We write what we like. Celebrating Steve Biko

Celebrates South African writer Steve Biko whose legacy was the freedom to think and say and write what we like
van Wyk, Chris
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We write what we like. Celebrating Steve Biko

Author: Chris van Wyk
Publisher: Witwatersrand University Press
Johannesburg, 2007
ISBN: 978-1-86814-464-8
Paperback, 15x23 cm, 240 pages, several bw photos


Steve Biko, father of the black consciousness philosophy, was killed in prison on 12th September 1977.

Biko was only 30 years old, but his ideas and political activities changed the course of South African history and helped hasten the end of apartheid. This year, 2007, saw the 30th anniversary of Biko’s death.

To mark the occasion, the Minister of Science and Technology and President of Azapo, Dr. Mosibudi Mangena, commissioned Chris van Wyk to compile an anthology of essays as a tribute to the great South African son.

Among the contributors are Minister Mangena himself, President Thabo Mbeki, writer Darryl Accone, journalists Lizeka Mda and Bokwe Mafuna, academics Jonathan Jansen, Achille Mbembe, Mandla Seleoane and Saths Cooper, a friend of Biko's and former president of Azapo.

The essays cover a wide range of key moments in a significant time in South African history, both personal and public - being on trial with Biko, talking with him about his philosophy and his vision, listening to him speak from a podium.

Some of the contributors never met Biko face to face but their accounts are nevertheless interesting as they describe the moment when Biko's philosophy captured their imaginations, as it swept through a generation hungry and eager for a new and dynamic way to fight oppression.

We write what we like proudly echoes the title of Biko’s seminal I write what I like. It is a gift to a new generation which enjoys freedom, from one that was there when this freedom was being fought for. And it celebrates the man whose legacy is the freedom to think and say and write what we like.


Introduction: Chris van Wyk
Timeline of Steve Biko's life
1. Lizeka Mda
Dear Steve
2. Mosibudi Mangena
Thirty years on and not much has changed
3. Thabo Mbeki
Steve Biko: 30 years after
4. Darryl Accone
Through chess I discovered Steve Biko
5. Veli Mbele
Biko's influence on me
6. Mandla Seleoane
Biko's influence and a reflection
7. Bokwe Mafuna
The impact of Steve Biko on my life
8. Mathatha Tsedu
He shaped the way I see the world
9. Zithulele Cindi
White carnations and the Black Power revolution:
they tried us for our ideas
10. Saths Cooper and Pandelani Nefolovhodwe
Steve Biko and the SASO/BPC trial
11. Duncan Innes
A white man remembers
12. Jonathan Jansen
King James, Princess Alice, and the ironed hair:
a tribute to Stephen Bantu Biko
13. Acbille Mbembe
Biko's testament of hope
14. Steve Biko
Black Consciousness and the quest for a true humanity


We have set out on a quest for true humanity, and somewhere on the distant horizon we can see the glittering prize. Let us march forth with courage and determination, drawing strength from our common plight ...In time we shall he in a position to bestow upon South Africa the greatest gift possible - a more human face.

Steve Biko

In paying tribute to Steve Biko I cast my mind back to two specific moments in my life. It is a hot summer day in September 1971. I am 14 years old and in standard 7 (grade 9). I am sitting at the diningroom table in our tiny matchbox of a house in Riverlea, south of Johannesburg.

The heat is almost worse than the homework I am struggling with. The front door is open for some relief. Our wire gate swings open and I hear footsteps approaching. This is exactly what I need - some distraction. It's probably one of my friends coming to chat. I don't know yet who it is but I will know any second now as the footsteps make their way up the small stoep.

It's a policeman, blond and blue and white like the South African flag, and barely out of his teens.

'Hullo, can I help you?' I say.
He ignores my greeting. 'Where's Van Wyk?' he barks in Afrikaans. He must mean my father! What has my dad done wrong? 'He's in the bathroom,' I tell the young cop.
He wastes not a moment more but turns on his heel and goose-steps to the bathroom - where he bangs on the door barking out our surname.
Suddenly there is consternation in our home. Curious, big-eyed siblings peep out from rooms and Ma comes to see what's the matter.

'Get out of there!' the cop demands.
Within seconds my father flies out of the bathroom, clothes sticking to a wet body, steam rising from him, rubbing a towel through his hair. 'Fok!' says the cop, stepping back from my father, 'jy's nie die Van Wyk wat ek soek nie!' (You're not the Van Wyk I want). He flounces out of the door, leaving behind, in place of an apology, his rudeness and the smell of his sweat.

Fast forward ten years to a hot Friday morning in January 1981. I am married and my wife Kathy has this very morning given birth to our first son. I am still in Riverlea, sitting with my two best friends in my mother-in-law's tiny yard celebrating with a bottle of wine.

The grass is green, the garden is in bloom, a peach tree is so laden with its ripe fruit that some of its branches lean into the neighbour's yard. It's a perfect day - until a car pulls up on the pavement. A fat white policeman heaves himself out of the car and makes his way to the neighbour's door. But he's very interested in the doings of the three coloured men on the other side of the fence.

And as he passes us he gives us a look of disdain and utters the inevitable remark: 'The bushmen are at it again huh - drinking your lives away.' All three of us rush to the fence and shout out our anger. The cop is so shocked that he hobbles out of the yard. He gets back into his car, mutters a threat and races away. Why was my reaction to a white policeman that day so different from my dad's ten years ago, I asked myself. And the answer came easily. I grew up with Steve Biko; my father did not.

