnate Biko's rigour, his high-standards and his forensic questioning of society and of all of his assumptions. We need to keep alive Biko's fierce and compassionate truthfulness. In fact, we need Biko's spirit now more than ever. If he were here today he might well ask such questions: Is the society just? Are we being truthful about one another? Has there been a real change of attitudes and assumptions on both sides of the racial divide? He might have expressed concerns about the police reaction to the striking miners of Marikana. He would have said that it does not need to be said that the murders and the use of apartheid law to try the miners are shocking to the international community and that it has disturbing resonances with his own death. He might well ask: Has there been reconciliation without proper consideration? He might ask whether the things that he fought against have merely mutated like certain cancerous cells. It is a strange kind of fate for Biko to have suffered for in being so unjustly cut down so early, he remains for us perpetually poised in the stance of his difficult questions.
And to think of Biko is to have these questions always come alive in our minds. He is like Kafka's axe that can always be used against the frozen seas of lies and hidden attitudes that fog up the flow of a society's possibilities. He is a figure of constant truth that will continue to haunt the history of this nation as it negotiates through time the continued hidden legacy of Apartheid. It is not surprising that his most famous work is called I write what I Like. In a sense Biko transcends politics and has in him something of the terrible integrity of the true artist, one who with hammer-blows will relentlessly pursue his vision of exalted truth regardless of its consequences. In that sense Biko is more than just the unfinished conscience of this land; he is also that finger pointing at the only acceptable future: a life and a society in which citizens can be proud of what they are. Biko's spirit is permanently, fantastically set against the humiliation of man and woman. His spirit is set against the mediocrity of consciousness, the mediocrity of a consciousness that lives without a sense of what has happened to others. He is not an easy guy. He does not like laziness or lazy thinking. He has the rigour of a young man who will not accept that a decent life is impossible for his people. He will not accept that an agreement has been reached without frank and exhausted dialogue. He may well think that too much has been given away too soon. He may even think that the people who have not honestly acknowledged the death of the injustice they inflicted on others may still in fact harbour deceits of those injustices.
In many ways Biko reminds me of Nietzsche; he did not trust pity and he might have thought forgiveness not really forgiving till the fire of truth has been brought into the consciousness of the one to be forgiven. Generosity without steel can be a weak thing, just as steel without generosity can be a cruel thing. This may be one of the real tragedy of Biko's death. The apartheid struggle needed a dual strand: its hard and is gentle; its sternness and its compassion; its fire and its water. With the murder of Biko some tougher questions which would have been insisted upon might have found a more authentic advocate. 
The fact is that a nation cannot escape from itself and from all of its truths and all of its lies. If its lies linger too long in the unspoken dialogue of a people, sooner or later they will lead to unpleasantness. Even though Biko be absent, the people in the shanty-towns, the poor and the hungry feel the shadow of those lies, feel the pointedness in their lives of the questions that Biko might be asking today. I think I'm going to have some water.
Extracted from the 2012 Steve Biko Memorial Lecture delivered by Ben Okri

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