Steve Biko: Gone but not forgotten

Tuesday marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko. Activists and friends share memories of the man behind the legend, the gentle hurricane that passed through their lives.

12 September 2017 - 06:52 By ROBIN COMLEY and CLAIRE KEETON
OUR TIME WILL COME: The funeral of Steve Biko, founder of the Black Consciousness Movement, in September 1977.
OUR TIME WILL COME: The funeral of Steve Biko, founder of the Black Consciousness Movement, in September 1977.
Image: TIMES MEDIA ARCHIVES

CHENGIAH “ROGERS” RAGAVEN was an arts student at the University of Natal “Non-European” Section and became a close friend of Steve Biko.

He was elected president of the university’s first black Student Representative Council, on which Biko also served.

“As you say his name, I see Steve smiling, lanky, in a sports jacket, he was a real character.

“For a medical student he was an exception to the rule. He mixed with the arts students like myself. We were very close and for a year or two we spent all our time together. Man, in those days we used to jol all the time, any excuse for a party after the hard work!

“Steve had such a light-hearted side, he and Ben Ngubane were always cracking political jokes.

“My father ran the canteen at the students’ res in Wentworth and those guys were always hungry, so they spent a lot of time in the canteen when they weren’t studying in their rooms. My dad would make them sardine sandwiches.

“We believed ourselves to be revolutionaries on one hand and intellectuals on the other. We were students and yet we were leaders. It felt a strange kind of position in an apartheid society.

“Steve enjoyed the company of white intellectuals, and Alan Paton was our role model.

“In 1977 I was in exile in the UK. I picked up the paper at Cambridge one morning and saw what had happened to Steve. I was shocked out of my mind. I just started phoning people. I had also lost both my parents while I was in exile.”

Steve Biko, back row, third from left; Chengiah 'Rogers' Ragaven, front row, centre; and Ben Ngubane, front row, second from left.
Steve Biko, back row, third from left; Chengiah 'Rogers' Ragaven, front row, centre; and Ben Ngubane, front row, second from left.
Image: Dr Ben Ngubane
Mandla Langa
Mandla Langa
Image: GORDON METZ

MANDLA LANGA was a student and poet at the time he knew Steve Biko.

He is currently a writer and has co-authored “Dare not Linger, the Presidential Years of Nelson Mandela”, which is due out in October.

He remembers the time Biko was to appear as a witness for the defence during the lengthy trial of nine student leaders from the Black People's Convention and the South African Students’ Organisation

“I always think of Steve Biko when I see the Black Consciousness Movement’s black fist of resistance to oppression.

“We met at the Medical Section of the University of Natal, where Steve was answering questions about the finer points of the Black Consciousness philosophy. I marvelled at how this very impressive person could respond in a manner that put everyone at ease, using everyday language to simplify some abstruse political concepts.

“In 1976 I was with Steve in Pretoria when his ban was temporarily suspended for him to appear at the SASO/BPC trial. He was driving a hired car — a battered VW Passat — that was so faulty that we spent the evening pushing it up and down the streets of Pretoria. Finally, when we made our way to a consultation with [civil rights lawyer] Dave Soggot, Steve said: “Dave, I hope the defence is not as rickety as the car you gave me!”

“Steve taught me to never fear — for the simplest reason that the enemy is more afraid of you. ‘Face issues head-on, enjoy life’, he would say.”

SATHS COOPER was studying at University College on Salisbury Island in Durban at the time he knew Steve Biko

“‘Keep strong — whatever happens’ was one of the last things Steve said to me when he came up to testify in my defence at the SASO/BPC trial in Pretoria in April 1976.

“He was intended to be the first defence witness and Rick Turner to follow. But Steve didn’t fly up from East London, he insisted on driving so he could stop along the way and stay over with friends, which he wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise as he was banned!

“On the day he was due to take the witness stand, Steve was still ‘en route’. So Rick became the first witness — a colossal irony for all those who thought Black Consciousness was anti-white!

“The next morning, Witness No1 was somewhere in the Free State, so I, Accused No1, had to testify. On day two of my evidence, Steve sauntered into the Palace of Justice saying casually — but with a devilish grin — that he had been ‘on the road’, and, since I was testifying, he would be ‘waiting in Marabastad’ until he was needed.

