Extract: Legends -People who changed South Africa for the better

Book cover. Supplied image.

Book cover. Supplied image.

Published Oct 1, 2023



We have a lot to be positive about in South Africa. With all our problems, it’s easy to feel bleak. But hold those thoughts, because Legends might be just the tonic you need to drive away the gloom.

This book tells the stories of a dozen remarkable people – some well known, others largely forgotten – who changed Mzansi for the better. Most South Africans are proud of Nelson Mandela, and rightly so. His life was astounding, but he’s by no means the only person who should inspire us.

There’s King Moshoeshoe, whose humanity and diplomatic strategies put him head and shoulders above his contemporaries, both European and African. And John Fairbairn, who brought non-racial democracy to the Cape in 1854. Olive Schreiner was a best-selling international author who fought racism, corruption and chauvinism. And Gandhi spent 20 years here, inventing a system of protest that would bring an empire to its knees.

Legends also celebrates Eugène Marais’s startling contributions to literature and natural history (despite a lifelong morphine addiction); Sol Plaatje’s wit, intelligence and tenacity in the face of racial zealots; Cissie Gool’s lifetime fighting for justice and exposing bigots; and Sailor Malan’s battles against fascists in the skies of Europe and on the streets of South Africa.

And then there’s Miriam Makeba, who began her life in prison and ended it as an international singing sensation; Steve Biko, who shifted the minds of an entire generation; and Thuli Madonsela (the book’s only living legend), who gracefully felled the most powerful man in the land.

Engagingly written and meticulously researched, Legends reminds South Africans that we have a helluva lot to be proud of.

About the authors: Matthew Blackman has written as a journalist on corruption in South Africa, as well as on art, literature and history. He recently completed a PhD in creative and critical writing at the University of East Anglia. He lives in Cape Town with a dog of nameless breed.

Nick Dall has an MA in creative writing from UCT. He’s written about everything from coelacanths to circus acts, but it’s the barely believable tales of our past that get him most excited. He lives in Cape Town with his wife and kids.


Steve Biko: The consciousness of a prophet

Steve Biko was one of the greatest political minds South Africa produced. His personality and charm were infectious; few who met him could not help but be drawn to him. And as Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu suggested at his funeral, there was something in Biko’s tragic story that was not unlike that of Jesus Christ’s. This excerpt is taken from Chapter 11 of Legends: People who changed South Africa for the better.

The large man lay beaten and unconscious on the floor of room 619 of the Sanlam Building in Port Elizabeth. Doctors came in under police supervision and found him lying beneath urine-soaked blankets. The man was chained by one foot to a radiator and his hands were handcuffed. Dr Ivor Lang, a local district surgeon, had examined the same man the day before. Lang had found one of the most profound thinkers and communicators South Africa has ever produced incoherent, his speech slurred and, tellingly, his lips badly swollen. But Lang wrote:

This is to testify that I have examined Steve Biko as a result of a request from Colonel Goosen of the security police who complains that the abovementioned would not speak. I have found no evidence of any abnormality or pathology on the detainee. Signed: Dr Lang 10.10 am September 7, 1977.

Twelve hours later, Lang was called to re-examine Biko by Major Fischer, the leader of a second interrogation team. This time the doctor claimed he saw no signs of injury or illness and stated that he believed Biko ‘was playing the fool with us’.

The next day, Lang was accompanied by the chief district surgeon, Dr Benjamin Tucker. When they managed to speak to Biko, he complained of pains in his head. The two doctors then took him to the local prison hospital. He was diagnosed with urinary incontinence, blood in his cerebrospinal fluid and early signs of brain damage. However, Lang wrote on the medical form that Biko showed ‘no change in condition’ and duly sent him back to the security police.

Steve Biko had been taken into custody on 18 August 1977 in the Eastern Cape after being caught breaking his banning order. During his interrogation, he was subjected to severe torture during which he received what would ultimately prove to be a fatal head injury. The policemen, Harold Snyman, Gideon Nieuwoudt, Ruben Marx, Daantjie Siebert and Johan Beneke, all later admitted at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that they knew Biko had been concussed. Yet they had still chained him, naked, by both legs and arms to a metal grille. Snyman stated at the TRC ‘that it was possible that we acted in an inhumane manner’. They only ever admitted to a scuffle taking place, not that systematic state- condoned torture had occurred.

Bantu’s birth

Bantu Stephen Biko was born on 18 December 1946. His father, Mzingaye Biko, was a policeman at the time, and his mother, MamCethe (Alice to some), was the daughter of a policeman. But after being transferred to King William’s Town in 1948, Mzingaye resigned from the police force and became a clerk. He began studying for a law degree via correspondence. The Bikos lived in a modest house in what was then the small township of Ginsberg, named, somewhat ironically considering Biko’s life, after the liberal politician Franz Ginsberg. Mzingaye played the piano in the local church and lock for Grahamstown’s black rugby club, called, of all things, Lily White. The club was named after the daughter of the liberal Reverend White.

Biko’s early connections with the vestiges of white liberalism might seem like an incongruous coincidence. But he probably wouldn’t have become the man he did if he hadn’t grown up in this area – one where white liberals had attempted to dig in their scattered ideological seeds among the Eastern Cape’s black population.

When Biko was just four years old, his father’s stomach suddenly swelled with water and he died. Mzingaye left behind a wife and four kids in a country whose apartheid laws were just beginning to take root. MamCethe managed to keep the family going by doubling as a domestic worker and cook. But it was not easy.

From a young age, Biko became aware of his family’s fatherless predicament. When his mother attempted to buy him clothes, he responded: ‘I know we don’t have a father. We can’t afford these new clothes.’ His primary-school teacher, Mrs Monaheng, remembered him as a naughty child who sat at the front of the class, clad in khaki shorts and always barefoot. As his friend Donald Woods recalled, even as a man, Biko only ever had a few items of clothing. He dressed, according to Woods, ‘in a low-key way’.

Growing pains

The township of Ginsberg was not an easy place to grow up in: its infrastructure was poor; it was overcrowded; and it had, as sociologist and Biko biographer Xolela Mangcu puts it, a ‘fearsome reputation’. It also had extremely limited opportunities for education. But what opportunities there were, Biko took with both hands. Not only did he excel in maths and English, but he also gained a reputation for helping his fellow students with their studies.

But he was no nerd. One day when the teachers left the boys to study, Biko jumped on his desk to perform the Beatles’ ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. When one boy complained to the principal that he wanted to study alone because Biko was being disruptive, Biko took his revenge. While the boy was studying in the science lab one night, Biko turned the lights off and on. Then he and the other boys rushed into the room to moon the complainant. When he saw their exposed bottoms, the boy believed that evil spirits were about and took flight, leaping out the window and hightailing it home.

Arrested development

Beyond her two jobs, Biko’s mother was a community leader who was desperate to get her boisterous, intelligent son the best education on offer. When Biko was doing well at secondary school, the Ginsberg community got together to give him a bursary to the famous Lovedale College in Alice. In 1963 he was admitted to Lovedale, where his older brother, Khaya, was studying. There he would end up sharing a desk with a student by the name of Barney Pityana. The two were destined to form a movement that would change South Africa forever.

“Legends” is published by Penguin Random House and retails at R320.

The Saturday Star