He was young, gifted and black. He was born to lead. Like most gifted people with a mission to accomplish, he died young. In his short life, Stephen Bantu Biko achieved what many people never achieve in a lifetime. Biko: A Life, recounts this iconic anti-apartheid activist and intellectual revolutionary’s life. This biography comes 36 years after his premature death in 1977; it’s the first in-depth examination of his life.
Xolela Mangcu the author was eleven at the time. Like most people who were around in the 1970s, he remembers where he was when the news of Biko’s death broke. He recalls the events of that fateful day; the backlash and ripples that spread internationally, exposing the brutality of apartheid .
Mangcu grew up in the same neighbourhood as Biko in Ginsberg [King William’s Town] and often accompanied him to the Black Community Projects [BCP] such as Zanemplio Health Clinic, Biko ran with Dr. Mamphele Ramphele, Barney Pityana and others.
Biko: A Life, is a timely account that examines the life of Steve in a way no other work has done before. It invokes the philosophies and theories of leading intellectuals and scholars. It interweaves personal testimony with academic and historical texts, letters, newspaper reports, interviews and journal excerpts. Steve’s associates, colleagues, family, friends, community members, political leaders and anti-apartheid activists who were privileged to meet and work with Steve share their memories and insights.
This multifaceted approach provides insight into Steve Biko’s character and life from different perspectives. These fragmented perspectives offer a fuller and rounded picture of a committed, gifted, humble, intelligent and unique individual.
Mangcu’s narrative provides a brief history of South Africa starting with the early San and Khoi Khoi wars of resistance in the 18th and 19th century. He traces the invisible lineages of Xhosa chiefs like Ndlambe and Ngqika, and prophet intellectuals like Nxele and Ntsikana [who followed after the defeat of the Khoi Khoi and San ] played in the development of Biko’s consciousness.
Mangcu examines Biko’s emergence after the banning of the PAC and ANC, and imprisonment of their leaders such as Robert Sobukwe [founder of the PAC] and Nelson Mandela and others on Robben Island. The framing of the narrative in this manner illustrates the events and individuals that moulded Biko’s growth and political awareness; it also places the struggle against white domination into context.
Although Mangcu was very close to Steve Biko and had a great impact on his life, he steers clear of hero worship. Steve’s flaws and warts are exposed. Mangcu examines his escapades with the cops during his banishment, partying, messy love life, divorce, womanising, heavy drinking caused by the banishment, imprisonment and murder of the friends Biko brought into the various organisations he formed.
However, this doesn’t taint his character. It humanises him and contrasts his flaws with his strengths. A young man with a unique gift of leadership emerges as Father Aelred Stubbs recalled:
Whereas other leaders tend almost insensibly to become Leaders with a
capital L, I never saw any sign at all of this happening with Steve. He
remained to the end on all fours with us, an example of what we could all
be, above and beyond us only in his vision, and in the depths of his
commitment as his death in detention showed.
His wife Ntiski added:
Steve was, I think, just a gifted person. I always say even the name he
was given by his parents, Bantu – meaning people – was apt… He was
able to mingle with different ages… So that was his gift, I think, he got it
from God, so he would be able to work with all sorts of people.
This gift of his was undeniable then. It is undeniable today. It is everlasting and continues to radiate from beyond the grave as Mangcu illustrates through his thorough analysis of the aftermaths of his legacy in post-apartheid South Africa in the final chapters of Biko: A Life.
Mangcu illustrates Biko’s leadership skills didn’t develop in isolation. He examines in depth the esoteric details that inspired Biko to grow in response to his oppressive environment. For example, in April 1963, Lovedale was hit by a student boycott of classes. Khaya Biko, Steve’s older brother, was identified as a ringleader.
The police also uncovered his PAC political activities in Ginsberg and he was consequently charged for being a member of an unlawful organisation POQO [the armed wing of the PAC]. Steve was caught up in the crossfire and expelled for no reason. He later ran away from home to hide at his friend’s house to escape the police. His brother had tried unsuccessfully to get Steve involved in politics. However, the expulsion was the motivation Steve required as Khaya spelt out, “This time the great giant was awakened.”
