/ 12 October 2012

Mngxitama’s ‘design to deceive’

A supporter hoists an image of Steve Biko on the 20th anniversary of his death
A supporter hoists an image of Steve Biko on the 20th anniversary of his death

My aim here is not so much to respond directly to Andile Mngxitama's review of my book Biko: A Biography ("Biko biography found wanting", Friday, October 5) than to get Steve Biko to speak for himself on many of the things that Mngxitama falsely claims in his name.

The most revealing paragraph in Mngxitama's article is this: "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."   

Well, Biko seems to have seen his connection to these warriors as more than "an accident of birth": "We have to re-write our history and produce in it the heroes that formed the core of the resistance to the white invaders. More has to be revealed and stress has to be laid on the successful nation-building attempts of Shaka,  Moshoeshoe and Hintsa."

Mngxitama charges me with tribalism because I link Biko with Hintsa, in whose kingdom the Biko ancestral home is to be found in Cacadu, Lady Frere.

In fact, I open the book with the following statement: "Steve Biko was as much a product of South Africa's multi-ethnic heritage as he was a child of the Xhosa." And I write about "the intercultural solidarities that were forged by different groups over time, culminating in Black Consciousness in the 1970s".

So why would this "Bikoist" give a tribal twist to my discussion of Biko's historical and ancestral background?  The answer, in the words of one of my colleagues, is that Mngxitama's strength is making "intellectual arguments designed to deceive" –  that is, sophistry.

The argument that "Ginsberg is like any other black township; nothing special there" speaks volumes about Mngxitama's contempt for black communities. The emperor of radical chic has no clothes! For Mngxitama, Biko has no ancestral history and no community, parents, teachers, siblings or friends who shaped his thinking in Ginsberg. Biko emerges only in his adult encounter with Frantz Fanon, and even then as a blank slate. Mngxitama thus exhorts us to go find Biko's influences in Martinique. What is the guy smoking?

Fanon's psychiatrist's couch
It is not Biko who is the blank slate, but Mngxitama – who is on a perennial, subliminal search for Fanon's psychiatrist's couch. Biko himself was quite adamant that even as the movement accepted external ideas "we must be able to maintain our independence in working with them". Frankly, the insistence on Fanon as a reference point is patronising to Biko's own intellectual range and originality of thought.  

Mngxitama displays his myopia by limiting black consciousness to the négritude movement of the 1930s.  Martin Delaney was expounding black consciousness in the 1860s already. Mngxitama is clearly oblivious of the canon of  "black radical thought". I now feel a real duty to recommend Tommy Shelby's book We Who Are Dark.

Mngxitama writes about Biko's philosophical indebtedness to American black radical traditions, yet omits Biko's statement: "I think the end result or the goal of Black Power is fundamentally different from the goal of Black Consciousness in this country.  

Mngxitama distorts Biko's view of Nelson Mandela: "The attempt to recruit Biko to Mandela's political process is a vulgarisation of Biko's ideas." Here is what Biko actually said about Mandela: "People like Mandela, [Robert] Sobukwe, [Ahmed] Kathrada will always have a place of honour in our minds as the true leaders of the people.  We may disagree with some things they did but we know they spoke the language of the people."   

Mngxitama spins yarns about Oliver Tambo: "Mangcu absolves Oliver Tambo from responsibility when there is evidence that Tambo ordered the hit on black consciousness organisations."  This master of deceit avoids the details of Tambo's instructions. In his deep bitterness, Mngxitama does not mention Biko's planned meeting with Tambo to unite the liberation movements.

Mngxitama says the movement's community development projects were "a colossal failure", yet Biko wrote that "the community's appreciation of the significance of the effort is not lost to us."  With all these distortions of what Biko said, Mngxitama has effectively become Biko's  anti-type.

This leads me to the importance of what Chinua Achebe called truth-telling in writing. Mngxitama writes that "very little is disclosed about Steve Biko that we do not already know". I suggest you be the judge, dear reader. Given Mngxitama's pattern of distorting Biko, I would not trust him. For example, he writes that "the biography gives June 16 a big miss". But on page 202 I quote what Biko said about June 16. Surely Mngxitama's assertion is therefore a bald-faced lie?

Ultimately, I suspect Mngxitama was not looking for a biography but an ideological tract – something he tried in a book the title of which I forget. He wishes he had written this particular biography. Thank God he didn't; it would have been an "intellectual design to deceive".