On 06 September 1977, visionary leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, Steve Biko, sustained massive brain haemorrhage resulting from brain injury after he was beaten up by five white policemen while in police detention.
Here’s a recording from the Truth And Reconciliation Commission (TRC) – the amnesty applications of the police officers involved in Biko’s death:
In remembering Steve Biko, we publish today a moving letter from his eldest son, Nkosinathi, 25 at the time…
Should I begin with “Dear Tata”? Was that what I called you 19 years ago? It strikes me now that Iam a man, I don’t have a name for you. I cannot imagine what I might have called you. Recently, I went to the funeral of a very dear friend’s brother. Before the pulpit lay the body of a young man. Next to his coffin sat his beautiful young wife and not far from her, his two sons. I was disconcerted, distracted. I was thrown back in time but not before I chuckled at how maMcethe, my grandmother, must smile from heaven at my concerted effort to pay attention, to keep in harmony with the music. But as I say, it was another, similar funeral that I was thinking of as I sat in the church.
And then reeled, “uTata ufile”, said the speaker, quoting the deceased’s six year-old son. At this stage I no longer bothered to sing, so strong were the feelings that overtook me. The picture I saw before me was a carbon copy of the day we put you to rest. Nineteen years ago I am said to have uttered these very same words albeit in manner less refined and more suitable to a child of six. “Amabhulu zizinja, ambulele uTata.” (The boers are dogs, they have killed my father.)
I would like to believe that my childhood naivety insulated me against the full impact of your death. My nature is quiet and my manners shy; that I had to utter these words indicates the blow to my little heart. I could not associate death with you. Still vivid were the memories of our races down to Green Grass, our popular play spot. I was elated when you taught me to fly my first kite; I flew higher than it in your company. I remember how you towered above me as you took the kite to even greater heights. I remember the long discussions you used to hold with your friends and comrades as I sat on your lap stroking your beard. Oh, the secrets I heard! The intrigue! I felt very important to be included. I remember your words, “Never, even mention that so-and-so was here.” We, kids, enjoyed withholding this information from the nosy police who practically camped on our doorstep eagerly waiting for you to break your banning order. I remember how my childhood mates from Ginsberg, KingWilliams Town, would converge on our house to watch the movies you showed on the wall at the back of the house. Karate movies were the rage then. I remember you sitting up late into the night reading or writing stuff. And oh, my brother! I remember how we met on my way from school. You had the biggest smile and you ordered me to go home and meet my “new and ugly brother”. New he was, but ugly? Never. He was my brother, Samora.
These were some of the flashes I had as I looked into your coffin. Your eyes and nose had sunken in, your lip was slightly injured, the brightness in your face no more, and you lay so perfectly still, very still, I could have paused for a lot longer and perhaps reached out and touched you, particularly your eyes, they worried me. But there were thousands queuing behind me, all awaiting their turn to take their last glimpse. I have often said that the moment you closed your eyes, my childhood was gone.
September 12 1977 is a day I shall always remember for three reasons: the extraordinary dark clouds that covered the sky, the journey to pick up my mother and the sight of my mother in tears. Never before had I seen tears roll down her cheeks. You know she is not one to cry and as your ancestral spirit perceives, she still isn’t. For me, the sting of your death lay not in the moment surrounding your death. It lay in the many years that followed. Despite mother’s best attempts to play both roles, there were moments I longed to have you by my side, to be by your side. Mother took us to what I BELIEVE WERE THE BEST SCHOOLS AVAILABLE FOR A BLACK CHILD. AT JUNIOR SCHOOL, EVERY FIRST SUNDAY OF THE MONTH WAS VISITING day. The day was spent with the family, usually picnicking at the nearby stream.
Occasionally I used to watch my peers with admiration as they played football and other games daddies play with their sons. (You would have been more along the lines of “Bra Steve” for that’s how you were.) Anyway, the best consolation Mother could offer was herself, the best of herself. She couldn’t play football but on any visiting Sunday she would leave home at around four in the morning so she could arrive at our school in Qumbu, Transkei, at 8am. Because Monday is a working day, she would have to drive back again. In those days, as you know, that kind of drive through the Transkei was a tall order.
We’ve done the best we could. And my mother, with the purity and dignity suitable to your widow, has been faithful to us and to your memory. I have often said to her that the best present she ever gave me was the ceremony she organized when I came down from circumcision school. Before I went, she said, “I am going to do it in the manner only your father would.” Perhaps you helped her. That day as I walked down that mountain, I peered through the rough blanket that covered my cold body and saw the huge crowd that had turned out to welcome me to the world of adulthood. If ever there was a moment I missed you most, there could be no other than that.
