The biographer as curator

Biko: A Biography by Xolela Mangcu, Tafelberg, 2012.

September 1977. A young man of good education is arrested near the genteel university hamlet of Grahamstown. He is brought to Port Elizabeth for questioning. Several days later, he is dead. That’s the dry, dessicated information. And here, soused in Peter Gabriel’s anthemic song:

September '77
Port Elizabeth weather fine
It was business as usual
In police room 619
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja
–The man is dead

The decision to write about the life of a figure like Stephen Bantu Biko is fraught with complications. What to include? What to leave out? Who to consult? To impose a trajectory on the details, or to allow them to shape themselves into a story? Each decision colours the final result. It is all the more challenging when the historical figure in question has been the subject of much critical scholarship, a certain degree of mythmaking, and a healthy amount of iconisation. There are some brute generalisations to be made about biographies: they ought to tell us some things about the life of their subject, preferably in greater detail than can be obtained from Wikipedia. They must present something of the inner life of their subject – wry anecdotes, startling reflections, apercus from relatives and friends, and other bon-bons to flesh out the skeletal bio/graphical information.

To our world, Steve Biko is a visionary, admired for his politics and his courage in the face of what he knew to be wrong. His life has been commemorated for its bravery, the date of his death a rallying point for consideration of his legacy and his contribution to the Struggle against oppression. He is a figure of intellectual curiosity: his lucid writings have articulated a sense of his politics and carried him to audiences far and wide. But how to read Steve Biko? It is to be expected that successive readers will lose contact with the very unique set of circumstances which gave rise to the ideas of which they are reading. Nuance and context fall away, to be replaced by curious coffee-shop understandings semaphored by silk-screened images of Steve Biko’s face on the t-shirts of earnest young people, a fate shared by Che Guevara.

And in many ways Steve Biko, like Guevara, has come to be a figure in need of liberation from the embrace of iconography. Such a subject might prove a biographer’s despair: if not exactly in danger of oversubscription, there nonetheless has been a lot written about Steve Biko. Much of it has focused on the brute facticity of Steve Biko’s death: the snuffing-out of his life when he seemed at the height of his powers is a foreboding moment in the narrative of his life, one which crowds out the perhaps more significant facts of his life. The erudite lectures on Steve Biko’s life and legacy that take place each year have helped considerably, but there is space, and indeed a need, for a full-length study of Steve Biko.

Xolela Mangcu’s is the most recent life of Steve Biko, and it is, at face value, an ambitious project. Steve Biko is a complex character to document, a towering figure who is at once a testament to the fragility of human life and an exemplar of the transcendently enduring human spirit. Mangcu is an academic and newspaper columnist. He might style himself as a public intellectual, although that cringe-worthy term might not do justice to the influential social commentary Mangcu has provided over the years in various newspapers and other media. Perhaps more importantly, Mangcu was the founding director of the Steve Biko Foundation, with a vested interest in maintaining the shape of Steve Biko’s legacy.

There’s a risk then, that the work might turn hagiographical. Biko: A Biography has seen spotted commentary in the review sections of various South African dailies. It has also been the subject of a rather corrosive polemic by the firebrand controversialist Andile Mngxitama. The latter proposes that Mangcu tells us very little in this biography that we don’t already know, and indeed, the superficial impression one gains from a flip-through is that there’s rather too much context and not enough foreground. But, in fact, one does develop a sense of who Steve Biko was through Mangcu’s excellent research.When the subject of the biography is a larger-than-life figure, as Steve Biko undoubtedly was, it’s a test of the writer to contain that largeness.

So when Jeff Peires tells us that Biko: A Biography is “a landmark in Biko studies”, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o that “Mangcu has brought Biko back to our lives”, one might assume that the work is a piece of historical inquiry. And historical detail can often be a glutinous morass that chokes out the life of the subject. This is especially true when we know how the story ends: Steve Biko’s life and (especially) Steve Biko’s death are a tale told often, and so the task becomes one of rescuing the narrative of Biko-the-man from the more seductive tale of Biko-the-martyr. Who is Steve Biko? What can be drawn from his life and his death?

Thankfully, this is not the case with Biko: A Biography. The work is permeated by history, to be sure, but it is carefully negotiated so as not to smother and sanitise the vitality of Steve Biko’s story. It isn’t magisterial in length – it runs to 348 pages – but it packs enough detail to not feel under-researched. Its striking white cover is offset by the red typography, with a vignetted Biko caught within the frame of the “O” in his name, staring thoughtfully out into the middle distance. Presumably in the interests of appearing less daunting to the casual reader, the work is presented in paperback format, and in places it seems like a lot of material is compacted into a smaller space than is necessary, giving what is read the curious quality of dipping into what seems to be a deep lake, only to discover that the water barely extends to one’s knees.

Notwithstanding this proviso, the root feature of Mangcu’s work is a sustained and rigorous attention to Steve Biko’s intellectual legacy. Aided by a pallet of scholarship which is generous in scope and various in tenor, Mancgu takes key moments from Steve Biko’s life – his school days in the Eastern Cape, his political maturation – and presents them with context and commentary. He unites Biko the activist with the broader history of black consciousness of which he is undoubtedly a part.