The biography provides more esoteric details about Steve Biko’s life that were previously unknown. The examination of his early life at school illustrates he was a child prodigy and a prankster. It also shows that Biko came from a relatively poor family and he could hardly afford things like uniforms.
However, that didn’t seem to affect him; he often helped older students than himself who weren’t academically gifted. He was only able to attend school because the people of Ginsberg sent him there; later on in life, he set up the Ginsberg Education Fund in 1975 when he was banned to help students who couldn’t afford to attend university.
The biography provides an insight into the characters that were around Biko while he was growing up. His alumni include Thabo Mbeki, Chris Hani, and Zola Skwekiya who attended Lovedale High School around the same time. By the time Biko left St. Francis College, Mariannhill in Natal, he had developed debating skills and emerged as one of the top political thinkers.
Mangcu chronologically follows this line of enquiry examining Biko’s rise to prominence during his time at the Durban Medical School at the University of Natal Non European Section in 1966. He carries out a detailed analysis of Biko’s involvement in the NUSAS [National Union of South African Students] and the incidents and ideologies that forced Biko to ask questions about non racialism within that structure.
Consequently, Biko and his colleagues eventually created the blacks only SASO [South African Students Organisation]. The biography highlights it was not out of choice but necessity they formed a non white organisation although coloureds and Indians were included in SASO.
Mangcu provides more esoteric details such as the involvement of the church in the creation of SASO; the irony of Biko’s non racial politics but non racial attitude when it came to hitting on white women.
Later on in the narrative, Mangcu conducts a detailed analysis of the events leading to the development of the Black People’s Convention [BPC] which was formed to bridge the gap between the black intelligentsia and the rest of the black society: the isolation was a disadvantage to black people as a whole.
Mangcu shows Steve’s role and ability to delegate leadership responsibilities of the various organisations he formed such as the BPC while he worked as the head of publications for SASO. In that role, he penned a regular and influential column under the pseudonym Frank Talk. These essays were later collected under the title I Write What I Like: it remains the most authoritative collection on Black Consciousness.
The biography offers a unique insight into Steve’s life providing an in-depth understanding. For example, Biko was expelled from the University of Natal in 1972 on academic grounds: six years into his studies, he was repeating his third year. This seems to contradict Biko’s academic brilliance as a child prodigy.
However, the biography illustrates Biko’s political activities left him with very little time to concentrate on his studies. His studies in Law during his banishment also suffered the same fate. It reflects his selfless nature: he put others in front of his needs as his wife Ntsiki recalls:
I married a guy not knowing he was a leader, he was just like any man to
me. But I could see that there was something driving him to want to work
with and for the people. So much that, most of the time, you would find
that even the family was not coming first… when he got banned in 1973
people would come with problems. There’s money problems or family
problems. Somebody would come and say “I don’t have money to send
my child to school”, or “I don’t have food at home”. You know what he
used to do? He would take our bags and actually empty our bags so
that he gets whatever he wants to help that person. So he was always
wanting to do something for people.
Biko’s commitment to helping people is a recurring refrain in this biography. The biography also unearths some lesser known details about the circumstances that led to Biko’s death. Mangcu examines the events that led to his death such as his ill fated trip and provides several theories about what actually happened.
He also investigates Biko’s elusive quest to unite the ANC, PAC and the BPC into one liberation movement to take on the apartheid regime. Robert Sobukwe, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela provide interesting insights into Steve’s elusive quest. In Tribute To Stephen Bantu Biko, Mandela alludes to this episode: “He was quietly preparing for a clandestine meeting he was due to hold with Oliver Tambo, the president of the ANC”. Mandela continued:
It now appears certain that the apartheid regime got wind of this. Whether
his death came from an accidental blow or not, they had to kill him to
prolong the life of apartheid. The very thought of a link up between the
Mangcu quoted Steve’s thoughts taken from I Write What I Like, “I would like to see groups such as the ANC, PAC and Black Consciousness deciding to form one liberation group… I think, when black people are so dedicated and so united in their cause that we can affect the greatest results”.
