Selfless Biko 40 years on

Barney Pityana and Steve Biko’s mother, Alice.
Barney Pityana and Steve Biko’s mother, Alice.

While he was being detained in jail in Port Elizabeth, Barney Pityana read in a newspaper about Stephen Biko’s death. Forty years later, he recalls the shock and grief he felt that day, and how the Black Consciousness Movement leader helped to shape a generation

August 15 1977 was the final occasion I had of speaking to Steve Biko. He was on the phone from his home in Ginsberg, King William’s Town, and wanted counselling on a domestic situation. I spent about an hour on the phone with him and his wife, Ntsiki. Steve was very relaxed. No politics, just family matters.

No sooner had I hung up than a group of security policemen barged into my office at the law firm where I then served as a candidate attorney. I was detained and locked up at the Baakens Street Police Station in the Port Elizabeth. No reason was given for my detention, except that I was being held under section 6 of the Terrorism Act.

This was not the first time. I had become accustomed to spending time in detention or under arrest for one contravention of the banning orders or another; held incommunicado; or in solitary confinement without any contact with the outside world.

A few days later, the police told me with unashamed alacrity that my friends Steve Biko and Peter Jones had also been arrested. We were detained and arrested so frequently that it was no surprise that we were once again spending time in jail.

But the morning after September 12, the constable who stood guard at my cell was changed without announcement or ceremony. A young white constable replaced him. No explanation. Upon seeing me, the young man expressed shock to find me under arrest. It turned out that he had been the orderly at the magistrate’s court where I used to appear. As a candidate attorney, I had by then been granted permission to appear in the court.

He had been warned that he was to guard a very dangerous terrorist. I do not think he believed it any longer. Unbeknown to the security police, he was in awe of me as an attorney. He allowed me to read his Afrikaans daily newspaper, something he was not supposed to do.

Pain and anger

Thus it was that, a few days later, I read a speech by then justice minister JT Kruger addressing a National Party conference. There, he announced that Steve Biko had died due to a hunger strike. Kruger and his audience indulged in a mockery of this tragedy.

Shocked to the point of numbness, I ran back to the cell, and cried and cried and cried. Never before or since had I experienced such a total sense of loss and loneliness. Above all, I remember the pain and anger I felt, and the helplessness and powerlessness.

As if by way of premonition, on the night that I now know that Steve died, I dreamt that he and I were in an animated conversation. Once again, it was about his family and how he might not be there for much longer. I took this to be a joke in the context of the frivolity and banter that characterised this conversation. As fate would have it, that was the very last “conversation” I had with Steve.

My response to these catastrophic events – to deal with my anger, grief and sense of loss – was to go on a hunger strike, alone. I had not seen the security police since they announced the arrests of Steve and Peter. I was never interrogated. I did not have a clue about what happened to both men. I did not even know where they were held.

A few days before Steve’s funeral, I was removed from Baakens Street Police Station, and driven to Alexandria Police Station, far away, to continue with my detention. That meant I was not able to attend the funeral, or join comrades and family in mourning and seeing to his last rites, and bid farewell to a dear friend and comrade.

Later, I was moved from Alexandria to Grahamstown. I was thus kept in detention continuously until August 18 1978. The previous banning order having expired while I was in jail, I was served with a new one on my release. The latest one prescribed that I was not to be admitted as an attorney or attend court, except as an accused, or set foot in any premises where the practice of a lawyer was being undertaken.

It was not until February 6 1996 that I was eventually admitted and enrolled as an attorney at the Cape High Court.

Bantu Stephen Biko become a part of my life’s journey from the time we were together in the IVa class at Lovedale in 1963. Steve was, as always, a personable character; easy to make friends with. As a student, he was highly intelligent. We became very good friends. But that was cut short when we were all expelled from school in August that year. I completed school at Newell High in New Brighton. Steve was fortunate enough to transfer to St Francis School in Mariannhill, Natal. We encountered each other when we were both at university. Steve went to the University of Natal Medical School. I enrolled to study law at the University of Fort Hare.

What brought us together at this time was student politics. We found each other once again at student conferences. At these events, we took positions that sought to challenge both the political system of apartheid, and the politics of both church and the secular liberal organisations we attended for being moderate and focusing on the interests of white students and the sensitivities of the white establishment. Steve was vivacious – a popular lad, sociable and the soul of the party. During holidays, I stayed at Steve’s home and, at least once, he stayed at our home in Port Elizabeth. What, in retrospect, I think attracted me to him was what made him attractive to girls – he was intelligent, engaged in conversation and debate, and was knowledgeable. He was fun to be with. Above all, Steve had empathy, treated friends with respect and showed a great deal of feeling. Yes, he was, as everyone else knows, a charismatic figure.

Our journey as student activists saw us debate and discuss some of the strategic matters that occupied our minds. He led the walk-out from the National Union of SA Students (Nusas) conference at Rhodes University in July 1967. He led a black caucus at the University Christian Movement conference in Stutterheim in 1968. On campus at the Allan Taylor Residence in Wentworth, Durban, he was an influential student leader, even though he held no official position at first. However, he managed to draw the student body to his way of thinking.

