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Most leading studies on Steve Biko have missed a vital point in their quest to understand the essence of the man, says Thami ka Plaatjie.
Xolela Mangcu has made a remarkable attempt at unravelling the complexity of the persona of the great leader.
Understanding Biko seems to have evaded the academic and scholarly gaze of most. I wish to submit that the quest to understand a person or leader begins with understanding his people and the ancestry from whom such a leader originates. This means that a proper quest to unravel the meaning of the man and leader must begin many centuries before his actual birth.
Legend has it that Biko’s people were trusted generals of the Thembu King. Legend has it that one day the king sentenced a group of witches to death and asked that they be executed by his trusted general, Phato. Phato led the witches to the forest and decided not to kill them. Instead he hid them in caves.
Years later when the kingdom was under attack, the king asked that Phato must summon help from other clans. Phato fetched the witches from the caves, who had by then multiplied and they helped the king repel the attack. Phato was assigned a chieftaincy and given the title of Um-Gcina, a Preserver. Phato and his clan became known as AmaGcina. He had seven wives and gave birth to the seven Gcina houses.
Biko is a descendent of AmaGcina. He shares this moniker with Walter Sisulu and Gwede Mantashe’s mother and Zwelinzima Vavi’s mother. The amGcina are currently under the chieftaincy of Mhlontlo, whose area of jurisdiction is in Lady Frere. These people have inherited traits that have defined them. This approach of studying our leaders is not necessarily ethnographic or anthropological but can be termed as a cultural-historical approach.
When Biko entered the political scene he brought with him these acquired traits and transferred sensibilities. When he stood up and broke away from Nusas he was acting as a vital agent and link with his rebellious ancestry who sought to find practical solutions to vexed problems. The suppression of African student organisations such as ASA (African Student Association) and Asusa (African Student Union of South Africa) in the wake of the Sharpeville Massacre saw many students drifting towards Nusas.
Alongside Aubrey Mokoape, Barney Pityana, Harry Nengwekhulu, Hendrick Musi, Petrus Machaka, Manana Kgware, Vuyelwa Mashalaba, J Goolman, Strini Moodley, Henry Isaacs and Sath Cooer, Biko led a breakaway from Nusas and later established Saso and BCP respectively. It was this trailblazing leadership that planted the seeds of June 16, an act that precipitated and heightened our liberation.
Biko may not have been a chiefly leader or traditional leader, but it is undeniable that leadership was bestowed upon him by both history and circumstances. His ancestral spirit of rebellion and leadership spurred him on at a time when there was a critical need to face the wrath of the apartheid system. Ancestral spirits over many years pick up a successor who will be crowned with the mantle of wisdom, leadership and bravery. The amaGcina’s spirit of resistance and rebellion found comfortable residence in the genial spirit of the young Bantu Biko.
That is why from an early age he was destined to lead and give hope at a time when Robert Sobukwe and Oliver Tambo were jailed and exiled.
It was this rebelliousness that shaped the life of a generation of activists who gave South Africa the gift of their fecund youth.
Professor Chabani N Manganyi, writing in Looking Through The Keyhole, defines such a spirit of a rebellious activist as a person who has graduated from the state of victimhood. He defines a victim as “the man (or woman) who is without hope, without self-respect, does not know the difference between love and hate and has little to lose between himself and his God. He is a mortal danger to himself and those in power whose job it is to keep him in bondage” .
In analysing the book by Thomas Mofolo titled Chaka, Nadine Gordimer concludes that it seeks to address itself to a vital question: “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?”
Biko’s emergence in the political sphere ushered in an era of self-definition and self-assertion aimed at retrieving our own soul. This is the essence of the question Peter Abraham sought to answer when in 1956 he penned the novel The Wretched of Udomo.
Pixley ka Isaka Seme was haunted by this very question when he stood before an audience competing for the George William Curtis Oratory competition at Colombia in 1906. Assuring his audience about the greatness of his Africanness and glory of his ancestry, Seme implored his audience: “Oh, for the historian who, with an open pen of truth will bring to Africa’s claim the strength of written proof. He will tell of a race whose onward tide was often swelled with tears, but in whose heart bondage has not quenched the fire of former years. He will write that in these latter days when Earth’s noble ones are named, she has a roll of honour, too, of which she is not shamed.”
Today we too are faced with the daunting tasks of answering vital and primary questions about the state of our nationhood. We are still wresting control from the entrenched white capitalist economy. We still reel under the oppressive yoke of all pervading oligopolistic and monopolistic forms of the white economy. We still reel under the heavy yoke of the 1913 Land Act.
Zemk’ iinkomo magwala ndini. Gone are your cattle you bloody cowards!
* Thami ka Plaatjie is adviser to Minister Lindiwe Sisulu and head of ANC Research.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.