We write what we like about Steve Biko

Had he not died, Steve Biko would have turned 66 years old today. But since the Apartheid police murdered him two months shy of his 31st birthday, we the living are left once more to think, through Biko, about what could have been. This has been a big year for “Bikoists,” as the Johannesburg-based commentator Andile Mngxitama describes himself and his comrades. Two Biko biographies emerged—one, Steve Biko, is a short, Jacana Press/Ohio University Press pocket book by documentary filmmaker Lindy Wilson; the other, Biko: A Biography, is a greatly anticipated tome by the former director of the Steve Biko Foundation, “internationally respected political analyst and commentator” (in his publisher’s words) Xolela Mangcu.

Separately, Google’s new “Cultural Institute” collaborated with the Biko Foundation to put a “Biko archive” online and accessible to people with an internet connection. Finally, earlier this month, the Biko Foundation (founded by Biko’s son) celebrated the opening of the Steve Biko Centre in Ginsberg, the Black Consciousness leader’s hometown in the Eastern Cape, an event attended by luminaries ranging from Biko’s comrades like Mamphela Ramphele, to Mireille Fanon, daughter of the famed post-colonial theorist and Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president. As the Biko Foundation put it in a tweet: “The crowd is chanting Biko!!! Biko!!! Biko!!!Biko!!! Ohhhhhhh you have to love Biko’s people. He Lives!” Indeed.

Yet what does it mean for a dead man to live through us, as we chant his name and claim him? Mangcu’s Biko: A Biography is a useful place to start.

Xolela Mangcu (who has a PhD in city planning from Cornell) is well known in South Africa for his columns in the Business Day newspaper and his prolific publications on the post-apartheid era. He also comes from Ginsberg and has close ties to the Biko family. Despite his legend, Biko has never had a full biography, and at over 300 pages, Mangcu’s volume attempts to satisfy that demand. Yet it is an exceedingly odd book.

The first third of Mangcu’s book is essentially a rehash of historian Noel Mostert’s Frontiers—a study of conquest and resistance in the nineteenth century Eastern Cape—with bits of various other scholars thrown in. Mangcu appears to have two arguments: the first is that as someone from the Eastern Cape, Biko was heir to a centuries-long tradition of resistance to white rule in that part of what is today South Africa. That point is well taken, if not exactly original. His second argument is harder to swallow. Thinking of Biko’s insistence that “black” was a category inclusive of South Africa’s African, Indian and Coloured populations, Mangcu writes that “Steve Biko’s political articulation of BC is reminiscent of the solidarities forged by the Xhosa and the Khoi and San in the seventeenth and eighteenth century Northern Cape frontier and the Xhosa on the nineteenth century Eastern Cape frontier—in short, between Africans and the diverse communities that go under the term ‘Coloured.’” This is both poor biography and terrible history. Never mind that South African historians have long argued that the lines between Xhosa and Khoi were blurred along their edges; never mind that it’s profoundly ahistorical to read current day (or apartheid era) tribal identities back 300 years onto a past when they would have made little sense. Is Mangcu arguing that this precedent is what Biko and late 20th century Black Consciousness had in mind?

For Bikoists like Mngxitama, Mangcu’s exegesis of Eastern Cape history was too much to bear. In a much-tweeted piece published by South Africa’s Mail and Guardian newspaper, Mngxitama accused Mangcu of reducing Biko to “a Xhosa boy from the Ginsberg township,” rather than capturing the wholeness of a thinker comfortable with the complexities of Fanon and the radical desire to “make a revolution.” Mngxitama judged Mangcu’s biography ultimately “unbearable.” (Mangcu later responded by charging his accuser, essentially of being too obsessed with Fanon.)

Mngxitama was perhaps a bit too harsh. As a student of the Black Consciousness past—especially during the last wave of Biko reminiscence, on the 30th anniversary of his death in 2007—he ought to sympathize with Mangcu’s plight. Despite its many faults, the journey through Eastern Cape history is actually the most original part of Mangcu’s book. The rest, save a few titillating personal details, is entirely derivative of the few sources we have on Biko—the handful of his writings excerpted from the SASO Newsletter and elsewhere, and published in the oft-reprinted I Write What I Like volume; his testimony to the Pretoria Court in May, 1976; the odd interviews published in the press in the wake of Black Consciousness’s apparent importance after the June, 1976 Soweto uprising. Mangcu’s footnotes and bibliography reveal little original research, beyond that which Lindy Wilson did when writing the first draft of her biography in the late 1980s. (Wilson, in turn, acknowledges that her 2012 book is only an expansion of the biographical sketch she published in Bounds of Possibility in 1990.) For those who know the story of Biko, there is precious little new here; instead, Mangcu’s Biko teaches us a good deal about Xolela Mangcu—what he likes to read, with whom he is friendly, what Biko means to him. The book is easily critiqued and perhaps just as easily dismissed.

