South Africa: ‘Oh, if Biko were here…’

By IndepthAfrica
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Sep 25th, 2012
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Madala Thepa

Steve Biko

Someone wrote this week in the many accolades on Steve Biko’s life and death that his grave in Ginsberg (now “Garden of Remembrance”) was unkempt and that people making a pilgrimage there were forced to walk on dirty rubble to “come up to him”, so to speak.

The writer imagined that it was impossible to bear hug him among the filth and that it was, at some point, equally frustrating “to come up to Biko” when there was a shooting range next to the cemetery.

The gunfire represented the historical utility of racial violence and spoke of a lack of respect for the departed.

This defilement of a sacred place, made more sacred by the presence of Biko, according to the writer, needed to be secured.

Hence the Steve Biko Garden of Remembrance was erected.

After all, Biko is regarded as this listless saint watching over us with great disappointment.

In the beginning it was God who was greatly disappointed with us. Now it is Biko.

The subject, of course, is Biko, the oeuvre of the man, his momentous doctrine and the hyped up corollary: the lamentable mistakes we make as a nation in Biko’s physical absence.

Henry Louis Gates Jnr wrote an essay titled Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man.

In the essay he looked deeply at the physical absence of the former New York Times superstar Anatole Broyard in the black community – a black man who became white and whose whole presentation of self, we are told, was ironic.

Or, to put it bluntly, he was regarded the “anatomist of the Negro personality in a white worm”.

Or, to paraphrase WEB du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk, Broyard “bleached his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism”.

In Broyard, the black community in America was seeking his acknowledgement of self.

They wanted him bare. They wanted him to stay “black and die” and they wanted the same valid inference from everyone born black.

Biko gave us that assurance. He told us he was black and proud and paraphrased the 70s’ black power trope of “black man you’re on your own”.

He was our psychiatrist, there to cauterise the wound, to stop the bleeding in our minds.

But Henry Louis Gates Jr sees this acknowledgement of self as “a romantic fallacy of authenticity” that is only “compounded when it is collectivised: when the putative real gives way to the real us”.

Biko’s absence in the black community is in terms of leadership and inspiration. We are often told that he is no longer within us and that we are empty shells that need to be infused with his consciousness.

Even the Democratic Alliance (DA) reminds us that we are dishonourable of Biko’s legacy.

A narrative is told every year when Biko is remembered that we are ferociously objectionable to his teachings. This is demonstrated in how the country is run.

Endowed with an abundance of folly and vice, sick and living an uncertain existence, we have forgotten who Biko was and what he stood for. We’ve become so schizophrenic that we do violence to ourselves.

Nigerian writer Ben Okri lit the fire on this neglect at the UCT’s Jameson Hall on Wednesday.

He spoke about the need to acknowledge this loose allegiance with the man and his teachings.

But he also departed from that salient point and suggested that this country needed new dreams.

Ben Khoapa, another BC stalwart, spoke about Biko in Pretoria the other day and urged his audience to hang onto the coat tails of the man’s consciousness.

Professor Herbert Vilakazi the next day upped the ante on a separate but related subject, elucidating “the deep, widespread crisis of poverty, unemployment and inequality” that “has caused a serious disturbance in the mind and soul of everyone in the country”.

This was in a paper titled How To Solve The Economic Social Crisis in South Africa.

Professor Vilakazi was asking us not in so many words to quarrel with the bad work of men in government who should naturally be able to end this crisis.

This is suggesting that Biko’s absence has led us on this journey of depleting the state coffers, feeding at the trough – internalising the “strike while the employer has a big contract” syndrome in government.

The Biko accolades are suggestive of a nation that has disappointed him, his legacy and that of the men who came before him.

But those who care can hear the falsification of reality in the statement that “Biko must be turning in his grave” when the state of the nation is being reviewed.

This is equally true that Biko’s words have become scripture or, better still, we have used the theme “Lentsu la moswi le agelwa mosako” and carried his words like a millstone around our necks.

The book We Write What We Like is another example of the canon of celebrating Biko unconsciously, in which those who believe in a different allocation of merit are never invited to reflect critically on the man.

This calling on Biko is suggestive of the emotional ecstasy we feel for him. But this feeling is hardly ever tested.

What is it about Biko that we lack in our lives? Are we talking about the real soul of black folks here or are we trying to subliminally push the hero narrative on a true lightweight?

Those who knew Biko spoke of a brilliant errand boy – an organiser who made things happen.

He was not politically fierce like say, the late African American Dr Khalid Muhammad, who wanted black people to rattle the sabre on perceived enemies at once.

He unpacked the world for his audience, its “traditional rites and their eccentric anthropology” and how to dismantle it.

What am I saying about Biko? When was he an auteur on the level of other black radicals?

Biko channelled Broyard.

He was, to use Henry Louis Gates Jr’s words “a connoisseur of the liminal – of crossing over and, in the familiar phrase, getting over.”

Liberals felt at ease with him and quite comfortable to quote him because he spoke about non-racialism, the land belonging to all who work it – the same red meat rhetoric of the African National Congress inscribed in the Freedom Charter that we have been munching on since the 1950s.

Biko oiled the safety clutch. He was a moderate – an aesthete black man who could have fitted in the present day South Africa more than say, Chris Hani would.

Hani wanted power transformed, not transferred, as happened in 1994. Biko would have convinced us there was a fish in the barrel waiting to be shot.

Hani would have warned of the refraction in the light that makes the fish appear where it is not.

We need not feel guilty about disappointing Biko – he is not yet turning in his grave.

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