Thursday, 29 November 2012
Untangling the Life of a Hero: Biko: A Biography
By Konstantin Sofianos
The figure of Steve Biko has assumed a notable ubiquity in post-apartheid culture. Frozen in two or three iconic postures, his image stares out at us from T-shirts, posters and urban graffiti. Biko is revered on university campuses, invoked in boardrooms and in service delivery protests, and is dutifully but generically acknowledged in public rhetoric.
But Biko can be all things to all people in this way only to the extent that his symbolic legacy is voided of intellectual content. The recent publication of Xolela Mangcu's Biko: A Biography (Tafelberg) is thus a particularly welcome event, promising as it does to restore Biko to public consciousness in the full wit and tangle of his life and thinking, at a time of heightened social tension and intellectual disarray.
Though Biko's activism and protracted assassination at the hands of apartheid security forces have been chronicled in anti-apartheid documents and memoirs - really, exercises in political martyrology - Mangcu's book is the first attempt to provide a full-scale biography of Biko, "presented to the reader warts and all", as Mangcu writes, including "the women, the drinking, the bad temper, the stubbornness and the arrogance at times".
He is well placed to be the author of such a book: a prominent political commentator and academic, Mangcu was also the founding director of the Steve Biko Foundation, and hails, as the book reveals, from the same township of Ginsberg, King William's Town, in which Biko had grown up some years earlier, and to which he was confined under a banning order from 1973 onwards.
This circumstance seems to have afforded Mangcu unique access to Biko's acquaintances and family members, whose recollections were gathered over several years of interviewing, and which have been further augmented by vivid impressions offered by Biko's contemporaries in various student and Black Consciousness (BC) organisations. These interviews provide the foundation and primary interest of Mangcu's biography.
The biography Mangcu has finally delivered, however, is in many ways problematic and, ultimately, unsatisfying. The book certainly suffers in the comparison to Manning Marable's recent and supremely accomplished Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, but its faults become equally apparent when set beside the more distinguished South African intellectual biographies, one thinks of Mark Gevisser's psycho-biography of Mbeki, or Stephen Clingman's authoritative Bram Fischer. Set next to these, Mangcu's book, running to a mere 330 pages, appears decidedly slight. More than this, the decision to do without a full bibliographic account of sources, and only haphazardly to acknowledge anecdotes and quotations, compromises it as a scholarly document, though the rationale for this may lie with the publisher. Issued in stiffly-formatted and ungainly paperback form, some effort has been made to keep the book's length and cost within manageable bounds, presumably to ensure its wider dissemination.
But a cavalier attitude to referencing does not guarantee accessibility. Mangcu draws from a promiscuous range of academic authorities, including, bizarrely, the kinds of "leadership" textbooks associated with business schools, but some of the most|crucial theoretical concepts are both abstruse - "hybridity", "voluntarism", and often seem misapplied. Despite the book's relative brevity, the first 100 or so pages are given over to a long chapter in which Mangcu provides a cursory survey of black African intellectuals across the 19th century, who are thus rather mechanically positioned as philosophical forebears to Biko, and to a further chapter in which he lingers over Biko's childhood in the wistfully evoked Ginsberg location.
Here, Mangcu's personal investment also emerges as a handicap - only by an extreme narrowing of focus can the neighbourhood main street, the local rugby team and choir all be described as "famous". At times, Biko threatens to be displaced from his own biography by local worthies, township lore and Mangcu's own associations.
Born as the third of four children in late 1946, Biko was reared in the tough, straggling surrounds of Ginsberg by his widowed working mother, a cook at the local hospital. Charismatic, witty and irreverent, the young Biko was also a child of the global 1960s. An immersion in American comic-books earned him the nickname "Goofy", while Mangcu memorably pictures Biko ascending a classroom table to bellow out The Beatles' Hard Days Night - a decade later, now restricted to Ginsberg as a seditious radical, Mangcu has Biko intoning Donny Hathaway's Young, Gifted and Black in a nearby shebeen.
In 1963, Biko entered the elite missionary school of Lovedale on a scholarship, only to be expelled some months later, following the political arrest of his elder brother Khaya, an activist and militant in the ranks of the PAC. Khaya Biko and Mangcu agree that Biko's politicisation can be traced to this moment, which disclosed the|collusion of even softly-spoken educational authority with state power under apartheid.
