Friday, 9 November 2012

Biko: A Biography

Xolela Mangcu: Biko
The first comprehensive biography of an exceptional and inspirational leader who changed South African history. As leading anti-apartheid activist and thinker, Biko created Black Consciousness, which has resonance to this day. His death by torture, at the hands of the police, robbed South Africa of one of its most gifted leaders. Biko’s intellectual legacy cannot be overestimated.

In this extract from his new book, ‘Biko: A Biography’, Xolela Mangcu looks at Steve Biko’s extraordinary gift of leadership

STEVE Biko’s approach to leadership has lessons for contemporary discussions of leadership and succession in South African politics.

His friend and priest from the Community of the Resurrection, Aelred Stubbs, has described Steve’s “extraordinary gift of leadership” as consisting in his ability to develop layers of leadership under him.

This empowering of leaders started from the very beginning of the movement when he insisted that Barney Pityana should take over as president of the South African Students Organi sation (Saso ).

According to Stubbs, “it was an integral part of Steve’s greatness as a leader that he could step down and give loyal service to someone as yet very little known outside the Eastern Cape”.

Stubbs made a similar observation in his memoir, Martyr of Hope, that “if Steve had been the kind of leader who kept everything in his own hands, the whole thing would have collapsed. But full scope was given to every individual for initiative, and the supportive spirit of the King [William’s Town] community buttressed the shortcomings an individual might be afraid of in him or herself”.

Stubbs further observes that “whereas other leaders tend almost insensibly to become leaders with a capital L, I never saw any sign at all of this happening with Steve. He remained, to the end, on all fours with us, an example of what we all could be, above and beyond us only in his vision, and in the depths of his commitment as his death in detention showed”.

Steve’s wife, Ntsiki, describes Steve’s leadership as a “gift, I think, he got from God, so he would be able to work with all sorts of people … so much that, most of the time, you would find that even the family was not coming first.

“I’ll give you an example of what I am saying. Sometimes, you know, when we were staying here [Ginsberg] when he got banned in 1973, people would come with problems. There’s money problems or family problems. Somebody would come and say ‘I don’t have money to send my child to school’, or ‘I haven’t got food at home’. You know what he used to do? He would take our bags and actually empty our bags so that he got whatever he wanted to help that person … He was always wanting to do something for people.”

His long-time friend and comrade Bokwe Mafuna describes the atmosphere when Steve was around. He remembers the day of their first encounter: “So there I was, in front of this hovering black man with an unbelievable presence. Steve shone in any gathering because of his deep interest in people, his sharp intellect and eloquence. He was a gifted speaker and could spellbind any audience – black or white, intellectuals, working class or rural folk, young or old.

“I was immediately attracted to his intellectual handling of our main preoccupation, the evils of apartheid and the challenges to our community. But he could also talk about economics, literature, jazz or Marabi music. He was knowledgeable about African traditions and the history of our people. I was amazed at the range of his abilities.”

Stubbs similarly remembers walking into a room at St Peter’s College at the Federal Seminary in Alice: “During my last year at the seminary I did not see much of Stephen, but I remember entering the students’ common room at St Peter’s one day and seeing him sprawled in an armchair, as usual the centre of attention. He looked like one of the large feline animals – a tiger maybe – with an animal grace and an insolent ease and a sense of immense latent power. ‘Hello there’, he greeted me, not rising from his chair, but with a relaxed friendliness that was virtually irresistible. It was only much later that I learned that this spontaneous informality masked his deep respect for me as his ‘dear priest’.”

The emergence of Big Leaders – leaders with a capital L – in contemporary South Africa shows how far we have veered from the kind of leadership Steve embodied.
Nelson Mandela was also acutely aware of the dangers of charismatic leadership and stepped down after one term in office, even though the presidency was his for the taking for another term.

He was succeeded by Thabo Mbeki, who sounded hopeful notes of a return to the cultural themes of empowerment that were the hallmark of the Black Consciousness and Pan Africanist movements.

My former Black Consciousness comrade, Mojanku Gumbi, became one of Mbeki’s closest advisers. Richard Calland described Gumbi as the most important person in the country after Mbeki.

Mbeki advocated the idea of the African Renaissance as the leitmotif for Africa’s cultural, political and economic revival. The Renaissance held the promise of a new public philosophy. It could have constituted what the American literary critic, Van Wyk Brooks, called the “usable past”. This is the idea that in re-imagining themselves, societies ought to turn to the treasure trove of their collective memory, and selectively choose that which they think can be useful in the making of a new political, economic and cultural order. Just as memory is needed to avoid the mistakes of the past, it is equally needed to adapt what has worked in the past to meet the challenges of the present.

Unfortunately, the African Renaissance became no more than what Amilcar Cabral called “a cultural renaissance [that] was expressed in European languages, which the indigenous people could not understand”.

What was supposed to be a public philosophy became a measure of private loyalty and an instrument of economic gain for the politically well-connected. A couple of conferences were organised in Sandton, and nothing has been heard of the renaissance ever since. A Centre for African Renaissance studies is attached to the University of South Africa but it is a far cry from the mobilising leitmotif that some of us had hoped for, stripped of the organic link to communities that was the central tenet of Black Consciousness philosophy.

Jacob Zuma emerged as the classic charismatic hero, representing the interests of the alienated masses and many of those who had been hurt by Mbeki. That is how Zuma was able to put together one of the most remarkable political alliances of the post- democratic era – from pimps and hooligans to stripe-suited businessmen to trade unionists and opinion makers. Zuma thus ascended to power less because he was loved and more because Mbeki was hated.

Even though I was excited about Zuma’s ascendancy, I still felt room for doubt: “The question at the end of the day is whether the new leadership under Zuma has the emotional temperament, the ethical-moral commitment, the political willingness and the institutional resources needed for the revival of democracy. If they do not, then we will be in no better position than we were under Mbeki. In fact, we might even be in worse shape. In the end Mbeki’s autocratic behaviour might simply be replaced by anarchy under Zuma. The democratic moment would have been just that – a passing moment”.

It was indeed only a matter of time before allegations of corruption against Zuma’s administration began to surface, and before the president himself started to behave in pretty much the same way as his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki.

In a nutshell, Zuma brings to mind the emperor Napoleon’s frustration at the checks and balances imposed on him by the institutions of the French Revolution.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu captured the spirit of our times – the essence of our public philosophy – when he responded to the government’s refusal to grant the Dalai Lama a visa to attend his birthday party. Tutu’s response seemed to capture how interests instead of values have taken over in our political culture: “You do not represent me, Mr Zuma, you represent yourself and your interests”.

This emphasis on interests over values seems to be a far cry from Steve Biko’s approach to politics.