Book Extract | Black to the future

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Graffiti of Steve Biko on a wall in Soweto in 2017. Photo: Getty Images
Graffiti of Steve Biko on a wall in Soweto in 2017. Photo: Getty Images

BOOKS


In 1968, two young medical students, Steve Biko and Mamphela Ramphele, fell in love while dreaming of a life free from oppression and racial discrimination. In Black Consciousness: A Love Story, Hlumelo Biko movingly recounts his parents’ love story and how the Black Consciousness movement’s message of black self-love and self-reliance helped to change the course of South African history.

After being accepted to study medicine at the University of Natal in 1968, my mother, Mamphela Ramphele, was assigned to the Alan Taylor Residence, a complex of buildings that had served as an army barracks during the Second World War. By pure chance, her dorm room was across the passage from that of Vuyelwa Mashalaba, who was a member of the SRC [students’ representative council] alongside my father, Steve Biko.

READ: Remembering Biko and Bizos, and their sacrifices to end discrimination in SA

Vuyelwa, who was in her second year, took my mother – a young rural woman with no friends or family in Natal – under her wing. She introduced her to different types of music, notably Miriam Makeba and classical music. Vuyelwa also helped Mamphela pick out more suitable clothes, sewing some of her best dresses herself, and mentored her in student politics.


Black Consciousness: A Love Story

Publisher: Jonathan Ball Publishers

Price: R275

She helped my mother to understand how campus life worked and, most importantly, began introducing her to some of the young student leaders on campus. My mother’s first exposure to this political environment was when she accompanied Vuyelwa to student assembly meetings called by the SRC at the Alan Taylor Residence.

A large group of students gathered to discuss their role in student politics and to receive reports from the SRC. The medical school was part of the so-called University of Natal Non-European section, which attracted some of the brightest black students in the country. My father and Vuyelwa were part of a small group of black students who sat on the SRC at Howard College on the main campus of the University of Natal, which was strictly reserved for white students.

At the Alan Taylor Residence, Vuyelwa and my mother attended meetings in my father’s room, or in rooms belonging to his fellow activists, where the early ideas of Black Consciousness were being discussed. At that time, all students at the University of Natal still belonged to Nusas [the National Union of SA Students], whose members were drawn from all racial groups.

Mamphela Ramphele. Photo: Leon Sadiki
Mamphela Ramphele. Photo: Leon Sadiki
Steve Biko graces the cover of Drum magazine, as he would today if he were alive. Photo: Drum Magazine
Steve Biko graces the cover of Drum magazine, as he would today if he were alive. Photo: Drum Magazine
Mamphela Ramphele
Dr Mamphela Ramphele, founder of the Agang. Pihoto: Herman Verwey

It was largely thanks to Charles Sibisi, by then a classmate of my mother’s, that these books were accessible to my father and his friends. Charles, who had started his medical training in 1967, was a quiet, highly intelligent, introspective young man. He played a key role in helping to draft documents, plan and orchestrate alliance structures, and challenge linear thinking.

Both his parents were lecturers – his mom, a social anthropologist, taught at Howard College, and his father was a professor of isiZulu at the University College of Zululand. Charles’ parents had access to the main university libraries, and their international network of colleagues and friends ensured that they could obtain the latest literature by black intellectuals from different parts of the globe. According to Barney Pityana, the US consul-general in Durban also took a liking to these young students and assisted them in sourcing additional reading materials.

My mother recounts how she was transfixed by the mature, articulate nature of this group of students. She was most impressed with how well-read they all were. Her competitive instincts kicked in and she did everything she could to sharpen her own intellectual tools of analysis. She quickly caught up with the literature and jargon used so effortlessly by the more urbane student members to diagnose the plight of the oppressed people of South Africa.

By this time my father was a voracious, systematic reader, well-versed in the writings of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Marcus Garvey, WEB Du Bois and Frantz Fanon, to name but a few. These works presented both philosophical tools of analysis and case study material on how people in other countries dealt with oppression in its different forms.

It was largely thanks to Charles Sibisi, by then a classmate of my mother’s, that these books were accessible to my father and his friends. Charles, who had started his medical training in 1967, was a quiet, highly intelligent, introspective young man. He played a key role in helping to draft documents, plan and orchestrate alliance structures, and challenge linear thinking.

Both his parents were lecturers – his mom, a social anthropologist, taught at Howard College, and his father was a professor of isiZulu at the University College of Zululand. Charles’ parents had access to the main university libraries, and their international network of colleagues and friends ensured that they could obtain the latest literature by black intellectuals from different parts of the globe. According to Barney Pityana, the US consul-general in Durban also took a liking to these young students and assisted them in sourcing additional reading materials.

