Biko must be smiling in his grave
There are exceptional young people carrying forward the legacy of a remarkable man, writes Malaika wa Azania.
This marks the final weekend of Biko Month, a period during which the modern Black Consciousness Movement celebrates the life of one of the most influential key role-players of the movement that brought the apartheid regime to its knees.
On August 18, 1977 Biko was arrested at a police roadblock near Grahamstown under the Terrorism Act No 83 of 1967.
Section 6 of the Act allowed someone suspected of involvement in terrorism – which was very broadly defined as anything that might “endanger the maintenance of law and order” – to be detained for a 60-day period (which could be renewed) without trial on the authority of a senior police officer.
A month later, in September, Biko was brutally murdered while in police custody. He had been beaten to within an inch of his life, sustaining brain damage.
Describing the final hours of Biko’s life, one of his close friends and fellow activist, Professor Barney Pityana, narrates:
On the night of 11 September Biko, evidently a seriously ill patient, was driven to Pretoria, naked and manacled to the floor of a Land Rover. Eleven hours later he was carried into the hospital at Pretoria Central Prison and left on the floor of a cell. Several hours later a newly qualified doctor who had no information about him other than that he was refusing to eat gave him an intravenous drip. Sometime during the night of 12 September Steve Biko died, unattended.
This is how Biko, at the tender age of 30, exited a world that had shown him little kindness during his short stint in it.
Like many Black people during that time, Biko had been on the receiving end of a diabolical system that claimed not just the lives, but the very humanness of our people. But he had not sat back and allowed the system to devour him whole. Biko had fought hard, and one of the weapons he used in his fight was through empowering black people.
When the apartheid government banned Biko in 1973, his movement within the country was restricted to the Eastern Cape, where he was born. After returning there, he formed a number of grass-roots organisations based on the notion of self-reliance: Zanempilo, the Zimele Trust Fund (which helped support former political prisoners and their families), the Njwaxa Leather-Works Project and the Ginsberg Education Fund.
What is clear is that he had fought not only against the economic and land dispossession that a settler white minority had subjected our people to, but also against a value system that birthed and nurtured their animalisation.
The animalisation of black people continues to find expression in post-1994 South Africa, an era that was supposed to mark the dawn of a new day, a new South Africa characterised by non-racialism, non-sexism, equality and a people-centred democracy.
It finds expression in townships where young black youths sit on street corners, enduring the harsh reality of unemployment. It finds expression in mines where young black men, faced with lack of access to tertiary education, become rock drillers for white-owned mines.
Sole breadwinners for their families in rural South Africa, when they protest against the inhuman conditions of their work and the meagre wages they take home as remuneration, they are introduced to their maker by the ruthless bullets of our police force. It finds expression in poverty levels that force young black women into a life of drug trafficking, prostitution and crime.
President Thabo Mbeki put it most aptly in his I am an African speech when he said: “There the victims parade with no mask to hide the brutish reality – the beggars, the prostitutes, the street children, those who seek solace in substance abuse, those who have to steal to assuage hunger, those who have to lose their sanity because to be sane is to invite pain.
“Perhaps the worst among these, who are my people, are those who have learnt to kill for a wage.
“To these the extent of death is directly proportional to their personal welfare.”
And yet, amid this dehumanisation, there is a story that is not told, one that Steve Biko would be proud of. This is the story of the Thusanani Foundation, a symbol of hope in a society that is drowning in defeatism and systematic oppression. But the story of the Thusanani Foundation cannot be told without first telling the story of its founder, Morris Mukovhe Masutha, who, like Biko, believes in empowering the oppressed.
I met Masutha a month ago in Johannesburg. I asked to meet this young man for lunch when I saw a photo of him uploaded on Facebook by a mutual friend.
The picture was of Masutha’s graduation ceremony at the University of Johannesburg, where he was receiving his Masters degree in Local Economic Development.
At the graduation ceremony, he decided to hold and display before the audience and white-dominated academic staff an ANC t-shirt with President Zuma’s face. The racist cartoons depicting the people who voted and continue to vote ANC as dogs and clowns inspired his actions. Masutha was making a statement that, contrary to the misguided view that seeks to suggest that those who vote for the ANC have dysfunctional mental faculties, black people who support the governing party are not stupid.
