Book review – The man of my memory

2013-03-17 10:00

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Erika Oosthuyzen and Xolela Mangcu, the author of Biko: A Biography, grew up in parallel universes in the same town that Steve Biko lived in. She remembers her Biko awakening?.?.?.

Among the many wonderful books I have worked on, the one closest to my heart is Xolela Mangcu’s book on Steve Biko. Both Xolela and I grew up in King William’s Town, he in Ginsberg township and myself on the other side of town in the “white” section – we are the same age but never met in the apartheid 1970s. Yet we both met Biko and in different ways were touched by him.

The Biko house is on the street behind the Mangcus’ and Steve’s mother, MamCethe, often sat on the stoep as the young Xolela passed by. Today, he regrets not talking to her more.

Xolela often ran behind or jumped on to the bakkie of the Zanempilo Health Project driven by Biko to and from the clinic where he worked after his banishment to his hometown.

The banning order made it impossible for Biko to continue studying medicine in Durban, so he set off in a new direction, studying law through Unisa.

My mother, a lecturer at a teachers’ college in Zwelitsha, another “King” township, invigilated Unisa examinations, and got to know Biko when, on a particularly hot Eastern Cape day, he was one of only two students who had to write an exam in the sweltering Masonic Hall. (The other was a young African police officer, striving for a promotion.)

My mother promptly moved the examination to the ­air-conditioned cool of our dining room. She took to Biko – by all accounts it was difficult not to be impressed by him – and met the equally unforgettable Mamphela Ramphele when she too was writing a Unisa exam.

In the 70s, a legal qualification required at least Afrikaans “spes” (special), no matter how many other languages a student knew. Biko struggled with Afrikaans and started coming to our house to practise. He ignored the ban on being with more than one person at a time and joked that he would look at only one of my parents at a time. To me, he was just one of my parents’ many black visitors and I did not notice him particularly.

My father, a minister to a Xhosa congregation, had long discussions in his study with various umfundisis and umvangelis to whom I sometimes mumbled a

greeting in passing.

When Xolela and I were 11, Steve Biko was murdered.

He was stopped at a roadblock on his way back from a banned visit to Cape Town. The police officer who arrested him shares my Afrikaans surname.

Colonel Alf Oosthuizen could not pronounce Biko’s name correctly. Days later, the man was dead.

Xolela remembers opening the door to Biko’s cousin, the usually buoyant Forbes Nyathi, who in a strained voice asked to speak to Mrs Mangcu. The news had just reached Ginsberg.

Xolela was among the crowd that gathered at the school, searching for words, searching for sense and a way of reacting.

I remember my all-white Hoërskool De Vos Malan school being shut for the day and whispered talk among the students about the “dangerous blacks”. My parents were warned against going to the funeral.

Xolela recalls the funeral well, every detail etched into his memory: the sorrow, the disbelief, the outrage and the horror. He was there, barefoot and wide-eyed. It left him changed and charged with a mission to keep alive the legacy and Biko’s thinking, as challenging and fresh and crucial today as back then.

It is through his thinking that I came back to Biko. Professor Johannes Degenaar, maligned by the Stellenbosch University establishment, pushed into a small separate department where he could not “contaminate” the minds of too many students, taught the most stimulating and enriching course to the children in his classes. For children we were – cossetted, privileged and unexposed to what was happening in our country.

In 1981, Intro to Political Philosophy 142 consisted of readings from nationalism, liberalism, Marxism and black consciousness.

The last recorded interview with Steve Biko was one of our handouts along with writings by Richard Turner, Jakes Gerwel and Curtis Nkondo. But it was Biko’s lucid and powerful reasoning that swept us along, as well as his humility and willingness to engage.

I spent hours in the university library searching the huge, unwieldy, bound books in which newspapers from 1977 and 1978 were compiled chronologically. I had known that Biko and Turner were murdered.

But reading those newspapers, the news unfolded as if it was happening right before my eyes. I was consumed by an impotent rage and sadness, but mostly I felt hatred for the Afrikaners I was one of, as well as for the National Party.

On a visit home to King William’s Town, we went in search of Biko’s grave. After a few false starts on the dirt roads around the railway line, we finally found a small sand mound, out of sight and hard to reach through various gates and fences. My boyfriend took a photograph. The one plastic wreath was tatty and half broken. This was in 1986.

The grave has been rehabilitated since.?The man has been rehabilitated, too – witness the foreword to Xolela’s book by Nelson Mandela.

The liberation movement has become proud to have Biko among its heroes.

But what about his ideas? What about his astonishingly complete – considering that he died when he was 30 – and compelling argument for self-definition, confidence, self-reliance? And what about his call for a new joint culture where we all are worthy of respect and have self-confidence?

In an era where protest focuses on service “delivery” and where politics is about how to get close to those in power and bask in their handouts, questions about our painful past and who we are are avoided.

Our “woundedness”, in Mamphela Ramphele’s term, continues to haunt us. We have not dealt adequately with that which divides us or striven sufficiently for a new joint culture, as envisaged by Biko.

As for myself, I cannot read Isigidimi samaXhosa, the young Biko admirer Unathi Kondile’s newspaper. I cannot follow Simphiwe Dana’s songs.

In working on Xolela’s book on Biko, I was restoring myself as a South African.

It is easy to claim admiration for Biko from the safety of the present and many fight to be seen as the true bearers of his legacy.

I believe the man himself would have approved whenever his short life and his enduring thinking inspired discussion, differences of opinion and a rethinking of too-easily assumed and too-lightly won consensus.

To me, the biggest tragedy is that Biko might have been our president today, had he lived?.?.?.

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