Tell us about your favourites and win
The gaudy manifestation of being a leader today tells us just how much we have forgotten, says Makhudu Sefara.
Johannesburg - On Sunday, at a session of the Grace Bible Church in Pimville, Soweto, Pastor Mosa Sono announced that the church will turn 30 this weekend.
To prime his congregants, Sono crafted his message around the importance of remembering. This, he said, was important because many go astray when they forget where they come from – or who they are. He cautioned against this.
Looking back at the 30 years of running a church, the challenges overcome and lessons learnt, Sono implored all to consciously pause and reflect on their life journeys and see what lessons and stories these told.
And so on Thursday, when we marked the 36th anniversary of Steve Biko’s cold-blooded murder by fearful white supremacists, a number of things ran through my mind.
I looked back at what it meant to live and die in that era. What it meant to be part of a political party then. To merely step forward to help liberate South Africa, you faced certain death, torture or a life on the run. And the gaudy manifestation of being a leader today tells us just how much we have forgotten about where we come from. Where selflessness was en vogue. Today, this has transmogrified to a life of luxe and bling.
I looked at the service-delivery protests in Protea in Soweto and thought perhaps Biko would have appreciated the fact that black people are protesting to highlight their challenges. But I thought he would have cringed at the destruction of public property, perhaps a symbol of self-hate.
I wondered what Biko would have made of black life today. That the organisers of the Marikana survivors marched to the Union Buildings on the date of his murder was interesting.
The marchers’ friends and colleagues were, like Biko, killed by police. They too, like Biko, were fighting a system that sought their complicity to ensure their perpetual subjugation and poverty. They, like him, stand as a reminder of what it means to be black and poor. To be powerless in the face of a heartless, merciless behemoth called the state.
Though, unlike him, they have had an opportunity to vote in a democratic South Africa, they, like him, stand on the cusp of victory – winning hearts and minds – based on their fearlessness.
They must be looking at black people who are supposedly in charge of levers of power today as nothing more than the shells of which Biko spoke, in the chapter “We Blacks” in the book, I Write What I Like.
They will, as Sono urged his congregants, remember many things. They might remember Aime Cesaire’s words in Discourse on Colonialism: that Adolf Hitler stood out as an aberration for his role in World War 2 and the Holocaust because he “applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the ‘c*****s’ of India and the ‘n*****s’ of Africa”. To be black, it will become that much clearer to them, is to carry a heavy burden.
They will realise, if they have not already, that some blacks with power are too excited to please their white masters by turning guns on them. In corporate South Africa, some blacks will conspire against competent fellow blacks because they want to be seen to be the only ones to have made it to the top, implying, rather perversely, that they are a special breed of “acceptable” blacks.
In Marikana, when black police officers, working for a black national police commissioner, employed by a black president, in consultation with a black minister, who all belong to a largely black political party, open fire on them, they will recall the magical words: “Being black is not a matter of pigmentation – being black is a reflection of a mental attitude”.
When they listen to Justice Minister Jeff Radebe quote a few acts to justify denying them access to sponsored legal representation at the Marikana Commission, they will know that Radebe might look black, but it does not necessarily follow that he is, according to Biko’s definition, black. He may well be a non-black. They might remember how apposite Frantz Fanon’s book Black Skin, White Masks is now.
In their heads, they will think it obvious for a black-led government to empathise with them for, all things considered, they are the victims of those state-employed trigger-happy killers who attacked them on the koppie.
It would not make sense that they are attacked and their tormentors are afforded sponsored legal representation by the state and they, the victims, the underpaid miners, are told by this supposedly caring government to go source funding elsewhere.
Only a government that has no heart uses legalistic arguments on what is a political challenge to tell the victimised underclass to go fend for themselves elsewhere. Shame on Radebe and his colleagues.
To be exploited, denied a good salary and then be shot at and some of you killed while protesting for more pay, and finally to be told to get yourselves good lawyers on your pulverised pay is, well, what it means to be black almost 20 years into our democracy. It is a heavy burden.
It might not be immediately apparent to them, but the wounded of Marikana may have to look at their lawyer, Dali Mpofu, too, and wonder why Biko’s spirit of selfless service escapes him so badly.
They might eventually realise that Biko was not a man given to complaining and declaring himself a victim of a powerful, heartless state. He and many others, including Mosibudi Mangena and Harry Nengwekhulu, volunteered their expertise to serve people. When Biko and his comrades ran clinics for poor people, they expected no payments. Altruism, at a time when they had much less than Mpofu’s assets, saw them offer free classes to students.
Mpofu should look in the mirror and ask himself if it is worth dropping the noble cause of the wounded because he can’t force the non-blacks like Radebe to do the right thing. If Mpofu’s junior partners can’t afford it, he should make a public call for volunteer lawyers to help him. The public can contribute small amounts, in the same way it did on e-tolls following similar public appeals.
It is, in my view, what Biko would have done. To send a strong message out there that it is not about making a name for Mpofu. Not about raking in the millions from donors and government. But about the people who were shot at and almost killed, the victims who faced the fire and lived to tell their sorry tales. If Mpofu can find it in his heart and wallet to do that, he would do the cause of the workers and his own name a lot of good.
To do this might help Mpofu realise one of Biko’s wishes: “To make the black man come to himself; to pump back life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity, to remind him of his complicity (in his own oppression)”.
In this way, Mpofu would have demonstrated he is a very different black man to Radebe. He is the kind of black who, importantly, remembers where he comes from.
* Makhudu Sefara is the editor of The Star. Follow him on Twitter @Sefara_Mak