This year marks the 46th anniversary of the death of Steve Bantu Biko, and it seems he is fast fading from the country’s memory.
I have often written of the importance of history and memory, not only as a marker of our evolution, but also as a means of learning, accountability and informing a future we can all aspire to.
This has never been more urgent than in the wake of the death of IFP president emeritus Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi and how he is being remembered.
It seems to me that the commemoration of Biko’s death has been traded in for a revisionist and dishonest posturing of commemorating Buthelezi. For those who do not know, have forgotten or choose to forget, it is necessary that we examine these separate but intersecting legacies.
Being born in the early 1980s means I am acutely aware of the events that unfolded in the 1970s through first-hand accounts, and even more so in the 1990s as lived experiences, and I will never tire of speaking of them.
Biko founded the black consciousness movement and understood that part of the colonial and apartheid project’s endeavour was to psychologically inculcate a sense of black inferiority to whiteness and conversely white superiority to blackness.
As Biko said: “At the heart of this thinking is the realisation by the blacks that the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”
He therefore sought to liberate black people from this. It was because of this ideology, which threatened to derail the apartheid system, that in August 1977 he was arrested and the following month died in police detention. His heroic ideology lived on through the struggle to liberate South Africa and usher in a democratic system not based on oppression.
Brutal slaughter of thousands
In the early 1990s, as South Africa’s oppressive system was on the brink of defeat by liberation movement efforts, a counterforce in the form of the IFP, led by Buthelezi, collaborated with the apartheid government in the brutal slaughter of thousands of black people. This was in part driven by Zulu nationalism and Buthelezi’s determination to continue to enjoy the spoils of being a Bantustan leader installed by the government.
My memory of that time is that of hearing about people being butchered with pangas on trains, having nowhere to run, with some resorting to jumping off to their deaths. I remember the fear that gripped the East Rand township of Boipatong as people were burnt and massacred by IFP supporters. People were displaced and families remain broken as a result of Buthelezi’s legacy.
Whereas Biko never lived to see his 31st birthday, Buthelezi lived to the ripe old age of 95, with the blood of thousands on his hands. He lived long enough to refashion himself as a supporter of democracy and a seemingly sage elder statesman.
Today, people’s memory of Biko and his real contribution fades while Buthelezi has been hailed as a “nation builder” and a “complex” leader, whatever that means to the families of those who were butchered.
An honest account of history will not be kind to Buthelezi, but an honest account of history will show that we owe Biko our freedom. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.