No one else since Biko ever tried such an audacious undertaking, not even Mandela himself. It was this elusive quest for the unity of the liberation movements that led to Biko’s murder. The security police killed a revolutionary but while his flesh died, his ideas multiplied.
The biography features ten succulent chapters which are supplemented by A Tribute To Stephen Bantu Biko written by Nelson Mandela, a preface and an epilogue. It not only provides you with amazing insights into Biko’s life and the circumstances that shaped him, but Mangcu also provides a reflection of post apartheid South Africa and how Biko’s leadership helped shaped current South Africa and the continuing impact of his legacy.
Biko’s wife, Ntsiki, provides an insight into that legacy, “He produced mayors and some of them are working in government”. Mangcu admits, “Outside my family, no single individual shaped my life in the way that Steve Biko did”.
Others like Thoko Mbaniswa went on to become the commissioner at the Independent Electoral Commission; Mtobhi who received help from the Ginsberg Education Fund set up by Biko became the first director general of sport in Mandela’s government and a senior executive at Vodacom. Another recipient of that fund was Sipheto Mlonyeni who studied at Fort Hare and is now a practising attorney.
The list is endless. Today, many youths within South Africa, Africa and across the world claim validity for their ideas by proclaiming a lineage to Biko or cite him as their inspiration. This partly explains why his image today is as iconic as that of late revolutionaries like Malcolm X; Captain Thomas Sankara’, Che Guevara, Amilcar Cabral and Patrice Lumumba.
His image is awash on social media such as Facebook and Twitter proving his legacy is accruing currency to a new generation who were not yet born when he died but find his Black Consciousness philosophy still relevant today.
Mangcu elaborates this point which kind of explains why the youth today look to their past and Biko and his Black Consciousness philosophy in the same manner Steve Biko looked to the past for his inspiration to fight the struggle against racism and apartheid:
Steve believed that it was primarily because of the institutionalisation
of these privileges that white people were unlikely to listen to moral
suasion. I have elsewhere argued that although Nelson Mandela
played a pivotal role in ensuring our transition to democracy, he
nonetheless left us with the unfinished business of racism. Biko’s
challenge of the psychological freedom from racism was therefore
left unaddressed by even the greatest political icon of the 20th
Mandela noted Biko’s message of psychological emancipation in his tribute:
Living, he was a spark that lit a veld fire across South Africa. His
message to the youth and students was simple and clear: Black is
Beautiful! Be proud of your blackness! And with that he inspired our
youth to shed themselves of the sense of inferiority they were born
into as a result of more than three centuries of white rule. Assert
yourselves and be self reliant! With that he ignited a passion in the
youth and they walked tall.
No other leader in Africa has inspired the youth with a philosophy of psychological emancipation. The relevance of Biko’s teaching partly explains why his collection of essays – I Write What I Like – remains a best seller today, 36 years after his demise.
Biko: A Life, is an inspired biography because it comes at a pivotal moment when Africans are looking for inspirational leadership within Africa. It also provides a detailed and intimate examination into Stephen Bantu Biko’s life, providing a greater understanding of this intellectual revolutionary and pivotal figure.
Not only is it an important historical document, but it is the perfect study aid for emerging leaders, politicians, revolutionaries and thinkers of the future.
The nation lost a great leader who would have been a formidable force in post apartheid South Africa which is inflicted with the Big Chief and Technocratic Syndrome today and facing a crisis in leadership. Steve Biko’s leadership is missed today. That is the greatest tragedy and this biography does an excellent job illustrating that point.
Nelson Mandela’s Tribute to Stephen Bantu Biko which opens the biography reinforces Biko’s relevance and greatness, “Steve lives on in the galaxy of brave and courageous leaders who helped shape democratic South Africa. May we never cease celebrating Steve Biko.”
Biko: A Life, restores Steve in the publics’ consciousness. It is a celebration of this brave and courageous leader. It is so good it leaves you wanting to know more about this legendary and charming figure. This is a collector’s item for Black Consciousness scholars, emerging leaders and those who want to know more about Steve Biko. It will transform your understanding and perspective of this monumental figure.