Open Book Fest

They write what they like

All in the Family, 8 September 2013, Fugard Theatre. Mamphela Ramphele and Hlumelo Biko in conversation with Mervyn Sloman.

It’s early Sunday morning – well, Cape Town early, so 10am – and we’re jam-packed into the Fugard Theatre to hear Mervyn Sloman interview Mamphela Ramphele and her son (with Steve Biko), Hlumelo Biko, about their books Conversations with my sons and daughters and The great African society respectively. Not surprisingly, there is some political campaigning from Mamphela and Mervyn and albeit “in jest,” it's a thin disguise.

Nevertheless, the focus of the session is on their books and their views on the current state of the nation. Mamphlela, who didn’t want to enter politics at first, says she took up the challenge because being 65 years old, she sees this as her last opportunity to change the country before she’s too old and doesn’t have the energy required (though she did state very emphatically that she sleeps 8 hours a night!).

Hlumelo, like his mother, is interested in specific policy changes which he believes will lead to “the great African nation.” He tells us that he was raised as an ordinary kid and for the most part it was not strange for him to come from the background that he does, though I must admit, I find this hard to swallow. Apparently, says Hlumelo, he only became aware of the role his father played in this country when the movie Cry freedom was released and Denzel Washington played the role of Steve Biko. Again, somewhat hard to believe that, especially in light of his recently released book, but let’s not dwell on the issue any further.

Hlumelo says that he wrote his book from a place of anger and specifically about the economic regress in society. Here both mother and son emphasised their views that there should be more comprehensive public and private sectors discussions, i.e. free-market liberal politics. So you may ask “So what?” here. I mean surely more investors in the public domain would be a good thing, wouldn’t it? Well, let’s see. Hlumelo proposes that the education system needs to be addressed and that all teachers should be obliged to write a competency test. Fair enough, not a bad idea. However, should they pass, they may teach; should they fail, private investors ought to pay for them to receive further training unless they are too old (and again, no age was specified by him) in which case they should be retired because “that’s cheaper.” But here’s the problem, when private investors become involved, how much do they know about education and what is needed? Also, according to statistics, universities that have great public and private sectors relationships are employing more and more admin staff and fewer academics. If you don’t believe me, do some research – it’s pretty shocking!

Mamphela then states that public officials should declare their property/properties and continues the economically biased rhetoric of her son. And shockingly, everything is reduced to that. For example, Hlumelo equates trust to an investment. Really? That’s the best metaphor? Frankly, I found their views disturbingly essentialist, naïve and without nuanced thought. What I propose is that we ask questions about capitalism to begin with and look at how that implements and relies on class differences, i.e. the working and middle classes sustaining the lifestyles of the rich. I say eat the rich and start a class war. Now there’s some good politics to begin with if you want to build the great African nation. But hey, what do I know? I’m just a reporter and part of that (struggling) middle class enabling the luxurious lives of the rich, including the panellists of this session.