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Steve Biko and Mamphela Ramphele: Falling in love while dreaming of a life of racial liberation

Steve Biko and Mamphela Ramphele: Falling in love while dreaming of a life of racial liberation
Author Hlumelo Biko. (Photo by Gallo Images / City Press / Leon Sadiki) / Daily Maverick journalist Sandisiwe Shoba. (Photo: Bernard Kotze)

More than 40 years after the death of Steve Biko, students on campuses – and beyond – still resonate with the Black Consciousness Movement. In a book, Steve Biko’s son, Hlumelo Biko, has documented the roots of the student movement.

“You find that the grounds for setting up the Black Consciousness Movement are as real today as they were back then [during apartheid],” said author Hlumelo Biko, son of the late Steve Biko, a name synonymous with the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM).

Hlumelo is a businessman and author of a number of books on African identity, including Africa Reimagined and The Great African Society. He completed his education at the University of Cape Town and Georgetown University.

His new book, Black Consciousness: A Love Story, chronicles the beginnings of the BCM. It begins at the start of the intimate relationship between his parents, Biko and South African politician Mamphela Ramphele, who were both medical students at the time, in 1968. They fell in love while dreaming of a life of racial liberation.

A “tumultuous” love affair is what Daily Maverick journalist Sandisiwe Shoba called the relationship between Hlumelo’s father and Ramphele. According to Hlumelo, his father and mother’s love grew from a friendship based on mutual respect. Each saw so much of the other in themselves, he said. 

But while in love and planning on settling down, Ramphele found herself walking into a reluctant engagement with her high school boyfriend. By the time their relationship ended, Hlumelo’s father was in another relationship. 

It was as if the universe was working to make sure that Hlumelo wasn’t born, Shoba said. Eventually, they found their way back to each other.

Ramphele was pregnant with Hlumelo when his father was killed in police custody. 

The historical account, which details the founding of the BCM by a group of students at the University of Natal in Durban in the early 1970s, “colonised” Hlumelo’s mind after a family tragedy that left him with the question of family legacy and losing a pillar of support, he said.

It is not only an important book for the nation and the world, but for his own children, he told Shoba.

“I have learnt the cost of the freedom that we had,” said Hlumelo, who never knew his father. He was raised in a single-parent household. 

Ramphele became involved in South African politics, was the deputy vice-chancellor and vice-chancellor at UCT in the 1990s, and studied and worked in America.

The weight of being Steve Biko’s son, however, was never felt growing up, Hlumelo said. He had an ordinary upbringing.

Now, he traces the beginnings of a student movement that birthed an identity for oppressed South Africans during apartheid.

Its relevance is still potent today.

Today, South African leaders still have a fear of freedom, said Biko.

This was one of the foundational questions that BCM also grappled with.

“When black leaders get into power they find themselves being the defendants of an institutional structure that they were trying to dismantle.”

That is a psychological issue that is not unique to South Africa, he said.   

Gradual change that is happening in the country is also problematic, according to Hlumelo.

“What we are seeing more and more in every country is that gradual change against the backdrop of an injustice is really sowing the seeds for future rage,” he said.  

When UCT students defaced the Cecil John Rhodes statue at the university  in 2015 – the birthing pains of the Rhodes Must Fall movement – they were reacting to this, according to Biko.

“Students felt that most acutely because they could see on the campus this unchanging cultural approach to teaching, which is the same as it was 100 years ago.”

According to Biko, the country’s leadership must go beyond the rainbow nation.

Now, 25 years into democracy, “what we have done is reorganise our society around poorer people, around black, white – all of the same dynamics have played up”.

The founders of the BCM knew “we are not actually in the position to free our country unless we define it in a way that says the future of South Africa is when we are all considered the same”. 

“If we start there, then the issue of race becomes a choice.

“Is a unitary thing that we share, regardless of what race they are, where they were raised. It is not trying to be better.”

To wit, in 1970, when the group of students wrote the manifesto of the BCM, they defined all who were oppressed as “black” – coloured people, Indian people, black people.

“When we hang onto blackness, as it was defined in the old days [at the time of the BCM]… we still feel like we are in a struggle,” Hlumelo said.

But the country has “confused it, saying that we want a non-racial society, and then we have put race-based terms in the Constitution”.

