Name Of The Father
Nkosinathi Biko, son of martyred South African activist Stephen Biko, tells his father's story in Monterey.
Thursday, February 3, 2000
When your father is Steve Biko, the South African political activist whose 1977 death galvanized a nation''s anti-apartheid movement, your life becomes, in many ways, defined by that legacy.
"It''s both a blessing and a serious challenge," admits 29-year-old Nkosinathi Biko, Steve''s son, who was 6 years old when his father died of injuries sustained during police interrogation. "Irrespective of how much I am successful in my activities, it''s difficult to emerge from beneath the shadow of a person of my father''s stature."
Nkosinathi grew up surrounded by his father''s history. He watched as apartheid was swept away, and Nelson Mandela took the helm of a new, democratic South Africa, a country still wracked with political tension and economic hardship, but a country where the black majority was, at last, accorded full civil rights.
The younger Biko went to university, worked for a newspaper and then for South African television. In 1997, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his father''s death, he and a friend made Steve Bantu Biko: Beacon of Hope, an hour-long documentary about his father and South Africa''s civil rights struggle. The film, shown widely in South Africa, will be screened next week at the Los Angeles Pan-African Film Festival. On Tuesday, just before the festival, Biko will show his film and lecture here in Monterey County, first at Seaside High School in the afternoon, and then at 7pm at Cal State University Monterey Bay.
It''s easy to iconize Steve Biko. Founder of South Africa''s Black Consciousness Movement, martyred at 31, Biko''s face was pasted on placards carried by tens of thousands of black South African children, becoming the face of his country''s anti-apartheid struggle. His story reached millions around the world via the 1987 David Attenborough film Cry Freedom.
Nkosinathi''s character appeared in that film, as a small boy terrified by the news of his father''s death. Ironically, Nkosinathi says, the same political order that proclaimed his father "banned," or restricted to his home and forbidden from meeting with more than one other person at a time, meant that he has more memories of Steve than might be expected from a 6-year-old child.
"Because he was banned before his death, [the family] got the opportunity to interact with him more than before, when he travelled extensively for his work," Nkosinathi says, speaking by phone from his office in Johannesburg. "I remember him teaching me how to fly my first kite."
Nkosinathi chose to tell his father''s story as a way of telling his country''s recent history, "history through biography," as he puts it. "The story is told through the eyes of people who knew him, people who studied with him and worked with him, activists alongside him in the Black Consciousness Movement.
"I believe his life was the embodiment of the philosophy he espoused. By focusing on his life, we tell the story of the struggle."
Beacon of Hope was released just before the convening of South Africa''s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a panel created to investigate apartheid-era crimes and empowered to offer amney in return for the true and full confessions of those who commited unspeakable crimes against the country''s black population. There was, and still is, much controversy surrounding the commission: Is knowing the truth enough? Doesn''t justice demand retribution?
Soon after the film was made, five Special Branches police officers came before the TRC, confessing to Biko''s death and asking for amnesty. They were eventually turned down, as were most--but not all--of those appearing before the commission during its two-year public hearing period. The Biko family is now asking South Africa''s Public Prosecutor to bring criminal charges against them.
"We believe there is sufficient evidence," Nkosinathi says. "There are only five people who can tell us what happened in that room [where Biko sustained his fatal injuries], and they have not done so. Their response to the commission was spiteful."
But Nkosinathi is not opposed in general to the commission''s work, which Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called "a risky and delicate business." It requires, Nkosinathi points out, a tremendous national capacity for forgiveness. "The TRC could not have happened anywhere else except on the African continent," he says. "It''s because of our quality of ''ubuntu.'' We are a very communal society. We regard ourselves as a whole."
In addition to his film work, Nkosinathi Biko has produced a South African TV talk show, "Born at the Right Time," which profiled young black achievers, co-founded the Quattro production company, and now works for a large Internet publishing company. He also heads the Steve Biko Library and Archive. This will be the fourth year he''s come to America to speak before small groups and show his film.
In Seaside and at CSUMB, Nkosinathi says he will speak about the history of South Africa''s anti-apartheid movement, his father''s legacy, and the economic future of southern Africa. "We don''t get much media coverage, but the economic possibilities are very great," he says. Meanwhile, a generation has come of age that doesn''t remember his country''s recent past, and the tremendous sacrifices made by tens of thousands of black South Africans, not just his father.
"One''s own experience," he notes quietly, "is dwarfed by the experiences of so many other young South Africans."
Nkosinathi Biko will speak Tuesday at 7pm at the CSUMB World Theater. Admission is free. He will also do a live radio interview on KUSP Monday at noon.