We got these beads from Sis Malika Ndlovu. We give praises and thanks.
Biko was detained and interrogated four times between August 1975 and September 1977 under Apartheid era anti-terrorism legislation. On 21 August 1977 Biko was detained by the Eastern Cape security police and held in Port Elizabeth. >From the Walmer police cells he was taken for interrogation at the security police headquarters. On 7 September “Biko sustained a head injury during interrogation, after which he acted strangely and was uncooperative. The doctors who examined him (naked, lying on a mat and manacled to a metal grille) initially disregarded overt signs of neurological injury.” By 11 September Biko had slipped into a continual, semi-conscious state and the police physician recommended a transfer to hospital. Biko was, however, transported 1,200 km to Pretoria – a 12-hour journey which he made lying naked in the back of a Land Rover. A few hours later, on 12 September, alone and still naked, lying on the floor of a cell in the Pretoria Central Prison, Biko died from brain damage.
In 1977, I was 6 years old. Born in Durban into a family tree that drew together Zulu, Xhosa, Scottish, British, German and St Helenan (which means many untraceable Slave roots) ancestry… which nobody ever spoke about. Not in the streets, not in the Church, not at school, not at family gatherings not in my home. I was healthy, even talented and loved, but my eyes and ears were closed. I had not yet been shown or told the truth, the horror of our story…our gruesome history unfolding. I have read the lines above several times before over the years. They never fail to shake my core.
In the mid 80s, I was in high school, one of the quota of brown girls accepted at a Catholic Convent school which was one of the few opening its doors to children of colour. No-one around me in the places I grew up called themselves Black. My Indian friends didn’t either. One day I came home to find my mother sobbing , a mix of sorrow and rage. Someone had died and was now being remembered amidst the height of political violence in our country. I did not know his name until that day. My mother introduced me to my uncle, my brother, my beacon on the path of awakening to the bigger picture of the place I was born, the place that had already for many years been shaping…and in many ways suffocating my consciousness. My mother told me his name and his story : Steve Biko. In 1986 I was 15 years old and she took me to see Steve Biko: The Inquest by Durban playwright Saira Essa. By now I had inherited my mother’s sorrow and her rage.
The upside of being the brown quota in an 80’s private school multi-racial experiment, was that I got to compete academically and share well-equipped facilities and the nurturing by passionate, highly qualified teachers, share a classroom with peers…who were White. The upside was not the material resources available to me that had not been there in my Coloured township school, neither was it their Whiteness, but the equal opportunities we were given, the unbiased support for and affirmation of my capabilities. I was seen, for who I was…who I was becoming. At this critical adolescent intersection, this enabling and inspiring learning environment and the healing water of personal encounters with people I was deeply prejudiced about, tempered the fire that was both my mother’s and mine.
In 1996, I was 3 years out of theatre school and got my first commission, to write a play about Coloured identity. An issue and a term I balked at from the time my eyes and ears were opened to where this notion, this classification originated from. Inextricably entwined with this rejection of the subjects connection to my life, to me personally, was the obvious reality of the ‘so-called’ community that I was born into and its very specific historical, cultural and geographical elements, that had profoundly influenced who I had become, my sense of belonging and the lack thereof. To add to this deep ambivalence I felt a familiar feeling of suffocation whenever I returned to those impoverished – literally and figuratively – places of my childhood, where with each return, it seemed nothing had changed. If there was change it was only an increase in political apathy, levels of domestic and community-based violence, fixation with material success and growing dependence on anaesthetics: drugs, alcohol, nightclubbing and vandalism. I exorcised many if these shadows for myself and to some degree for others, in the process of birthing the play A Coloured Place, my first published and most well-known play which was staged around South Africa in different incarnations for 10 years. In 2006 I was invited back to Durban, to direct the play again for the 10th Anniversary of The South African Women’s Arts Festival at the Natal Playhouse.