When my dad was a young man the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and African National Congress (ANC) were banned and apartheid was a cocky juvenile growing into a selfish, greedy bully. In the sixties and seventies our coloured township had settled very nicely into just the kind of community the apartheid government wanted it to be - poor but obedient.

I learnt quickly which entrance to the post office I should use. If an adult spoke about his or her boss, my imagination conjured up a picture of a white man. The books I read were about white people, whether they were teenage detectives or a bare-chested adventurer in an African jungle. The announcers and DJs and songs and adverts on the radio all involved white people. And if for some reason a black character appeared in a soapie, he was played by a white actor with a ridiculous Zulu accent. The world I lived in was white, and I was not a part of it.

When I was growing up, my mother had an expression for those times when my brothers and I tried to get involved in adult conversation: 'Children should be seen and not heard,' she would say. With their laws the apartheid government went one step further, saying, 'Non-whites should neither be seen nor heard.'
Like the black American writer Ralph Ellison observed, I was an 'Invisible Man'.

When I was mentioned it was by the prime minister as a problem, as in 'the coloured and African problem'.
Once or twice, in a barbershop, somebody would dare utter the name 'Mandela' - but this would be followed by a chorus of loud shouts of 'Shut up! Wanna get us into trouble?' There were, of course, men and women who were different. But they were regarded as oddities, freaks.

A man living in the next street was banned. I didn't know why nor would anyone tell me. 'He must've done something terrible,' I concluded in the absence of a reasonable explanation. A history teacher began talking politics, but was fired or relocated or something, I don't know what. All I know is that one day he was there saying, 'apartheid is wrong'. And the next day he was gone.

A student had gone home to tell his parents, the parents complained to the principal, the principal alerted the department (of Coloured Affairs) and the history teacher was history. There is an old African proverb that says: 'It takes a village to raise a child.' But apartheid would call for more than a mere village. It needed a village plus Steve Biko. And Steve Biko came to me in the seventies. The first words of Black Consciousness I ever heard or saw was this simple phrase, printed in a newspaper as a caption below a photo of one Hlaku Rachidi, a BC activist:

'We are not carbon copies of white people; we are human beings in our own right.' I stared at the text. This was a new thought, but at the same time so old that I felt I had known it for centuries longer than my 18 or so years. At about this time I became acquainted with the poetry of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. In his poem, 'Poetry', he describes his feelings at the moment when poetry first entered his soul, feelings similar to mine upon discovering Black Consciousness:

I wheeled with the stars
My heart broke loose on the wind

I was black. I am black. I am a person too. I am not invisible. I am here. But I was not unique. More and more black South Africans were becoming militant and proud to be black as the philosophy swept off the university campuses where it had begun, like Neruda's wind. In fact, here is a wonderful linguistic coincidence:

In IsiXhosa, Biko's mother tongue, the word for wind, moya, is also the word for spirit. And so it was that this new spirit was abroad - on the campuses, in the high schools, in the township streets. It was palpable, visible and dynamic - dashikis, afros, clenched fist salutes, students on the march, a renaissance of militant theatre, poetry and the arts.

In 1977, when Biko died, I wrote this poem:

He fell from the ninth floor He hanged himself
He slipped on a piece of soap while washing He hanged himself
He slipped on a piece of soap while washing
He fell from the ninth floor
He hanged himself while washing
He slipped from the ninth floor
He hung from the ninth floor
He slipped on the ninth floor while washing
He fell from a piece of soap while washing
He hung from the ninth floor
He washed from the ninth floor while slipping
He hung from a piece of soap while slipping

I read the poem in township and church halls in Riverlea, Soweto, Lenasia, Braamfontein, Cape Town. The audiences were appreciative and angry. But lurking amongst them were the apartheid government's security police. They picked me up one day and took me to John Vorster Square in Johannesburg. They had brought me here to interrogate me. But first there was a little game they needed to play out. They took me up to a ninth floor office and to a window overlooking the city.

'So, when did you see anyone falling from here?' they asked me. And 'why did you write that poem?'

I wonder if they would have understood the answer, which is that I had written the poem because Biko had died - but more importantly I had written it because he had lived. Biko's Black Consciousness had given me the courage to speak out.

As a storyteller I am moved as much by the stories of our struggle for liberation as by the philosophies that drove it. One of those stories is about the great PAC leader Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, a man whose courage and intellect inspired Biko himself. In 1963 Sobukwe was imprisoned on Robben Island. But so afraid was the government of his power as a leader that it separated him from the other prisoners.

Sobukwe lived alone, surrounded by prison guards day and night, forbidden to interact and talk with fellow prisoners. Every day other PAC prisoners would pass by his enclosure on their way to and from the quarry. Under their mute gaze Sobukwe would pick up a handful of sand and slowly let it trickle through his fingers. In this way he was reminding them that, 'this land is our land'.

And then there is the image of Biko that his son Nkosinathi recalls in his introduction to a recent edition of I Write What I Like.

My mother tells me that he [my father] would stay up late reading and writing stuff... [H]e would be facing the ceiling and think aloud while she took notes. Mostly, she says, there was no need to ... edit these - he had a way with words.

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