“He had the last laugh because he was only called a week later and so the whole trip took three weeks — for one day on the stand!

Sam Moodley
Sam Moodley
Image: Supplied

SAM MOODLEY worked as a research assistant with Steve Biko at the Beatrice Street offices of Black Community Programmes in 1973 in Durban.

“Steve was always interested in new ideas — always searching for solutions.

“There was a sense of urgency about him, yet amidst all this he made time to have fun and relax.

“He worked into the early hours of the mornings, never rested until his work was done. After a social gathering at the residence at Wentworth, he gathered his committee members at 4am to draw up resolutions for the meeting at 8.‘There’s no time to lose,’ he’d say. ‘Time is of the essence, we must plan’.

“The best lesson Steve taught me was decision making. He said everyone was capable of making decisions, but more importantly, one had to take responsibility for those decisions and carry them out to the best of one’s ability.

“I was at school [teaching] when my sister called me, she had heard on the radio that Steve had died. I was shocked into silence, totally speechless. I collapsed into the chair at the desk, staring into space, leaving her hanging on the other end of the line. I just sobbed uncontrollably for the rest of the day and for days afterwards.”

BEN KHOAPA was the Durban Director of Black Community Programmes (BCP) and director of Sprocas (Study Project on Christianity in an Apartheid Society) when he met Steve Biko in the early 1970s. Khoapa is currently a board member of The Steve Biko Foundation.

“The name Steve Biko is bigger than anything else we have. He was a towering man, both physically and in importance, and he appeared at a very critical time. The loss to the people, the loss to friends, is immeasurable.

“We met in Durban when he was a student and I was director of the local Black Community Programme. He came to a meeting and took lots of notes before realising that what we were doing was very important and he wanted to know more. He was very curious about everything, wasn’t interested in the small details, just wanted to know the big stuff. We met again a couple of times and he kind of liked my personality and I liked him.

“Later I proposed that he work with me as he was about to be kicked out of university, and he became my deputy director, working on black development projects.

“We had been under house arrest and then Steve was banned and he had several run-ins with Special Branch, but at that stage I never got to the point of thinking of Steve being deceased.

“Then one afternoon in August ’77 I got a call from the varsity campus to say that Steve had been detained and this time I felt a concern... but I thought we’d talk about it when they released him... but that moment never came...”

Steve Biko lighting up with Rick Turner (right), Dave Turnbull (centre) and volunteers who were helping restore the Mahatma Gandhi Ashram in Phoenix outside Durban in 1971.
Steve Biko lighting up with Rick Turner (right), Dave Turnbull (centre) and volunteers who were helping restore the Mahatma Gandhi Ashram in Phoenix outside Durban in 1971.
Image: Peter Johnstone

PETER JOHNSTONE was a schoolteacher in Durban at the time he knew Steve Biko.

“One Saturday in 1971 I was approached by a visiting American lecturer who wanted to meet Steve Biko and in the early evening we drove on my scooter to the Wentworth hostel.

“At the dormitories we came across a group of students obviously in party mood. They questioned our motives for being there and became quite aggressive, branding us ‘white liberals who were confusing the struggle’. One student pulled out a knife and said: ‘When the revolution comes, I’ll slit your throat just as I would the white cops — don’t think because you are a white liberal that you will be spared … ’

“At that moment, Steve appeared. ‘Peter’, he said, and held out his arms to give me a big hug.

“He gave the other students a quizzical smile and said ‘You people weren’t giving my friends a hard time, I hope.’

“That was the last time I saw Steve.”

A defiant Ntsiki Biko with Samora (left) and Nkosinathi at their Ginsberg home after Steve Biko's death in 1977.
A defiant Ntsiki Biko with Samora (left) and Nkosinathi at their Ginsberg home after Steve Biko's death in 1977.
Image: Daily Dispatch

BANDI BIKO, Biko’s younger sister.

Nobandile ‘Bandi’ Biko remembers her older brother Steve as naughty, mad about music and with a great sense of humour. He was always compassionate, even as a young boy.