Critically, Mangcu’s project implicitly rejects the idea that Steve Biko’s black consciousness sprang from nowhere, or that it was a cultural import from North America. The historicisation becomes a sort of Ariadne’s Thread with which to negotiate the various details of Steve Biko’s life. The chapters on Steve Biko’s trajectory through the Student Activist structures of South Africa are as good as any I’ve ever read on the subject, with a clearly articulated view of Steve Biko’s vision.

The first chapter aims to trace “the lineaments of Steve’s political and intellectual thought – the continuities and discontinuities with the leadership tradition that developed over time between the educated elite and the people” (43). Mangcu draws a timeline through the history of South African thought, engaging the perhaps predictable discursive dance of continuity/discontinuity. Steve Biko, in Mangcu’s estimation, is “as much a product of South Africa’s multi-ethnic political heritage as he was a child of the Xhosa people of the Eastern Cape” (it is this assertion, and the argument that is built on it, that seems to have attracted Mnxgitama’s ire). It’s certainly a learned and scholarly examination, well-footnoted with weighty names: here, a quote from Neil Mostert, there, a sentence from David Attwell. Mangcu’s breadth of reading is well show-cased, but there’s a troubling sense that he’s riffing off others rather than relying on his own voice.

The later chapters are more expressive. In these, Steve Biko emerges as a towering figure, both physically and intellectually. Born in 1946, he strode the dusty streets of Ginsberg amid a sea of colourful figures. Like every South African township, Ginsberg has its fascinating figures, its gangsters, its heroes and its malefactors. Mangcu’s nostalgia for his home town comes through very strongly. You could argue that a dispassionate rendering of Steve Biko’s origins might have worked better, but Mangcu’s local knowledge lends a human face to this story. The personal recollections Mangcu contributes of his own time in Ginsberg contain rather a flush of local pride, but they work to contextualise how Steve Biko became the figure he was.

The young Steve Biko we catch glimpses of is a precocious fellow, growing up with three other siblings under the care of his mother. His father having died in 1950, Steve Biko’s mother MamCethe was the primary influence in the young man’s life. Initially it is Steve’s brother Khaya who distinguishes himself, and it is the older Biko brother who enters politics first. Steve himself is an academic prodigy, and the recollections of those who knew him at both primary and secondary school levels attest to this. Steve was the top student during his time at Forbes Grant Secondary School, and he excelled there despite being a mischievous pupil. He takes little interest in politics.

The passages of the book that deal with Steve’s school years offer some of the more interesting points: Steve Biko arrived in 1963 at a Lovedale College that was teeming with students who would soon constitute the political vanguard. As Mangcu asserts, “it would have been impossible for Steve to avoid the highly-charged political atmosphere at Lovedale.” Steve Biko found himself among people like Barney Pityana, with whom he would later establish the Black Consciousness Movement . But his stint at the college was not to last. Later that year Steve, his brother and 50 others were arrested on suspicion of subversive political leanings. With little evidence to link him to any political group, he is nonetheless expelled from Lovedale and banned from all government schools.

Was this the formative moment that made Steve Biko the politically engaged being he was when he came to prominence? Mangcu suggests that it was. He cites Khaya Biko:

Steve was expelled for absolutely no reason at all. But in retrospect I welcomed the South African government’s gesture of exposing a really good politician. I had unsuccessfully tried to get Steve interested in politics. The police were able to do in one day what had eluded me for years. This time the great giant was awakened.

The South Africa into which Steve Biko made his first political steps was one that was feeling its way towards ever more grotesque horrors. Political resistance was being dealt with harshly, the main political movements had all been (or were about to be) banned. From the shadow of the waning resistance movements stepped a new brand of activists, fronting a movement that took shape on the campuses and colleges of South Africa. Steve himself was at the University of Natal, and his increasing investment in student politics occupies the middle-third of the book. There is much to be drawn from Steve Biko’s writing during this formative period, but Mangcu seems unwilling to dip below narrating the surface. So we get reams of reflections and interviews with many people who knew him, but little in the way of an active biographical voice, as though Mangcu is content to let the rivers of content flow whichever way they might.

On other topics too, Mangcu is frustratingly reticent. While he makes a meal of the fact that Steve Biko was no saint, the analysis is too often anecdotal, too often lacking in perspective. It would be intriguing, for instance, if Mangcu engaged more with how the burgeoning Black Consciousness Movement treated women within its ranks. Given the unsavoury commentary often levelled at Mamphela Ramphele today, this is clearly something that requires further examination than Mangcu grants it. It is rather an odd omission in a work that is so generous in its attempt to provide “background”.

Mangcu is probably right when he asserts that biography is an act of arrangement and composition. There is a danger of arranging the historical data to fit with the narrative the biographer has decided s/he wants to tell. The biographer is a sort of curator, with all the subjectivities that implies. Biko: A Biography is shaped as much by what is left out or insufficiently dealt with, as by what actually sits on its pages. For all that, it is a capable piece of scholarship, and a lucidly readable one at that. If one doesn’t come away with a sense of who Steve Biko was when he wasn’t in Ginsberg, that is not an insufferable flaw.