“Once Biko encounters you, he never leaves you,” so recalled veteran journalist Mathatha Tsedu in a statement from a Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) commemoration of Steve Biko at the weekend.
Acting Vice-Chancellor, Dr Sibongile Muthwa flanked by veteran journalist Mathatha Tsedu (left) and CANRAD Director, Allan Zinn (right) at the Steve Biko Memorial Lecture held at NMMU's South Campus last night.
Delivering the 6th annual Steve Biko memorial lecture to a packed Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s (NMMU) South Campus auditorium on Monday night, Tsedu set out to illustrate how the fundamental premise of Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement was still alive in contemporary South Africa, albeit not so much in the “political elite that has lost touch with young people’s struggle”.
Tsedu’s talk, titled “Locating Steve Biko as a Revolutionary Thinker in Contemporary South Africa: Biko the spirit lives”, delved into the myriad of challenges the country has to contend with 39 years after the revolutionary leader’s death in prison cells under the apartheid government, and 22 years since the dawn of democracy.
“Biko was a man of his time, and a man ahead of his time. Like Che Guevara, Thomas Sankara and Franz Fanon, Biko’s life was characterised by total commitment to what is right, at whatever price,” he said.
“Together with his comrades in [South African Student Organisation] at the time . . . they analysed the situation in the country correctly and came with a plan that would free the mind in order to free the body.
“For they reckoned that physical liberation without psychological liberation was no liberation. We see it every day here when so-called black leaders and people behave in ways of the perpetual slave. You only have to go back to Biko’s writings on the many subjects he wrote on to realise he was not only right, he remains right.”
Tsedu touched on some of the recent happenings that seem to have picked at a deep wound that many feel was plastered over in 1994 and has, for the past 22 years, festered – largely foregrounded by uprisings championed by young people.
He alluded to the nationwide #FeesMustFall movement, “hair politics” raised by the recent uprising at Pretoria Girls’ High School, pupil Zulaikha Patel’s bravery in standing up to an oppressive school system and a controversial statement by Western Cape premier Helen Zille in which she called Eastern Cape pupils in the province refugees – saying that only the oppressed could effectively fight an unjust system.
“And so Biko speaks to us at that time, in that time, identifying the problems and the solutions then, but also still now. The basic message being that the SA revolution rests on the victims of the subjugation. That only those who felt the oppression knew it and should do something about it. That only they could actually do something real about it,” he said.
On what he termed the “Fallist movement amongst tertiary students”, Tsedu said that was “another example of how the political elite has lost control of developments and touch with the politics of young people”.
“Minister Blade Nzimande, who on weekends dons red t-shirts and speaks socialism and free education, but changes to suits during the week as minister and speaks about affordability and budgets, is finding his dual personality difficult, to say the least,” he said.
“Nzimande had promised a final answer about fee increases a few weeks ago, the ANC leadership says fee increases should be halted, whilst treasury says the deficit for universities’ running costs cannot come from the fiscus as it is not budgeted for. Where to, comrade Nzimande? Where does this leave universities as presently structured to fund their operations through fees that must increase each year as everything else does?”
Tsedu said Biko’s revolutionary thought process demanded of students today to imagine a better SA, where the egalitarian state provides maximum benefits for the people.
“Revolutions need young people with energy and vigor, just as Biko and his comrades were, but also young people who know what they are doing,” he said.
“The ability of Zulaikha and her comrades to confront white chauvinism at Pretoria Girls High is an epoch history making moment whose significance we may fail to appreciate because we are living in the moment.
“The ability of students to force the state to back down last year and now dither on how to deal with a demand for free schooling means young people at universities and other institutions of higher learning are making their presence felt in another societal shift that we ignore at our peril.”
Tsedu also challenged students advocating for free tertiary education to make the difficult and complex” calculation of understanding the economics of present day South Africa and “what they are abused for”.
“What is the level of abuse of the fiscus, if that were to be removed, what would that do to the ability of the state to effect no fees and affordability of other equally important societal demands?
“Where does that train of thought take us? Can you demand of capitalism in SA to usher in a socialist based education system? Can you ask the corrupt who populate government and other leadership positions to start acting righteously against their own ingrained understanding of self-interest?”
In closing, Tsedu laid into the national governing party, saying the African National Congress (ANC) has lost its compass.
“It is too divided between those who are eating and those who want space at the trough, as Sipho Pityana profoundly put it. With a leadership captured by special interests, the party flounders from one illogical decision to another,” he said.
Tsedu engaged the audience during the question and answer session, fielding questions about a range of issues, including land, social justice and how the prescripts of black consciousness could be advanced through the media.
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