Monday, 6 October 2014

Welcoming Address by Mwalela Cele at the Presentation by Professor Lewis Gordon at the FrankTalk Dialogues, Steve Biko Centre, 3 October 2014

“A people without a positive history is like a vehicle without an engine.” Steve Biko as Frank Talk (We Blacks)

“Black Consciousness is an attitude of mind and a way of life, the most positive call to emanate from the black world for a long time.” Steve Biko
(Black Consciousness and the Quest for A True Humanity)

Thank you Program Director: Greetings ladies and gentlemen.

Welcome to the Steve Biko Centre, a project of the Steve Biko Foundation.
And welcome to the special edition of the FrankTalk Dialogues entitled:
What is Black Thought?’ I would like to greet our Guest Speaker, Professor
Lewis Gordon. I welcome him very warmly to the spiritual home of black consciousness, right here in Ginsberg, King William’s Town (eQonce).

I am the Librarian at the Steve Biko Centre Library and Archive. Our concern is with both the past and the future, honouring the legacy of Steve Biko and facilitating the application of his philosophy to help improve the prospects of our fellow South Africans, and the prospects of future generations.

In furtherance of this ideal, the Steve Biko centre, through the children’s library, main library and archive, is working on a pilot project to eradicate, within the next five years, any illiteracy that might remain in Ginsberg (we will pilot Ginsberg first and move from there). Another pilot project emanating from the Centre, focusing on secondary schools is an indigenous languages essay competition to be run in collaboration with DSRAC (Eastern Cape Department of Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture).

It is relevant here to recall that, in delivering the Fourth Annual Steve Biko
Memorial Lecture at the University of Cape Town, in 2003, Ngugi wa
Thiong’o, internationally celebrated Kenyan activist, novelist, essayist, playwright and academic, examined the power of indigenous literature in the self-realization of African communities. He quoted, among a long list of prominent African intellectuals, Dr B.W. Vilakazi (of the Vilakazi Age in African Literature), who argued that African “writers themselves can learn to love their languages, and use them as vehicles for thought, feeling and will. After all, the belief, resulting in literature, is a demonstration of people’s ‘self’…. That is our pride in being black and we cannot change creation.”
Ngugi wa Thiong’o places Steve Biko’s philosophy in the context of this tradition, and asks: “Is this not a literary expression of black consciousness long before Biko gave it a name and currency?”

Having grounded the centre in both its intellectual tradition, and in its geographical locus in the Eastern Cape, home of legends, I would like to include a more direct reference, to illustrate the key role of Steve Biko, whose influence radiated from this historically rich region, especially as I am a perpetual student of history, specifically the history of the Amakholwa, Mission Stations and Early African Intellectuals. I will quote briefly from a book that was recommended to me by Mr Nkosinathi Biko: Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People, by award-winning journalist and author Noel Mostert, published in 1992. The book contains the following insightful role of Steve Biko whom Mostert met in the 1970s:

“Biko provided … as no one else could have done during the time I spent in South Africa, the powerful bond of continuity between the history I was engaged with and that which was being made daily in the land. Nothing made it more clear than the fact that we met in King William’s Town and, appropriately in a nineteenth-century church… that served as the centre of black community programmes that Biko helped to organize. Biko, himself missionary educated, represented the last African generation to be beneficiaries of that education. He personified, through his lack of anti-white sentiment, his gentleness and articulate rationality, so many of the characteristic attributes of the missionary-educated African elite which had assumed African leadership after the last of the frontier wars exactly a century before, yet he embodied as well a complete rupture with that tradition.”

Noel Mostert writes of Steve Biko’s funeral: “In King William’s Town, in retrospect, I felt that I had attended the last great event of the Eastern Cape struggle…”

Within our present “Eastern Cape” context, it’s a particular pleasure for me to formally greet and welcome my friend, Dr Richard Pithouse of Rhodes University Political Science Department. While I welcome Richard I want to also thank him for contacting us some weeks ago and telling us that Professor Lewis Gordon would be in South African as the visiting Nelson Mandela Professor at Rhodes University. By telling us about this visit he launched the organizing of today’s Dialogue session.

Just in passing, it is interesting to remember Steve Biko’s vital “Durban connection”, as I recall that way back, in the late 90s and early 2000s, during our UDW and UKZN days, Dr Richard Pithouse was organizer of the Frantz Fanon Memorial Lecture, and through that he brought some of the the best and the brightest scholars to KZN, such as Professor Mandani, Professor Nigel Gibson and Professor Lewis Gordon himself to mention but a few.

Moving forward I would like to greet Mr Biko, and Mama Biko, to greet academics, colleagues and students from the University of Fort Hare and other academic institutions, greet intellectuals, researchers, colleagues within the heritage and information sector, greet friends of the Steve Biko Foundation and Centre, greet friends, our neighbors, greetings to all and welcome. Having only briefly referred to the work of the Steve Biko Centre, I would ask you to keep visiting the Centre and to spread the word about the work of the Foundation and Centre. I can only reiterate that the Steve Biko Centre is a response to the concerns of Steve Biko and his Colleagues. And it is situated within the locality of the issues it seeks to address.

To put things in context, it’s important that I say a few words about the FrankTalk Dialogues. At the1st General Students Council of SASO in July 1970 Steve Biko was elected Chairman of SASO Publications. The following month the monthly SASO newsletter began to appear, carrying the articles by Steve Biko called ‘I write what I like’ and signed Frank Talk. The first article was entitled Black Souls in White Skins? The other articles were entitled as follows: We Blacks, Fragmentation of the Black Resistance, Fear an Important Determinant in South African Politics and Let’s talk about Bantustans. Frank Talk is the pseudonym under which Steve Biko wrote. Hence the name FrankTalk Dialogues.

Since 2010, The Steve Biko Foundation has partnered with the Open Society
Foundation in delivering the FrankTalk initiative. Now in its third phase,
FrankTalk continues to provide a platform for intergenerational dialogue and critical analysis of social issues in South Africa’s young democracy. The primary objective of the intervention is to create a non-partisan platform for engagement with socio-economic and political issues in order to strengthen democracy and to advance a culture of human rights. Through ongoing interaction with FrankTalk participants, the Steve Biko Foundation aims to perpetuate a culture of engaged citizenship and public participation. We have on air dialogues that we do with YFM, and schedule off-air dialogues in various localities, such as the Durban University of Technology, University of the Western Cape, Tshwane University of Technology and here at the Steve Biko Centre.

This October sees the 37th anniversary of Black Wednesday. As we all remember, on the 19th of October 1977, following the death of Steve Biko, the regime banned Black consciousness organizations and black newspapers. On the same day, raids were carried out all over the country, and almost all people in leadership positions of all the Black Consciousness Movement formations were arrested. In commemoration of Black Wednesday the theme of our dialogue today is: What is Black Thought?

Thank you

Mwelela Cele