“We want to keep x percent of jobs for this race, we want to make sure that Afrikaans is kept so that this race is happy.”

The problem is that there is no definition for what non-racialism looks like, Hlumelo said, adding that the country is “25 years into this conversation [of democracy] in the wrong language”.

“So, what people see on the streets is that I am still being treated this way because I am black… And so the conversation then degenerates into a racial conversation. 

“It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. We have to go back to the unitary nature of consciousness as the fundamental guiding value around the country we build, and we haven’t done that.” DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Janet Trisk says:

    Lovely interview by first time Sandisiwe Shiva. I look forward to more from her. And a beautiful interweaving of personal and philosophical reflections from Hlumelo Biko. Profound. Thanks DM

  • jcdville stormers says:

    Loved the webinar interview,Sandisiwe looked like an experienced interviewer. Mr Biko s talk was very informative and just amazing insights

  • Gillian Dusterwald says:

    Hope this book , like Steve Biko’s, is read extensively. Such clarity!

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    I take it that Hlumelo is being honest and open about his perceptions that he grew up with and have been bombarded with. And maybe to read this book will assist Afrikaners and English people to understand better where all the race emphasis in the radical parts of the Africans come from. But I have to say, at the same time, that I have a conceptual problem with quite a few things that Rebecca destribes as coming from Hlumelo. First of all, as far as I know there is no racism in the SA Constitution, and anybody that reads it and perceives that there is, has to take a long and hard look at his/her own obsessions. Yes, in the way governments act there is sometimes racism, but if you then take it to court, you are likely to win and they will lose, because those acts are definitely unconstitutional. Also, it is non-sensical to claim that Afrikaans being protected in the Constitution is because of racism; more than half of all Afrikaans speaking people in SA are either part of the old “coloured” grouping or are Africans, and as such they were also oppressed. Even if someone has an obsession against the white dominators of apartheid era, then certainly the oppressed Afrikaans speaking people still must be recognised? And even some Afrikaner whites were oppressed; for instance Beyers Naude, to mention only one.

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    . . . I recently had the opportunity to debate similar issues with a radical African student, and to my surprise he came to me afterwards to thank me for giving him a new perspective on things, and others also came to me and told me that he only knew one side of the story and nothing else, until I engaged him and through my conduct he found out that his perceptions were misplaced. I also remember a TV event in the late 1990’s, where a lot of radical youths were addressed by a panel which included general Constand Viljoen, which followed the same pattern with the students making their radical statements but which gradually changed when Viljoen started to engage with the reasoning around so many of the issues which was seen as “racist” and so on, and eventually turned the whole audience around through his conduct. So maybe more debates between youths of all groupings must be encouraged to counter the negative perceptions that the vote-gathering tactics of scare-mongering and whipping up of hate by nationalist politicians cause. Many Afrikaners were not racist at all, but had good relationships with the other groups in the country even during the apartheid years – the discrimination actually came from the National Party and certain cultural organisations, which actions also hurt young Afrikaners very deeply, only in another way then it hurt the officially “oppressed”. And the only way to be freed from the past, is to engage with, and find, each other.

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    . . . It should also be kept in mind that it was not for nothing that the apartheid system tried its best to keep the different “races” (as the system called it) apart from each other. The official reason was one that was not based on reality at all; there was a more secret, sinister reason behind it all in my view, namely so the different groupings would not get to know each other well enough to see the reality that they actually share a lot of cultural sentiments. If that would happen, the whole apartheid system would have collapsed, and the nationalists in the old NP would not allow that at any cost. After 1994 everything I saw until today shows that a large part of the ANC wants to keep that narrative alive, and it has actually been exported to some other political parties too. I am convinced that it is also for nationalist ideological reasons. And as long as we let the ideology of hate and division prevent us from starting to get to know each other, our freedom will not become reality. A last question about the word, also used by Hlumelo as Rebecca describes it, “colonized” (of our thoughts): Has this “colonization” of our minds not rather to do with being influenced by nationalist ideology, the ideas of division and hatred? I know that it is not generally seen as such, but my observations point in that direction. I would like the youth to radically debate this and to take a look at why they have these frustrations and feeling of captivity.

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