Despite not being a supporter of the ANC, I was immediately captured by this young man. He captured me not only because of his bravery, but also because of what he represents.
Masutha is only 25 years old. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economic Geography, a Bachelor of Science (Honours) degree in Environmental Management and Development Planning, both from Wits University. His Masters of Science degree in Local Economic Development was obtained at the University of Johannesburg and he is a prospective PhD candidate (Educational Leadership) at Georgia State University in Atlanta, US, where he is going to study next year.
This exceptional young man is not only a brilliant student – he is also a dedicated activist.
In 2011, he was elected as the SRC president of Wits University.
Since 2008, he has served as a member of the Council for Readmissions Committee. But perhaps the most important work Masutha has done is with the Thusanani Foundation, which he founded.
The Thusanani Foundation is a youth-led non-profit organisation aimed at bridging the educational information gap between rural/ township high school learners and their urban counterparts in order to create equal opportunity for all to access and succeed at institutions of higher learning (universities and FET colleges).
Thusanani does this through an integrated and holistic approach tailor-made to address the socio-economic, educational and infrastructural needs of rural high schools across the country.
Thusanani’s holistic four-pillar approach spans from grade 9 all the way to undergraduate studies.
Since inception, Thusanani has gradually adopted and continues to implement projects in the rural districts of Vhembe (Limpopo), Sisonke (KZN), Ehlanzeni (Mpumalanga, Joe Gqabi (Eastern Cape) and a number of townships in Gauteng province.
Since 2011, the Thusanani Foundation has evolved from a two-man initiative into a registered NPO with four directors and more than 1 200 volunteers in five institutions of higher learning across South Africa, reaching out to over 33 000 high school learners.
The foundation has managed to enrol over 400 students into various institutions of higher learning.
In partnership with universities, FET colleges, NGOs, government and the private sector, the Thusanani Foundation aims to reach out and empower over 100 000 rural and township high school learners by 2017.
On the day of the anniversary of Steve Biko’s death, I had the privilege of being invited to address students at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in Johannesburg.
In my presentation to them on the legacy of Biko, I made continuous reference to the fact that Biko could have chosen to enjoy the relative privileges that the system offered him.
He could have chosen to complete his medical degree at the University of Natal and found employment as a doctor, one who, though subordinate to his white counterparts, would have nonetheless been better off than the multitudes of natives who had the doors of learning shut in their faces.
But he chose to sacrifice the possibility of his own upward mobility for the black nation, just as Mukovhe has done.
Masutha recently resigned from a very comfortable job to focus his attention on running the Thusanani Foundation.
During our lunch meeting, I asked him why he had made such a decision, given the fact that the cost of living is very high.
I put it to him that with a Masters of Science degree, he could work anywhere he wants to work.
His poignant response to me was:
“The cost of living will be much higher when millions of black youths roam the streets of our country unemployed and hungry, when some of us had the ability to help free them from that brutal reality.
“We do not study to have titles and hang our degree certificates on walls, Malaika, we study to help the black nation prosper, and to make South Africa a better place.”
There are many black people making waves in this country, but we do not celebrate them sufficiently because day in and day out, we have stories and images of black corruption, maladministration, incapacity, criminality and all things negative thrust in our faces by media that are more comfortable documenting all that is wrong with blackness.
The story of the Thusanani Foundation and its dynamic founder, Morris Mukovhe Masutha, creates an oasis of calm in a world of turmoil.
It gives us hope in times of defeatism. It reminds us of our capacity as a people to fashion a higher civilisation.
Above all, it reminds us that the struggle for economic freedom is a struggle for quality education, participatory democracy and above all, a struggle of memory against forgetting.
Once they reach the peak of their material success, many people tend to forget those they left behind.
Many years ago, Biko taught us never to dishonour the cause of freedom, never to fear speaking truth to power and to defy all constructs of an anti-black world that seeks to render us inhuman.
Today, there are young people who have kept Biko’s legacy alive, young people like Masutha.
Through him, the teachings and aspirations of Biko live on.
I have no doubt that he is smiling in his grave.
* Wa Azania is author of Memoirs of a Born Free, Reflections on the Rainbow Nation.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.