Biko, We Are Not At Ease

Public servant BUSANI NGCAWENI, in his personal capacity, pays tribute to anti-apartheid icon Steven Bantu Biko by bringing him up to speed on significant events since his death. 

Dear Biko,

Since you’ve been gone a lot has happened.

When you left on the 12th day of September 40 years ago, Luthuli was long gone under suspicious circumstances. We recently marked the 50th anniversary of his passing. Like Timol, maybe your death and that of Luthuli will be soon be subjected to an inquest so that we can know the truth and bring perpetrators to justice.

Fortuitously, when Luthuli died 10 years before you he had inaugurated the armed struggle and bequeathed powerful ideas about a peaceful South Africa.

The liberation movement remained banned when you were entombed.

Tambo was leading from Zambia. Mandela was a prisoner. Sobukwe’s health was rapidly deteriorating leading to his death a year after you. Oh remember how Tutu saved Buthelezi at that funeral! Only poor health from years of unbearable conditions in solitary confinement freed the professor from the draconian ‘Sobukwe Clause’ which condemned him into a lifetime prisoner without rights.

You well witnessed the Sharpeville massacre and your revolutionary ideas inspired the 1976 students uprising. Need I remind you of the earlier (1973) Coronation factory strike which signalled the revival of labour activism in the face of deepening repression. Not even the abusive appeals Zulu nationalism could quell workers’ unease.

When your lifeless body was pulled to its final resting place by a donkey cart in the dusty streets of Ginsberg, many young people were leaving the country to join the armed struggle. Jails were getting full; so were the cemeteries. This was long before limousines carried coffins. You wouldn’t have imagined the phenomenology of Zodwa WaBantu and Babes Wodumo in the contemporary moment.

But Biko, since you left a lot has happened. Inkatha morphed into a killing machine and later reformed into a modern party displacing the ANC in crucial elections at eSandlwana (Nquthu).

Remember the ANC which was long banned when you died. Yes, that one which once led the liberation movement, self-styled as the broad church!

Today you’ll frown if you saw the extent of its internal divisions. Even its own documents tell tales of a ruling party increasingly at odds with the people. They talk of the ‘social distance’ between the leadership and the masses.

Since you’ve been gone, Cosatu was formed, became a force in the body politic of South Africa, or Azania as you preferred to call it. Even as it fractured and its star started to dim, it still fought for the national minimum wage and partially remains at the dinner table making important noises.

You were long dead when the UDF and the MDM solidified in the 80s. You did not live long to witness 1985, the year of the youth as declared by the United Nations. From that year, old people couldn’t tell us anything. We were burning those Putco buses and stoning municipality buildings.

For us that was the year of pass-one-pass-all, the year of the teargas and Oqonda – violent stooges of the Homeland Police.

And Biko, we must report to you today that Mandela did eventually come out prison in February 1990 and Tambo came back from exile to bless the negotiated settlement; although he didn’t live long enough to witness Mandela moved to the state house.

You do know that there was no insurrection, right! We settled. The war ended in a draw. We got the right to vote and associate. The white man got the right to the land.

Biko, we report to you that Hani, like you, also died brutally at the hands of the hating white man. He stood no chance for his bigotry ran deep.

Take comfort however Mr Biko, albeit momentarily, that the ideas of our martyrs never died. They remain an inspiration even to the born “frees”, free to vote and associate but oppressed economically and psychologically.

Remember Biko that you died for more than ideas. Your sights were firmly set on economic justice as well. Just like Lembede who inspired you, you believed that political freedom is meaningless until conditions are created for black people to reach their full potential as humans, not as non-whites in a Eurocentric ecosystem.

Biko, thanks to the 4th Industrial Revolution, today we have social media which has facilitated the re-birth of Biko and your fellow revolutionaries like Sankara and Fanon.

Our youth are not at ease. They are calling for Rhodes to fall. They have taken Rhodes down in Cape Town, the colonial city you were arrested whilst trying to reach.

Yes she remains a colonial city whose political economy humiliates black people, but in your name her colonial symbols like Rhodes are falling.

Decolonisation committees have now been formed at major tertiary institutions to explore ways of pursuing epistemological and linguistic justice.

We must apologize that Helen Zille who made a name for herself writing about your passing retains the levers of power that reinforces coloniality in the Cape.

Please bear with us sir, her being there is a consequence of our own goals, not the force of her ideas.

Did you hear what she thinks of colonialism?

Thanks to your teachings we neither believed nor tolerated her prejudice. Yes, we saw her as a modern version of Kruger, Verwoed and Botha who saw good in the suffering of the black majority. For them, learning English and drinking tap water was more important than national liberation and emancipation from mental slavery.

But brother Steve, Zille is not alone in this extravaganza of political indifference. She has the likes of Penny Sparow. There is a lot of hurtful democratic indifference among our ranks too.

That other bearded fellow who tried to be a Dalai Lama of bigotry had his life cut short by exploited farm workers in the now North West Province. Marikana also happened in that province. Elsewhere Tatane died demanding basic services. Makes one think of your comrade Mzala Nxumalo’s ‘the Rice is Cooking Inside the Pot’.

Bra Steve, times are tough in free South Africa. Sometimes we wonder where did we go wrong, as Ray Phiri pontificated. He too has died now, whilst we whisper in the deep.

But ntate Steve, maybe you need to know about the death of Bomba of Mpumalanga and Magaqa of KwaZulu-Natal.

Both were councillors of the rulling party who died in what is now accepted to be politically motivated killings. Bra Steve, you will be uneasy if we tell you they were killed not by the white oppressors who killed Tiro and September. 

By the way, did you hear that Mme Mamphela tried her luck in electoral politics? Her exit was as spectacular as her unceremonious entry. She had even tried to make friends with condescending liberals that she once opposed in the 70s.

Yes, the self-love and black solidarity you told us about is disappearing into thin air. If we don’t agree with you, politically, we annihilate you. If we see you as being weak and vulnerable, we rob and rape you.

We burn schools and libraries, although you warned us against such. Nihilism is here. Not only do we thieve, rape and kill women and children, we now eat their flesh too for we don’t regard them as human.

Mafeje’s alterity that characterized us under colonialism and apartheid is now a companion of the vulnerable in society. We abuse and under-serve them. We learned from the master, sir.

Thanks to the 4th Industrial Revolution, your ideas, reawakened by growing inequality and social exclusion, have proliferated. They are our lighthouse.

Daily if not minute by minute, young people use social media to engage on subjects as heavy as the existential crises facing black people in a unipolar neoliberal world order up to such uncomfortable matters as sexuality and the representativity of national symbols.

That is why Rhodes has fallen at UCT, a milestone in the destruction of cultural oppression. Fees are also falling thus opening the doors of education for thousands of youth.

As I contemplate this note to you sir, I stand here listening to a professor give an account of the milestones of the decolonization project that young people for whom you are zeitgeist fought for.

Biko, you are not dead. At least not yet. Lack of economic, linguistic, psychological and epistemological freedom keeps you alive.

Your fight was beyond shelter, bread and butter. Advances in material conditions is but a pit-stop in the long walk to remembering ourselves as human beings with history, agency and feelings.

Biko, we are not at ease.

Biko lives!

Ngcaweni is a public servant writing in his personal capacity


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