In Melville, the empty storefronts and forlorn “To Let” signs say more about the state of the economy than the gloomy economic outlook numbers currently in circulation. At the cusp of the changing fortunes of the South African economy, Melville is constantly reinventing itself. I am meeting a colleague to discuss a story about the ANC’s latest dilemma in the North West province.
Sure, we are not exactly tramping around in the dust behind ANC cadres in the thick of inaction in the North West for the moment, but we do enjoy having meetings in which we pore over bundles of paper, making notes and generally looking important, or like we know what we’re doing.
We like to think we pull the act off successfully most of the time.
But as we sit down at a tiny table where the café owner pours my cup of Moroccan mint tea with an elaborate flourish, Andile Mngxitama, the self-styled “Bikoist klipgoier [stone thrower]” enters.
Just moments before he walked in, I had seen a tweet from him, decrying the “neoliberal” stance of Mamphela Ramphele’s newly established political party platform, Agang. “The tragedy of Agang is its ideological slant. We don’t need another neo-liberal gang. The ANC and DA have done enough damage already,” he said.
But when Mngxitama approaches us, he’s more interested in finding out whether my colleague was responsible for telling a British journalist that he was all the rage among white women in South Africa. On this point, at least, Mngxitama says he does not want to emulate Fanon or Biko.
We share a laugh, but it would be a wasted opportunity not to engage him on the latest South African political dramas, particularly the launch of Agang.
Ramphele’s big announcement was dwarfed by the Oscar Pistorius bail hearing, but in the brief interludes that the fevered attention to that hearing allowed, curiosity about Ramphele’s political ambitions trickled through. Another colleague tells a story about the bouncer at his local tavern asking him what he makes of Agang. “Clearly, the launch of Agang has made Ramphele known to many of those we say don’t know her,” he says.
There has been some debate about whether it is relevant to bring up Biko’s politics in the context of the launch of Agang. Dan Magaziner, a professor of African history at Yale University, says that although it was predictable that Ramphele would be asked about Biko at this current political moment, it is also regrettable. He points out that such an understanding of her reduces the complexity of her individuality to a few short years and a love affair with a famous man who was killed.
“This does her great disservice, since no matter what you think of her, no matter what you think of those actions she has taken since 1977, she’s far more complex than just those years that they were together. For better for worse, she is far more complex than that.
“It’s hard to imagine the first line of biography of a male political figure beginning with his tragic love affair,” Magaziner notes.
But nonetheless, while Ramphele has stressed that she does not consider herself a “messiah”, there are still those who – perhaps sentimentally – use her relationship with the black consciousness leader to understand her politics and general stance. And this has fuelled the fight to view South Africa through Biko’s eyes today. As The Guardian’s David Smith put it, “What Biko would think about today’s South Africa if he had lived, and how he would respond, is a perennial subject of debate.”
Speaking to Smith last week, Ramphele said, “He would have been disappointed, as I am, that the country of our dreams is yet to become a reality in the lives of ordinary people.
“He would have been as committed as I am to put up his hand to make sure that we mobilise South Africans to build this country of our dreams and to make ours a modern, thriving 21st-century democracy.”
Of course, much of this is moot, since Biko is no longer able to speak for himself. And yet there are those who, like Ramphele, either knew him well enough to hazard a guess, or those who have studied enough of his work and writing to have some interest in the debate.
Mngxitama, for one, believes Biko would have been repulsed by the manner in which the ANC has ruled the country since 1994.
He says, “Biko would have thought the events of 1994 had turned South Africa into a national Bantustan, a place where a select number of black people govern an enclave for the benefit of white people.”
And for all his differences with Xolela Mangcu, the author of Biko: A Biography, Mngxitama’s feelings are mirrored by Mangcu.
“Biko would have been appalled by the education and health systems in the country,” Mangcu told The Sowetan in September last year.
He added, “Biko would be disgusted by the high-level of corruption and self-interest that dominates South Africa’s political landscape”.
Mangcu believes if Biko were alive today, South Africa would be a better place.
Critically, these wistful invocations of Biko point to a frustration with the current political spectacle. This discontent is illustrated as well through the contestation over Biko’s legacy.
Mangcu and Mngxitama fought a bitter newspaper column battle last year over their individual interpretations of Biko. As Magaziner points out, Mngxitama accused Mangcu of reducing Biko to “a Xhosa boy from the Ginsberg township,” rather than capturing the wholeness of a thinker comfortable with the complexities of Fanon and the radical desire to “make a revolution.” Mngxitama judged Mangcu’s biography ultimately “unbearable”. Mangcu retorted by accusing Mngxitama of being fixated by Fanon.
Mangcu is not the only “Bikoist” who has questioned Mngxitama’s credentials.
After I interviewed Mngxitama in 2011, on the anniversary of Biko’s death, another disgruntled Bikoist complained to me that Mngxitama perverted the views of Biko to further his own ends. This person contended that only the Steve Biko Foundation should be considered the official representatives of Biko in the current day.
And just as Mngxitama is questioned about his right to speak of and for Biko today, so too Ramphele’s right to speak for Biko has been questioned. And that from senior government officials.
Last week, Deputy Minister of Communications Stella Ndabeni wrote on Facebook: “I wonder why does the Biko family allow his mistress Dr Ramphele to speak on behalf of Biko whilst his wife is alive? Where I come from Mistresses are not allowed to speak in public about their lovers.”
Magaziner believes Biko is not just a name, but also an idea that all people can see themselves in, if they so choose.
He argues that Biko was vague about the particulars of his ideology, thus allowing people today to write their own ideas and their own political programs into him. These interpretations of Biko, then, shape the way we understand how he would see the present.
“They can do this especially because he died. He is not sullied by the politics the 1980s and 90s and of today,” he said. “In this he is somehow even more pure than a figure like Mandela, who, despite his sanctity, was dirtied somewhat by various things that took place during and after his time in office. Because this functions as a constant [critique] out there for people to use against the status quo, much as for certain members of the ANC Chris Hani functions, and it should be noted, as Ramaphosa functioned before his current incarnation as ANC Deputy President.”
Magaziner adds: “Biko is South Africa’s ultimate ‘might have been had things turned out the other way’. There’ll always be power in imagining alternatives when people continue to be displeased with reality.
“I think the simple reason why people are always interesting and what Biko would think is because Biko functions as a cipher in South Africa. He stands for opposition to the status quo, he stands for a politics of liberation and self-definition, all of which are important concepts that continue to resonate today.”
Back in Melville, at the end of a sweltering, hot day, stores close their shutters in the fading light, cafes and bars fill up, life, real life feels undisturbed by the political positioning. It’s not just Ramphele who feels far away. President Zuma, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and their own plans for the country feel equally distant. The struggle really does continue. DM
Photo: Steve Biko
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Old-fashioned crisps used to come with a packet of salt giving the purchaser the choice whether to salt their chips or not.