We write what we like about Steve Biko

What does it mean for a dead man to live through us, as we chant his name and claim him?

Had he not died, Steve Biko would have amongst us, speaking for himself. But since the Apartheid South African police murdered him two months shy of his 31st birthday, we the living are left once more to think, through Biko, about what could have been. This has been a big year for “Bikoists,” as the Johannesburg-based commentator Andile Mngxitama describes himself and his comrades. Two Biko biographies emerged—one, Steve Biko, is a short, Jacana Press/Ohio University Press pocket book by documentary filmmaker Lindy Wilson; the other, Biko: A Biography, is a greatly anticipated tome by the former director of the Steve Biko Foundation, “internationally respected political analyst and commentator” (in his publisher’s words) Xolela Mangcu.

Separately, Google’s new “Cultural Institute” collaborated with the Biko Foundation to put a “Biko archive” online and accessible to people with an internet connection. Finally, earlier this month, the Biko Foundation (founded by Biko’s son) celebrated the opening of the Steve Biko Centre in Ginsberg, the Black Consciousness leader’s hometown in the Eastern Cape, an event attended by luminaries ranging from Biko’s comrades like Mamphela Ramphele, to Mireille Fanon, daughter of the famed post-colonial theorist and Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president. As the Biko Foundation put it in a tweet: “The crowd is chanting Biko!!! Biko!!! Biko!!!Biko!!! Ohhhhhhh you have to love Biko’s people. He Lives!” Indeed.

Yet what does it mean for a dead man to live through us, as we chant his name and claim him? Mangcu’s Biko: A Biography is a useful place to start.

Xolela Mangcu (who has a PhD in city planning from Cornell) is well known in South Africa for his columns in the Business Day newspaper and his prolific publications on the post-apartheid era. He also comes from Ginsberg and has close ties to the Biko family. Despite his legend, Biko has never had a full biography, and at over 300 pages, Mangcu’s volume attempts to satisfy that demand. Yet it is an exceedingly odd book.

The first third of Mangcu’s book is essentially a rehash of historian Noel Mostert’s Frontiers—a study of conquest and resistance in the nineteenth century Eastern Cape—with bits of various other scholars thrown in. Mangcu appears to have two arguments: the first is that as someone from the Eastern Cape, Biko was heir to a centuries-long tradition of resistance to white rule in that part of what is today South Africa. That point is well taken, if not exactly original. His second argument is harder to swallow. Thinking of Biko’s insistence that “black” was a category inclusive of South Africa’s African, Indian and Coloured populations, Mangcu writes that “Steve Biko’s political articulation of BC is reminiscent of the solidarities forged by the Xhosa and the Khoi and San in the seventeenth and eighteenth century Northern Cape frontier and the Xhosa on the nineteenth century Eastern Cape frontier—in short, between Africans and the diverse communities that go under the term ‘Coloured.’” This is both poor biography and terrible history. Never mind that South African historians have long argued that the lines between Xhosa and Khoi were blurred along their edges; never mind that it’s profoundly ahistorical to read current day (or apartheid era) tribal identities back 300 years onto a past when they would have made little sense. Is Mangcu arguing that this precedent is what Biko and late 20th century Black Consciousness had in mind?

For Bikoists like Mngxitama, Mangcu’s exegesis of Eastern Cape history was too much to bear. In a much-tweeted piece published by South Africa’s Mail and Guardian newspaper, Mngxitama accused Mangcu of reducing Biko to “a Xhosa boy from the Ginsberg township,” rather than capturing the wholeness of a thinker comfortable with the complexities of Fanon and the radical desire to “make a revolution.” Mngxitama judged Mangcu’s biography ultimately “unbearable.” (Mangcu later responded by charging his accuser, essentially of being too obsessed with Fanon.)

Mngxitama was perhaps a bit too harsh. As a student of the Black Consciousness past—especially during the last wave of Biko reminiscence, on the 30th anniversary of his death in 2007—he ought to sympathize with Mangcu’s plight. Despite its many faults, the journey through Eastern Cape history is actually the most original part of Mangcu’s book. The rest, save a few titillating personal details, is entirely derivative of the few sources we have on Biko—the handful of his writings excerpted from the SASO Newsletter and elsewhere, and published in the oft-reprinted I Write What I Like volume; his testimony to the Pretoria Court in May, 1976; the odd interviews published in the press in the wake of Black Consciousness’s apparent importance after the June, 1976 Soweto uprising. Mangcu’s footnotes and bibliography reveal little original research, beyond that which Lindy Wilson did when writing the first draft of her biography in the late 1980s. (Wilson, in turn, acknowledges that her 2012 book is only an expansion of the biographical sketch she published in Bounds of Possibility in 1990.) For those who know the story of Biko, there is precious little new here; instead, Mangcu’s Biko teaches us a good deal about Xolela Mangcu—what he likes to read, with whom he is friendly, what Biko means to him. The book is easily critiqued and perhaps just as easily dismissed.

