Text Messages | How chess brought me to Biko

Even the ancient division of the game itself – white versus black – was echoed perversely in South African reality.

Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer will always be among my heroes, not because of their chess artistry, but because it was through them that I discovered Steve Biko. The clash between the Russian world champion Spassky and his American challenger Fischer in Reykjavik, Iceland, in July 1972 sparked a chess boom for youngsters around the world, including South Africa. 

But National Party laws meant that chess clubs and tournaments were segregated. Whites played whites in clubs and tournaments in the cities and suburbs; blacks played blacks in township clubs and events. That ancient division of the game itself – white versus black on a flat, square playing field of 32 black squares and 32 white squares – was echoed perversely in South African reality. 

White chess clubs and the South African Chess Federation woke early to this untenable position. They declared clubs and tournaments open to all, a stance that did not resolve the problem. There is wishful thinking and wishful saying, and the “open to all” declaration smacked of both.

At the first Border Championship, from 15 to 17 December 1974, history was made. As the January 1975 issue of The South African Chessplayer put it: “It was a seven round swiss open to all players resident in the Border area … A pleasing feature was that among the entries were many who had never played tournament chess before, and this was the case with most of the 12 Bantu, 2 Coloured, Indian and Chinese entrants.”

Bantu. That South African pejorative arising out of misuse. That apartheid classification for race and colour, snatched from anthropology and linguistics, and most viciously of all, from the plural, in some Bantu languages, of  –ntu , meaning person.

Bantu. That second name in a name of South African names, Stephen Bantu Biko. Biko was from the Border region, born in King William’s Town on 18 December 1946 – just under 28 years before that inaugural Border chess tourney. But for a then 14-year-old schoolboy in Pretoria, Steve Biko and his pseudonym, Frank Talk, were another world away. Unknown, in fact.

Through chess I discovered Biko. Like many youngsters, I took up chess avidly after the Spassky-Fischer match. By the time I was 17, I was a top schools player. Still, something was wrong. The previous year, in June 1976, protests by schoolchildren and students had broken the complacency of my Catholic private school.

And this Donald Woods had been cropping up more in the papers, through columns attacking apartheid and advocating non-racialism in all spheres of South African life. Those came from the East London newspaper the Daily Dispatch, which he edited, and I wondered why The South African Chessplayer had not mentioned that the Woods who wrote for them about South Africa’s expulsion from world chess was this same man. It was also the same Woods who wrote about Biko.

It must have been around the middle of August 1977. Woods was asking what had happened to Biko, detained on 18 August under section 6 of the Terrorism Act. Woods said he had learnt much from Biko, that Biko had  profoundly influenced his own ideas about how people could and should live together in the country.

A month later, the Rand Daily Mail reported the callous announcement by Minister of Justice Jimmy Kruger that Biko had died from “a hunger strike”. His later words chilled any sentient reader: “I am not glad and I am not sorry about Mr Biko … He leaves me cold,” he told the Transvaal Congress of the National Party on 14 September, the day after announcing Biko’s “death”.

It was at this meeting that a delegate from Springs drew appreciative laughter when he praised Kruger for allowing Biko to exercise “his democratic right to starve himself to death”.

It was impossible not to want to know more about Biko. Sometime in my first year at university, the Heinemann African Writers Series published I Write What I Like, a collection of Biko’s work. The thoughts and ideology it presented did what only the best writing can: enlarged the world. 

We are destined to learn and relearn that the personal is the political. Many students I have been privileged to teach have a sense of history, a sense of social justice, and a true humanity. They have those because – long before we met in the seminar room – they had been reading and thinking deeply on I Write What I Like.   

For myself, I say thank you to chess for leading me to him.

A version of this piece appeared in We Write What We Like: Celebrating Steve Biko, edited by Chris van Wyk (Wits University Press).

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