But where does that leave us? The problem is not with Mangcu or Mngxitama or the Biko Foundation or anyone else who writes or speaks in Biko’s name. Rather, the problem is with the past. Notably, both Mangcu and Wilson begin their accounts where most knowledge about Steve Biko begins—that in 1977 he was murdered by the South African state. Wilson’s approach is internationalist—Peter Gabriel’s “Biko”—Mangcu’s, not surprisingly, localist—with Biko’s cousin delivering the news of his death. These books about a man’s life thus begin at the end. They privilege not his life experience, but those that came after he was gone, and from the outset consign him to the time of memory, not history.

Mangcu, Mngxitama, the Foundation, myself—our desires, conscious or not, distort that past time when Biko could speak for himself, and the time even further past, when he could write for himself, rather than have others write for him.

When I was researching my book on Black Consciousness, I made a parlor game of asking almost everyone I met—both in South Africa and elsewhere—what they knew about Steve Biko. Overwhelmingly, it was that he had died. His death was the most famous thing about him; his murder and the publicity that surrounded it elevated his writings (written years before, and in very different contexts) to high political theory; his celebrity, the inchoate groups known as “black consciousness” to a Movement that rivaled the decades-long political organizing of the ANC.

To be sure, there were some who knew him better—comrades who worked with him in Durban and King Williamstown, family who bore their personal and public grief, others who remembered the impact that he had had on their own lives. Mangcu excels at citing his neighbors’ reminiscences, for example; “Steve got us all into politics here in Ginsberg,” remembers one of his informants, “He got everyone into politics … he would smuggle pamphlets and publications such as Staffrider.” That Staffrider was not published until after Biko’s death demonstrates the care with which memory needs to be handled (something at which Mangcu most definitely does not excel…). Yet even those who knew him well and mourned him privately are subject to time’s passing. One of the laws of historical practice is that what happens after cannot influence what happened before. However, each of us in our own lives knows that as events accumulate in our minds, they deposit sediments that sometimes seep into the bedrock beneath. Biko did not know AZAPO nor the UDF, nor the Mandela, Zuma, and ANC that we know today—nor organizations like the foundation that bears his name. Yet all still speak in his name, seek his recognition, and claim that through them, he lives.

Google’s Biko archive is by far the most modest of this year’s Bikoist submissions. It is also the only one in which Biko is fully reduced to history, to a life concluded, to a timeline of events belonging to a century long past. Ironically, it is there where we get closest to what it meant for a man named Steve Biko to have lived. It is a totally unremarkable collection—some photographs of family, of an ordinary township house, a transcript, early writings of a decidedly non-struggle nature. It is an archive of the raw materials of an intellectual life: family, school, friends, home. Of course, it is also as shot through with ideology as the other entrants in the 2012 Biko memorial sweepstakes—its unspoken message is that from these raw materials came a history-worthy life, which in turn casts a sacral light on these otherwise ordinary items. The Biko we remember renders this archive extraordinary, and urges us to learn from his example. The archive distorts the past, however modestly, to suit the needs of the present—like Mangcu, like Mngxitama, and like I’m doing right now.

As a historian, it makes me uncomfortable to see the past deployed in the present, whether subtly, bombastically, or only to disabuse today of its hubris. And yet, as a teacher, I also believe that we must learn from the past, and so the question is, in 2012, what do we learn from Biko? The grandeur of biography aside, from the Google Cultural Institute archive we see the foundation for what was to come, the first instances of Biko’s active mind in time and place. We see how he used the materials available to him in his time, to create something that would live into our own. He read Fanon, as Mngxitama insists; he thought about Hintsa, perhaps more than we know, as Mangcu asserts. He gathered materials and thought his way through his present to a hoped for future, which, all agree, has yet to arrive. During the last great Biko remembrance in 2007, Mngxitama and his colleagues published the political scientist Gail Gerhart’s 1972 interview with Biko in their edited collection, Biko Lives! In that interview, Biko revealed something of his intellectual method: “personally, I do very little reading,” he admitted, “I rarely finish a book, I always go to find something from a book.” In other words, Biko’s method was to edit, to distort—to approach someone else’s intellectual production with the needs of his, Steve Biko’s, context in mind and to suit his, Steve Biko’s, purposes. What is the lesson? From Biko, we today might learn the honesty of conscious distortion; just as he distorted Fanon to suit his purposes, so do we distort Biko to suit our own.

