by John Dear
We drove all day from Durban to King William’s Town, a ten hour drive through an astonishing landscape of rolling green hills, distant mountains, wild animals and ever changing skies. Along the way, we passed through a series of marvelous little towns that gave us the flavor of real South Africa, places like Ixopo, Umzimkulu, Kolstad, Frere, and Mthatha.
In the afternoon, we drove through the countryside of Qunu where Nelson Mandela was born and raised. We knew that later he built a house on his ancestral land, and that he is now buried there, and that it is closed to the public. As we drove along the country road, we noticed a large brown house surrounded by trees with police cars right by the road, so we pulled in to driveway, road onto the property and asked directions for the Mandela sites.
O blessed naivete! We had driven right into Mandela’s home. The police were quite friendly, told us where to go, and politely asked us to leave. So we drove over to one of two museums, which is also a conference center, dedicated to Mandela. This one is built on the site of his old school. It gave us a taste of Mandela’s rural roots, and reminded me of rural New Mexico.
Later that afternoon, we arrived in King William’s Town, and drove to the township of Ginsberg, to the brand new Steve Biko Heritage Center. There we were shown through the museum and the stunning exhibits about Biko’s life, teachings and death. Then our guide took us to visit Biko’s home, church, office and grave.
Steve Biko was a young anti-apartheid activist who was born in 1946, educated in Durban, and founded the “Black Consciousness” movement which inspired urban youth throughout South Africa during the 1970s to rise up against apartheid. He worked to empower blacks, told them that “black is beautiful,” and encouraged them to reclaim their personal dignity. In this way, unlike Mandela or other freedom fighters, Biko offered a new vision for young blacks—that they were significant, beautiful, even loved by God. On reflection, one can see that as his idea of “black consciousness” spread, the days of apartheid were doomed.
As Nelson Mandela later said, “They had to kill him to prolong the life of apartheid.”
It’s hard to grasp how bright and intelligent young Biko was, and the horrors that he was subjected to. In 1973, he was banned to King William’s Town, not allowed to speak to the media or publish, not allowed to travel, not allowed to meet with more than one person at a time. Even though he was a charismatic, intelligent leader, white South African police and government officials did everything they could to shut him up. But Biko befriended newspaper editor Donald Woods, who publicized Biko’s ideas which only made Biko more famous and his vision more widespread.
In August, 1977, Biko was arrested and taken to Port Elizabeth where he was brutally tortured like so many thousands of other black South Africans. Near death, he was thrown naked and unconscious into the back of a police van and driven seven hundred miles to Pretoria where he was pronounced dead on September 12, 1977. He was only thirty years old.
(Later, when we stayed in Port Elizabeth, we drove by the abandoned tall office building where white government police officers tortured Biko and thousands of others. It looks like any anonymous office building in any city in the world, and yet its sole purpose was torture and death. There’s talk of turning it into a museum.)
Not long after Biko’s death, Donald Woods was also banned. He and his family fled to England where he published his book, “Biko,” which Richard Attenborough turned into the celebrated movie, “Cry Freedom.” In 1986, I met Donald Woods during his U.S. speaking tour. He talked eloquently about Steve Biko and decried the evils of apartheid. I was so impressed by his thoughtful, rational presentation and his dedicated commitment to ending apartheid. He said that he had met many world leaders, but that Steve Biko was the brightest, most charismatic person he ever knew. I was so moved by his talk that I have kept my handwritten notes from that evening to this day.
We drove through the township of Ginsberg, turned a corner and came upon a little white house where Steve Biko lived for many years under the banning order with his mother, siblings, wife and children. On the little front lawn stands a large stone memorial unveiled a few years ago by Nelson Mandela. We walked through the simple house and came to a small room which we were told was Steve’s office. It had an enormous desk, some chairs and book shelves.
I was deeply moved to stand at Steve’s desk. Imagine young Steve stuck in this house, in this room, watched by white police officers 24 hours a day, yet doing what he could to inspire others through his “black consciousness” movement! What a beautiful conscious life!
Steve inspired a generation of young blacks to resist the racist claims of apartheid and to reclaim their basic humanity as sons and daughters of God. “Black Consciousness is an attitude of the mind and a way of life, the most positive call to emanate from the black world for a long time,” Biko wrote. “The basic tenet of black consciousness is that black people must reject all value systems that seek to make them foreigners in the country of their birth and reduce their basic human dignity… Whites must be made to realize that they are only human, not superior. Same with Blacks. They must be made to realize that they are also human, not inferior…You are either alive and proud or you are dead, and when you are dead, you can’t care anyway.”
The word “consciousness” is important. Steve invited people to become more aware, to be conscious of themselves. This, to me, is at the heart of everything. All of us, black and white, of every race, gender, creed and nationality, need to grow in consciousness of our basic humanity. As we become more and more aware of being human, we become more nonviolent, more loving, more compassionate and more peaceful, and we don’t mind giving our lives for the service of others. Growth in awareness and consciousness is one way to understand the spiritual life, and the work of peacemaking. In light of Biko, we can speak also of “human consciousness,” “God consciousness,” “Jesus consciousness,” “peace consciousness,” and “nonviolence consciousness.” All of us are challenged to become more conscious of life, humanity, and the God who loves us so much.
Across town, we visited the church where Steve set up a community center and held an office. Then, we traced the little road used by tens of thousands during his funeral march to the town cemetery, where we found his grave. Fr. Ray and I knelt and prayed. Ray gave thanks for Steve’s life; I prayed that we might carry on his work of consciousness-raising, and inspire new generations to make peace. It was an overwhelming moment, the heart of our South African pilgrimage.
The next day we reached another key goal of our pilgrimage–the rural Baptist mission founded by Fr. Ray East’s grandfather in 1909. For Ray, his sister Cecilia and Gertrude and their cousin Bobbye, visiting the ancestral church was a lifelong dream. Ray’s father had been born here in South Africa.
Ray’s amazing grandparents traveled from Philadelphia to South Africa, a week after their wedding to serve as missionaries. Not only did they start the church, but they taught the locals the latest improvements in agriculture, which greatly improved their farming and harvests. Because they made such an impact throughout the region, the white government kicked them out in 1920.
On Sunday morning, we drove an hour into the countryside, to a rural community of small houses and tin huts with little water and electricity, to the Buchanan Mission. Several hundred people packed the building and were singing up a storm as we entered. For the next two hours, we sang and danced and celebrated life in Christ. On the back wall of the simple church hung a picture of Ray’s grandparents. The churchgoers welcomed the East family as the long lost relatives they were. It was a great homecoming.
I don’t think I have ever heard such singing in my life. We were asked to sit on the altar with the young pastor, with the large choir to our right. But there was no difference between the choir and the congregation, for everyone sang their hearts out. We were overwhelmed with joy and consolation. Afterwards, a feast was produced and we visited with everyone. Later, at a family friend’s home, we continued the singing. Ray and I led a few Civil Rights anthems, such as “We Shall Overcome,” but their African hymns and protest songs were the best I’ve ever heard.
In their music, prayer, community and loving kindness, we tasted the spirit of resurrection that’s stirs in South Africa. People there are conscious and alive, as Steve Biko taught, and they call the rest of us to rise into the new life of “resurrection consciousness.” What a blessing!