At Fort Hare, we had him as a guest speaker at the Campus Mission we held in August 1968. This mission led to a student protest days later, which resulted in our expulsion from the university.

Steve and some friends from the Allan Taylor Residence – Charles Sibisi, Aubrey Mokoape, Chappy Palweni, Mamphela Ramphele, Vuyelwa Mashalaba, among others – made arrangements to hold the inaugural conference of what became known as the SA Students’ Organisation (Saso). I was invited to be one of the speakers. It was then that Steve stood down as president, making way for my election as president in 1970. He was very persuasive, Steve.

A life-changing experience

Before long, with the refusal of a passport for me to take up a scholarship at Durham University in England, I relocated to Durban. This was to relieve Steve of the burden of carrying the load of Saso and allow him to concentrate on his medical studies.

Recently married, it meant that I left my wife and our daughter back home. It meant that I shared Steve’s room at the residence and we shared the same bed for months. Later, Steve got married and, the following year, we moved with our families to Umlazi, where we shared a house. I became full-time secretary-general of Saso, and we managed to persuade the American Board Mission to allow us to occupy premises at 86 Beatrice Street – such was Steve’s power to persuade.

That was a life-changing experience for me. We spent so much time together that we became not so much a clique, but a commune. We spent long evenings in debate, conversation and planning, and weekends partying.

Steve introduced me to much of the Durban elite, and together we travelled the length and breadth of the country, talking to students, but also introducing our political ideas to many activists of the liberation organisations – ANC, Pan Africanist Congress, Unity Movement.

Many of them were recently released from prison, while others were banned. Steve was not just articulate and persuasive, he had a radical way of expressing himself frankly, which was well beyond his years. Yet he drew one into his way of thinking and reasoning. It left many of these activists astounded.

A feature of our community in Durban was that it was truly black. In other words, we lived what we preached. Strini Moodley, Saths Cooper and their wives and girlfriends, as well as students from Zululand, often joined in during holidays. We spent long hours socialising with the white students from Howard College, and debating feverishly with Rick Turner and his clique of Wages Commission students who were not officially a structure
of Nusas.

My recollection of those days is that we were confident, radical and innovative thinkers – full of life – and we did not suffer fools gladly. This community of mixed black people was a sight to be seen in all social and political events in Durban. It was a time to be young, gifted and black.

Then, on February 3 1973, this idyllic community was disrupted and scattered. Eight of us were banned and banished from Durban, where Saso had its headquarters. We were banished to our parents’ homes. I was sent to Port Elizabeth and placed under house arrest. Steve was confined to King William’s Town.

In typical style, Steve was able to gather around him a community of young students and activists who joined him in his quest to make a difference. Among these were his former colleagues at the medical school, such as Mamphela and Malusi Mpumlwana. There were others from Fort Hare, such as Thenjiwe Mtintso and Thoko Mabanjwa.

What had been budding in Durban was now being fomented in King William’s Town. Steve had a very radical and aggressive disdain for the restrictions we were placed under. Whenever he felt it was necessary, he would commandeer comrades to drive to meet me in Port Elizabeth. He made no secret of the contempt he had for the police. In my case, perhaps because I was a law student, I preferred to abide, as much as one could humanly do, by the banning orders.

Nevertheless, I was subjected to intense and, at times, violent monitoring by the police. This made Steve very angry. So concerned was he about my frequent arrests that he organised a group of comrades to keep watch as a sort of protective force.

I always admired Steve’s friendship, his honesty and his faithfulness over many years. By the way, he was to me like he was to many of our other friends and comrades. He was constant and consistent. Perhaps, I have to say, that fundamental to Steve was the value of friendship. From him I learnt what it was to be a good friend.

A feature of the Black Consciousness Movement era was that a bond of loyalty developed among us such that police were unable to persuade anyone to serve as an impimpi or an informer. Yes, we were young – in our 20s – and full of energy, creative ideas and radical instincts about the politics we pursued. Loyalty was supreme. I know of no Black Consciousness activist who became a state witness.

We were confident we would take black society by storm – persuade, organise, confront, strategise. Although we disagreed, we continued conversations and debates, even with selected Bantustan leaders and with some white liberals. We firmly believed that apartheid could not survive a black onslaught. We were very disciplined. The nearest we came to serious disagreement was when Themba Sono, then Saso president, was expelled from the organisation in 1972.

Among ourselves, we were unshakable about what the truth was, and we were aware that we shall overcome. For about three years, Black Consciousness survived wave upon wave of bannings and arrests, and new cadres emerged as leaders. To think that such a level of intellectual and political output and maturity came from mere 20-year-olds is a lesson to ponder.

It always fills me with pride to observe that none of the Black Consciousness comrades I remember is today engaged in any self-enrichment pursuits. Only one or two are in a leadership position in politics. Many are to be found in the professions, others in the military or in diplomacy, church, business or sport – useful, caring and engaging, critical citizens.

All of this stands as a tribute to and is in memory of Bantu Stephen Biko.

Pityana is programme adviser at the Thabo Mbeki Foundation


Is there anyone in SA today who you think has the ability to bring people together for a common cause the way Biko did?

SMS us on 35697 using the keyword BIKO and tell us what you think. Please include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50

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