Achebe pays tribute to Biko and South Africans

23 September 2002
THOUGH his voyage to South Africa was 40 years in the making, renowned Nigerian literary sage Chinua Achebe drew huge crowds to the Jameson Hall when he delivered the third Steve Biko Memorial Lecture on September 12. The lecture marked the 25th anniversary of Biko's death in detention and was organised by the Steve Biko Foundation.

In conjunction with the lecture, Achebe also received an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Literature, honoris causa, at a special graduation ceremony, presided over by by UCT's Chancellor, Graça Machel. Former President Nelson Mandela was among the guests at the special convocation.

In his opening, Achebe confessed that on his first "voyage of discovery" south in 1961, he had been so daunted by racism that he had promptly returned home. For this belated visit he had brought "the simplest of words":
"Thank you. Thank you for the epic struggle waged for South Africa and for all peoples oppressed and their oppressors everywhere in the world. I say thank you to Nelson Mandela and his colleagues who inspired and led that heroic struggle. Thank you to all the people of South Africa – men, women, even children who came out in support, too often with their lives."
In a remark to friend and fellow writer, Vice-Chancellor Professor Njabulo Ndebele, Achebe said he owed a special debt of gratitude for the opportunity to address "this great university". "I appreciate the honorary Doctor of Literature you have thrown into the bargain," he quipped. "I must tell you I love honorary doctorates and have never understood why anybody should still want to get a doctorate the hard way. This is infinitely better."

Achebe proceeded to draw a parallel between the circumstances of Biko's death and Alex la Guma's novella A Walk in the Night, a story about "one hell of a night" in District Six, first published in Nigeria in 1962, 15 years before Biko's "dreadful ordeal". "It seems to me quite apparent that a literature which draws its sustenance from the life lived around it and develops imaginative identification with that life, has a good chance of achieving the quality and the authority of prophetic utterance."

Referring to Steve Biko's legacy of black consciousness and his sometimes controversial rhetoric about white liberals, Achebe said: "For a young man in his twenties, brilliant and impatient for freedom, Biko's rhetoric was neither extravagant nor out of place. His insistence that black people and their white liberal associates should take a hard, critical look at their relationship was appropriate, and really no different from Nadine Gordimer's X-ray examination of that same problematic relationship in July's People and indeed in practically all her work."

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