Steve Biko
Graffiti of Steve Biko on a wall in Soweto in 2017. Photo: Getty Images

An essential question this group of politically active students tussled over was how to articulate their independent priorities as so-called non-white students and what organisational format they could use to elect a leadership that could express these priorities in an unapologetic manner. The idea that they needed their own organisation to achieve these goals began to crystallise. Uncle Barney attests to the fact that by 1968 there was no ANC activity in South Africa whatsoever. For all intents and purposes, the banned liberation movement was rudderless and needed a new impetus.

During these early years, the core group of 15 students started to act as a collective and live the values of true non-racialism. The collective consciousness they were developing still lacked a formal structure, but its early manifestations were distinctive. The students sensed that the organisation they would create could be significantly larger in scope than just a student body.

They were all equals, they were meritocratic, everyone’s views mattered, they pulled no punches in both their internal and external discussions, they were respectful but direct, and were robust in the way they argued among themselves. This principled stance shocked outsiders who observed how free they were from apartheid’s racial subclassifications of Indian and coloured people, and how clearly and even-handedly they were able to put white racists in their place.

These students realised that they were joined at the hip by a system that viewed all of them as inferior to white people. Despite this understanding, for the next two years they still continued to classify themselves collectively as “non-whites”. It was only two years later, after they had founded their own student organisation and had some of their most intense conversations about identity, that they decided henceforth to use the term “black”

Naturally, not all 15 students were on the same page about how to move forward. Some of them had a sense of hesitancy in creating an independent organisation, but after they began meeting students from other university campuses it became clear that students around the country needed an empowering political vehicle that could take the lead in creating a positive identity for marginalised South Africans.

Their early interpretations of Black Consciousness forced them to engage each other intellectually on the trivial nature of ethnic differences. They pushed each other to see just how much they had in common as human beings and how the display of unity among the oppressed would, in and of itself, represent a sign of liberation. Showing the majority of citizens how they could act in unison against apartheid would begin to take apart the divide-and-rule principle at the heart of apartheid legislation.

These students threw themselves into the cause of liberation. During this period, student politics was a 24-hour occupation. It required tireless dedication to the search for the best ideas and constant discussion to advance their budding agenda. Every ounce of their natural talent was directed towards the collective endeavour to ensure that they presented a compelling narrative.

It was during these engagements, in mid-1968, that my parents met for the first time. Though my mother had diligently stuck to her studies and made the necessary adjustments to life far from home in the first half of that year, she was soon sucked into campus political life. From her room across the passage, Mamphela had observed Vuyelwa’s busy schedule, which involved her passionate participation in student politics in addition to a full course load as a medical student.

READ: History will judge us harshly if we fail to bring apartheid killers to book

Charles told me that there was a high failure rate among black medical students during that period. One reason was that the course work was challenging and the pace of learning was frenetic. The other reason is that there was embedded scepticism on the part of the lecturers – almost all of whom were white – that the black students were capable of doing the work required. Therefore the smallest infringement of the rules or sign of underperformance would lead to exclusion.

Mashalaba, Goolam “Gees” Abram and Biko were the three black student representatives on the SRC. The trio would meet with their fellow black students in the Alan Taylor Residence to canvass their concerns and attend to their key initiatives. These meetings were characterised by robust, intense debates over existential issues related to student politics, but sometimes they were about mundane administrative matters that could make the students’ lives a little easier. In these first sessions my mother was merely an interested observer.

Ramphele’s presence at these meetings coincided with the first steps taken by my father and his colleagues to form the SA Students’ Organisation, out of which the Black Consciousness movement would later flow.

Biko was emboldened by the founding in July 1967 of the University Christian Movement (UCM) ... a “multiracial” and ecumenical body set up by a group of Anglican and Catholic students together with white liberal students and academics. Pityana was involved in the embryonic stages of the UCM. Almost as soon as they had the idea for the UCM, Basil Moore, Colin Collins and Motlalepule Winifred Kgware met with Barney to solicit his advice on its formation and as a result he served on the executive of the organisation. The UCM grew rapidly, setting up 30 branches at seminaries, universities and teacher training colleges across the country.

Uncle Barney and my father had reconnected in 1967, leading to an invitation by Uncle Barney for my father to address a group of like-minded student leaders at the University College of Fort Hare.

In July of that year, the Nusas national conference was held at Rhodes University in Grahamstown (today Makhanda). This was a seminal event that laid bare the need for a black-run organisation that would truly represent black students.

Black Consciousness: A Love Story is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers


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