A Black Consciousness: Word to Ntate Steve Biko

Politics and Society

A Black Consciousness: Word to Ntate Steve Biko

Forty years after Steve Bantu Biko’s death at the hands of apartheid police, Tseliso Monaheng considers the Black Consciousness thought leader’s legacy, then and now.



There is a house at the end of Nxatha Street in Gingberg, King William’s Town. Originally a three-roomed dwelling, over time two more rooms were incorporated into the home. At its entrance is a postbox, with #698 written on it in black permanent marker. This is where Steve Bantu Biko, the Black Consciousness leader who was assassinated 40 years ago today, was raised, along with his three siblings.

Upon entry, one is met with a stone bust of the celebrated thinker. The inscription reads: “Dedicated on 12 September 1997 by the honourable State President Nelson R. Mandela in commemoration of Steve Biko.” There is powerful symbolism to this dedication: Two iconic men, occupying distinct, polar-opposite imaginaries in the minds of South African youth, meeting, in a sense, 20 years after one of them was murdered, unjustly, like every other black body; a testament to repeated repression and suppression under apartheid and before, from the days of slavery and colonialism.

At the other end of the street is the Steve Biko Centre, which opened officially in 2012, a full year and a few days before Mandela himself left for a higher plane.

Outside the Steve Biko Centre in Ginsberg. Photo: Tseliso Monaheng.

I was in Ginsberg because the author Bongani Madondo convinced me to tag along with him on the Eastern Cape leg of the launch of his book of essays on Brenda Fassie, titled I’m Not Your Weekend Special. We were joined by another great writer, Vukile Pokwana, with whom Madondo traded sinkholes, words and ideas while they shared office space in the 1990s, when both men were young journalists in Joziburg. Pokwana has since moved back to the Eastern Cape. At the time he was living in the East London township of Mdantsane, some 40 minutes away.

Read: Steve Biko’s 70th Birthday: Google pays tribute to Biko


The launch did not start for another hour. Andile Mabombo, the then Sports Development Officer at the Foundation, had to make special provision for this after-hours tour of the house.

Inside, the living room walls host an exhibition of the Biko family. Facing you upon entry is one of the better-known images of Biko. He seems to be giving a talk, perhaps as part of the work he did at the height of his activities in the 1970s. His hands appear as though they’ve just been uncupped, and the smile on his face suggests that he had either just arrived at a liberating realisation, or mischievously slipped in a joke while making his point. An online search leads to a photography agency’s website; the photographer remains unnamed. To the left is Steve’s mother, Mamcete, whose husband, Mzingaye, died suddenly in 1950, when her third, future-leader child was just four years old. Beneath that image are a series of pictures, one of which is a re-print of a Daily Dispatch front page:

“Biko Dies In Detention” reads the block letters on yellowed paper, and “We salute a hero of the nation” to the left of “Sikhahlela indoda yamadoda”, separated by a portrait of the leader. “Countrywide reaction” is the story’s heading.

The house Steve Biko and grew up in while living in Ginsberg. Photo: Tseliso Monaheng.


This is a country simultaneously fighting for its soul and precipitously working against all it has achieved in the ‘miracle’ we sometimes, correctly, undermine. Although the rhetoric of ‘miracle’ is rightfully critiqued for its coded signals that the oppressed should be grateful that the saintly Mandela led us to this nirvana where we should sommer just get along (…) it also astonishes how those on the left (commies, black nationalists, #mustfall generation) cheekily and stylishly underappreciate the sacrifices people have made for this country to be where it is today.”

– Bongani Madondo, Sigh, The Beloved Country (Introduction)


Mdantsane-born, Cape Town-raised, now Jo’burg-based Anelisa Blom stands outside the administrative block of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s Cape Town campus. She is back to reconnect with her old mates, arty types who have formed a performing arts connective and with whom she has maintained close contact since her graduation. Known as ‘Khonaye’ to music lovers, Anelisa exudes an other-side energy that entrances everyone around her.

It is August, 2017, the final days of a southern hemisphere winter; the same August in which Biko was arrested, some 40 years ago.

Read: 10 excerpts from Steve Biko Memorial Lectures

“No, no, no…you can’t tell me #FeesMustFall started in 2015. I know [it] started in 2014 because [the students] got a discount on our NSFAS bursaries, so I know when #FeesMustFall started,” Khonaye says to my question about what she was doing when the student protest flared up across South Africa as 2015 was ending.

#feesmustfall_day 8 Luthuli house. Photo: Tseliso Monaheng.

“It was captured live in 2015. I was here. We were fighting for students to get into CPUT; for them to get residences, loans from NSFAS, everybody. We were literally the people who were marching – SASCO members – making a whole lot of noise, causing a whole lot of ruckus because free education, a black child; a child, white, coloured, Indian, everybody must get the opportunity to study. So I was here.” Khonaye continues making her way around campus, passing by the crowds gathered outside because students are protesting, again, and lecturers have cancelled their classes.

“#FeesMustFall was a matter of realising that even though I might have had family to help me through studying, there are other people who don’t. So, if you get given the opportunity to go and study, take it. Study. If you can, fight for the next person,” she offers.