Biko was caught out by a white shopkeeper from King William’s Town next to Ginsberg who cracked their shared secret code.

“We were very close from an early age and had a unique way of communicating. We reversed letters in words (in Xhosa). Then I called Steve ‘Ntuba’ (for Bantu).”

“The shopkeeper worked out that Steve had described him as having a ‘big stomach’.

“He insulted us back in our same language and we ran out of the shop.”

SIS PRO MANGCU was a former neighbour from Ginsberg outside King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape.

Banning Biko to King William’s Town never changed him. Instead he transformed Ginsberg and beyond, with an influential Black Consciousness community springing up around him.

He was a supreme organiser and took every gap he got in order to achieve his goal.

Mangcu said when she was a credit controller at Ellerines furniture store with a telephone allowing her to call long distance, Biko would use it to make free calls to activists in Durban and Joburg.

Biko bought a bedroom suite, would make a payment one month and skip another, then come in to negotiate and use the phone, she said.

Sis Pro, the sister of Biko biographer Xolela Mangcu, said: “My manager would be sitting there. Biko would say: ‘Nothing feels as good as fooling a liberal white because they pretend to understand.”

Biko was the first to show up when she was stabbed five times by a local gang known as the Cubans.

“There was nothing he did not know in town,” she said. “At 3am Steve appeared at my uncle’s place, saying he got a call from the Cubans. Blood was protruding from the bandages my aunt had put on and I was half asleep so he dragged me to the car. He took me to Grey Hospital against his banning order.”

She laughs. “I had been drinking whisky and he told the doctor: ‘Just stitch her up, she does not need anaesthetic’.”

NOBATHEMBU BEAUTY GCWENI was a schoolmate of Biko.

She recalls them celebrating their senior year with a function like a matric dance.

She and her girlfriends got dressed up in high heels and necklaces for the event at which Biko and his friends were to join them.

“We got into the hall where the tables were arranged with fruits and sweet and drinks for the evening and left a space between us for the boys. Our boys were late and we waited and waited. Then they came in as a mob wearing rain suits and we couldn’t shout at them.

“They were the only ones not in black suits. They were in black rain suits with hoods on and we had to dance with these boys wearing rain suits which had a funny smell.

“That was Bantu’s way of joking around. Later when we asked why, he said that he was sorry if they offended us,” said 71-year-old Sis Bha Bha from her living room in Ginsberg.

“I grew up with Bantu. We stayed in the same street and went to the same schools together. He was in my class when he was promoted up a grade because he was clever.

“But he was so naughty in class, making jokes and a noise. He was not like those people sitting quietly. When we got dismissed from class for playing around, we would take our books outside and study instead of going home.”

The jester of the class, Biko was indisputably the top student and he made sure he stayed there.

FIKILE MLINDA, now 70, was another schoolmate of Biko’s.

He remembers how Biko excelled even after he had been suspended for a prank.

The trouble started with music, one of young Biko’s passions. Fikile remembered.

“It was at the time of the Beatles and he got on a desk imitating them, singing ‘’Hard Day’s Night’ when we were supposed to be studying.”

A bookworm reported Biko to the principal and the boys wanted to rough him up in retaliation for this said Fikile.

But Biko vetoed that. Instead he suggested they play a trick on the boy who “believed too much in witchcraft”.

When the boy was at evening study at school, they stripped off their clothes and blackened their faces, then crept along next to the windows of the classroom. Biko started flicking the light on and off and they leapt out, giving him such a fright he leapt through a low window and bolted away.

“The next day he told the boys the witches had been to get him and we were smiling at the corners, when one guy admitted it was us.”

The principal punished Biko and his friends with a long suspension but they studied and did well.

John Savage. Image: Brigitte Savage
John Savage. Image: Brigitte Savage

JOHN SAVAGE was United States Vice-Consul in Durban in the late 1960s.

Steve Biko was a frequent guest at his social events and they also attended many of the same political gatherings.

“One time we went to an all-black event and someone stole my overcoat. Steve did a major lockdown and, after a few choice words, got it back for me. In his very gentle way, he was always in command.”

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