Remembering Steve Biko

It struck a chord with me and not for the reason you might initially suppose… Does anyone out there remember Steve Biko? I do. On September 12, 1977 Steve Biko died. He was brutally murdered, dying from the injuries inflicted upon him by the South African police. Beaten, tortured and thousands of miles from his home and family, he died at the hands of the very people who ought to have been protecting us. The police reported his death as being the result of a hunger strike, later adding to this claim by saying his head injuries were from a suicide attempt. The government of that period in South Africa predictably claimed all murders committed by the police were either suicides or they would concoct some other rubbish in an attempt to cover their tracks. Even as a relatively young child I knew it was not likely that prisoners would routinely throw themselves from the higher stories of the buildings in John Vorster Square, Pretoria. If ever buildings or a structure deserved to be destroyed it is those. The assumption of governments that their populace is stupid often goes from the sublime to the ridiculous. During the height of the apartheid era; for standing up for what was right, Steve Biko was brutally silenced along with many of his fellow freedom fighters, some whom we will probably never know. In their honour however, I wish to say that I remember Steve Biko and I pay homage to all their memories and bravery even though they may be unknown to me. I was ten-years-old when Steven Biko was murdered. It was this incident which took place when my own social awareness was dawning that changed my view of what is visible and invisible to us, what is revealed and what is purposefully hidden, what we can accept and what we must never tolerate. We used to take a fixed route to school every morning. Around the corner from the house we would turn into Beach Road, drive up to the Old Transkei Road intersection and cross into Hudson Avenue, then into Chamberlain Road and Devereaux Avenue, from there we would turn into the top end of Oxford Street and head down towards the Guild Theatre where my mother would drop us off and we would walk further to our respective schools. It was on that route that we would pass Donald Woods’ home. Donald Woods was the editor of the Daily Dispatch in East London (1965–1977). He and his family lived around the corner from some friends of ours. I didn’t know his children, but I knew children who knew them, they were my peers. Driving along Devereaux Avenue I would see the Daily Dispatch posters, strung up to the lamp posts announcing that day’s headlines and for what seemed to me like an eternity, as time often does when you are young, the name Biko was a focus of those headline posters. Those Daily Dispatch headlines I read each morning en route to school provoked questions in me and I asked them, often to the frustration of my elders. I was curious, I still am. I asked and asked and I seldom felt satisfied with any answers given. They were fairly typical answers from the parents or adults of my mothers’ generation: “Don’t worry about it”, “I’ll tell you when you are old enough to understand” (an answer I particularly hated), “Don’t ask questions that I can’t answer” (as if I had some magical power to know and if I did, why would I be asking in the first place?). I paid attention and for the first time in my life I actually began to read the newspaper. Between Steve Biko’s death and Donald Woods’ persistence at trying to raise the awareness and action of a scared and misinformed society it highlighted the insanity we lived with in this country. Were it not for that, I may never have been alerted to what was actually present in South Africa. All media and information was so strictly censored that the children of my generation and probably many of the older generation were often oblivious to the atrocities that were taking place right under our noses. As we drove past the Woods’ house one morning and I saw a strange looking little man standing opposite the house in plain view of everyone, he looked very out of place and nothing like you or I might have looked. His attire was, predictably, a Safari suit, he wore sun glasses and black, rubber soled shoes. I remember laughing when my mother told me he was “plain clothes policeman”, the police had a certain style or more specifically lack of style that set them apart from the rest of us whether they were in uniform or not. My mother explained that Donald Woods had been placed under house arrest for allowing articles questioning the death of Steve Biko to be printed in the Daily Dispatch newspaper. Woods, who had photographed Biko’s body in the morgue to prove he was beaten, was saying so publicly and stated there was simply no way his friend died from a hunger strike as the police claimed. Some time later I saw a newspaper article announcing that acid soaked T-shirts had been sent to the Woods’ residence from an unknown source and that the children had been burned after putting these on. My mother was disgusted that anyone could be so cruel to harm children; I wanted to know why they wanted to hurt anyone at all. I also noted with alacrity that one day the police were no longer present outside the Woods home. The explanation however was not so good; the family had to flee the country to escape persecution. Again, why? Because no one can defy the government of the country they live in, was the explanation given to me by a teacher who thought I really ought to be playing in the playground and not asking silly questions. I kept the copy of a newspaper from around that time, at least in part. I would forget about it, but I had folded it inside a favourite book and each time I took that out to read I would find the newspaper and be reminded. I went on to actively, yet quietly, support those who opposed the oppression of the African people in South Africa. I remember late night meetings in restaurant kitchens under the guise of cleaning. I remember a friend of mine and I getting stuck when the restaurant minivan we were driving broke down after dropping staff at home after one of those meetings at 3am. We had to walk in the pitch dark moonless night in a particularly dangerous area to find somewhere to contact people to come and fetch us, I remember clearly that I was wearing high heeled shoes on that occasion after having been on a date somewhere, what a twit, I should have kept a set of flatties in my car. All that time, I never once felt I was vulnerable or that I was potentially putting myself in harm’s way, I only knew not to dare tell anyone or I risked real harm from the police. When I think about this, I regard my younger self with humour, and remember those times as being fun, even adventurous, sometimes silly but always passionately fighting for what was fair and right. Women were regarded very lightly by the government of that era; it was a patriarchal, oppressive rule of the worst kind… I owe a lot to Steve Biko; a great deal of who I am is because of Steve Biko and Donald Woods. One of the best things to happen after apartheid was abolished is that the John Vorster bridge which was built across the Buffalo River in East London, South Africa was renamed the Steve Biko Bridge, now THAT is poetic justice. And I want to say that I remember you Bantu Stephen Biko born on December 18, 1946 and died tragically on September 12, 1977 and I shall never forget you or your friend Donald Woods who gave up everything to continue to fight for what is right. I am not going to undermine any loss of life from any other events before or since; but in my life I must honour my own memories and influences as it is those which have made me who I am. So try not to jump on the media bandwagon when things are thrown your way and remember you can take what you hear and investigate further, we have a world of information right at our fingertips with the World Wide Web. You may find that there are real problems and real heroes a lot closer to home. –

September 2011
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