From the Archive | Steve Bantu Biko

Poet Mafika Gwala writes about black consciousness after Biko’s death in 1977 and reflects on the last day they spent together, drinking in the sun and talking about the future.

Mafika Gwala was a significant South African writer, who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. A prominent activist of that era, he expressed the political needs and aspirations of all those victimised by apartheid. He was closely associated with the Soweto poets, Mongane Wally Serote, Mbuyiseni Mtshali, James Matthews and Mandla Langa. In 1973, he edited the Black Review, and his short stories, essays and poems have been published in numerous journals and anthologies. His poetry collections include Jo’Liinkomo (1977) and No More Lullabies (1982). He also worked with Liz Gunner and co-edited Musho! Zulu Popular Praises (1991), a literary commentary on Zulu poetry, which includes two of his praise poems.

This is an edited excerpt from One Day in June: Poetry and Prose from Troubled Times (AD Donker, 1986) edited by Sisa Ndaba.

Among us blacks no one has bothered to ask, why did Steve have to die? We all know where the whole fix lies. Besides, those responsible for Steve’s death know that sooner or later the baaskap cookie must crumble. That’s why all the hush-hushing has had to follow. Expectedly.

I missed Steve’s funeral. Most Natalians missed it too. The result of police action in turning the cars and buses carrying mourners back on the Transkeian borders. Though I missed the funeral for yet another reason, I did not miss the symbolism that such burial carried.

It has been said on several occasions, and in several newspapers, that Steve was regarded as the father of black consciousness. Yes, in a way he was. Granted that black consciousness could not have been founded by any person, Steve did throw in a major contribution. Black consciousness was the embodiment of an historic moment. And Steve perhaps more than any of his comrades helped initiate that historic moment.

The moment of black consciousness was rich with experience. Many of our youth picked up more about themselves, about their world out­look, about their lifestyles, about their black community than they would have learned in their lifetimes. So much good came out of it all.

But there was a border line, which even the protagonists of black consciousness in the various fields of experience could not easily cross. Those artists, poets and activists of strong persuasion and moral bent were awakened to the fact that there is no adequate universal explana­tion of socio-economic situations. It is difficult to convince oneself of the rightness of one’s own view. We all gauge our commitment by our own efforts and by the doubts that crop up against our own marks of expectancy.

No more tears

We cannot mourn for Steve. Because we have no more tears to shed for our dead brethren. Given the blow-for-blow, the hardiness of self­-realisation in the different confrontations, which brought the deaths of the Imam Haroon, Mthuli kaShezi, Ahmed Timol, Onkgopotse Tiro, Joseph Mdluli, Mapetla Mohapi, Steve and many others – the mood has been set for greater will on the side of the black man.

Stimulated by the blacks’ refusal to be rendered impotent by apart­heid’s insane society (for us it is a sheer, mad-mad world), the moment of black consciousness inevitably came as an obvious consequence of the mass arrests and bannings of the early 1960s. So that we today do have ideas fresher than the old ideas of the period before Sharpeville.

Those who have attended the funerals of all those who have died in detention must have gone to these funerals with an inner understanding that a scratch on a blackman is a scratch on every blackman. And that death in detention at one centre is death in detention all over the country.

It is therefore not easy for me to talk of Steve Biko as a person without bringing in and revising the movement he founded. The ‘pure person’ rests more with his family than with what he stood for in our society.

Through the mill

We have become aware by now that the cars that pay visits to certain persons on ‘state security’ matters are sleeker and more discreet. Even in a fascist-orientated society, there are situations where puritanical simplicity just doesn’t apply. Yet it was reported that Steve had travelled all the way from the Eastern Cape to Pretoria in a typical police van, with all that psycho-physical coldness. With all that kwela-kwela with which we blacks are familiar. In other words, Steve had to go through the mill to convince his tormentors they need not fear him.

