By Zubeida Jaffer*
Steve Biko is a Xhosa prophet. Author and commentator, Moeletsi Mbeki made this
extraordinary statement at the Franschoek Literary Festival this past weekend. His
presentation was peppered with little quips and at first I thought this was just another.
Nothing however confirmed this interpretation.
Mbeki shared a platform with well-known Economics Professor Francis Wilson. The title of
their discussion was “Thinkers: Fanon, Biko and Beyond.”
Steve Biko must be turning in his grave. Perhaps Mbeki must be forgiven since he was in
exile during the years when we lived through the tumultuous events shaped by the Black
Consciousness Movement. However, any astute observer of history as he claims to be
should be aware that the essence of Steve Biko’s drive was to move away from ethnicity and
embrace a common humanity.
Biko’s reach was way beyond the confines of the Eastern Cape Xhosa community. It would
be as foolish to claim that Mandela was a Xhosa prophet. In fact, Mandela stems from the
Xhosa clan from his father’s side and the KhoiSan from his mother’s side. He could as easily
be described as a XhoiSan prophet if Mbeki’s logic holds.
The festival as always was well attended and has settled into a rhythm of its own. Most
notable has been the particular interest insessions that focus on political and social issues
facing the country. There does appear to be a big appetite for meaningful discussions
about matters of state, an indication of a sense of unease amongst book readers. What I
did find disconcerting was the superficial analysis that characterised much of this session.
Wits academic Achille Mmembe cancelled and Professor Wilson parachuted in, graciously
helping out. Moeletsi Mbeki who was the star attraction clearly had done little thinking
about the “Thinkers”. He gave no indication that he was aware of any of the present efforts
being made to reindustrialise South Africa. A critique of the present efforts of the South
African government would have taken the discussions onto a different level.
It was a great pity therefore that there was no time to challenge Mbeki and set the record
straight. Hopefully his statement on Biko fell on discerning minds. One hundred years ago
another young man preceding Biko returned from Oxford University and brought together
a group of his compatriots, he too was driven by a non-ethnic impulse. Pixley-Ka-Seme, the
founder of the ANC, was a student and intellectual who saw clearly that Africa’s survival
would depend on transcending ethnic boundaries. Fortunately, his dream in many ways is
seeing the light of day. Few of us would disagree that not only is South Africa set on a path
to consolidate a nation-state but Africa as a continent is fast coming into its own.
Instead of pegging Biko into a hole, Mbeki would have done well to show how he had
sparked off energy for change that consumed not only the campuses but also infected
local communities. This today is sadly missing from our universities. A strong intellectual
movement led by vibrant young minds remains a crucial missing link in the chain of growing
a healthy democracy. It is the “thinkers” beyond Biko and Fanon that we desperately need
now to challenge those who want to drag us back to the past century of ethnic division.
*Zubeida Jaffer is Writer-in-Residence at the University of the Free State.