In what would have been his sixty-seventh year, Biko lives only as a memory we use to claim our present. He is dead and past and although we mourn him, we must admit that his continued life is subject to the whims of we who live. Maybe in his 68th year we will be honest about this, and stop claiming that he would recognize himself in our writing, in our policies, in our pretensions. We might instead aspire to do the best we can to twist and distort him, to write what we like, and thus to contribute to the creative and ongoing production of the present, in hopes that it might live to become a past worth remembering.

* Dan Magaziner teaches African history at Yale University. The author of The Law and the Prophets: Black Consciousness in South Africa, 1968 – 1977 (Ohio University Press / Jacana Press, 2010), he is currently writing a history of artists and art education in South Africa, from the 1920s to the 1980s.

7 thoughts on “We write what we like about Steve Biko

  1. The content of this piece is not very interesting. Its purpose is. In some ways, it is symptomatic of a newish kind of racialised intellectual geo-politics (also on display in a similar authorial intervention recently by Jon Soske on this blog). Elegant and lyrical prose frames witty formulations that deliver a correct (and necessary, but actually obvious) critique of Mangcu’s shabby and self-aggrandising scholarship – no surprises there, this is a consensus in most reviews of the book). This piece claims distinctiveness in claiming to read what is at stake, however, in the memorialisation of Biko and to critically intervene in such initiatives by restating the complex and incomplete relations between history, memory and truth. But there’s nothing insightful or interesting in this. Magaziner does nothing more than correctly apply the insights of the decade-old interpretive turn’s seismic intervention in the presumed linear relations between history, memory, and truth. A good student of critical historiography, Magaziner offers no innovation in content, even if outfitted in some snappy style (I won’t say that the problem is that there’s nothing original in the piece, because originality is fictive, impossible, and uninteresting anyway; but it is certainly not insightful). But, because it is nothing more than a stylish application of now well-worn (even if not very widely applied) insights of critical historiography (Premesh Lalu’s take on history, memory and truth is in fact significantly more complex and sophisticated than Magaziner’s), it is perhaps guilty of the same rehash of well-worn analytical paths in historiography as it (very correctly) accuses Mangcu of vis-a-vis Eastern cape history and the existing biographical work on Biko (its not that Mangcu is not original, by the way, it’s that Mangcu’s biography is utterly uninsightful). So, other than putting on display some elegantly crafted prose that doesn’t really advance any analytical or conceptual insights, why would a white American scholar choose to intervene in this debate between Mangcu and Mngxitama, and assert in a way that elevates and authorises his own voice a meta-critique about nothing less than the existential status of history? I recognise the dangers of a kind of intellectual nativism we black (South African) scholars may be presumed to betray and advocate through such a phase as ‘white American scholar’, but treat my caveat in the same way as Magaziner’s confessing his own participation in a project of historiographically irreducible, and therefore creative, ‘distortion’ (how can one not read Magaziner’s caveats as ostensibly rendering him peer to those he subjects to analysis, while actually and defensively making his own voice the superordinate one). But, far more interesting than Magaziner’s ultimately banal conclusion is the increasing (as demonstrated in Soske’s post too) investments of white North Americans of a certain generation (and intellectual ambition) in authorially deciding (not simply intervening in) a set of potent debates about race and its histories in a place like South Africa? (This is not to say they cannot intervene, especially if that claim is framed by some reactionary or simple-minded racialisation of the right to speak about race. No. But, this is about a politics of race.) South Africa is a place where, if nothing else, the racialised structure of the academy sustains deeply coloured (pun intended) sensitivities over speech & silence, authorship & authority, and where, given their (Soske, Magaziner’s) assertion of an authorial prerogative to pronounce (even if only as another creative distortion) on histories of race in South Africa, one would expect they would be sensitive enough to exercise the modulations of voice and the calibration of tone necessary if they took the subject of their own scholarship seriously (after all, Magaziner’s witticisms leaves one wondering whether, despite having written a book about BC, he has ever encountered any of the heady critiques of racialised voice that animated radical black politics and their militancies. And again I don’t mean that what is offensive is the critique of a black scholar. Mangcu’s biography is shockingly poor scholarship. It is, however, about a necessary sensitivity to the politics of race). One wonders, if Magaziner were a teacher in South Africa rather than North America, whether he would develop a different common sense about students’ newly-ignited desires to encounter Biko and BC. The texture of those desires demand a certain ethical posture (one Magaziner is either utterly oblivious to, or arrogantly dismissive of) of all those stepping into the formidable terrain of presuming to pronounce on histories that yes, while creatively and dynamically put to work, also require a great deal more political care (and a whole lot less professional ambition) in sensitively navigating the irreducible politics of how we exercise priority of speech, interpretation, and insight in animating a dynamic reworking of histories of race. Magaziner’s piece here (as Soske’s) provide us not with insightful commentaries on race and its histories. They provide us with the raw material for thinking the questions Biko once did – about the political status of white intellectuals and their persistent racial patois.

