The same people who did everything they could to vilify both Biko and Sobukwe while they lived – and have taken part in attempted erasure of their legacies – pretend to honour these anti-apartheid icons. Today, those who paid a painful price for associating with Biko and Sobukwe watch how others gobble up the fruit of their sacrifices, as they and their families continue to suffer in silence.
The state ceremony that took place last week at uMgcina’s grave ( Steve Bantu Biko) predictably ignited endless and emotionally-charged conversations, particularly within the Black Consciousness and Pan Afrikanist circles, with some going as far as describing what happened at Biko’s grave as a ‘disgrace’ and ‘insult’ to both Biko and Mangaliso Sobukwe. For those who don’t know, there is a deeper and more painful context to these emotionally-charged and legitimate reactions.
Growing up in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, one of the things I used to see was how the houses of other Black people were either stoned or burned down by mobs of other Black people. There was also the very vicious physical attacks on other Black people at public political meetings by panga- wielding individuals ( something I later learned was part of the Comtsotsi phenomenon). Some of our people survived these brutal attacks but others didn’t. Some of those who didn’t survive were killed with what is arguably one of the most brutal methods of death - the “necklace”.
This was a signature method that was used by members of the United Democratic Front ( UDF) and its allies like COSAS to eliminate what they perceived to be their enemies. Sadly, this brutal method was only reserved for Black people and was publicly endorsed by leaders like Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
In a speech in 1985, Mama Winnie said “…with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we will liberate this country." However, the “necklace” was not just used on opponents of the UDF (and its allies). In a weird coincidence, in the same year of Mama Winnie’s speech, in July, Makie Skhosana who was a member of COSAS on the East Rand was killed in this manner by her own ‘comrades’.
It was later discovered (through Joe Mamasela’s testimony at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) that Makie was killed in error after being falsely accused of being impimpi ( a police informant). These rumours were part of a misinformation campaign of the apartheid security police against COSAS. You would also recall the painful stories of young Stompie Seipei and Dr. Abu Baker Asvat.
What does this painful and bloody account of our recent past have to do with the names Biko and Sobukwe? Many of the Black people who perished in the bloody violence I describe above were members of AZAPO and the PAC. Many of them had their houses stoned and petrol-bombed. Some had to abandon their homes and families and flee to other parts of our country ( some still reside there today).
Some of those who could not flee were captured, taken to a public place where a tyre was placed around their neck, doused with petrol and asked to denounce the names Biko and Sobukwe. When they refused, they were set alight and the dancing and singing crowds would watch them burn to death.
In the case of AZAPO members, one of the factors that contributed to the hostility of the UDF towards AZAPO was the rumour attributed to senior ANC leaders that Biko was a ‘CIA agent’.
In his book, Biko: A Biography, Xolela Mangcu gives this personal account:
“Of relevance to this book were the attacks on the name of Steve Biko. It is hard to know when the denigration of Steve Biko’s name started within the ANC…Neville Alexander told me he ran into Mac Maharaj during this time. He remembered how contemptuous Maharaj was of the Black Consciousness Movement, describing Biko as ‘CIA'. This only served to fuel the hostility towards the BCM in the country” (p.289).
"Sometimes UDF crowds would in their hundreds go and sing in front of Steve Biko's house: ‘U-Steve Biko, I-CIA’ - alleging Steve had worked for the CIA. We would confront the crowds to defend Steve's name, at the risk of our lives" (p.295).
In an article titled, Who Is Kebby Mphatsoe, Paul Trewhela makes a related observation when he says:
“It was in this period, also, just before Biko's murder by the security police of the apartheid state, that young troops in the June 16th and Moncada detachments of MK report being instructed at Novo Katengue camp in southern Angola by the late Dr Francis Meli (a member of the SACP, and then a political commissar), that Biko was a "CIA agent."
Yes! this was the price that many AZAPO and PAC members paid for merely associating with the names Biko and Sobukwe. Today, their painful stories remain untold and those who survived, continue to watch how some of us are gobbling up the fruit of their sacrifices - as they and their families continue to suffer in silence.
So when the victims of this anti-Biko and anti-Sobukwe violence saw all that was happening at Biko’s grave (under the auspices of the ANC) the memories of their pain, suffering and torture ( at the hands of members of the UDF/ANC) were violently revived.
If you consider this historical background and the utter disrespect of ‘honouring’ Biko on 21 March - a day that belongs to the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania and Sobukwe - there is no way anybody in their right mind can believe that what the government did at Biko’s grave was intended to ‘honour’ Biko.
What happened was nothing but a continuation and officialisation of the neo-colonial project to kill the ideas of Biko and Sobukwe. And the irony is the ruling party doing this in the name of a man who had no respect for both Biko and Sobukwe or the movements they helped found.
However, in spite of these very bizarre events that unfolded around Biko’s body history teaches us that men of the calibre of Biko and Sobukwe cannot be erased from history. And this is mainly because their ideas are not just a product of the lived-reality of the dispossessed Afrikan majority, but also, their ideas are based on truth and justice.
And this is why it should not surprise us when there is now a frantic but pretentious embrace of Biko and Sobukwe, by the very people, who not so long ago, dedicated an inordinate amount of time and resources to the project of having their names erased from the minds of our people.
Biko and Sobukwe continue to live. Camagu!
* Veli Mbele is a South African essayist and political activist.
1.Mangcu,Xolela. 2012. Biko: A Biography. Cape Town: Tafelberg publishers.
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