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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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  • 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