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A Life


Xolela Mangcu


Foreword by Nelson Mandela

London: I.B. Tauris, 2013

Paperback. 352 p. ISBN 978-1780767857. £12.99


Reviewed by Bernard Cros

Université de Paris-Ouest Nanterre-La Défense



Steve Biko stands out as a towering figure in the struggle against apartheid, probably on a par with Nelson Mandela, because of the aura of martyrdom that surrounds the man, who was murdered by white South Africa’s security forces in 1977. Relating the life of a left-wing icon of the 1970s liberation struggle, who for many is, like Che Guevara, little more than a face adorning T-shirts and coffee mugs, is therefore a thorny and daunting enterprise, which the author must be commended for tackling. Yet a biography may reveal much about two people—the one whose life is described of course, but also the biographer. Biko : A Life is the work of Xolela Mangcu, a well-known analyst and commentator of South African society and politics, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Cape Town and the founding director of the Steve Biko Foundation. His academic credentials are impeccable—he was once an Executive Director of the Human Sciences Research Council, and held fellowships at Harvard University, MIT and the Rockefeller Foundation—but academic interest is not what the author puts forward as the prime mover for his book: Mangcu knew Steve Biko. People familiar with him will know that he never shies away from mentioning that he did. In his own words, he even has an “obsession with Biko” [311]. In fact, since he was 11 at the time of his death, he never really got to ‘know’ the leader of the Black Consciousness (BC) movement but he explains at length how he and his family, his brother Khaya notably, were involved in key moments of South African history both before and after Biko’s death. The pride of having crossed his path in the township of Ginsberg outside King William’s Town appears on every page corner, creating the strange impression that this ephemeral spatial closeness with the subject of his book endows the author with added authority. Developing an interest in a character one intends to write about is normal, and even desirable, but one should stop short of idolising, something which, despite his denials, Mangcu has a hard time doing—the opening lines of the first chapter are Mangcu’s reminiscence of how, where and when he received the news of his death, the final chapter starts with an admission of how “no single individual shaped my life in the way that Steve Biko did” [311]. So, too much Mancgu and not enough Biko?

The second point concerns the desirability for yet another ‘book about Biko’. At least eight have been written about his life or episodes thereof, though most were based on personal recollections of the authors. The first two accounts spring to mind: the short account by Anglican cleric and close friend of Biko’s Aelred Stubbs Martyr of hope: A personal memoir, included in the collection of Steve Biko’s writings I write what I like (1978); and of course anti-apartheid activist and journalist Donald Woods’ Biko (1978), upon which the 1987 movie Cry Freedom! was based, although at the end of the day, even if it brought the plight of the Black Consciousness leader to an international audience, described much about the movement’s functioning and depicted the ruthless apartheid state oppression, it is more about Woods than about Biko. There was a renewal of interest after 2007, when the thirtieth anniversary of his death was celebrated (Lindy Wilson's 2011 Steve Biko stands out despite its relative brevity). Through many sources little was left unknown about a figure who died at the age of 30 so that what anyone interested in Biko could now hope for was a comprehensive approach, mingling political, ideological and personal dimensions along the lines of the best political biography tradition.

Now Mangcu does not reveal anything really original, but he does a good job of weaving together the threads that brought about Steve Biko. Someone with only superficial knowledge of the man and his time will find what he looks for: an efficient digest of secondary literature interspersed with comments drawn from personal interviews. The motives and the context which made him up, and a balanced coverage of his private life and his public activities, enlighten the complexity of the character and his rise from bright pupil (though many testimonies present Biko as a cheeky young boy) and unruly student to political spearhead of a revolution in minds and hearts. The better-known episodes are described: his early student activism; the 1967 and 1968 National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) Congresses, dominated by liberal middle-class white students, and their hypocrisy when faced with the interdiction of the white universities to allow mixed racial accommodation for the delegates; the ensuing foundation of the Black South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) in 1969, which was to evolve into Black Consciousness and the Black People’s Convention (1971); Biko’s banishment to Ginsberg in 1973; his appearance in court in 1976; and the conditions of his death. There are also interesting descriptions of his lesser advertised commitment to concrete grassroots action, the Black Community Programmes (BCP), which helped to fund and develop local health clinics, home industries, education funds and crèches in Ginsberg township [chapter 8]. There are also illuminating passages about his close relationship with Barney Pityana, whose intellectual input into BC is vividly revealed, putting to rest the myth that BC was a one-man ideology, and the tensions inside BC in the 1970s go a long way to explain the ultimate political failure of BC faced with the reality of police action.

