Monument to Biko

Janet Smith

Oscar-winners Denzel Washington and Kevin Kline, musician Peter Gabriel, film-maker Richard Attenborough, novelist Ken Follett, businessman Richard Branson and crusading journalist Donald Woods are the dazzling reasons why East London will finally be able to stage a celebration fit for the life of activist Steve Biko.

Rallied by Woods, this illustrious collection has funded a bronze statue of Biko, to be unveiled in front of the East London town hall by President Nelson Mandela next Friday, 20 years to the day that Biko was murdered by agents of the apartheid state.

Woods’s association with Biko was documented in the film Cry Freedom and he has remained in contact with the family through the two decades since he was a Biko supporter and the anti-apartheid editor of East London’s Daily Despatch newspaper. He was introduced to Johannesburg artist Naomi Jacobson by mutual friends when looking at funding possibilities for a statue in honour of Biko.

On discovering Jacobson had been a sculptor of several important political figures since the 1950s in Namibia, Woods commissioned the artist to deliver the bronze. It will be accompanied to the Eastern Cape by her complementary bust of Biko, which is to be placed in front of the house where the activist was born in King William’s Town.

Jacobson, now in her 70s, says Woods was “enormously helpful” in the creative process as she had only two photographs from which to take a likeness. She is delighted that she was commissioned to portray someone for whom she had “always had great admiration”. Other works she regards as fulfilling this criteria are busts of Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a full-size figure of Shaka in Ulundi and statues of King Sobhuza of Swaziland, Sir Seretse Khama and Chief Leabua Jonathan.

“This statue of Biko is very informal, very pleasing,” says Jacobson. “It’s not aggressive and I don’t think anyone will be upset by it.”

The statue only cost in the region of R200 000 to build and stands larger than life at just over 2m high. Meanwhile, Jacobson’s busts of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, completed in 1992, are soon to become part of the museum on the national monument of Robben Island.

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