Not the whole story

2012-10-12 00:00

THIS week I found myself searching for Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko in the pages of Xolela Mangcu’s latest book, which has been described as the first comprehensive biography on the man. I didn’t find him there.

Instead, I found him in the conversations I had with old friends from the Eastern Cape. They were at school at the time and were mentored by Biko. More than 35 years later, we are still friends and they continue to endeavour to live their lives as he taught them — with dignity, self-respect and finding ways of working towards a more humane world.

This is why Mangcu’s book is so disappointing. The author presents his own understanding of Biko, which is a plausible but narrow view. Biko’s legendary charisma hardly shines through in the pages, and the context — the changing world of the sixties and seventies — is barely considered. Mangcu, instead, posits his own theory of the making of Biko, the revolutionary. He links this to his Xhosa heritage, “tracing specific themes of Black Consciousness to the 19th century and earlier Xhosa chiefs and intellectuals”.

Black Consciousness activist Andile Mngxitama has slated this “Xhosalisation” of Biko in his review of the book in the Mail and Guardian, and says he is grateful that Biko’s own writings exist. I agree. To get a true measure of the man, it is still worth reading I Write What I Like.

My friend McGlory Speckman, who I called to vent my frustration to after reading the book, wisely said: “Everybody reads into Steve Biko what they want to.”

Then I told him what I’d forgotten to say in the more than 30 years since I first knew him: “I think I got to know who Biko was through you and Phila Nkayi, through Roger Faltein and Gilbert Thompson, and all you cheeky young buggers who got expelled from school because of your political activities.”

They were all barely 15 and 16 at the time, but they had such confidence and maturity that although I was at university and slightly older, I learnt a lot from them.

Most remarkable was that despite the numerous spells they spent in detention, especially Speckman and Nkayi, and although they were tortured and severely beaten during those occasions, they emerged unbroken, without rancour and still committed to fighting apartheid and making the world a better place. Speckman went on to become a priest and an academic. Although I am not in touch with Nkayi, I know if we met tomorrow it would be a warm reunion.

The young pupils formed themselves into a youth group and it was at this time that they came under Biko’s influence. Speckman says they used to go to Ginsberg every Friday for meetings. Biko’s home, known as the corner house, was always full of people and a hive of activity. It was a heady time of reading, discussions and debate. He recalled discussions of African thinkers like Frantz Fanon and Leopold Senghor, as well as what was going on with the American Black Power movement. In the discussions, Biko would synthesise the ideas and relate them to what was happening locally. For him, Black Consciousness was a state of mind: “… to make the black man come to himself; to pump life back into his empty shell, to infuse him with pride and dignity, and to remind him of his own complicity in the crime of allowing himself to be misused”.

One of the ways the Black Consciousness Movement tried to empower people and get them to believe in themselves and their abilities was through community projects. Speckman says that was what our generation was about. “I remember when Steve died. I had just come out of detention and we had this organisation called Delta and one of the projects was a community newspaper, Izwi laseRhini [The Voice of Grahamstown]. Guy Berger was the co-ordinator. Remember how we were up all night with Phila and me translating the English copy into Xhosa?”

We went straight from working all night to Biko’s funeral. Perhaps this was fortuitous. I remember getting onto an early bus and making it all the way to King William’s Town. The buses that left later never made it — they were stopped by the police.

That was all a long time ago and yet what Biko started lives on. I told Speckman of meeting another of our young protégés, Lindile Jela. He also worked on the newspaper and, quite by chance, I bumped into him at the Msunduzi Municipality. He is still concerned about the poor and has been working on upliftment projects in the Edendale area.

And I recalled an earlier article I’d written about another Black Consciousness legacy — the Umtapo Centre, right here in KZN. The chairperson of the board is Biko’s old friend Ben Khoapa. Umtapo, without pomp and fanfare, has gone about changing the lives of young people throughout the country through peace clubs.

Mangcu may have captured an important part of the Biko story, but there is certainly much more to be said.

• Biko: A Biography by Xolela Mangcu is published by Tafelberg.

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