The archive as a trigger

A previously unpublished photograph taken almost fifty years ago recalls Steve Biko’s dynamic and vibrant charisma.

As we remember Steve Biko on the 41st anniversary of his death in detention on 12 September 1977, we publish this image from my family archive. Holding a birthday cake is Biko. On his right is my aunt, Lindiwe Edith Gumede Baloyi, from whose album the photograph comes. 

The photograph was taken on 5 April, probably in 1969, and captures the birthday celebration of two young women, my aunt and Glory Baloyi, who is standing next to my aunt. On Biko’s far right is Phahla Mlangeni. At the extreme left of the picture is the smiling face of my paternal uncle, Mbuso Gumede, and directly in front of him is Emily Baloyi. 

On the face of it, this happy, casual photograph is a random record of a group of carefree young people, a picture that might be of some interest to their descendants and wider families. The fact that it captures the image of the iconic Biko naturally gives it much greater public significance: however, expert contextualisation and analysis of this and many other seemingly inconsequential images can provide important historical insights.

For example, the late Professor Jeff Guy proved that early photographs of Natal and Zululand could provide additional valuable and otherwise unobtainable information. It is important that old family photographs should ideally be offered to archival and manuscript collections, rather than be uncritically destroyed.  

When this photograph was taken, Biko was studying for his medical degree at the University of Natal Medical School Non-European Section, later renamed University of Natal Black Section, and was specifically located at the Alan Taylor residence. According to historian Vanessa Noble, the medical school became a focal point for politically conscious black students, an early incubator for Black Consciousness activists.

Black Consciousness sought to challenge the system of white racism and eradicate the crippling inferiority complex it created among black people. 

Durban had become the de facto headquarters of the South African Students’ Organisation, with Biko’s room functioning for a time as the national office.

The pivotal role of those who were based at the residence was described by Black Consciousness scholar Ian Macqueen thus: “The intense dialogue, reading and distillation of ideas that occurred at the Alan Taylor residence and further afield were crucial in redressing the floundering intellectual self-confidence in black students.” 

How appropriate it is that on 12 September we should recall Biko’s dynamic and vibrant charisma, which complemented his intellectual and socially practical challenge to the oppression of apartheid – a remembrance triggered by a photograph taken nearly 50 years ago.

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