Friday, September 25, 2020

In defence of Stephen Bantu Biko

Africa celebrates the Day of the African Child on June 16. Botswana commemorates the June 14 South African Defence Force raid of 1985 next week.

Both events are directly related to the impact of Steve Biko, the South African Students Organisation and the Black Consciousness Movement on South Africa’s system of apartheid between 1968, when SASO was established, and the early 1990s, when the black political organisations were unbanned.

This contribution is hardly recognised in the distortionist version of liberation history which appoints the African National Congress of South Africa as the sole proprietor of ‘the struggle’ against apartheid. The distortionist version of history denies the role of Robert Sobukwe and the Pan Africanist Congress. It undermines the role of the BCM in the years when the leadership of the ANC and PAC was either banned, jailed or in exile.

Only recently was the world privileged to view a documentary that tells the story of the life of Sobukwe as a student at Fort Hare, as the only Robben Island prisoner who lived in isolation for years before being banished to Kimberly.

This account of history reveals that it was in Kimberly where ‘Prof’, as Sobukwe was amicably known, was able to elude the police in order to meet Steve Biko on the eve of the explosion of the student resistance to the teaching of Blacks in Afrikaans.

The man who helped Sobukwe with his domestic chores, paying school fees and taking Mma Sobukwe shopping says, in response to the outbreak of the student actions, Sobukwe simply said: “Leave the children alone”.

It is not unlikely that the meeting between Biko and the Prof was in anticipation of the student led rebellion and how the two leaders would react or support the uprising. This was only possible because Steve and Prof were probably the most credible political leaders who would not sacrifice work inside the country for a life in exile, leaving the youth of the country and their parents more vulnerable to the vicious operations of the SAPS, BOSS, the SANDF and its special operations units.

At a recent meeting of the Ketumile Masire Foundation, former South African president, Thabo Mbeki, in gratitude for the contribution of Botswana to the liberation movement, points to two incidences: –

Kgosi Kgafela of the Bakgatla kept ANC weapons. He and Mbeki agreed at a football match that Kgafela would report the weapons to the police because they were no longer needed.

Steve Biko bungled a plot by police chief, Simon Hirschveldt, to airlift him out of Ginsberg, King Williams Town, overnight to Botswana where he would meet Oliver Tambo, the leader of the ANC in exile. By Mbeki’s account, Biko confided in a policeman, who reported to his mates and Biko’s house was kept under surveillance on the appointed night and Hirschveldt’s ingenious plot was foiled.
Isn’t this the classic distortionist account of liberation history? The suggestion is that Biko was an amateurish, indiscreet, careless freshman at the struggle who would sacrifice a meeting with Tambo for the temporary glory of impressing a policeman.

It is suggested that an overnight meeting with Tambo was worth risking a safe return to South Africa where Biko was at the centre of the organisation of popular resistance to apartheid.

Mbeki distances himself from the plot, crediting Hirschveldt with the incredible undertaking to steal Biko from under the noses of the police, bringing him to Botswana in a plane for a meeting with Tambo.

Whose plane would this be? Who would be the pilot? Who would pay for the trip? Who would be responsible for Biko’s security throughout this fantastic undertaking? How would Hirschveldt’s plane avoid detection in the skies or on the ground? What was Tambo to discuss with Biko that he could not have been informed about by other means? Isn’t it ironic that Biko should be accused of recklessness for his dealings with the police, and yet be expected to entrust his political career to a strange gendarme in a neighbouring territory?

Steve Biko would never have fallen for that Hollywood type adventure. He would have done everything to make it fail. Speak to Harry Nengwekhulu, Bokwe Mafuna, Geoff Baqwa, Onkgopotse Tiro, Mapetla Mohapi, Moalosi Mpumlwana and the others who spent time at Zanempilo Clinic. Biko, like Prof, was singularly committed to serving at the place where he was most needed, inside South Africa.

Steve died fighting in the prison cells of South Africa because he believed that the black man should never yield to white violence; to apartheid, and that was his final undoing.

Let us put it another way: If this meeting was so important to Oliver Tambo and the ANC, and since they believed in Hirschveldt’s scheme, why did they not invite him to fly Tambo in to King Williams Town where it might have been easier to conceal the operation? Or drive? He would have been kept safe by the ANC underground.

No aspersions should be cast upon the assistance that Kgosi Lincwe gave to the ANC. It is the conclusion to the story that is somewhat suspicious. The story ends when the South African national soccer team visits Botswana for its first match after FIFA released its ban on sporting ties with that country.

At the national stadium, as the game progresses, Mbeki (or the ANC delegation) takes advantage of the occasion to relieve Lincwe of the burden of keeping weapons for the organisation. They tell Kgabo that they no longer need the weapons and then give him instructions to pass that information on to the police who, by Mbeki’s own account, would have found no news in the report.
Presumably, Kgabo did as he was told and the police obliged. What an anti-climax to what could have been quiet an exciting movie script!

Why were the weapons not used? Why was this batch of weapons different from the others that were captured, displayed and publicised? Is this the way to resolve matters of national security; in a casual encounter at a football game?

How did the police account for this new acquisition? Does a report of this transaction exist at the National Archives?

These matters are of no material importance now. And in any case there is very little chance of getting to the truth about what really happened given the absence of a Freedom of Information law and the rules that govern national security and the archives.

What would have been of greater interest is Thabo Mbeki’s own account of progress on his initiative, the system of pensions for people who assisted in the struggle.

Just about last year, some gentlemen visited the South African High Commission and reported themselves to be officials of the Ministry of Home Affairs in charge of the pension scheme. One among them reported that the scheme was established by the ANC to thank people who assisted in ‘the struggle’.

The men kept the Batswana ‘applicants’ or ‘candidates’ waiting from morning till afternoon because two had forgotten their passports on the South African side of the border. They had to go back and fetch them.

Officials of the High Commission were conspicuously absent even though these men were officers of the Ministry of Home Affairs.

It seemed a little awkward that the gentlemen said they were from Home Affairs but they were running an ANC pension scheme. Should they not have been from Luthuli House? Perhaps that is the way things are done in South Africa. Perhaps, that also explains the absence of the High Commission officials

What this does not explain is how two men being part of a delegation of three are able to lose or forget their passports on their way to discuss the ‘pensions’ of comrades in the struggle in another country. Do they lose their passports when they travel to Germany or Mauritius? How seriously do they take the contribution of the ordinary Batswana who gave them accommodation, shared food, clinics, schools and life?

Analysis of the distortionist version of history will show that the elite in the liberation movement (who always end up in positions of privilege in the new society) invariably lose their ties with the ordinary people who kept them. They value the contribution of a handful of the elite in the countries of exile with whom they now share a common future of privilege and opulence.
It is not surprising then that president Mbeki made comment about Seretse Khama, Kgosi Lincwe, Ketumile Masire and others who deserve the accolades.

Mr Mbeki could have said more about the ordinary Batswana at the SA High Commission. The insinuations about Steve Biko left a sour taste in the mouth.

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