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Biko: A bright guiding light in dark times

Address by the Anglican Bishop of Natal at St Philip’s Anglican Church, Fingo Village in Grahamstown, 19 September 2012.

Rubin Phillip

2012-09-27, Issue 599

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He was willing to pay the price that always comes with the courage to confront oppression. That is the meaning of standing with the poor.

As the Unemployed People's Movement have noted we gather here in Grahamstown to honour the memory of Steve Biko, a man who was indeed a bright and guiding light, at a moment when a dark night is settling over our country. As the light of our democratic dawn dims we all have to look inward and find our courage, individually and collectively, for the struggles ahead. Make no mistake - the massacre at Marikana was a turning point and the path ahead will be difficult and will require real courage.

Biko – who was a close friend and fellow-worker - was a courageous man. He was a man who knew that God loved all his people equally and was willing to act according to that knowledge. Biko was willing to think for himself and to forge an independent path. He was willing to pay the price that always comes with the courage to confront oppression.

Biko's uncompromising insistence on the full and immediate recognition of the equal humanity of black people was an intellectual and political earthquake for the generation of the late 1960s and the 1970s. We still feel the tremors of that quake today.

As we search for the strength to set ourselves on the path of justice, a path that always leads to conflict with worldly authority, a path that always exacts a toll, we do well to seek courage and inspiration in the great figures of the past. Here in Grahamstown the historical connection to a decisive moment in Biko's political life brings us into a concrete sense of community with his spirit. There are other great figures that have passed through this town. We think, of course, of people like Makhanda Nxele and Neil Aggett.

But we do no honour to the heroes of the past by misusing them to mask the injustices of the present. We do no honour to the heroes of the past by making them the private property of individuals or particular organisations. We honour the heroes of the past by bringing their courage and wisdom into communion with the struggles of the present. Here in Grahamstown unemployment is at an unconscionable level. People have been living without the dignity of something as basic as a toilet while millions of rand go missing from the coffers of the local municipality. We have taken heart at the news that the unemployed have been organising themselves here in Grahamstown and that students, academics and clergy have stood with them. We were not surprised to hear that Ayanda Kota from the Unemployed People's Movement was arrested on a bogus charge early this year and assaulted in the police station in front of his young son. We were not surprised but we were angry, very angry. The days when the police behaved like this were supposed to have passed. We will not compromise in the face of a return to repression. We will not compromise with those, be they in the police, the unions, parliament or the universities, that offer succor to repression. We will cast repression from the temple of our democracy.

The massacre in Marikana did not come out of nowhere. In 2007 we, together with a large group of Church Leaders, spoke out clearly when a peaceful AbahlalibaseMjondolo march was savagely attacked by the police in Durban. In 2009 we spoke out, again in community with other Church Leaders, when AbahlalibaseMjondolo were attacked in Kennedy Road in Durban. Activists were openly threatened with death, their homes were destroyed and some had to go underground for months. This moment marked the beginning of a precipitous decent into open authoritarianism and repression.

In the main the repression of the struggles of the poor has been met with silence and indifference. Very few students, academics, lawyers and journalists have stood up to speak truth to power. Most NGOs have been silent. Even the trade unions have been silent. In many cases churches have been silent too. Our collective silence in the face of growing repression means that we share a collective responsibility for the path that has taken us to the massacre at Marikana. We must repent. We must commit ourselves to taking a stand with the poor. We must commit ourselves to insisting that democracy is for everyone. Campaigns in defense of democracy that do not take the ongoing repression of grassroots activists seriously are deeply flawed.

I wish to be clear that taking a stand with the poor is not a question of easy sloganeering and empty rhetoric. It is not question of demagogues exploiting suffering to build their own power bases. It is not a question of bussing poor people in to NGO meetings where they are exhibits rather than full and equal participants. It is not a question of experts speaking for the poor. Taking a stand with the poor is a matter of walking the path of suffering and struggle with the poor. It requires a presence within the struggles of the poor.

The pain of the massacre at Marikana has been felt most pressingly here in the Eastern Cape. It is in the villages of the Eastern Cape that the majority of the men murdered in Marikana have been buried. Generations of men from these villages have made the journey to the mines and worked, deep in the heat of the bowels of the earth, to make others rich. They have retired as poor men, often dying of silicosis. It is the women of these villages, poor as they are, who have cared for the children and the sick and the old. This has been and remains an evil economic system. The former Bantustans have not been democratized or developed after apartheid. The miners' struggle for a just wage is just. The struggle for a democratic economy that will meet the needs of all our people is just. The struggle for reparations for the villages of the Eastern Cape is just. However respect for human dignity needs to be the means and the end of these struggles.

We honour Steve Biko today. We also honour the courageous activists of today, people like S'buZikode and Shamitha Naidoo in Durban, people like many of you here today in Grahamstown who refuse to accept injustice.

I commend you for your stand. And I applaud you for your courage. I salute you for your dedication. The road ahead will not be easy but we will walk it. We will walk it with each other and with the light and power of God. And let there be no mistake about it God is on the side of the oppressed and He is on the side of those that stand with the oppressed.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.

Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.


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