Biko biography required skilful balancing

12 June 2015 | Story by Newsroom
Assoc Prof Xolela Mangcu made no secret of his profound admiration for Steve Biko in the biography he wrote on the life of this philosophical giant in the South African black consciousness movement.
Assoc Prof Xolela Mangcu made no secret of his profound admiration for Steve Biko in the biography he wrote on the life of this philosophical giant in the South African black consciousness movement.

Assoc Prof Xolela Mangcu received the Meritorious Book Award for his telling of Steve Biko's story in Biko: A Biography. He is not only Biko's biographer; he knew Biko personally as both of them grew up in the township Ginsberg, outside King William's Town in the Eastern Cape. Mangcu opens up to Abigail Calata about what motivated him to write the book as well as the challenges he faced whilst writing it.

AC: How did the idea to write a biography on Steve Biko come about?

XM: Biko has always been very present in my imagination and I had always been dissatisfied with the way he had been written out of history. The fact that there was no biography of him irked me.

I knew him as a boy, so I felt this obligation to tell his story. Being at a university allowed me the time to go deeper into not only Biko's story, but also the intellectual history of his community – in Ginsberg and the Eastern Cape. I locate Biko in that long history of ideas, which started when the people of the Eastern Cape encountered colonial power.

It was therefore a combination of intellectual, political and personal considerations that got me to think about doing a biography on Biko.

AC: Describe the process of writing this biography.

XM: It was not an easy book to write because when you do biography you want to retain your critical faculties even when you are writing about someone you adore in the way that I adored Biko. I admired him both as a person and because of my black consciousness background. I'm unable to distinguish between my admiration for the movement and my admiration for Biko. It was a constant challenge not to cross over to uncritical praise singing, so in trying to avoid this, I point to his failures and shortcomings in the book.

We don't have a scholarly tradition on biography writing in South Africa. It was very difficult to get into the technical aspects of biography writing because we don't teach biography writing. When I sent the manuscript out for peer review, the shortcomings regarding the technical aspects of biography writing became apparent. This meant I had to work on these shortcomings relying mostly on the work done by people outside of this country.

AC: What were these shortcomings?

XM: The most difficult thing is the voice – in other words, the author's presence or non-presence in the story. In my case it was very difficult to separate myself from Ginsberg. My family was very much involved in bringing up Biko. And to write about that historically without seeming to write my own history was very difficult. One has to tell the history as it is even when it's your own history. You can't not tell the history because it's your parents who taught him at school. As the author you have to find the right balance.

The first chapter of the book is about how I saw Biko and how his death affected me. With that out of the way, I was able to focus more on the objective telling of his story. I am pretty open in the book about the fact that I'm writing about someone I admire. Also, as I researched his life I discovered aspects of him that I did not particularly like, but I had to write about these too.

There was also the "What if Biko had lived" question, which I didn't want to write about, but I found that in writing a book of this nature, readers would always have that question. So I had to address the issue. Here I could introduce more of myself into the book again because you can't speak about the present without injecting your own subjective views.

AC: What if Biko lived to see a democratic South Africa?

XM: I have very strong feelings about the lack of leadership and direction in this country today. It is a dream betrayed, quite frankly. I believe that had Biko lived, the leadership and values he represented would have been maintained, but unfortunately they are lost now.

In one of the chapters I discuss what kind of leader Biko was. He didn't have to project himself as a leader. He had that presence to begin with and that enabled him to be relaxed about being a leader. That is not the case with the leaders today, who are constantly on the look-out for who might be challenging them. They have to constantly prove themselves because they are in fact not leaders.

AC: Are you able to separate your childhood impressions of him from those you hold as an adult?

XM: I would be sad if I were to do that. I prefer to hold onto that romantic, child-like view I have of him. He was killed when I was still a child (11 years old) so I don't know him in any other way except as a child. In writing a book like this as an academic the challenge is to balance the child-like admiration with the rigours of biography writing. On the one hand there is the innocence of childhood and on the other there are the demands of critical enquiry. This is what made this particular biography so difficult to write.

AC: Who was the audience you had in mind while writing this book?

XM: Another challenge in writing this book was deciding who I was writing it for. Was I writing for myself? Was this part of my mourning of Biko? Was I writing for the broader public or academics? Was I writing for South Africans or for an international audience? You'll find that some chapters are more academic than others and that's a function of having had all these audiences in mind. Lay-people can work through the more academic material. However, they will also find the other chapters more accessible as it is more typically a biography, which involves more storytelling.

Xolela Mangcu received his award in absentia at the 15h00 graduation ceremony on 12 June 2015. See who else has won the Meritorious Book Award over the years.


Interview by Abigail Calata. Photo by Michael Hammond.

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