TODAY marks the 35th anniversary of the murder of black consciousness leader, Bantu Stephen Biko. Arrested a healthy man on August 18 1977, he died three weeks later as a result of subarachnoid haemorrhage. The primary injury to his head, which was the most obvious cause of death, was sustained during an interrogation in Room 619 of Sanlam Building, then the headquarters of the Port Elizabeth security branch.
Biko was neither the first nor last victim of police brutality that cost him, and many others, their lives . More malicious than the circumstances of these deaths, was the attempt by the police, often with the complicity of medical professionals and the judiciary, to pass murder off as “suicide”, or “accidents” such as “slipping on a bar of soap”. These, and other official explanations were designed to diminish the contributions of victims of torture and death in detention and their place in history.
In the case of Biko, the attempt to attribute his death to a “suicidal hunger- strike” could not be substantiated in the forensic evidence revealed at the inquest. Yet, despite the overwhelming proof pointing to grievous bodily harm inflicted on Biko’s person, the finding by magistrate Prins was an emblematic “nobody to blame”, a phrase later used by advocate George Bizos as the title of his book on torture and death in detention.
In the decades since Biko’s death, September 12 has become a rallying point for many communities around the country and the world. In between the September commemorations, a number of institutions have contributed to shifting the focus, befittingly, from the circumstances surrounding Biko’s death, to the essence of his work.
At the core of Biko’s concerns was the creation of a seamless link between the actions of the individual and the fight against societal ills. In his time, the primary struggle was the attainment of freedom and the goal of “bestowing unto South Africa a more humane face”.
Although grounded in the South African experience, the message of black consciousness finds resonance in many places that are still struggling with the residue of racism – both structural and attitudinal.
In Brazil, a country that competes with South Africa as the most inequitable, for 25 years the Steve Biko Cultural Institute has been doing a sterling job in the education sector. Using the teachings of black consciousness, the institute develops confidence in young Brazilians who have dropped out of the school system, encouraging them to return to the classroom to complete their tertiary education and subsequently plough back into their communities. In Liverpool, historically the gateway of England’s slave trade, the Steve Biko Housing Association is providing vulnerable members of their community with ingenious housing solutions. The Steve Biko Foundation has had the pleasure of enjoying a productive partnership with both of these institutions for many years.
In October, a new relationship with the London School of Economics will enable thought leaders on Africa to frame dialogue about the continent, providing alternative paradigms to the customary discourse, in the European community.
At home, the foundation, together with the University of the Witwatersrand, established the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics, which is designed to develop depth in scholarship on medical ethics. Accordingly, the centre teaches medical professionals and citizens about their rights and responsibilities from a legislative and moral framework. In partnership with the University of Cape Town, the foundation has hosted the Steve Biko Memorial Lecture for 13 years now; and with the University of Fort Hare the Robert Sobukwe Memorial Lecture for six years.
At a community level, the foundation’s programmes have embraced more than 300 schools and community organisations in the past six months alone. During the course of last year, more than 50000 people benefited from SBF’s programming in the areas of dialogue, education, entrepreneurship, sports, arts and culture and research and publications. None of this interaction with communities would have been possible outside of a purposeful strategy of partnerships. It is against this background of a global focus, with a nuanced local rooting, that the memory of Biko must be celebrated on the occasion of the 35th anniversary of his murder.
Perhaps the most timely commemoration is the imminent opening of the Steve Biko Centre. Located in the Ginsberg township of King William’s Town , the centre will focus on translating global interest in the legacy of Biko into a developmental resource for the region. Serving as an intellectual resource while providing an economic fulcrum, the centre is comprised of: a museum; an archive and library resource centre; a commemorative garden honouring human rights activists; training rooms; cultural performance and production spaces; a community media centre; a bookshop and memorabilia store; and a restaurant.
In addition to being a comprehensive experience, the Steve Biko Centre will feature as the cornerstone of the Biko Heritage Trail; a series of Biko-related sites in the Eastern Cape. These sites have been declared national heritage sites by the South African Heritage Resources Agency and consistently garner both local and international attention. Among them are: the Biko statue, Oxford Street, East London; Biko Bridge, Settler’s Way, East London; Zanempilo Clinic, Zinyoka; Biko’s home, Ginsberg township, King William’s Town; Biko’s office, 15 Leopold Street, King William’s Town; Biko’s grave; and the Steve Biko Garden of Remembrance, King William’s Town.
For this reason, the Steve Biko Centre is designed as both a destination for the tourist and a vehicle for greater cultural awareness and economic development for the local community. It is meant to be a living monument that utilises memory to channel local energies towards contemporary development challenges.
This initiative has received the active endorsement of the community, local authorities and the national government. The Steve Biko Centre has already been recognised as a legacy project – an initiative of national historic and cultural significance such as Robben Island and Freedom Park. In order to qualify as a legacy project, the endorsement of cabinet is required.
Beyond its national status, elements of the trail are also part of the National Heritage Council’s National Liberation Route and are included in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’ s interim world heritage list, which delineates global sites of cultural and natural significance.
In this, South Africa’s Heritage Month, it is important to challenge the prevailing paradigm which, when articulating the developmental agenda, often places housing, electricity and water at the fore of national discourse and treats as tangential, the intangible yet equally important aspects of heritage, culture and history. Memorialisation is not an event. It is not a belated unenthusiastic tribute to the departed. Rather it is a resolute, unrelenting fight against memory loss and loss of ourselves. According to that great African wordsmith, Chinua Achebe, we should remember our history “not because it is a nice thing to do but because it is a necessary thing to do”.
In this regard, memory and history form the backdrop to the teachings we wish to see perpetuated in our society. It is from them that we should constantly mine lessons for the future or abandon them at our own peril. In the words of Steve Biko “History works through people, we have availed ourselves to history for history to work through us.”
Nkosinathi Biko is CEO of the Steve Biko Foundation