When we heard that Steve was dead many of us must have said, deep down in our minds, if the time must come, let it begin now. It was the same thought we shared on Mdluli, or Mthuli or Haffejee – on anyone who dared cross that line.

Right now one is satisfied to remember that it is through the tireless efforts of the likes of Steve that our quest for national consciousness has been given a boost. If they say Steve was a dissenter, what we shall remember is that there has always been a neutral morality in dissent. Until the nature of dissent and its causes have clearly been brought out. If others say he was a saint or martyr, then we may ask: where is the heaven for saints and martyrs? We surely know where the hell lies. We shall take Steve as one of our fallen heroes. This way we view him in terms of the living. Banned though he was, he wasn’t banned in our hearts.

As a blackman Steve felt responsive to what is happening to blacks now. He believed there had to be a choice. Even if that choice be costly. And he had to face that choice and suffer from it for the future birth of the blackman’s power to liberate himself. He had faith in our tomorrow. Whether our tomorrow finds us in the bush, in the prison cell or in derailed trains. Many of us grossly miscalculated the methods of con­tainment that were being worked out against black consciousness. To such an extent that a cult of cultural activism sprang up from among the ranks of the black consciousness movement itself. I have seen many a young man walking up the escalator of black consciousness; their lifestyle – snobbery; their practice – collecting jazz and dashikis for boasts; their goal – bourgeois status; their sentiment – black identity.

There was such a lack of socio-ideological layout that one couldn’t attend parties and gumbas and not end up bored. In view of this, I would argue most uncompromisingly that black consciousness was an absolute necessity bred by the socio-political circumstances under which it grew and gained wide acceptance. Most of us blacks now know that whatever happens to our experience of black consciousness will happen as the conflict between what we feel is the right to express our world view without harassment and the limitations we discover as we work on for open expression.  

Exposed myths

Naturally, limitations must be confronted at some stage, as the experience of 16 June 1976 has clearly demonstrated. Certain myths about the limitations that we encounter daily have been exposed.

The potentials of black consciousness were constantly being opposed until the final banning. Liberal academics (some of them) question its validity. The Bantustan bandwagon dragged along to try and halt its growth. The black urban middle class tried to channel its natural directions. Until the Soweto students showed that black awareness didn’t belong to any particular group or organisation. This way they proved that blacks wouldn’t remain cocooned within the official definition of cultural concepts. It follows from this closed-in situation that tomorrow’s youth will widen the scope of the liberation struggle beyond social and cultural identity towards a firmer base.

The crux of the matter is not whether black consciousness was workable for those blacks seeking change or not. There was an issue involved. The issue was the question whether we did have another alternative to the disastrous movement towards separation as a solution to the country’s problems. Given the circumstances, any black who had the feel on developments became aware that black consciousness wouldn’t remain a static thing. That it had to outgrow its cultural overtones into something embracing the more pressing issues. It was a path leading to national consciousness with class identity as alternative to the flippant middle-class-orientated separatist line.

Anyone who tried to contain the natural development of black consciousness ended on the other side of the fence. With the sell-outs. There was a determinate growth whose swings could not be arrested by anyone, except through the overt reaction of bannings, detentions and state violence.

Nevertheless ideas more long-ranged than an FN rifle or a Sanna 77, and more absolute than a hippo, will always crop up and surpass those ideas born of repression.

Meaningful alternative

It was of fundamental importance that black consciousness offer a meaningful alternative other than that offered by apartheid through collaborationist channels. Here Steve believed it to be of vital interest that in the absence of genuinely identifiable ideology among the youth-student ranks, persons in the leadership positions should hold a sort of neutral line between the inherent conflicts of right-wing and leftist politics. Hence perhaps his trust in African socialism. However, if those reports that one managed to gather be correct, by 1977 Steve seemed to have seen the futility of ‘helping’ the middle-class-orientated activists consolidate their platform, inspired by mercenary conside­rations.

I salute him for that.