Biko would complete his schooling at the no less prestigious St. Francis College in Natal, before entering the medical school at the University of Natal (Non-European Section), where he was soon immersed in student politics. Mangcu shows that Biko's thinking was refined in intensive interaction with a gifted cohort of contemporaries, and importantly in frictive collisions with the white-dominated national student organisation (NUSAS). Presided over by the self-assured white sons and daughters of elite privilege, the liberal-integrationist discourses sponsored by NUSAS were, in practice, at odds with its tacit acceptance of apartheid hierarchies. This demeaning marginalisation of black student leaders within national student politics thus provided the immediate context for Biko's earliest theoretical writings, which aimed to highlight the politically divertive impact of liberal rhetoric, and to excavate the buried racial presuppositions that permitted whites serenely to assume practical leadership and authority. Similarly, Biko's essays on the church and religion emerged directly from an internal critique of the ostensibly colour-blind University Christian Movement, though all of Biko's writings are profoundly invested by international currents of existentialist, liberation and black theology, resonant in the BC vocabularies of "being" and self-transformation.
Against the moribund culture of liberalism and the repressive apartheid social order, Biko set an exhortative call towards individual and majority self-assertion, coupled to the political revalorisation of "Blackness" as a site of solidarity-in-struggle, but Biko was also concerned to put in place widely-inclusive institutional structures, like SASO and the later Black People's Convention, through which social impact could be leveraged, and pragmatically geared towards the transformation of social circumstances.
Mangcu's biography, summoning a range of voices, is at its richest when illuminating the often fractious and emotionally-charged contestations around these institutions. Biko is not permitted to eclipse the vibrant diversity of intellectual questioning and agitation in the period, but is rather shown to emerge from it. His writings, accordingly, reflect less a set of definitive pronouncements than a cluster of evolving ideas, continually revised in argumentation and updated in line with political developments.
Nonetheless, one can take this point too far. One of the most exasperating aspects of the book is Mangcu's consistent unwillingness to engage (or even elucidate) the intellectual terms and claims of Biko's thinking. An electric moment in I Write What I Like can be found in the transcript of Biko's testimony at the so-called SASO/BPC trial of 1976, which devolved into an inquisitorial dialogue between Biko and the apartheid magistrate. Biko's acerbic insight, tactical acumen, charm and geopolitical awareness are here on full display, but the transcript also offers the most specific account of Biko's political agenda. Mangcu details the circumstances leading up to the trial, and seems, for the first time, on the brink of providing an interpretation of Biko's politics and the tenets of Black Consciousness. Frustratingly, and characteristically, Mangcu instead ducks behind a paraphrase of another academic's interpretation of a broadly Fanonist position, before citing a paragraph from a scholarly work on modern tragedy.
Elsewhere, Mangcu relates how Biko was confronted by a Marxist boxer, who assailed him with a furious left critique, at which Biko "kept deflecting him by asking about his boxing achievements. Skweyiya emerged from that meeting bowled over by Steve calling him a 'genius' ".This is amusing, but Mangcu thus leaves one of the incendiary topics of the 1970s, the relation of BC to intellectual Marxism, unexplored. Mangcu is further tone-deaf to the theological cadences of BC discourse, and awkwardly skirts the issue of the position of women within the male-dominated culture of BC, inevitably raised by Biko's serial womanising habits.
By the mid-1970s, Biko's marriage was disintegrating amidst multiple affairs and increasing alcohol abuse. While Mangcu makes much of Biko's community-based work while sequestered in Ginsberg, his intellectual alienation and creeping despair in this period are unmistakable. Mangcu barely mentions the events of the 1976 uprisings, suggesting that the apartheid banning order did substantially succeed in sidelining Biko from the mainstream of national politics. Indeed, by this point, the earlier analyses of BC, centred on the politics of the self and an - exactly - voluntarist vision of social transformation, appeared to have met their real-world limitations, in an escalating political context marked by fierce state-crackdown. BC already had begun to cede ground to insurgent trade-unionism and other radicalised leftisms.
It is against this tense backdrop that we must understand Biko's desperate decision to slip his banning order, in a reckless dash across the country to conciliate dissident Western Cape factions of the movement. Returning from this failed mission, Biko and his companion ran into the fateful roadblock.
Mangcu's Biko is certainly valuable in that it returns the story of Biko's life to public attention, which only gains in grandeur in the acknowledgment of his flawed human dimensions. But inasfar as it tends to avoid thinking through the letter and complexity of Biko's writings, and instead is content to superimpose borrowed academic templates and the terminologies of our own narrowed political horizons upon them, it remains a testament to a lost opportunity.