There is an isiXhosa idiom which aptly describes African people and their relationship with history: Nilibala msinya. Loosely translated, it refers to “a people with short memories who are so obsessed with moving on that they do not take time to remember”.
Or, to be blunt, exhibit what writer Jacob Dlamini describes as “native nostalgia” (you can replace the last word with “amnesia”).
This may be why our history remains largely untold or worse, diluted and misrepresented by others.
We happily forget our stories. We have to a large degree ignored the responsibility of preserving the legacies of our heroes. Tragically, many of us do not even know who our heroes are, let alone why they deserve honour. We live in the now. And we live for the now.
Our relationship with history is so distant and threadbare that even when we commemorate significant historical days, we do a lousy job of it, satisfied with politicians arriving in 4×4 blue-light brigades to deliver prepared texts that doesn’t begin to teach or inspire anyone about the requirements of heroism.
And then post the politically directed speeches, we sing, dance and go home.
It is because of this misrepresentation of who we truly are that, as we complete three decades of democracy, we are still largely unable to give context to our story and learn the lessons of history.
It is for this reason that we have not been able to address the necessary but largely ignored process of decolonisation.
Steve Biko’s story should be part of the school curriculum.
It should be compulsory reading for young people – to remind them of one of the continent’s finest minds. That of a young man whose huge ideas shaped the resistance of young activists in the ’70s and whose ideals still inspire those of us today who remain concerned about the restoration of dignity to poor African people, instead of those who former President Thabo Mbeki describes as the “get rich, get rich, get rich now” agents.
Steve Biko was our Plato, our Socrates. Biko represents a Marx and Nietzsche rolled into one. To borrow from Ben Okri, Biko “transcends politics and has in him something of the terrible integrity of the true artist, one who with hammer-blows, will relentlessly pursue his vision of exalted truth regardless of its consequences. In that sense, Biko is more than just the unfinished conscience of this land; he is also that finger pointing at the only acceptable future: a life and a society in which citizens can be proud of what they are.”
There is possibly further reason why Biko’s ideas and ideals, just like those of Robert Sobukwe, remain largely hidden in post-apartheid South Africa.
Biko, like Sobukwe before him, advocated for the restoration of dignity and pride for the black soul.
Like the mammoth intellectual Sobukwe, Biko has to a large extent suffered the same fate of being minimised in our history, his role diminished to that of a mere “moderate” student activist.
But to describe Biko as moderate, is vulgar: he was a radical who wanted to pursue and attain true liberation for Africans.
Biko, like Che Guevara – the Argentinian doctor behind the Cuban revolution – did not subscribe to the myth of dependency on “liberators”.
He believed people must “liberate themselves”. And above all things, he advocated the “liberation of the mind”.
He wanted “his” people free.
The constant reference to “his people” was not restricted to black people alone, but referred to all of those with African roots, and it was located squarely within Sobukwe’s definition of equality: “There is only one race, the human race”.
Maybe the reason Biko and Sobukwe are being overlooked today while select “freedom fighters” are celebrated as icons, is mainly because their struggle was not about guns and bullets but belonged in the realm of the mind.
Their higher purpose was to awaken the numbed black soul from a sleep induced by humiliation and install a sense of self-worth and pride.
Their passion was also for a people to be responsible of their current situations and to realise that there was no one coming to save them from their misery.
Biko realised that black people needed much more than land, water and bread (as per the Freedom Charter). They needed fine minds to help them understand what to do once the demands of the Freedom Charter had been met.
While delivering the Steve Biko Memorial Lecture at the University of Cape Town recently, Ben Okri noted: “One of my points of affinity with Biko is with his rigour and his high standards of expectation of the human and the African spirit. He asks fundamental questions like: Who are you? What are you? Are you what others say you are? What is your selfhood? What makes you a man or a woman? He asks questions which will be relevant in hundreds of years’ time, questions which are an inevitable part of a free society.
“We need to reincarnate Biko’s rigour, his high standards and his forensic questioning of society and of all, his assumptions.”
As we remember Biko 40 years after his brutal murder by the agents of an evil nationalist government, it is important to revisit his beliefs and ideals and ask important questions about where it is that we find ourselves today.
I will not ask that unhelpful question – what would Biko think today – because the answer is inevitably self-serving.
During his time on this Earth, Biko advocated for Black Consciousness. He didn’t confine this to mere pigmentation. It was a higher call for affirmation of the black soul and the erasure of rejection and self-hate.
So, 40 years later, we should ask ourselves, how far have we travelled along this road? Have we learnt to love ourselves and affirm who we are?
Sadly, the answer is negative.
Further, Biko preached not only to the oppressed to reject oppression, but to the oppressor to overcome his superiority complex.
So, again 40 years later, have we achieved this? Again the answer is NO.
Biko also insisted that a “mere change of guard, replacing a white face with a black face while creating a small black bourgeoisie class will undermine the very purpose of the struggle”.
Again, 40 years later, we must ask, have we paid heed to him? The answer is obvious.
If ever there was a time to uphold and embrace the message of Steven Bantu Biko, it is NOW.
Luxolo September is a PSL and Fifa administrator and former Dispatch journalist