By Barney Pityana
September 9, 2017.
“Bliss was it that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven! – Oh! times,
In which the meager, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!”
– William Wordsworth
15 August 1977 was the final occasion I had of speaking to Steve Biko. He was on the phone from his home at Ginsberg, King William’s Town and wanted counseling on some domestic situation. I spent about an hour on the phone discussing with him and his wife Ntsiki. Steve was very relaxed. No politics, just family matters.
No sooner had I hung up than a group of security policemen barged in into my office at the law firm where I then served as a candidate attorney. I was detained in police custody, and locked up at the Baakens Street Police Station in the Port Elizabeth CBD. No reason was given for my detention, except that I was detained under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act. This was not the first time. I had become accustomed to spending time in detention or under arrest for one contravention of the banning orders or another. Held in communicado, in solitary confinement and without any contact with the outside world, a few days later the police announced to me with unashamed alacrity that my friends Steve Biko and Peter Jones had also been arrested. None of this to me was news. We were detained and arrested so frequently that it was no surprise that any of us was once again spending time in jail.
But the morning after 12 September, the constable who stood guard at my cell was changed without announcement or ceremony. Instead a young white constable was placed. No explanation. Upon seeing me, the young man expressed shock to find me under arrest. It turned out that he had been the orderly at the court I used to appear in in the Magistrate’s Court. As a candidate attorney I had by then been granted permission to appear in the Magistrates’ Court. He had been warned that he was to guard a very dangerous terrorist. I do not think he believed it any longer. Unbeknown to the security police, he was in awe of me as an attorney. He allowed me access to his Afrikaans daily newspaper, something he was not supposed to do.
Thus it was that a few days later I read a speech by Justice Minister JT Kruger addressing a National Party conference. There he announced that Steve Biko had died from hunger strike. Both Kruger and his audience indulged in a mockery of this tragedy. Shocked to the point of numbness, I ran back to the cell, and cried, and cried and cried. Never before or since had I experienced such a total sense of loss and of loneliness. Above all, I remember the pain and anger I felt, and yet helplessness and powerlessness.
As if by way of premonition, I had on the night that I now know that Steve had died, dreamt that Steve and I were in an animated conversation, once again about his family, and how he might not be there for much longer. I took this to be but a joke in the context of the frivolity and banter that characterized this conversation. As fate would have it that was the very last ‘conversation’ I ever had with Steve.
My response to these catastrophic events and by way of dealing with my anger, grief and sense of loss, I then went on a hunger strike – all alone! I had not seen the security police since they announced the arrest of Steve and Peter. I was never interrogated. I did not have a clue as to what would have happened to both Steve and Peter. I did not even know where they were held. A few days before Steve’s funeral, I was removed from Baakens Street, and driven to Alexandria Police Station far away, to continue detention. That meant that I was never able to attend the funeral, or even join in with comrades and family in mourning and seeing to his last rites, and bid farewell to a dear friend and comrade. Later I was moved from Alexandria to Grahamstown. I was thus kept in detention continuously until 18 August 1978. The previous banning order having expired while I was in jail, upon release I was served with a new banning order. The latest one, though, prescribed that I was not to be admitted as an attorney, attend court except as an accused, or set foot in any premised where the practice of a lawyer was being undertaken. It was not until 6 February 1996 that I was eventually admitted and enrolled as an attorney at the Cape High Court.
Bantu Stephen Biko had become a part of my life journey from the time we were together in the IVa class at Lovedale in 1963. Steve was, as always, a personable character, easy to make friends, and as a student highly intelligent. We became very good friends. But that was cut short when we were all expelled from school in August that year. I ended up completing school at Newell High in New Brighton. Steve was fortunate enough to transfer to St Francis School, Marianhill in Natal. We then encountered each other when we were both at university. Steve went to the University of Natal Medical School, and I enrolled to study law at Fort Hare.
What brought us together at this time was student politics. We found each other once again at student conferences. At the conferences we took positions that sought to challenge both the political system of apartheid, and the politics of both church and the secular liberal organisations we attended for being moderate and focusing on the interests of white students and the sensitivities of the white establishment. Steve was vivacious, a popular lad, sociable and the soul of the party. During holidays, I stayed at Steve’s home and at least once he stayed at our home in Port Elizabeth. What, in retrospect, I think attracted me to him, was the same as girls were attracted to him, that is that he was intelligent, engaged in conversation and debate, was knowledgeable. He was fun to be with. More especially, Steve had empathy, treated friends with respect, and showed a great deal of feeling. Yes, he was, as everyone else knows, a charismatic figure.
Our journey as student activists got us to debate and discuss some of the strategic matters that occupied our minds. He led the walk-out from the NUSAS Conference at Rhodes University in July 1967, and he also led a black caucus at the UCM Conference at Stutterheim in 1968. On campus at Allan Taylor Residence, at Wentworth he was a very influential student leader even though at first he held no official position, but he managed to draw the student body to his way of thinking. At Fort Hare we had him as a guest speaker at the Campus Mission we had in August 1968. It was that Campus Mission that led to the student protest that followed within days, and that led to our expulsion from the university.