    • Thanks, Black Historian, for your comments and critiques.

      I think you’re right to urge us to consider that young students in South Africa – and elsewhere – continue to find Biko irresistible. In no way did I mean to suggest that they were wrong to do so; indeed, I myself continue to find his ideas poignant and current.

      My point was that we ought to consider the play of memory in this conversation – a point that was in no way intended to be original, but which seemed appropriate, given the recent publications on Biko. My observations came from the only of my identities that you didn’t address – that of historian.

      To your other points, I would hazard a couple quick observations, and pose some questions. It seems to me that you actually agree with much of what I said in the piece, even if you found it banal.

      Indeed, you don’t suggest I got anything *wrong* – only that my essay was boring and predictable, if occasionally witty and caveated. I am very much aware of and sensitive to the politics of representation in the South African academy; indeed, I have both studied and experienced that reality. Yet I’m left to conclude that your objection is not to the substance of the piece, but, rather, with the ‘ethics’ of the fact that I, an American and a white male, wrote it. Am I right? If so, more questions, to you: what are the implications of that position and how will dismissing my “racial patois” make our understanding of the past richer?

    • If the truth be told, there are things that I have written that certainly deserve the kind of critique articulated by “Black Historian.” How could this not be the case with a foreign historian who engages with debates over South African history from a strong political perspective? One strategy of navigating the fraught, racialized field of historical discourse, of course, is calculated discretion and false modesty. In chosing not to intervene in debates where their privilege insures their complicity with the phenomena that they critique, white foreign academics can shield themeselves from being directly challenged. Their racial politics remains off stage, confined to a shadow discourse of gossip and committees, while their institutional position nevertheless insures that these politics influence the field in significant ways for better and/or worse. This strategy serves multiple interests. Of course, sometimes it is also the best way to go.

      The other strategy is to write what one thinks–with consultation, collaboration, and as much self-reflexion as possible, making one’s position and politics explicit. And one will always overstep in this process…not just due to ignorance and inexperience, which are real enough, but because the field of race itself is multiply contested, and one cannot occupy a neutral position within it. If a dozen scholars read and commented on my piece before I published it (white and black, South African and foreign) and helped me craft the tone, others found it arrogant. Perhaps that indicates the issue of tone masks a politics not reducible simply to nationality or race? At the end of the day, a persistant fear of accusations like those leveld by “Black Historian” can actually serve to mask white privilege: I *am* implicated in the forms of racialization that I describe, and the pretense to innocence is a form of racial self-defense. Yes, the issue concerns the ethics of writing and discussion–but “Black Historian” implies that there is a solution to this problematic positioning, which is in fact a very liberal idea.

      However, as to the content of my piece, “Black Historian” has little to say–indeed, he or she falsifies what I wrote. My blog post (hardly the form for authorial proclamations, btw) was about a British publication, even if largely written by South African authors, and spent most of its space reflecting on the field in North America and the U.K., and its racial politics. When it came to the institutional politics of South Africa, I posed a set of questions–scarcely an attempt to pronounce decisively on anything–which “Black Historian” clearly has no interest in engaging. Perhaps these are the wrong questions: then, one would think, that “Black Historian” should give us more guidance than a negative declaration that the tone is wrong and the points are uninteresting (but, don’t we have the right to ask, from what position?). Instead, we get polemical misrepresentation, sweeping generalizations about white foreign historians of a certain generation (Magaziner and I represent a new geopolitical trend?), ad hominem attacks about professional ambitions, and a refusal to take responsibility for one’s views through the use of anonymity. Not exactly what I would recommend as an “ethics” of discussion for issues so difficult and important.

      I was not going to answer this comment. But I do believe it gestures towards a necessary exchange, if it occured in a far more honest form.

  2. Events of History are not “pure” , “ideal”, noumenal objects: they do not serve themselves, they serve existential subjects. Events of history can not present, all on their own, invariant thruth. Biko’s politics were not just concerned with abstract scholarship, but biko’s politcs were concerned with the subjects of history( the positionality of those subjects — blacks– on the plane of ethics proper). Here you are dealing with an ideological parallex; which is not a distortion but rather how history happened to me as a black subject( not just an individual) And as Biko had diagnosed that” [ as a black person] though i am, i am not”. This can not be said to be distortion as you claim. And biko was, correctly, philosophically subjective in this regard; presenting a hemaneutics of history as it had shaped the cite of black memory: no ” distortion” there! Rather Biko had a specific project of revolutionary emancipation for blacks.

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