But where does that leave us? The problem is not with Mangcu or Mngxitama or the Biko Foundation or anyone else who writes or speaks in Biko’s name. Rather, the problem is with the past. Notably, both Mangcu and Wilson begin their accounts where most knowledge about Steve Biko begins—that in 1977 he was murdered by the South African state. Wilson’s approach is internationalist—Peter Gabriel’s “Biko”—Mangcu’s, not surprisingly, localist—with Biko’s cousin delivering the news of his death. These books about a man’s life thus begin at the end. They privilege not his life experience, but those that came after he was gone, and from the outset consign him to the time of memory, not history.

Mangcu, Mngxitama, the Foundation, myself—our desires, conscious or not, distort that past time when Biko could speak for himself, and the time even further past, when he could write for himself, rather than have others write for him.

When I was researching my book on Black Consciousness, I made a parlor game of asking almost everyone I met—both in South Africa and elsewhere—what they knew about Steve Biko. Overwhelmingly, it was that he had died. His death was the most famous thing about him; his murder and the publicity that surrounded it elevated his writings (written years before, and in very different contexts) to high political theory; his celebrity, the inchoate groups known as “black consciousness” to a Movement that rivaled the decades-long political organizing of the ANC.

To be sure, there were some who knew him better—comrades who worked with him in Durban and King Williamstown, family who bore their personal and public grief, others who remembered the impact that he had had on their own lives. Mangcu excels at citing his neighbors’ reminiscences, for example; “Steve got us all into politics here in Ginsberg,” remembers one of his informants, “He got everyone into politics … he would smuggle pamphlets and publications such as Staffrider.” That Staffrider was not published until after Biko’s death demonstrates the care with which memory needs to be handled (something at which Mangcu most definitely does not excel…). Yet even those who knew him well and mourned him privately are subject to time’s passing. One of the laws of historical practice is that what happens after cannot influence what happened before. However, each of us in our own lives knows that as events accumulate in our minds, they deposit sediments that sometimes seep into the bedrock beneath. Biko did not know AZAPO nor the UDF, nor the Mandela, Zuma, and ANC that we know today—nor organizations like the foundation that bears his name. Yet all still speak in his name, seek his recognition, and claim that through them, he lives.

Google’s Biko archive is by far the most modest of this year’s Bikoist submissions. It is also the only one in which Biko is fully reduced to history, to a life concluded, to a timeline of events belonging to a century long past. Ironically, it is there where we get closest to what it meant for a man named Steve Biko to have lived. It is a totally unremarkable collection—some photographs of family, of an ordinary township house, a transcript, early writings of a decidedly non-struggle nature. It is an archive of the raw materials of an intellectual life: family, school, friends, home. Of course, it is also as shot through with ideology as the other entrants in the 2012 Biko memorial sweepstakes—its unspoken message is that from these raw materials came a history-worthy life, which in turn casts a sacral light on these otherwise ordinary items. The Biko we remember renders this archive extraordinary, and urges us to learn from his example. The archive distorts the past, however modestly, to suit the needs of the present—like Mangcu, like Mngxitama, and like I’m doing right now.

As a historian, it makes me uncomfortable to see the past deployed in the present, whether subtly, bombastically, or only to disabuse today of its hubris. And yet, as a teacher, I also believe that we must learn from the past, and so the question is, in 2012, what do we learn from Biko? The grandeur of biography aside, from the Google Cultural Institute archive we see the foundation for what was to come, the first instances of Biko’s active mind in time and place. We see how he used the materials available to him in his time, to create something that would live into our own. He read Fanon, as Mngxitama insists; he thought about Hintsa, perhaps more than we know, as Mangcu asserts. He gathered materials and thought his way through his present to a hoped for future, which, all agree, has yet to arrive. During the last great Biko remembrance in 2007, Mngxitama and his colleagues published the political scientist Gail Gerhart’s 1972 interview with Biko in their edited collection, Biko Lives! In that interview, Biko revealed something of his intellectual method: “personally, I do very little reading,” he admitted, “I rarely finish a book, I always go to find something from a book.” In other words, Biko’s method was to edit, to distort—to approach someone else’s intellectual production with the needs of his, Steve Biko’s, context in mind and to suit his, Steve Biko’s, purposes. What is the lesson? From Biko, we today might learn the honesty of conscious distortion; just as he distorted Fanon to suit his purposes, so do we distort Biko to suit our own.

In what would have been his sixty-seventh year, Biko lives only as a memory we use to claim our present. He is dead and past and although we mourn him, we must admit that his continued life is subject to the whims of we who live. Maybe in his 66th year we will be honest about this, and stop claiming that he would recognize himself in our writing, in our policies, in our pretensions. We might instead aspire to do the best we can to twist and distort him, to write what we like, and thus to contribute to the creative and ongoing production of the present, in hopes that it might live to become a past worth remembering.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.