Biko got kicked out of Lovedale College for being a black child with a beautiful mind with the propensity to question; the gall to fight back.

Biko got kicked out of Lovedale College for being a black child with a beautiful mind with the propensity to question; the gall to fight back.

Lest we forget.

“[The authorities] are not coming to CPUT to say ‘we’re hearing your views’. They’re not going to UWC to say ‘we’re hearing your views’. They’re going there to go and shut down people,” she says, at which moment sirens start sounding.

“Sirens – can you hear?” she asks. We mill about before heading towards one of the campus entrances and finding a police truck barricading it.

Steve Biko. Photo: Steve Biko Foundation

The activism that followed Steve Biko’s politicisation was informed by experiences and fuelled by circumstances not much different from black students in tertiary institutions in this, our time. Biko formed the SA Students Organisation (SASO) in 1968 as a breakaway from the white-dominated National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). The SA Students Congress (SASCO), the student arm of the ANC, of which Khonaye was a member, was formed a year after Mandela’s release, and followed in the trail blazed by the Azanian Students Organisation (AZASO), which preceded SANSCO (with whom NUSAS merged) and followed in the wake of SASO.

Black universal suffrage remains a theme we are forced to return to.

The parallels are undeniable because black universal suffrage remains a theme we are forced to return to, from one generation to the next. Oppression – it has multiple ways to fuck with your vibe.


Revival of black thought?

The BCM’s open letter opposing Bantustans had been mentioned in other publications, but The World newspaper, edited by Percy Qoboza, was the only newspaper to publish the letter in its entirety. This action was seen as the last straw that angered the apartheid forces to a point of declaring the newspaper illegal. Between July and September 1977, scores of black consciousness activists were increasingly being harassed and arrested by the apartheid forces, and the extremity of the regime’s determination to literally kill black thought reached its greatest height with the arrest and ultimate murder of Steve Biko, who died under police brutality on the 12th of September, 1977.” – Thabo Lehlongwa, Superstar/Cultural activist and television producer/Sweet Soul Brother

Biko would not have been, had it not been for Fanon and other thinkers before him – Carmichael, Makeba, Sobukwe, Diop. He would not have moved, had it not been for the music – the Blue Notes of Dyani, McGregor, Pukwana and Feza; the polyrhythmic inflections of Xhosa women going about their work; the calm, gentle afternoon unwind, with the Maloti mountains not far behind, the Indian Ocean not far ahead.

He was a man influenced by his surroundings.

In thinking about how to revive black thought, it is important to remember that we are products of Nkrumah’s Black Star and Kenyatta’s Burning Spear; we are Nzinga’s offspring; we are Garvey’s ghosts, the rain Mantsopa foretold, the unbelievers of Nongqawuse.


And this straight up might be the hotep-iest shit to say in 2017 but a return to blackness, an acknowledgment of our Pan-Africanism(s), is perhaps the best way to re-connect the dots and re-trace our shared heritages.

But how? The question remains.

“Am I a coconut? Am I playing to white people’s expectations of what they think black people should be, and all of that shit?”

Cue: Laughter.

It’s 2016 and we’re in pre-Herman Mashaba Jozi. Hyde Park. The launch night of Bongani Madondo’s Sigh, The Beloved Country.


That other night two years ago had gone well. People came. Authors read excerpts, discussed ideas. Nkosinathi Biko was present, as was mam’ Ntsiki Mashalaba.

Biko’s ideology peaked in 2015, and shall again rear its head in a few months when students march to protest free and fair education for all, among other issues.

Before a full house at a bookshop in a premium part of Jozi’s northern suburbs, Madondo’s fielding questions from another author, Panashe Chigumadzi.

There’s a chuckle in the audience following his utterance of the word ‘shit’. It signals the level of society we’ve ‘ascended’ to here; Ginsberg, a distant memory; ‘cuss words’, or how we speak, taboo. And black faces? Security guards and cleaning ladies are the only ones they acknowledge.

“Yeah, all of that shit. This lady is very…embarrassed,” says Madondo, pointing.


Author Bongani Madondo reading from I’m Not Your Weekend Special at the Steve Biko centre. Photo: Tseliso Monaheng.

“Listen, I was raised in the Black Consciousness movement, from the age of 15. Throughout my entire life, I’ve been writing specifically for black folk. Until a certain time; I can’t remember, was it 15 years ago or so, I felt like I need to write for South Africa,” Madondo says.

That need expanded. The yearning to write for country birthed a yearning to write for the continent, which then sparked a desire to “write for the world,” as he puts it.

“Ultimately, I felt like the most freeing aspect of my voice is that I needed to write for myself.”

This desire informed the author’s need to not “disregard South Africa’s race equation”, because it’s all there; in the media, in publishing, “We should know that black folks are not necessarily in charge.”

September 12’s cover of the Daily Dispatch has “ANC branch meeting turns violent” in big, bold letters.

To the right of an etching of Steve Biko’s face is a tiny strip with a black background. “I’m going to be me as I am, and you can beat me or jail me or even kill me, but I’m not going to be what you want me to be” are the words quoted, lifted from the Richard Attenborough-directed flick Cry Freedom.

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