Biko, Biko


“You talk like a moslem, but you look like a kaffir,” I said to James. I was four or five years old. The man I was talking to, whom I only knew as ‘James’, responded with a laugh to my presumption: a child speaking to a man about something the child could not know about. He worked for my uncle, a backyard panel-beater and on whose property my family lived, in a converted garage which we called the servants’ quarters, as it would have been when the neighbourhood was a white area. I remember the scene vividly: it is a late Spring morning, tea break, and James is sitting on a small, upturned drum, eating a sandwich and drinking tea. It is a sunny day, but we are sitting in the shade of the carport. Behind him, under grapevine, stand vintage Fords that my uncle hopes to renovate, to one side a loquat tree, and washing lines hung every Monday by Dorothy, my aunt’s domestic worker. Forty years later, I can still recall his face: dark and beautiful, and a broad, warm smile.


I cannot recall any other people being in earshot. This was normal. Working in his backyard, my uncle could keep half an eye on me when everyone else was at work and at school – my parents, my aunt, my brother and my cousin. This guardianship extended to his workers. I was inquisitive, struck up friendly relations with the workers and sooner or later were asked to fetch body-filler or this or that colour Duco from the store-cupboard. And come tea-break, I would be enthralled by the alien habits of the workers: men relishing their chunks of bread and salt fish, drinking sweet, milky tea, rolling cigarettes with coarse tobacco and newspaper. I still like dry snoek and bokkom.

At some point during my time with the workers, I must have accepted food from a worker, because I remember being reprimanded by my parents in a language that mixed Islamic dietary laws, class distinctions and anxieties about hygiene.

Whether my infant socio-linguistic analysis is an authentic memory, or whether it has been made into memory by stories retold by my parents after the fact and throughout my childhood, I do not know. But its typically strange and familiar South African mix of analysis and racist stereotype and language must have been born in that primary location for socialisation: the nuclear family. In my case, at four years innocent still of the actual nightmare of apartheid, but racialised enough to present it ‘innocently’ to an adult man who would have borne the brunt of apartheid, that mixture of identity also had a convenient veil in Islam. And it contained the confusion when stereotype is confronted by knowledge: the other sounds like me.

When recalling that incident during my later childhood, my parents retold it with a mixture of pride and shame. The shame did not induce hand-wringing; rather, evidenced by a kind of nervous half-laughter, it was a shame that acknowledged only the possible public embarrassment. The nuclear family, after all, cannot absolve itself from the socialisation of the four year-old: “I don’t know where the child picks it up.”

As a child I had no idea of what James may have masked with his laughter. I doubt that my parents did, even as my father, working class and a wage-earner all his life, may have had much to share about apartheid and emasculation with James. My father never understood that bond; such analysis was beyond his racism, a racism that stubbornly persists in the Muslim community, among our parents and my generation. Younger generations as well.


When I was still probably six or so, my brother and I regularly caught a bus with my mother from our neighbourhood to the main street of Paarl, to visit a dentist or shop for school clothes. The front seats were almost always empty, but when we lunged for them, my mother would pull us back and admonish us: “No, those seats are for dogs.” As Muslim children, we knew dogs were considered unclean and we thus instinctively recoiled from the empty seats, and I remained curious that seats were reserved for dogs.

It was only in my twenties when I realised what my mother was doing then. By referring to the whites-only seating as reserved for dogs, she was finding some form of empowerment by recasting apartheid’s humiliations back onto its everyday beneficiaries, even if only psychological and in her own mind. And it was a momentary conduit for her anger and resentment, while she could avoid explaining the complexities of apartheid to her children who surely would not have stopped asking: “Why?” Why? Why?


I turned ten in 1976. While growing more and more aware of apartheid, 1976 was a ten-year-old’s blur. Some of that year sounds adventurous: a story from my cousin, who was then fourteen and already at high school, and who with a friend had to hide behind overturned desks as riot police searched classrooms while outside the school had been tear-gassed and baton-charged into pandemonium. My aunt, laughing as my cousin told his story of how two scared teenagers bumbled into outwitting the police. Laughing perhaps out of relief, laughing perhaps in an attempt to normalise the story, laughing as one would when a story of  danger is recalled as farce.

But even to a ten-year-old, not all of 1976 was farcical. While lacking an adult’s understanding of what was going on, I was aware of storm clouds over the country and my memories of that year sometimes occur in stormy greys and filmic black and white (we had a black-and-white television). I remember my father, returning home from work and having bought the sliced loaf for the next day’s sandwiches, reporting with high drama a clash between youth and police in Klein Drakenstein Road, gunshots fired.

