Celebrating Steve Biko’s life

2008-09-09 00:00

As the nation prepares for the 31st commemoration of the death of black consciousness leader Steve Biko, the words of liberation icon Nelson Mandela come to mind: “Steve lives on in the galaxy of brave and courageous leaders who helped shape democratic South Africa. May we never cease celebrating his life.” This was said by the former president to mark the 25th year since Biko died.

Mandela went on: “Living, he was the spark that lit a veld fire across South Africa. His message to the youth and students was simple and clear: black is beautiful. And with that he inspired our youth to shed themselves of the sense of inferiority they were born into as a result of more than three centuries of white rule.”

From what Mandela said about Biko, it becomes clear that South Africa has a great challenge on its hands. All of us across the political, religious, class and education divide, have to find a way to celebrate the life of Biko.

The government has done its bit by building a heritage site in the Eastern Cape in remembrance of Biko. As I understand it, there is a large Biko statue in that province to remind the nation of this martyr of the liberation struggle. Some work has been done on his grave in Ginsberg, also in the Eastern Cape.

Last year, I attended a book launch that was funded by the Department of Arts and Culture at the Gallagher Estate in Johannesburg. It took place under the rubric: “We Write What We Like”. We were addressed by MP and Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo) deputy president Phandelani Nefolovhodwe.

Biko, of course, travelled the length and breadth of this country and it is up to all of us, wherever we may be, to find a way in which to celebrate his life. This is because, knowing what we know about Mandela, we can be sure that when he says: “May we never cease celebrating his life”, he means all of us in this country, not just blacks.

There may be some among us who feel that Biko’s life was not relevant to them. But that can’t be allowed to happen in a democratic country like ours. Read what a white journalist, Donald Woods, had to say about Biko, just four days after he was killed.

Writing for the Observer in London, Woods said: “As one who knew Steve Biko as the closest best friend a man could ever have, I write of his death with pain and anger.

“I have worked as a political journalist in several countries in the world and have met or interviewed a number of statesmen and politicians, but none in Britain or America or Canada or Germany or anywhere else, ever had for me the stature, the brilliance and the greatness of Steve Biko.”

From the above therefore, it would seem that we, as a nation, need to work together in celebrating the life of Steve Biko, as encouraged by leaders like Mandela.

This is because, even though this country has been a democracy for the past 14 years, we still face some very tough challenges. What is more, many of these problems are still coloured by the policies of the years before we achieved our democracy. At some point soon we, as a people, must put an end to these problems so that we can move towards the future that Biko envisaged for us.

Biko himself put it well when he answered a question from a European journalist way back in 1977.

“Do you see a country in which black and white can live amicably on equal terms?” the journalist asked.

In reply, Biko said: “That is correct. We see a completely nonracial society. We don’t believe in, for instance, the so-called guarantees for minority rights, because guaranteeing minority rights implies the recognition of portions of the community on a race basis. We believe that in our country there shall be no minority, there shall be no majority, just the people.”

It would seem, therefore, that when we make sure that we never cease celebrating Biko’s life, we will both be rightfully honouring him for the role he played in our freedom as well as respecting the wishes of none other than Nelson Mandela.

• Bhungani ka Mzolo is the deputy director of communication for the Health Department. However, these are his personal views.

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