Steve and some friends from Allan Taylor Residence, Charles Sibisi, Aubrey Mokoape, Chappy Palweni, Mamphela Ramphele, Vuyelwa Mashalaba, among others, went ahead and made arrangements for holding the inaugural conference of what became known as the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO). I was invited to be one of the speakers at the Conference. It was then that Steve stood down as President making way for my election as President in 1970. He was very persuasive, was Steve. Before long, with the refusal of a passport for me to take up a scholarship at Durham University in England, I relocated to Durban. This was to relieve him from the burden of carrying the load of SASO, and that he concentrate on his medical studies. Recently married, it meant that I left my wife and our daughter back home. It also meant that I shared Steve’s room at the residence, and we shared the same bed for months. Later Steve got married, and the following year we moved together, with our families to Umlazi where we shared a house. I became full-time Secretary General of SASO, and we managed to persuade the American Board Mission to allow us occupation of premises at 86 Beatrice Street – such was Steve’s power to persuade.
That was a life-changing experience for me. We spent so much time together, so much that we became not so much a clique but a commune. We spent long evenings in debate, conversation and planning, and weekends partying. I was introduced by Steve to much of the elite of Durban, and together at times we traveled the length and breadth of the country talking to students, but also introducing our political ideas to many political activists of the liberation organisations – ANC, PAC, Unity Movement- many of them recently released from prison, others were banned. Steve was not just articulate and persuasive, he had a radical way of expressing himself frankly well beyond his years, and yet drawing one into his way of thinking and reasoning. It left many of these activists astounded.
A feature of our community in Durban was that it was truly black. In other words we lived what we preached. Strini Moodley, Saths Cooper and their wives and girl friends, students from Zululand often joined in during holidays. Yes, we spent long hours socializing with the white students from Howard College, and debating feverishly with Rick Turner and his clique of Wages Commission students who were not officially a structure of NUSAS. My recollection of those days is that we were confident, radical and innovative thinkers, full of life, and we did not suffer fools gladly. This community of mixed Black people was a sight to be seen in all social and political events in Durban. It was a time to be young, gifted and black.
Then on 3 February 1973 this idyllic community was disrupted and scattered. 8 of us were banned and we were banished out of Durban, where the headquarters of SASO was based. We were banished to our parents homes. It meant that I was banished to Port Elizabeth, and I was placed under house arrest. Steve was confined to King William’s Town. In typical style, Steve was able to gather around him a community of young students and community activists who joined him seeking to make a difference. Among these were his former colleagues at the Medical School like Mamphela and Malusi, and others from Fort Hare like Thenjiwe, Thoko and others. The radical difference that was budding in Durban was now being fomented in King William’s Town.
Steve had a very radical and aggressive disdain for the restrictions that we were placed under. Whenever he felt necessary, he would commandeer comrades to drive to meet with me in Port Elizabeth. He made no secret of the contempt he had for the police. In my case, perhaps as a law student, I preferred to abide as much as one could humanly do with the prescripts of the banning orders. Nonetheless, I was subjected to intense and at times violent monitoring by the police. This made Steve very angry. So concerned was he about my frequent arrests that he organized a group of comrades to keep watch as some protective force. I always admired Steve’s friendship, his honesty and his faithfulness over many years. By the way, he was to me like he was to many of our other friends and comrades. He was constant and consistent. Perhaps, I have to say that fundamental to Steve was the value of friendship. From him I got to learn about what it was to be a good friend.
A feature of the Black Consciousness era was that a bond of loyalty was built among us such that no one was ever persuaded by the police to serve as an impimpi, or as an informer. Yes, we were young, in our 20s, full of energy and with creative ideas, and radical instincts about the politics we pursued. Loyalty was supreme. I know of no BC activist who became a state witness. We were confident that we would take Black society by storm – persuade, organize, confront, strategise. Even as we disagreed, we continued conversations and debates even with selected Bantustan leaders, and with some white liberals. We firmly believed that apartheid could not survive a black onslaught. We were also very disciplined. The nearest we came to serious disagreement was when Themba Sono, then President, was expelled from SASO in 1971. Among ourselves we were unshakable about what the truth was, and we were aware that we shall overcome. For about three years, BC survived wave-upon-wave of bannings and arrests, and new cadres emerged to emerge as leaders. To think that the level of intellectual and political output and the maturity it exhibited came from mere 20 year olds is a lesson to ponder.
It always fills me with pride to observe that none of the BC comrades that I remember are today engaged in any selfish, self-enrichment pursuits. None, except one or two, are in any leadership in politics, but many are to be found in many of the professions, others in the military, or in diplomacy, church, business or sport – useful, caring and engaging critical citizens. All of that is in tribute to and in memory of Bantu Stephen Biko.
**Professor Barney Pityana is the Programme Abvisor at the Thabo Mbeki Foundation. This article first appeared in the City Press: http://www.news24.com/Columnists/GuestColumn/selfless-biko-40-years-on-20170910-2