Address by President Nelson Mandela at 20th anniversary of Steve Biko's death

12 September 1997

Ntsiki Biko and members of the Biko family;
Distinguished guests;
Ladies and gentlemen,

We are gathered here to pay homage to one of the greatest sons of our nation, Stephen Bantu Biko. His hope in life, and his life of hope, are captured by his resounding words: "In time, we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift - a more human face".

And so we are assembled here to pledge our commitment to that ideal; the hope of a giant bequeathed to our land by a region that has down the centuries spawned men and women of outstanding qualities, leaders who have proved themselves in the most testing conditions. It has nurtured a tradition of uncompromising struggle unbroken from the days of Hintsa; through Enoch Sontonga, Vuyisile Mini, Matthew Goniwe, Ford Calata, Sparrow Mkhonto; to Griffiths and Victoria Mxenge - to name but a few. Many of them were butchered with a cold disregard for life by agents of a doomed regime.

Today's occasion speaks of our resolve to preserve the memories of our heroes and heroines; to keep alive the flame of patriotism which burnt in the hearts and minds of the like of Steve Biko; to redeem the pledge to give a more human face to a society for centuries trampled upon by the jackboot of inhumanity.

In eulogies to the departed, the words of the living sometimes bear little relation to reality.

Yet what has been said about Steve Biko, what passed through the walls of Robben Island and other prisons along our political grapevine, has stood the test of time. That he was indeed a great man who stood head and shoulders above his peers is borne out not only by the testimony of those who knew him and worked with him, but by the fruits of his endeavours.

History called upon Steve Biko at a time when the political pulse of our people had been rendered faint by banning, imprisonment, exile, murder and banishment. Repression had swept the country clear of all visible organisation of the people. But at each turn of history, apartheid was bound to spawn resistance; it was destined to bring to life the forces that would guarantee its death.

It is the dictate of history to bring to the fore the kind of leaders who seize the moment, who cohere the wishes and aspirations of the oppressed. Such was Steve Biko, a fitting product of his time; a proud representative of the re-awakening of a people.

It was a time when the tide of Africa's valiant struggle and her liberation, lapping at our own borders, was consolidating black pride across the world and firing the determination of all those who were oppressed to take their destiny into their own hands.

It is also the fate of leadership to be misunderstood; for historians, academics, writers and journalists to reflect great lives according to their own subjective canon. This is all the more evident in a country where the interpreters have a much greater pool of resources to publish views regarding the quest for dignity and nationhood.

From the start, black consciousness articulated itself as "an attitude of mind, a way of life". In various forms and under various labels, before then and after, this attitude of mind and way of life have coursed through the veins of all the motive forces of struggle; it has fired the determination of leaders and the masses alike.

The driving thrust of black consciousness was to forge pride and unity amongst all the oppressed, to foil the strategy of divide-and-rule, to engender pride amongst the mass of our people and confidence in their ability to throw off their oppression.

And for its part the ANC from the first years of the 1970's welcomed black consciousness as part of the genuine forces of the revolution. It understood that it was helping give organisational form to the popular upsurge of all the oppressed groups of our society. Above all, the liberation movement asserted that, in struggle - in mass action, underground organisation, armed actions and international mobilisation - the people would most readily develop consciousness of their proud being, of their equality with everyone else, of their capacity to make history.

It is both natural and a matter of proud record, that the overwhelming majority of young fighters who cut their teeth and shaped part of their political being in the Black Consciousness Movement are today leaders in their own right in national and provincial government, in the public service, in the judiciary and in the security and intelligence structures of the democratic government. They are to be found in the professions, in business, in the trade union movement and other structures of civil society - strategically placed to make their mark on the new order being born.

The attitude of mind and way of life that Biko and his comrades called for are needed today in abundance. They are relevant as we define our being as an African nation on the African continent. They are pertinent in our drive to ward off the temptation to become clones of other people.

A new attitude of mind and way of life are required in our efforts to change the human condition. But they can only thrive if we succeed in that common effort to build a better life. They are required as we strive to bring all power into the hands of the people; as we seek to shape a new media that appreciates the conditions and aspirations of the majority; as we change the structure of ownership of wealth; as we build a new ethos in our politics; and as we shape a new cultural identity enriched by our diversity.

Pride in ourselves as a people is critical to the campaign for an African renaissance; for co-operation among countries of the South in search for a new and just world order. Indeed, we can only contribute our fair share to human civilisation if we recognise the universality of our ideals, and yet at the same time, the specificity of our own concrete conditions.

While Steve Biko espoused, inspired, and promoted black pride, he never made blackness a fetish. At the end of the day, as he himself pointed out, accepting one's blackness is a critical starting point: an important foundation for engaging in struggle. Today, it must be a foundation for reconstruction and development, for a common human effort to end war, poverty, ignorance and disease.

One of the greatest legacies of the struggle that Biko waged - and for which he died - was the explosion of pride among the victims of apartheid. The value that black consciousness placed on culture reverberated across our land; in our prisons; and amongst the communities in exile. Our people, who were once enjoined to look to Europe and America for creative sustenance, turned their eyes to Africa.

I speak of culture and creativity because, like truth, they are enduring. It is then a happy coincidence of history that Steve Biko is honoured with a statue, sculpted in bronze by Naomi Jacobson, whom one can say is his distant home-girl. It also gives a certain kind of joy that the financial cost of creating the statue was footed by people in the creative field, including Denzel Washington, Kevin Kline and Richard Attenborough who will be remembered for the film on Biko, 'Cry Freedom.' Another contributor is Peter Gabriel whose song 'Biko' helped keep the flame of anti-apartheid solidarity alive. This collaboration of British and American artists bears eloquent witness to Steve Biko's internationalism.

In speaking about "a more human face", Steve Biko was rejecting the brutality of men who behaved as if possessed, in their defence of injustice. It is these brutes that he faced without flinching; and the true story of his last moments we are only now starting to fathom.

As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission inches its way towards this truth, we are all bound to agonise over the price in terms of justice that the victims have to pay. But we can draw solace from the conviction that the half-truths of a lowly interrogator cannot and should not hide the culpability of the commanders and the political leaders who gave the orders. For we do know, that what they desperately sought to get from him was his contact with the leadership of the liberation movement. In time, the truth will out!

In those difficult hours twenty years ago, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune robbed a nation of a gifted young man whose contribution to our cause would have been even more immense. But our commitment to the unity that Steve Biko stood for will continue to guide us as we join hands in practical action to redress the legacy of oppression.

It means working together, government in each sphere and all sectors from society, in bringing prosperity to the province, the country and the continent which spawned him.

It means all of us helping to take South Africa across the threshold of greatness on which it stands. That will be achieved by each of us respecting ourselves first and foremost, and in turn respecting the humanity in each one of us. It means an attitude of mind and a way of life that appreciates the joy in the honest labour of creating a new society.

In time, we must bestow on South Africa the greatest gift - a more humane society.

We are confident that by forging a new and prosperous nation, we are continuing the fight in which Steve Biko paid the supreme sacrifice.

We hope that by unveiling this statue, renaming the bridge and declaring his Ginsberg house a national monument, we are making our own humble contribution to immortalising his life.

Thank you!

Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation