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.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Psychic Ties: The Land Within

By Mary Corrigall

Alistair Morgan might belong to a rising faction of emerging authors but his literature carries the leitmotifs of his predecessors; white guilt, the politics of land ownership and the master/servant dynamic.
These themes find traction in his latest novel, The Land Within (Penguin SA), in predictable ways, though interestingly he doesn't deposit the weight of white guilt at the feet of the older generation. Instead, he unearths the baggage of his own precarious generation - those who don't readily view themselves as perpetrators nor can they claim the guilt-free status the born-frees enjoy.
He gradually unravels this psychic guilt via Henry Knott, an affluent, white man in his forties who is forced to confront his past when he travels back to the Karoo farm where he was raised. A corollary to this physical journey is obviously an internal one - as alluded to in the book's title.
The sights, sounds and textures of the external landscape trigger memories that push his psyche back to a tragic event he has presumably suppressed. Certainly, there is a sense that this event is tied to the land - it's literally and figuratively buried in the landscape - thus his confrontation with the past can only be realised through a physical encounter.
The spectre of death looms large, from the beginning of Henry's journey, carried at first in the pervasive aroma of carrion, leading him down the passage of time. The weight of his guilt is corrupting his encounter with the present, colouring everything.