Steve Biko, the celebrated political activist, has been the subject of a number of books. But a new one, written by Xolela Mangcu, is set to become a seminal biography. And this is not just history – as Mangcu explains. Biko’s life and the Black Consciousness Movement are as relevant to South Africa today as they were during the anti-apartheid struggle.
Xolela Mangcu and I had scheduled just 30 minutes to discuss it, but we ended up talking for hours about his new book, Biko – A Biography. It is an account of a fascinating life, but a life brutally cut short by agents of the police state of apartheid South Africa. It was also one full of brilliant accomplishments.
Mangcu was just a 10-year old boy when he became acquainted with Biko, who was a neighbour of his in the Ginsberg location of King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape province. As he puts it, “no single individual shaped my life in the way that Steve Biko did”.
Not that he remembers Biko telling him very much, or even him asking, just distant memories swirling around with the imagery of Black Consciousness activists in Ginsberg in the 1970s – and riding with Biko in his car, an exciting experience for any young boy.
As for Mangcu’s schoolteacher parents, they, like almost everybody else in the community, adored Biko and were undoubtedly more than happy that their son should be spending leisure time with him. But loved as he was, Biko was clearly a complex character.
Author Mangcu makes a number of observations about others who have known and written about Biko, and believes that many simply take from Biko’s life what is most important to them.
It is the same with Mangcu’s book. “What I have found is that people read it in the same way that people listen to a music CD,” says Mangcu. “They are not really seeking a continuous narrative, rather they are choosing specific, favourite chapters – and that has something to do with the way that Biko reached so many different sectors of society.
“You will find that historians will go to the chapter where I attempt to locate Steve [Biko] within the long trajectory that goes back to the wars of resistance by the Khoi-Khoi and San people on the Northern Cape frontier in the 17th and 18th centuries, right up to the anti-colonial resistance of the Xhosa people on the Eastern Cape frontier throughout the 19th century.
“For the white, liberal left guys, they will go to the chapter called The trouble with NUSAS, which tells something about the student movement of the day, the ostensibly multiracial, but predominately white, National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) – and Steve’s decision to instead align himself with the South African Students Organisation.
“I didn’t write the book with different interests of readers in mind, but for me it is one of the most pleasing aspects of the book, bringing out all of Steve’s complexities and contradictions. There has been a tendency by some people who have claimed to know him of projecting their own ideas onto him.”
But turning to contemporary issues, I asked Mangcu whether he believed that today, with the absence of an enemy, or the absence of an objective such as overturning a racist apartheid government, today’s South Africa lacks direction?
“Well, I don’t like the assumption of the first part of your question – that there was a clearly defined enemy,” Mangcu responded. “It was never like that.