And roadblocks. How with a boy’s fascination for things military, I couldn’t tear my eyes from the burly policemen in camouflage at a roadblock one night on our way to mosque in Ramadan. Here, for the first time and up close, I saw automatic rifles and shotguns, khaki bandoliers filled with bright orange shotgun shells. Opening the boot of my father’s car, the policemen were confronted with a load of mechanic’s toolbox, miscellaneous tools lying loose and sundry auto-parts. “Wat de fok gaan hier aan?” they asked. “Nee, ek is a mekeniek,” my father replied. They waved us through: “Bid vir die land.” (“What the fuck is going on here?” “No, I’m a mechanic.” “Pray for the country.”) But my father was still nervous, warning us to be quiet and sit still, to not look back as we drove away because these policemen, he said, could do anything they wanted to, at the slightest provocation.

Then there were the stories, from my father’s friend who worked as a driver at Groote Schuur Hospital and who saw scores of schoolkids being brought to hospital. “Ya Allah, Jamiela,” he said to my mother, “djy moet die meisies sien, die pie stroem by hulle biene af, die sambok hale lê soes viennas oor hulle boude. Wange oepgevlek soos guavas.” (“Ya Allah, Jamiela, you must see the girls, the pee streaming down there legs, the sjambok weals lying like viennas across their thighs. Cheeks split like guavas.”)


In 1980 I was in standard 7 (grade 9) and South Africa once again saw black high schools out on national class boycotts, extended over several months. It was during this time that my real politicisation started. While there were generational schisms, teachers and parents were mostly sympathetic, several supportive. A few teachers and parents were themselves activists, some of them having earned detention badges as well. It was in this year, for instance, that an Afrikaans teacher lent me André Brink’s Kennis van die Aand and Breyten Breytenbach’s Om te Vlieg, both wrapped in brown paper since they were banned.

My parents were moderate, quietist and had normal parental anxieties about their children getting hurt during police action. Whenever there was a ‘mass meeting’ of all the schools in town, and thus a potential for a protest march and subsequent police involvement, my parents encouraged us to stay at home. But in general, my parents did not prevent my brother and me from still going to school and attending ‘alternative education’ programmes.

These alternative programmes did not amount to much. At my school, we typically spent the morning listening to ‘student leaders’ speechifying, sang a few ‘freedom songs’ (most of them old spirituals), hung about smoking behind the last row of classrooms, and then went home at about twelve. But, outside of the classroom, some form of alternative education did take place. A samizdat photocopy of an anti-colonialist history book on the Atlantic slave trade was making the rounds, available to anybody who was interested. And it was at this time that Biko’s name started filtering into my consciousness. Dropped into speeches by student leaders and coming up in conversations with some of my friends among them, and featured in reggae music – for which I was developing an unhealthy love – in songs by Tapper Zukie and Steel Pulse, Biko was slowly assuming a profile in my growing awareness of apartheid and South African history.

But it was in 1983 that Biko’s profile as tragic martyr made its strongest impact on me. My English teacher, Ms. Essop, handed me a slim volume, inconspicuously, but conspicuously covered in brown paper. “Don’t tell anyone,” she said.

I cannot remember its title, but it was the transcript of the inquest into his death. It contained black and white photographs of Steve Biko’s corpse, lying on a steel table, bruised and lifeless.

These post-mortem photographs shocked me because it occupied the territory between scientific evidence – that he was murdered and of the apartheid state’s brutality – and something non-rational, the latter more difficult because it is exactly the scientific evidence that troubles the non-rational, that muddies the non-rational more. The evidence causes an emotional response, but there is a larger, troubling area. What that is I am still unable to say.


Whenever I see the iconic poster incorporating Biko’s face with shackled fists on either side breaking the chain that bound them, I am reminded of the post-mortem photographs. Due to bad layout and design, the fists on the poster are disembodied, as if someone had taken his hands and arms, now broken from the body, and placed them next to the face in a desperate, absurd attempt to recover what was once whole.


The black diamond of market invention notwithstanding, Biko’s ideal of psychological and economic liberation still evades the average South African. It is an ideal of self-empowerment, of agency, of taking back what was lost.

But what was lost? Where, in the history of apartheid and colonialism, lie all the broken pieces? By which shibboleth can one recover from an impossibility of recovery?


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