My Friend – The Immortal Steve Biko
AMBASSADOR WELILE NHLAPO
Through our life journey, we meet different types of people. Some will touch our lives but later continue on their course and we forget about them. But others won’t just make a mark in our lives but they’ll leave their footprints in our minds and hearts. Steve was that kind of a human being.
Even though there’s a specific day set aside to celebrate Biko, the truth is, every day is a Steve Biko day in the life of an African, especially in South Africa at the moment where we find ourselves grappling with issues of African-ness.
Extract from the Political Report of the National Executive Committee to the second National Consultative Conference of the ANC, Kabwe, 16-23 June 1985, presented by President Oliver Tambo
“This is the appropriate occasion to disclose that in the course of this work we had, by1976, arrived at the point where the time had come for us to meet that leading representative of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), the late Steve Biko.
Arrangements were made for us to meet Steve Biko in 1976. Unfortunately, it proved impossible to bring Steve out of the country for this meeting. Another attempt was made in 1977 but this also did not succeed. Subsequent arrangements failed also. Steve Biko was of course subsequently murdered.”
Let me confirm that a meeting hosted by ANC Secretary General, Alfred Nzo ultimately took place in Lusaka from 17-18 December 1978. The BCM delegation was led by Barney Pityana and included Harry Nengwekhulu, Jeff Baqwa and Mashadi Phakathi. The ANC side included Zinjiva Nkondo and Welile Nhlapo. It was indeed a frank, cordial and constructive meeting.
What was Steve Biko’s driving force?
The passion of Steve Biko was to engage and explore the possibility of unity of the Liberation forces. He had started consultations with leaders of several formations including Robert Sobukwe. He remained true to the recognition by SASO that the real leadership of our struggle were those who were in prison and those in exile. This position was also informed by an admission of the reality that students had serious limitations in their quest to move to a higher level of ‘physical liberation’, a euphemism for armed struggle.
He convincingly argued this position during the 1972 General Students Council (GSC) held at St. Peters Seminary in Hammanskraal. This was shortly after the closure of Black Universities and expulsions following the national strikes to protest the expulsion of Onkgopotse Tiro from Turfloop. The resultant decision would lead to a process of broad consultations which led to the formation of the BPC in December of that year. This also led to discussions by some of us about leaving the country to join the Liberation Movement.
Working with Steve Biko
One of the decisions of the GSC was to explore the possibility of establishing a black press. Some of us worked with Steve in engaging elders like Dr Nthato Motlana, Dr Sbusiso Nyembezi and senior black journalists about the project. A seminar was held in Braamfontein for this purpose. These processes were partly disrupted by banning orders imposed on eight leaders of SASO in early 1973.
In the interim Steve was employed as a programme director at the Christian Institute initiated Black Community Programmes. It was during this period that he piloted the publication of Black Review, as a record of activities in the black community. He enlisted the services of Tebogo Mafole and Welile Nhlapo as primary researchers and writers for the publication. We were supported by Bokwe Mafuna, Ben Langa and Malusi Mpumlwana in compiling some of the chapters.
We interviewed leaders of various black organisations from sports to other social formations. We relied largely on the Rand Daily Mail library for information and reports on various activities. We also bought and read Hansard to reference debates on issues covered by the Apartheid parliament on matters particularly affecting the black community. Focus was also on Bantustans and the tri-cameral parliament. We worked day and night including weekends to meet the tight deadline of five months that we set ourselves.
Another project he led was organising youth and students at high school level. This resulted in the establishment of the National Youth Organisation and inspired the emergence of the South African Student Movement (SASM). This entailed travelling all over the country establishing provincial structures of youth in particular.
Perhaps our task is not to write about Steve Biko but to live by his principles. Steve was very sensitive about the conditions of black people, the rural poor and workers. He set up clinics and other community projects. Some of them stand today as monuments of his legacy. He was a rounded person and a visionary leader, widely read and wrote many articles in the SASO journal and other publications. He had a very deep sense of humour and loved fun. Steve was a friend, a legend and a profound modest leader. A lot of us remain indebted to him.
CDE. WELILE NHLAPO IS THE ANC STALWART AND FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER TO PRESIDENT JACOB ZUMA