Steve proved that he wasn’t the has-been who would sit back and rest on counting the As he’d scored at school or tally the glories of his early days as SASO leader. Against all the lies and provocations levelled at black organisations – against ANC, PAC, BPC and student groups such as SASO, SASM, NA YO, etc –  Steve’s BPC branch saw to it that every story was investigated, the findings scrutinised and compiled into a BPC publication. Thus many a hitherto unrevealed truth or factor was brought out before the blacks, as part of their experiences within the apartheid society.

Unmoved by the censorship abuses, BPC went along publishing what is the blackman’s viewpoint on the present situation. As for the factors governing our struggle, BPC publications were engaged in tearing down and destroying the old ideas held about blacks. This way a direc­tion towards new alternatives was being opened. It is not true that the black community programmes were a ready convenience against the liberation movements as some academics and fence-sitters have sugges­ted. This untruth has been encouraged by certain disjointed journalistic accounts of how Steve died and what he helped to achieve. I think the psychological requisite for a person who gives such accounts is to allow oneself room (in the labyrinths of apartheid thinking) to be hypocritical where sympathy fails – and at the same time to be a hawkish patriot.

Cultural politics

There was a time when I deeply felt that Steve was not following what was to be a natural development towards class identity within the struggle. Of course, we had our differences on African socialism which I regarded as being half-baked and unscientific in today’s world of advanced technology and planned economies. To me, African socialism had the pattern I was then watching in Natal. That of a tribal chauvinism being moulded in the name of black cultural identity and self reliance. There were various projections towards an artificial Zulu unity.

Therefore, I held that cultural politics not only had to be closely monitored but had to be rejected outright. Also, in the name of black consciousness certain individuals and groups were riding on affluence and smiling all the way to the bank.

This is a dilemma Steve agreed did exist for black consciousness. That is why Steve insistently fought political and social mobility to carry out his tasks, although he was confined to King William’s Town.

By restricting him to King William’s Town, the state must have thought Steve would fail to stand by his belief in an encouragement of black expertise and black self reliance. But what happened is that the BPC operation grew in the Eastern Cape and by the time of the bannings, it could boast of several self-help projects, the hallmark of which was the Zanempilo clinic.

Last day

I still remember the last day I was with Steve. That Sunday in April 1974. I was to leave for Durban that very evening. So Steve decided we wouldn’t go to any posh place for a drink, be it a friend’s place or shebeen. Instead, he took me to a very simple joint where you could still start your drinking spree with the traditional brew, if you so wished. Here the people spoke beautiful undiluted Xhosa. Here everything was down to earth, with everybody simple and black.

Sitting on a bench outside, for the sun in the yard, it was as if we both knew we were seeing each other for the last time. We went through so many topics just on that sitting. Topics ran from our backgrounds, our birth dates, our boyhood experiences and first political awareness to interpretations of current trends and developments in the socio-econo­mic and cultural fields. Throughout that conversation we shared, I could detect an undeclared central theme as if we were both thinking: that since whites had come to fear black consciousness what did the future hold for the black consciousness movement? Did we have to call it a movement in the first place? What did we think of those blacks within black consciousness who hadn’t heard of the Freedom Charter?

Steve cited the various forces opposed to black awareness. He expressed regret at seeing some students behave as if the struggle had just started with black awareness. He said he wished this wasn’t the case, despite organisational differences.

Steve was a committed fighter. Many people knew well the social situation that conditioned his life. Deprived of the freedom of move­ment, speech and gathering, he was left to observe how the chances for peaceful change had been betrayed time and again since 1910. Yet he held great hope for the youth of this country.

As the youth refuse to remain any longer in the nest of containment and repression, the national urge that was revived by black conscious­ness and rehearsed in Soweto 1976, will be translated into national consciousness and the struggle for total liberation. No force, no matter how vicious, will be able to block the people’s rise to power once the course has been set.

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