The Biko Route

The Transkei continued…>

I had just finished the compilation of Biko’s writings, I Write What I Like.  I was struck by what a precise and logical thinker he was.  Even his contemplation of issues that could only have been of secondary importance for him were incredibly sharp.  For example, the book contains clips of correpsondence he had with a local priest over theological issues, and with some chagrin, I noted his grasp and explanation of theological issues was probably superior to my own, even after three years of intense study.

Of course, his primary historical importance concerned his ideas on the nature of the black struggle against apartheid.  He is considered the father of the Black Consciousness Movement, which asserted that in order to be free, blacks in South Africa need to free themselves from an ingrained inferiority complex (thanks to colonialism and apartheid).

His eludication of issues has caused me to reflect on my own country’s racial history.  For example, Biko argued for a black solution to apartheid, i.e., an exclusively black organization fighting for an inclusive future.  He likened the liberal white insistence on a multiracial solution to “expecting the slave to work together with the slave-master’s son to remove all the conditions leading he former’s enslavement.”  In the United States, you will often hear people lambasting something like the Black Entertainment Network with the line, “If there was a White Entertainment Network, somebody would get sued.”  Biko disavowed me of these notions.

I am embarassed to write that, despite his inclusion on the list of Top 50 African Icons since Independence (1960 in Ghana), I had never heard of him before my arrival in South Africa.

As we entered King William’s Town, the car dashboard emanated heat like a stove and my hands stuck to the steering wheel with sweat.  The wheels slid through puddles on the blacktop from the afternoon rain as we turned into the lot for the Steve Biko Garden of Remembrance, his final resting place after being murdered by the security police.  A giant rainbow embellished his tombstone, which stood in the center of a large grass lot peppered with stone markers bearing only an anonymous number.   It announced, “One Azania, One Nation.”

Biko was a rarity: he combined great intelligence with extraordinary leadership and character.

It is a Xhosa tradition to lie a rock on the grave of someone at whose funeral you were absent.  I searched with great care for an appropriate rock to lie on the marble surface, intent on appropriately symbolizing my tribute.  I said a prayer at the graveside, imagining his final hours in the police station and the sacrifice and integrity he displayed.

At a fuel stop, we secured directions to Biko’s home while the man expressed gratitude for us visiting a man “we are very proud of.”  The directions were spot on (“go straight straight straight until you see a tree…”) and we found ourselves in front of a house with a large monument in the front yard.  At Bayanda’s suggestion, we asked a young girl standing on the porch if we would be allowed to take photos of the house and the monument.  She went inside to ask her mother and came back to tell us to come inside.

Inside, four men sat on couches watching the Springboks play rugby, flanked by an older woman who asked us to have a seat.  The only chairs in the room were ornate and polished, far too nice for me to place my dirty butt.  I said so, and

Ntsiki Biko in front of an exhibit about her late husband

the woman remarked that they were just for the museum, which was usually open, but since it was the time when the “boys went to the mountain” (i.e. became men, more on this later), the family was using the house.  My eyes widened and I repeated, “The family?”  The woman nodded and replied, “I’m the wife.”

I had anticipated a quick photo and then a quick dinner, maybe a pizza.  Instead, I am having a conversation with Steve Biko’s wife in the home where Steve Biko lived.  Where he was banned so many years ago.  Where he probably wrote many of the articles I had just read in the book.

The Springboks won their match.


“You can stay in Soweto; you know how to drive.”

I would recommend that everyone visiting South Africa first visit Johannesburg to learn about and experience the history of the country.  It gives context to the rest of the country.  I spent my first semester in Cape Town without seeing the rest of the country, and I am worse for it.

Johannesburg’s museums are extraordinary.  I learned more about South African history in five days than I did in my first five months, including study at the University of Cape Town.  The Apartheid Museum, The Hector Pieterson Museum, Constitution Hill and Prison number 4 paint a vivid picture of the nation’s struggles and triumphs.  Add to that the South African Brewery’s “World of Beer” and you’ve got a mess of stimuli.

Living in Cape Town to experience South Africa is like going to Louisville to try to learn about the South.  You may be there, but you’re missing the reality.  Jozi has culture: museums, theater, energy and identity.  Cape Town, in comparison, is a bit soul-less.  Its identity lies in non-cultural aspects like Table Mountain or surfing.

Cape Town’s most famous township, Khayelitsha, is isolated and (most would have you believe, a no-go zone.  Johannesburg’s Soweto, on the other hand, is safe and oozing with opportunities to experience South Africa.  Walking the same streets as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisilu, Steve Biko.  Tracing the steps of the Soweto Uprising.  Visting the sight where the Freedom Charter was penned.  It is uber-rewarding and the perfect capstone for this leg of the journey.