Biko biography found wanting

Very little is disclosed about Steve Biko that we do not already know, but we do get a sense of Mangcu’s ­autobiography.

We have waited almost a decade for this life of Biko, a task that has held many a Bikoist to ransom. It has been as though no work on Biko could commence without this much-anticipated magnum opus. There is also another truth: Biko was a complex philosopher, an intimidating figure in modern South African politics. Mangcu must be commended for his bravery in tackling such a weighty subject.

Slovenian philosopher and commentator Slavoj Zizek once castigated his American rival, Noam Chomsky, for getting facts wrong because, Zizek said, Chomsky did not have a good enough theoretical grasp of politics. One is left with the same feeling about this book. ­Mangcu’s grasp of black consciousness is too limited to allow him the scope to deal with Biko in a satisfactory manner. Consequently, he arbitrarily locates Biko’s philosophical and political inspiration in the ­Eastern Cape’s great Xhosa warriors of the 19th century and ends up reducing Biko to a Xhosa boy from the Ginsberg township.

Although this may satisfy atavistic Xhosa tribal feelings, it has nothing to do with Biko’s philosophy. Thank God that Biko speaks so eloquently for himself, in writings and interviews, about his philosophical indebtedness to the American black radical traditions and more so the black consciousness movement of Stokely Carmichael. This “Xhosalisation” of Biko leads to glaring, major distortions. Biko is part of the great Négritude movement, influenced in particular by its most gifted son, Frantz Fanon, and by Fanon’s teacher, Aimé Céssaire, the grandfather of 20th-century black radical thought.

Mangcu drags us to the Eastern Cape and Ginsberg. One is left to wonder whether it is not Mangcu’s obsession with his own tribal lineage that makes him trace Biko’s philosophical genealogy to Xhosaland instead of Martinique. What connects Biko to Hintsa, Nxele and other Cape Colony personalities is an accident of birth and nothing more. Ginsberg is like any black township; nothing special there.

The development of black consciousness
Biko’s most important contribution is the development of black consciousness. For all major philosophical works of liberation to stand out, the emergent thought has to define itself in opposition to the dominant ideas. Biko did this very well by decimating white liberalism and its notions of integration, favoured by the ANC. In the hands of Mangcu, this significant development mutates into a badly formulated idea of “hybridity” of culture and personal relations with whites. We end up with text by Biko’s white girlfriend and activist Geoff Budlender and no problematisation of Biko’s conception of excluding whites from the struggle and the implications for black liberation.

If Mangcu had a good grasp of black consciousness, he would not have bothered with futile distinctions between the liberalisms of the National Union of South African Students and he would have known that the move by Nusas to organise black workers was not radicalisation, but rather a refusal to engage with black consciousness on an equal footing.

The messianic and missionary impulse was the driving force and we see in the 1980s how the efforts of “organising black workers” pay off as the white left delivers black workers to the ANC through Cosatu. This was brilliant revenge for Biko’s expulsion of whites from the war room. The consequence of organising labour is making a fetish of the wage, not confronting white racism.

Mangcu’s reading of black consciousness more as a cultural empowerment philosophy than a black power ideology leads to his obsession with the community development work done by Biko, the purpose of which Mangcu misreads completely. The idea of self-reliance and community work was not to solve the challenges of development. It was a confidence-building process to achieve the critical awareness to make a revolution. A case can be made that Biko’s community development initiatives were a colossal failure, showing that there is no piecemeal way to development outside of total liberation from structures that produce suffering.

If Mangcu took black consciousness as a philosophy of revolution and not of reform, he would have given more attention to the events leading to June 16 1976. This event is the single most important demonstration of the prowess of the movement as a philosophy of liberation. Instead, the biography gives June 16 a big miss. Biko himself recognised it as a key moment. A philosophy had gripped the imagination of a people and became a material force for their freedom. Exploring the Soweto uprising would cast Biko as our Karl Marx and student leader Abram Tiro as our Lenin. The events of June 16 deliver a devastating critique to the idea of community development as a conscientising tool. Tiro wasted no time with food gardens.

Father-and-son relationship
There is yet another tantalising aspect of Biko’s thought left unexplored: the father-and-son relationship with Robert Sobukwe, revealed in the great traditions of the 19th-century Russian intelligentsia and immortalised by novelist Ivan Turgenev. To understand Biko’s philosophical advances from Sobukwe’s take on race is foundational to understanding black consciousness and its continuities and ruptures with Africanist ideology.

The demise of black consciousness after Biko is handled in a very perfunctory manner, informed by revisionist readings of history. That Mangcu reads events from an ANC perspective is demonstrated in his seeing the visit of Senator Edward Kennedy in the 1980s as a good thing that black consciousness people opposed, thereby leading to the internecine violence between the Azanian People’s Organisation and the United Democratic Front. Mangcu absolves Oliver Tambo from responsibility when there is evidence that Tambo ordered the hit on black consciousness organisations.

The ideological weaknesses of post-Biko black consciousness are deep. In part, they explain its demise and how people such as the late ­Neville Alexander played no small part in diverting black consciousness from race to class and bizarre notions of “scientific socialism”, which smothered the life out of a living idea. The march to oblivion and into the nonracial sunset by the current half-dead black consciousness formations rests in these philosophical weaknesses, which are not analysed. Mangcu leaves things at the level of tactics and events.

The biggest turn-off in this book is the brazen “Mandela-isation” of Biko. Instead of showing the sharp ideological differences, we have a Biko who sits well with Mandela (who features in the preface). The attempt to recruit Biko to Mandela’s political process is a vulgarisation of Biko’s ideas.

The overriding feeling after reading the book is not dissimilar to what one feels after watching the film allegedly about Biko, Cry Freedom, which was based on writings by ­Donald Woods. We need a more serious biography of Biko, focusing on the complexity of his ideas and what they mean today.

Mangcu’s biography will do well in the American market and among those who read Biko through the eyes of the ANC, but serious scholars of black consciousness will find it unbearable.

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