Vigilance doesn’t end with freedom

2012-09-15 10:11

Murdered anti-apartheid icon Steve Biko’s legacy of black consciousness entranced the audience at the 13th memorial lecture delivered by ­Nigerian writer Ben Okri in Cape Town on Wednesday.

It marked the 35th anniversary of Biko’s death at the hands of apartheid police. When he spoke about black consciousness in his five-part lecture, Okri said he was not “advocating civil unrest, but that people are complicit in how their societies are run and histories turn out.

“There is a micro and a macro ­dimension of black consciousness. The people cannot come awake in their oppression and fall right back asleep after their liberation. Continued wakefulness is the burden of black consciousness.”

He also said that the “challenge of our times has always been the challenge of leadership. People can only be as liberated as its leaders are. Black consciousness says that in liberating your mind, you should be your own leader. Everyone carries the burden of leadership.

The leaders you have say something about the kind of people you are. Previously, leadership was considered an isolated responsibility. We blamed our leaders for our failures. The ­micro responsibility of black consciousness requires we should blame ourselves for our leaders for they are what we have enabled them to become.”

Okri spoke like a preacher. His voice was soothing, his tone was smooth. He didn’t race through his prepared speech. He paced himself so that his words could resonate with an audience seemingly awaiting inspiration.

At some point, the gathering felt like a well-behaved political rally. Then it also resembled the Oprah Winfrey TV show with plenty of clapping hands at the right time. The gathering was wrapped up in a heart-warming aura – a trance, perhaps – and swirled in the words of a literary Olympian.

Okri reminded the audience of Biko’s writing and acknowledged previous speakers invited to deliver the memorial lecture organised by the Steve Biko Foundation.

These include former South ­African presidents Nelson ­Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, former South African finance minister Trevor Manuel, acclaimed American writer Alice Walker and Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe.

Okri reflected on Biko’s legacy: “We need Biko’s spirit now more than ever.

“Biko is that finger pointing at the only acceptable future: a life and a society in which citizens can be proud of what they are . . . He is not an easy guide. 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 did not trust pity. And he might have thought forgiveness is not really forgiving, until the fight of truth has been brought into the consciousness of the one to be forgiven. May the vengeance for (Biko’s) torture and slaughter be the constant coming into being of a beautiful South Africa. Where the frisson between the races be ­always creative and compel them towards dynamic harmony.”

Okri’s call to Africans, meanwhile, was to “pass the word along the five great rivers of Africa . . . Pass on the word that there are three Africas. The one we see every day. The one they write about. And the real, magical Africa we don’t see unfolding through all the difficulties of our time, like a quiet miracle. Infect the world with your light. Press forward the ­human genius. Our future is ­greater than our past.”

On Biko, he added: “From his grave, may a thousand dreams of freedom rise.”

After the lecture, Okri met Biko’s widow, Nontsikelelo, and his sister, Nobandile.

Nontsikelelo said: “I ­always look at the number of people that come to the lecture. I get excited when I see a lot of youth. Our focus is on youth and to continue with the legacy of Steve.

“Black consciousness philosophy is here to stay. It will always be relevant. It makes people aware of who they are.”

Okri also met Biko’s sons, ­Nkosinathi and Samora, as well as their families.

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