• Reconciliation in South Africa

Steve Biko and our time in King Williams Town

Hello everyone!


I apologize for the tardiness of this blog. Last night, I wrote a fantastic masterpiece of an entry, but, unfortunately, it was lost as I was uploading it when the wifi cut out. Many tears were shed, but, alas, we must persevere. Enough with the drama- onto the exciting part!


We flew into King Williams Town from Durban on Saturday, and promptly settled into the nicest place we’ve stayed at so far. The name was Dreamer’s Guest House, but it really should have been called “royal treatment for college students”. There were tall ceilings, luxurious beds, individual bathrooms, chaise lounges, and hot tea and crumpets- not to mention the pools. The girls had one house and the boys had another, so we had plenty of room to spread out.


We were being hosted by the Steve Biko Foundation, an organization committed to community activism, promotion of the Black Consciousness Movement, and the commemoration of the life and words of Bantu Stephen Biko, a leading anti-apartheid activist and the founder of the Black Consciousness Movement.


Steve Biko ascribed to the philosophy that his local communities had the power to begin fighting against the Apartheid system. The Apartheid regime was very particular about the policies it enacted, especially toward making the black population as incohesive and subservient as possible. After generations of black people being told they’re unintelligent, lazy, and made to serve white people, that mindset became an integral part of black culture during Apartheid. Steve Biko sought to fight that, invention slogans such as “Black is Beautiful”, in an attempt to reclaim the identity of the black population. Thus began the Black Consciousness Movement, which sought to promote pride and self-realization in the black community. Steve Biko said, “It is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die.” Unfortunately, his words became prophecy.


In 1977, Biko- age 30-  was arrested under the Terrorism Act for continuing to lead movements against the Apartheid regime. He was declared dead three weeks later by the police. His family did not learn details of his death until the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in which five of the officers present offered details of those fateful days. Biko had been interrogated for 22 hours, tortured, and beaten severely. He was then loaded, naked, into a police car and transported out of Port Elizabeth for “medical reasons”. They were transporting him to a prison hospital in Pretoria 1100 km away. He died in transit due to severe head trauma, which never showed up in the autopsy. Biko’s death sparked international outrage and great mourning among blacks, especially students. 10,000 people attended his funeral in Ginsberg, the town that we were staying in. His death was another turning point in the anti-apartheid movement, and inspired more people to advance the causes Biko had set in motion.


The Steve Biko Foundation is run by Nkosinathi Biko, Steve Biko’s son. Their main location is the Steve Biko Center, which is a community center outfitted with a restaurant and bar, a museum of Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement, beautiful hand painted murals, and a garden commemorating the lives of political prisoners who also died of questionable circumstances during the Apartheid regime. The Center is where we spent most of our time, and we even got to talk with Nkosinathi, who flew in from Johannesburg to greet us.


The Saturday we arrived was mostly spent at the Center speaking to people who grew up with Steve Biko, and getting new perspectives on the man behind the legend. We then were treated to an open mic night in which local community members, mostly young people, performed songs, raps in the Xhosa language, original poetry, and music. Some Luther seniors even performed a Swahili song they learned in Norsemen! One person, Jim, wrote a poem about the trip so far and finished with a roar of applause.


On Sunday, we went to a local township called Mdantsane. It’s one of the largest townships in the country, and has a huge spread of wealthy and impoverished people. We went to the poorest part of the township and stopped by an orphanage started by a local lady. The house (really, a three room house) originally hosted 80 children, but the mother of the house had to cut it down to 36, where it remains today. Most of the children have parents in the community who have died or are dying of HIV/AIDS and their grandparents are either gone or unable to take care of them. As we got off the bus, we were greeted by fifteen or so kids all smiling and laughing as we made our way into the yard. They made a beeline for the women in our group, and Caitlin had a boy who lept into her arms and didn’t let go until she had to leave. The orphanage is barely sustained by a meager government supplement, and largely relies on donations from a British man who happened upon the place on a visit in the early 2000s (and that’s about $300 every few months). It was heart-wrenching to have to go, and Caitlin teared up as she had to walk away from the little boy.


On Monday, we did a tour of Ginsberg to see where Steve Biko had put his work into action. We drove into a rural area to see the clinic he started in the ‘70s. The government took it over in the early 2000’s, and now there are only three nurses on staff servicing 80 or more patients a day. Medicine is often not delivered, and the nurses take the blame for not having vaccinations or medications for the people who travel long distances to go there. The largest issue they face is HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. It was eye-opening to see how under-resourced the clinic was. It wasn’t that the medical training or quality of care was lacking, but that simple things like medicine not being shipped hindered the hard work of the three nurses on staff. A doctor visits once a month, and often not for the full day, so the brunt of the care fell on the nurses’ shoulders. They once called an ambulance for a patient at 11am and it didn’t arrive until 4:30pm. Their landline telephone was dis-serviced, and they didn’t even have a computer. The government ignores smaller clinics such as those, and the biggest thing they need is man-power to keep the clinic running. We also visited Steve Biko’s grave and his childhood home.


I’m going to stop there because the post is getting long and I’m getting sleepy. We have an early day tomorrow, but I will post the rest of the info about our trip! It features one of our classmates getting proposed to and meeting Steve Biko’s wife!


Thanks for reading, I’ll update much sooner! We are currently in Cape Town- one of the most beautiful cities in the world! More updates to follow. Bye!

Andrew Streck, Paul Esker, Nate Converse, and Jim Cochrane sing a song a Capella at an open mi night at the Steve Biko Center in Ginsberg.
Caitlin Olson bonds with a young boy at Ubuntu Rescue a child at Risk Center.
Ami Gilbert plays with two young girls at the Ubuntu Rescue a Child at Risk Center.
The group visits the clinic that was started by Steve Biko.
Maggie Steinberg places a stone on Bantu Steve Biko's grave as a sign of respect.
The group tours Rharhabe Kingdom.
Maggie Steinberg and I hold artifacts from the 1800's at the Historical Artifacts Archive at the University of Fort Hare.