In April 2010, I was asked to direct extracts of this play by the African-American publisher if the work (twice over) Prof. Kathy Perkins based at the University of Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, as part of an African Diaspora Festival which hosted 9 African women writers in the USA. http://theatre.illinois.edu/pages/african-diaspora-festival. Always eager to travel, let alone share my creative offerings with the world, I reaped many fruits from this journey and yet I carried with me, going and returning, a persistent thread of sadness. How was it that my play still held such resonance for African American audiences whose ‘liberation’ had come so many decades before ours? How was it that in South Africa still, young gifted artists of colour, find my play and express such great relief that they have found a text which relates to their experiences, reflects characters and social contexts that they recognise as home…in the full spectrum of what that entails…the good the bad and the ugly. How…16 years after our so-called ‘liberation’? This play embodies the seeds of so many (hi)stories I have prayed will become just that…historical. No longer the truth of our present day realities. No longer the internalised racism, self-loathing or ignorance that perpetuates stereotypes of who we are and what we have to offer our societies. The simple , sad and logical conclusion is we are far from liberated. And sadder than that is, we are far from healed. And what we do to others is what we do to ourselves. What we practice by our lives, is what we teach our children, about themselves , about our world, about being human.
On Friday 15th August 2008 (a year that marked the beginning of a two-year long season of heightened xenophobic violence across South Africa) at around 7am, a Zimbabwean man in his early thirties, Adrian Nguni was found hanging from a tree along the Black River in Observatory, Cape Town. Policemen cordoned off the site with yellow tape and one hour later were still standing beneath the body, visible to all in peak traffic on the busy street parallel to the river. A few days before an unidentified body was found floating in the same river. This poem tells the story, like first Black Bead above, in lines and images that still shake my core.
Black river followed me home
Between breaths, thoughts, sleep
Deep cut image of a silent brother
Hanging from a tree
Three children in my back seat
So I sob quietly and drive by
Newspaper tells Black river stories
Two bodies, one week in August
One floating unknown
The other with a detailed note in his backpack
Telling them whom to send his body to
Somewhere in Zimbabwe
Black rivers all over this country
All over the world I’m sure
Weeping, wailing just like me
In ways seldom heard
Hard to see
Unless you know
What it really means
Listening to him,
Black river sings
Black river brings me
Sweet blood offerings
Till I can’t breathe
Like a child
Yet still can’t believe
On 9th September 2010 the one-and-only Prof. Alice Walker came to Cape Town, where I have lived and birthed my family and my still young career as a writer-poet-arts activist. Cape Town, my home since 1997. She came to deliver the annual Steve Biko Memorial lecture, hosted by the Steve Biko Foundation in partnership with the University of Cape Town. http://www.uct.ac.za/news/multimedia/sound/ Reflecting on deeply disturbing headlines and truths exposed in South African newspapers in recent years, she raised two basic yet deeply significant questions: Was this what Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for? Was this what Steve Biko was murdered by torture for? In a room packed to capacity with the most exquisite diversity of predominantly South Africans, with a giant image of brother Steve Biko illuminated on the stage, she also quoted him directly : ‘Once your consciousness changes, so does your existence.’
Tonight, 11th September…another memorial day of rage and sorrows, I have sat for two solid hours threading these words, these beads spontaneously together, for my own heaving, always re-membering heart, for my mother who remains my greatest teacher on the right to rage, for brother Adrian Nguni, for the girl –children of the 70’s with eyes and ears initially closed to the politics of their birthplaces, their families but also their bodies in the world and especially tonight…for the immortal spirit and living-inside-us mentor to many millions, Steve Biko on the eve of the anniversary of his passing…so that his life’s teachings would live on. I offer these beads to you. Add your own colours, thread your own story, revisit your unique her-and-hi-story. I believe there is healing in the telling and the going within, the listening. Perhaps these are paths that somehow can lead to our collective liberation and returning to our home, our humanity.