Africanism’s son (Nkosinathi Biko interview on anti-apartheid struggle)

‘In this Rainbow Nation, the colours are not coexisting harmonically; they continue to stanNkosinathiBikod side by side, but separately from each other’.

To characterise him as an embodiment of the South African social transformation would not be a surprise. A tough, poor childhood surrounded by oppression and – being a son of a legendary black resistance figure – enriched by struggle for freedom gave its place to a present life mostly spent in an impressive Johannesburg business block. And seemingly, the passion for an ideology gave its palce to a mathematic stance over finance…

‘Black Conscience’ was Steve Biko’s dogma. He led a large portion of black south Africans into realizing their identity and resist from being assimilated to white culture. This ideology was called ‘Africanism’, and became very popular during the height of apartheid. At a time where the Black Power Movement reined black idealists in America, Biko’s dogma encouraged his compatriots in vigorously express their identity, in order to break their dependency from white supremacist cultural influence. Biko became soon an icon among black activists. Likewise, he soon became a target for the apartheid regime. He was eventually arrested and died in prison. Many suggest that, had he survived, today Biko would have been the main black South African political figure, overshadowing Nelson Mandela.


His legacy’s main heir and son, Nkosinathi, received us on the 14th floor of a business skyscraper in central Johannesburg. It is the head office of a foundation that was formed with government funding and named after his father. Its aim is to preserve his father’s legacy and but its activities give the impression of political think tank. Apart from a large poster in the main conference room, little really reminds the visitor of Biko’s story. From a suppressed, impoverished life to a westernised middle class lifestyle. Is this really what his father hoped for?  ‘Steve Biko would look at the present South Africa, and recognize that politically there is an air of freedom.

There is visible change on political freedoms and citizens participate as active members of change. However, he would also recognize that we have many challenges ahead, that the economy, for example, is still in white hands, to a vast extent. If you look at Johannesburg’s stock exchange, 97% of the economy still belongs to whites. This is a country with a black majority and should not be supposed to be like this. We also have the problem of unemployment. There are black communities with 60% unemployment. These are the challenges he would indicate, and having passed 10 years since the establishment of democracy, he would say that we still have a long way to go’.  It seemed that the ideal of Africanism has been transformed to a concern over the skin colour of the economy. I remind Nkosinathi that a decade since the collapse of apartheid, in Soweto, the cradle of black resistance, unemployment has reached 50%, and that a majority of residents state that they were better off during apartheid, that they start cherish those years.

‘Any part of the world that has undergone a transition has citizens that refer to the past’, he replies, ‘problems in South Africa are now connected with the fact that we are now an open society, an open economy, bending to each direction the international economic winds take us. To be fair though, our economy has strengthened a great deal, for example, our industry has not been healthier in 24 years, our currency’s future is auspicious, but we have very big unemployment, this is true, it is a reality, which we cannot deny. I think that economically, we have done a lot of hard work. It is true that our finance profits, as small as they may be, are not translated into better life standards for our citizens, which intensifies the disappointment on this level. I wish we did not have such a high rate of unemployment, it is exasperating and will lead to these voices to shout, and they have every right to do so. However, to the question of whether we were better off during apartheid, for me, no, there cannot be such comparison’ Would he agree that things have reversed against the whites in the last few years, that we start to see a form of black racism, as liberal whites complain?Nkosinathi says that ‘the policy of «affirmative action» aims on reversing the injustices of the past. Beneficiaries from it are blacks, Indians and colored people. Many whites feel that in some way they are put aside. I believe however, that if somebody were a white liberal and genuine to the liberal ideals, it would be reasonable to accept that this country needs to reverse its imbalances. South 97% of the companies are in white hands. ‘Affirmative action’ should be applied to a larger extend. In many companies, managerial executives have not activated these policies. We have many companies, in IT, in telecommunications, with no blacks, and they continue to argue that there is not enough talent among blacks. I believe that in regards to «affirmative action,» South Africa was too soft, our government should apply much harder measures, including sentencing companies that refuse to apply it’.In fact, in an official attempt to recommend past injustices, ANC white member Carl Niehaus has recently introduced a ‘Declaration of commitment by white South Africans’, asking whites to acknowledge their part in creating and preserving those injustices.

In a population of 4.5 million, only 500 whites proved eager to sign it. Mr Biko underlines that ‘their unwillingness to accept their past, and their responsibility for apartheid, was annoying and worrying. From 1948, white South Africans had the choice to remove the National Party from power but they did not. Consequently, it is astonishing that after 1994 only 500 people accepted that they had indeed benefited during those years. But what happened to the remaining 4,5 million that were voting for the National Party? Surely, somebody would have voted them.  If Mr Niehaus’ effort were successful, it would put the foundation for a true reconciliation between black and white South Africans. It would at least be a hint on that we are moving towards the same direction, that we are committed to the same idea of national reconciliation’.He also holds no doubt over the effectiveness of the ‘Truth and reconciliation committee’ that was formed right afret the first democratic elections. White people held responsible for the past only certain institutions and the government, saying that the government was responsible for everything.

The presence, or rather the absence of white South-Africans from the Committee was rather surprising. It was an institution created to bring racial harmony, but it ended up having only blacks listening to each other’s stories. The only white people that were present were either foreign observers, or white South Africans, who were there either as candidates or as supporters of candidates for amnesty. The rest were absent.Apartheid was oppressing blacks as individuals; you could not attend a school of your choice or find work, which you were eligible for, regardless of your qualifications. Or you could became a victim, lose your arm, lose your eye, lose your brother, your mother, and all these were happening on a personal level. Looking at the death list, you will find thousands of young people that died, or lost their life in exile. No one has really paid for these deaths. Consequently, we must personalize the process of reconciliation, in order to achieve itDespite disagreeing with liberals over the existence of black racism, he would contamplate their cries over the granted amnesty to high ranked apartheid officials.

‘The structure of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee favoured the accused for the atrocities of apartheid. Some would say that this was essential for a country like ours. Our problem is that despite their past, they took advantage of this process and refused to accept responsibility. Take for example the case of the 4-5 police officers that were involved in the death of my father. They were not forced from the committee to apologize, and consequently no one expects them to ask for forgiveness. If they had the bravery to say that they are sorry for their actions, then we would be obliged to confront them on a personal level. Otherwise, they are simply degrading themselves into numbers, into just another case of people that applied for amnesty, brought a team of lawyers, fought their case and simply walked out from the committee. It is true that there is racial tension in SA today. It is also true that we have not achieved the objective of reconciliation through this committee process. And I believe that, in the end, we will be forced to face the political consequences of this fact. We got a hint from this in the last elections. The white parties placed their electoral strategy in a ‘campaign of resistance», against a second vast ANC majority government. While on the other side, we had black people that tried to ensure precisely the opposite. We therefore see an escalating development of different fronts of racial tension. If whites, as a team, recognized their responsibility for apartheid, we could have achieved racial harmony of a much greater extend from what we ever dreamed of’.Inside his well-ironed suit, and the colourful tie, he turns emotionall when speaking about his father. After all, while sitting in front of his father’s poster, their face similarity is astonishing.

Nkosinathi  gives a glimpse of how Steve Biko could look like today, at the age of his son.  ‘In the case of my father murderers, I cannot speak of forgiveness; no one asked for it anyway, no one speaks the language of forgiveness. The five police officers, spoke the language of amnesty, and were granted amnesty. If they spoke the language of forgiveness, I would have to face them as human beings. Which can sometimes be sincere regarding their past errors and sins’.His strong words and gloomy social descriptions contradicted with his earlier explanations on the dark sides of contemporary South Africa. I could not hesitate less to ask on what is really his sincere forecast for the country.

‘Us South Africans prefer to look at the bright side of life. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission would not stand a chance if we did not bear this characteristic. The general sense of South Africans at that period was that we needed to move forward. There is not really a history of revenge on behalf of blacks, on the contrary, we had whites shooting blacks as recently as 1993, and continued until the 1994 elections. Members of Far right groups were shooting people only because they were black. Such revengeful incidents never happened on behalf of the blacks, even when we were taking the giant leap from 1992 to 1994. In 1989 Mandela was the personification of black resistance in the eyes of white South Africans. Up to 1994, he was the embodiment of hope for them, because of what he personified. And was proved capable to convince people to accept the new framework of racial relations. You therefore have a person who was denied of his rights for many generations, and who lives in the ‘Rainbow nation’. But in this Rainbow Nation, the colours are not coexisting harmonically; they continue to stand side by side, but separately from each other. I believe that we have too much of work ahead, regarding reconciliation. The legacy, which is inherited by young white South Africans, is very heavy and harsh, and I do not wish I was one of them. They are not responsible for their fathers’ errors. Nevertheless, they live in an environment where they will be constantly blamed and accused because of the actions of their ancestors, simply because they did not cleanse themselves properly. This indignation is not expressed solely towards them; it is also expressed towards the enormous black middle class who benefit from the present situation Nonetheless, I believe that this country will not fail; it will function’. And, being loyal to the new status that he represents, he would conclude that ‘despite the ongoing political turmoil, financially we will do impressively well; we are now ready to do so’.



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