Steve Biko: May dreams of freedom rise from his grave

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Murdered anti-apartheid icon Steve Biko’s legacy of black consciousness entranced a gathering in Cape Town this week via a public lecture by Nigerian writer Ben Okri.

It was the first time that Okri, known for his post-colonial fiction writing, visited South Africa. He delivered the thirteenth annual Steve Biko memorial lecture at the University of Cape Town on Wednesday night. It marked the 35th anniversary of Biko’s death at the hands of apartheid police.

Okri’s five-part lecture lasted an hour. During his focus on black consciousness, he said, he was not “advocating civil unrest but that the people are complicit in how their societies are run and histories turn out”.

“There is a micro and a macro dimension of black consciousness. The people cannot come awake in their oppression and fall right back asleep after their liberation. The continued wakefulness is the burden of black consciousness.”

He said also that the “challenge of our times has always been the challenge of leadership”.

“People can only be as liberated as its leaders are. Black consciousness says that in liberating your mind you should be your own leader. Everyone carries the burden of leadership,” said Okri.

“The leaders that you have say something about the kind of people that you are. Previously leadership was considered as an isolated event of responsibility. We blamed our leaders for our failures. The micro responsibility of black consciousness requires that we should blame ourselves for our leaders for they are what we have enabled them to become.”

Okri spoke like a preacher. His voice was soothing, his tone was smooth. He didn’t race through his prepared speech. He paced himself so that his words could resonate with an audience seemingly awaiting inspiration.

At some point, the gathering felt like a well-behaved political rally. Then it also resembled the Oprah Winfrey TV show with plenty of clapping hands at the right time. The gathering was wrapped up in a heart-warming aura – a trance, perhaps – and swirled in the words of a literary Olympian.

Okri reminded the audience of Biko’s writing too, mentioning the struggle icon’s book ‘I Write What I Like’. And he acknowledged previous speakers invited to deliver the memorial lecture organised by the Steve Biko Foundation.

These included former South African presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former South African finance minister Trevor Manuel, acclaimed American writer Alice Walker and Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe.

Okri reflected on Biko’s legacy: “We need Biko’s spirit now more than ever.”

“Biko is that finger pointing at the only acceptable future: a life and a society in which citizens can be proud of what they are… He is not an easy guide. He does not like laziness or lazy thinking,” said Okri.

“He has the rigour of young man who will not accept that a decent life is impossible for his people… He did not trust pity. And he might have thought forgiveness not really forgiving until the fight of truth has been brought into the consciousness of the one to be forgiven.”

“May the vengeance for his torture and slaughter be the constant coming into being of a beautiful South Africa. Where the frisson between the races be always creative and compel them towards dynamic harmony.”

Okri’s call to Africans meanwhile was to “pass the word along the five great rivers of Africa… pass on the word that there are three Africas”.

“The one that we see every day. The one that they write about. And the real magical Africa that we don’t see unfolding through all the difficulties of our time, like a quiet miracle. Infect the world with your light. Press forward the human genius. Our future is greater than our past.”

On Biko he added: “From his grave, may a thousand dreams of freedom rise.”

After the lecture, Okri met Biko’s wife Nontsikelelo and his sister Nobandile.

Nontsikelelo Biko wife of Steve Biko talks to Nigerian writer Ben Okri. Photo by Yazeed Kamaldien

Nontsikelelo Biko said that she was “happy about what I heard today”.

“I always look at the number of people that come to the lecture. I get excited when I see a lot of youth. Our focus is on youth and to continue with the legacy of Steve,” she said.

“Black consciousness philosophy is here to stay. It will always be relevant. It makes people aware of who they are.”

Okri also met Biko’s sons Nkosinathi and Samora as well as their families. Nkosinathi Biko is chief executive of the Steve Biko Foundation and said they planned to open a centre in King William’s Town, in the Eastern Cape, in honour of their father.

“A number of institutions have shifted to focus from the circumstances surrounding his (Steve Biko) death to the essence of his work… His message finds resonance in many places that are still struggling. In Brazil, black consciousness is used to encourage young Brazilians who have dropped out of school to return to education and subsequently plough back into their communities,” he said.

“We will open the Steve Biko Centre that will have a museum, archive, library, resource centre, training facilities, cultural, performance and production space. It also features Steve Biko’s home which has been declared in 1997 as a national heritage site. It has support from national government.”


This article was published in City Press national weekly newspaper in South Africa on Sunday, September 16 2012.


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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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