The major flaw of the book however lies in its interpretative thrust, which unfolds in Chapter 2, that forces the reader to understand it as direct prequel to Biko’s life. Mangcu intends to set him in a historical perspective as a direct descendant of the 18th- and 19th-century Eastern Cape Xhosa who encountered and resisted European, especially British, advance. This intrusion of “modernity” relying on violence (conquest, slavery, forced labour, acculturation, etc.) and relayed by the agents of imperialism (soldiers, politicians, missionaries, churchmen) is said to have prompted Xhosa resistance. The classic tension between ‘resistants’ and ‘collaborators’—amakholwa and amaqaba—is explained in relation to their respective capacity and desire to accept or reject this ‘modernity’. The author surveys the complex intricacies of political life in the Eastern Cape, often described as the cradle of modern Black politics, and that in itself is an interesting subject, which has been studied by others before him, most notably historian Noel Mostert in Frontiers : Epic of South Africa's Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People (1992). Mangcu picks up the assertion of political economist Moletsi Mbeki that Biko was one of those ‘Xhosa prophets’, who played such a crucial part in Xhosa history. But beyond the offhand remark that Biko opposed white rule “like” the Xhosa chiefs a century before him, the demonstration falls short of its purpose because he never justifies the connection between them. The author draws “historical parallels” by comparing the action of Steve Biko under apartheid and that of chief Hintsa under British imperial rule, but his romantic statement that they both “assumed leadership of their people” [268] is wrong because Biko never did such a thing. Nothing in Biko’s writings can be found to actually support the legacy thesis, nor can his education at the prestigious Lovedale mission and St. Francis College account for it. As a result there is nothing more to it than an intuition, which occupies the long-winded—anyone not skipping portions of it is a brave reader—chapter and runs into the rest of the book.

It is difficult to follow Mangcu when he says that “the politics of the 1960s, particularly the rise of Black consciousness in the United States and decolonisation movements in Africa” played only a minor part in Biko’s thinking and actions. Since no new facts or documents are summoned, the reader is left to feel that there is merely the expression of a deliberate maverick posture to write ‘differently’ about a hackneyed subject. “In this book, I take a different tack from the dominant tendency to reduce Black consciousness to the events of the 1960s” [p.33. Emphasis mine]. For the sake of appearing ground-breaking, and despite Biko’s own assertions quoted in the opening page of the chapter, Mangcu chooses to minimise, though not ignore entirely [e.g. pp. 182 & 200], Biko’s indebtedness to Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire and the négritude movement, but also to Black American radical thinkers, and proponents of Black theology, which all serious analysts of BC acknowledge as central (the BC drive towards ‘self-transformation’ being a case in point). Put crudely, the impression is sometimes that Biko was a Xhosa with an attitude. The author appears suspect of trying to “Xhosa-ise” a local hero as if Biko had only been the product of a purely Eastern Cape context, forcing him into a chronology that is not as convincing as the author would have us believe, when everything in Biko’s life and writings points to his desire to transcend tribal and even racial feelings (Biko was keen to extend the term Black to anyone not white oppressed by apartheid, including Coloureds and Indians). Is the author blinded by his self-confessed “obsession” with his subject to the point of overlooking serious historical research?

Another option is that he tries to make Biko appear as a precursor of the ‘ANC in government’, just as the ANC used Biko’s image in the 1990s as a symbol of the struggle for which some men and women gave their lives, transcending the stark oppositions between BC and ANC, the former believing that Black Africans needed to learn to rely on themselves while the ANC always had a multiracial or non-racial approach. The preface, not written specifically for the book (it was written by Mandela in 2002 for a tribute to Biko on the 25th anniversary of his death), reinforces the feeling that Mangcu wants to take Biko aboard the reconciliation ship. For instance, he quotes Max Weber’s principle that all revolutionary movements need charismatic leaders [303]. Thus Biko appears endowed with Mandela-esque qualities: he was a fascinating figure for those who met him, “as engaging as one could wish any human being to be… an immensely attractive man” [N. Mostert quoted p. 212], a tall, handsome, elegant person, who was also charming, intellectually “brilliant” and could “electrify” a crowd. A quote by Mandela in his Steve Biko Memorial Lecture in 2003, talking about Mangcu who had just introduced him to the audience proves the point yet again: “You see, in my younger days I would never have shared the stage with this young man here, Xolela” [323]. ‘Fictional history’ takes over here as Mandela confessed to Mangcu that had he lived into democratic South Africa, Biko would have joined the ANC “because in Africa, liberation movements rule for a long, long time” [322].

Other than Chapter 2 the book is very readable though at times the minute descriptions of certain meetings or relationships with a tendency to give long lists of participants (the author knows all these people, obviously, and the names make sense to him) defeats the overall purpose of giving order and structure to Biko’s actions, and sinks the reader into an opaque sea of details. More personal elements shed important light on his character. His faults as a womaniser and their interferences with his activism are not shunned, nor are his feeling of loneliness and his guilt about the death of some of his comrades at the hands of the police [211], his reluctance to ‘lead from the front’ and his disavowal of changes that did not suit him, such as when the Black People’s Convention, a political organisation, was founded.

Eventually Mancgu portrays not just a man but the society that produced him, and he successfully brings to life the tense atmosphere surrounding the BC activities and campaigns. The many quotes from interviews with those who met and worked with Biko make sense in depicting the impact he had on people. However, the historical lesson of Chapter 2 does not sit well with the more classically biographical chapters and is frankly at odds with the final chapter about himself prolonging Biko’s memory into the present. More importantly, Mangcu fails to engage with the concepts that sustain BC, with the dialogue between BC and Marxism and what BC meant exactly for Biko. For example, a case can be made as to whether the BCP projects were about elevating Black people and making them self-reliant for development purposes, which seems to be Mangcu’s thesis (along with Biko’s desire to do something concrete for the disadvantaged sections of his community), or to prepare the revolution in true BC fashion. The good new is that there is plenty of room for yet another Biko biography.


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