As I grew up, I came to appreciate the hours you invested in writing. Your writings were a source of comfort in the moments I longed to converse with you. Through them I began to acknowledge the power of the pen. Through them you became the father I will always have. In 1990 I was to receive something else that meant the world to me. You will recall that in 1977 shortly before your final arrest, you drove into a filling station, the owner of which fell in love with a necklace that you wore, the one in the form of a clenched wooden fist. Well, 13 years from when you took off that necklace and placed it around the neck of Solomon Saloojee, I befriended his son. He invited me to meet his father and, as you placed the necklace around his neck, so he placed it around mine. [Again I had to sob] The circle was so virtuous, it was as though you planned it.
You would be turning 50 on December 18 this year. I have often wondered how the years would have sat on your body and face. Recently, I met a former high school mate of yours whom I thought was reasonably close. He wore his age well, had a fine trim for a “timer” and a grey-to-back sprinkle on his head in the ratio one:three. But guessing your looks is perhaps as evasive as trying to guess your probable role in the new South Africa. I must tell you that difficult as that task may be, I have very little patience for people who deliberately freeze your process of political thought to the day you died. If I were to make a calculated guess, you would probably be involved in one or other aspect of community development, for this was the mainstay of Black Consciousness. My guess, I may add, is as good as anyone’s. From what political vehicle you would be doing this, is known only to you and your God.
The BC philosophy is perhaps bigger than any single political organization. Its relevance may be far more than meets the eye. Your example taught me that socialisation often introduces new terms for old concepts and the human kind can hardly be relied upon to be free from selective amnesia.
Last year, I visited your death cell at Pretoria Central Prison. As I walked into the prison I counted about 18 maximum security gates to your cell. I would like to be believe that the fittest prisoner at the time would have found it a demanding task to break free. Yet, in that physical state you were. You lay there on a cement floor, naked, manacled and dying all behind 18 gates. Perhaps we failed to realise the fear that the “system” had for the might of the black people. I have since met the prisoner who looked after you, and his recollection of your condition is not for the faint-hearted. The saddest thing about the history of our country, is that just as you think that life has been unfair, if there is such a thing, along comes someone of similar, if not worse, experiences. I speak here of the numerous South Africans who for love of their country, laid down their lives. The list, as you know, is endless.
It is 19 years since your death and as I like to say, it is not easy to stay angry even if my intentions were to do so. If you were to ask how we should reconcile with the past I would tell you: “Only in the manner that best serves our future.” I believe that as a country that has just emerged from an era of state recklessness with human life, we are in need of structures to facilitate transition.
Therefore, in my view there might be room for platforms from which our past can be given none but the best treatment – with the inherent costs that come with it. Our country is still beset by violence. In KwaZulu-Natal, the First Citizen, the King, was a recent victim, and there ought not to be a safer person in that province.
I am concerned that the level of violence among our people that runs so deeply cannot be healed by sending the wrong signals to the criminals who continue their misdeeds under the banner of the political.
I am not sure if our focus should be on helping perpetrators of crime to be at peace with themselves. Rather we should be sending a very unambiguous message to victims in KwaZulu-Natal that many years from now their killers will remain accountable for their deeds. One has to ask oneself what kind of settlement lets a self-confessed killer of 35 people continue to roam the streets freely, hold public office and draw income from the very pool to which victims of his actions are contributors. If you were able to speak with me now and if you asked for my most cogent thoughts, this is what I would tell you. I have often been asked if you were violent or not. It occurs to me that you were thoughtful in your approach to violence, advocating exhaustion of the other options first. The wisdom behind this I find rather obvious, for violence even in its organised form can easily be derailed and then misdirected. In its degenerate form, it corrodes the fabric of society and blunts moral sensitivity. There’s an era in our history with which we are both intimately familiar that bears perfect testimony to this assertion. The concept of comtsotsis emanates from this era. However, like the other organs of the liberation movement there came a time at which all options were indeed exhausted. Thousands of young people, most of them freshly baptised with the waters of BC, took to neighbouring countries to pursue the struggle for liberation.The rest is, as they say, history. There will always be more to say to a father whose legacy runs so deeply in my heart. I can only hope that you have not departed to a place so remote that you are unable to feel our love and respect. I am also able to report that your other children, all of whom are studying in South Africa, have honoured your testimony and your memory. They grew up quickly, but they grew up well.
Always in our memories,