Walking in the Footsteps of a Legend on the Steve Biko Heritage Trail

Ginsberg township is on the wrong side of the railway tracks in King William’s Town – and its most famous resident was on the wrong side of the law. He was labelled a ‘terrorist’ and deemed a threat to the apartheid state for advocating equal rights for all and self-reliance, encouraging black people to liberate themselves by throwing off their psychological shackles of inferiority.

Becoming the face of the Black Consciousness movement

‘Black is beautiful’, and ‘Be black and proud’  were some of the phrases Bantu Stephen Biko, known as the father of the Black Consciousness movement in South Africa, borrowed from the American civil rights movement. A charismatic man of great charm, when he spoke people listened, whether they were fellow students or foreign diplomats. He was expelled from medical school and detained numerous times before being banned and restricted to his mother’s small house in Ginsberg township in 1973.

A bust of Biko stands outside his mother's house in Ginsberg on the Steve Biko Heritage Trail
A bust of Steve Biko stands outside his mother’s humble home in Ginsberg, one of the national heritage sites on the Steve Biko Heritage Trail

“The police used to hide in the banana plants along the fence,” says a neighbour, Nombeka Mabuya. She was just a teenager then, but remembers ‘Buti Bantu’ as a sociable chap who loved dancing.

“The security police used to stop all his visitors at the gate here and question everyone who wanted to go in,” says my Steve Biko Centre guide for the day, Asanda Mbaxa. “It was like being in prison in his own home.”

Forever immortalised

With the dawn of democracy, Biko was recognised as a hero of the struggle, and his home at 698 Mbeki Street (formerly Tyamzashe Street) is now a national heritage site, with a bust of the late leader mounted on a brick plinth in the front garden.

This humble township home is one of the sites on the Steve Biko Heritage Trail in the Eastern Cape. It starts in East London at the Biko statue outside the city hall and the Biko Bridge over the Buffalo River at the harbour (liberated on the 20th anniversary of Steve’s death with an exquisite touch of irony, from its apartheid-era title of the John Vorster Bridge after the ex prime minister).

I know both sites well, so skip straight to the heart of the Biko Trail in King William’s Town and make a beeline for the Steve Biko Centre, a National Legacy Project. It’s a modern building at the entrance to the dusty township of Ginsberg, with its rows of neat box houses, and would not be out of place in New York City. Distinctive murals decorate the multi-storey building, which houses a library and archive, auditorium and amphitheatre, museum, shop, offices, conference and training rooms, and a classy restaurant. It is something of a personal pilgrimage, as I’m of Steve’s generation and was inspired by his ideals of self-empowerment and nonracialism when I was a journalism student at Rhodes University. I also worked for his good friend, editor Donald Woods, at the Daily Dispatch one vacation.

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Striking murals decorate the wall of the Steve Biko Centre on the Steve Biko Heritage Trail
The striking murals decorating the wall of the Steve Biko Centre were designed to a brief following a competitive process managed by Artisit Proof Studio of Cape Town.

Asanda welcomes me to the museum dedicated to the man who changed so many lives with his lively intellect and ability to unite people. The exhibition theme, The Quest for a True Humanity, is taken from his writings, and is organised into eight sections, starting with the African intellectual tradition and the independence movement. Steve’s political awakening came when he was expelled from Lovedale College.

Asanda Mbaxa is one of the museum guides
Asanda Mbaxa is proof of the opportunities the Steve Biko Centre has brought to Ginsberg – she started as a cleaner on the staff and worked her way up to tour guide.

He went on to become one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the South African Students’ Organisation and the Black People’s Convention, and had many brushes with the apartheid police. His last arrest and detention in Port Elizabeth led to his tragic death on 12 September, 1977.

They couldn’t break his spirit or make him change his beliefs, so his torturers banged his head against the wall and slung his comatose body into the back of a van and drove all the way from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria. He was declared dead soon after arrival.

The carefully stage-managed inquest found ‘no one to blame’ for his death and it wasn’t until years later that the truth emerged of the callous murder of the young idealist who pleaded for non-violence while pushing for black rights.

The soundtrack of Peter Gabriel’s song Biko echoes through the museum:

‘You can blow out a candle
But you can’t blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher’

It’s a moving experience and afterwards Asanda and I walk outside into the sunshine to the commemorative garden filled with indigenous healing plants, where a symbolic kraal offers a place to sit and reflect beside a wall of remembrance listing the names of the dozens of political activists who died in detention – this is said to be the most complete list available.

The centre gardens overlook the Buffalo River bridge on the Steve Biko Heritage Trail
The centre’s garden overlooks the bridge over the Buffalo River that divides Ginsberg from King William’s Town.

Looking to the future

Asanda and I got to discussing what South Africa would be like if Steve had lived to be president, as he undoubtedly would have been. “People would be free and secure, especially women,” says Asanda thoughtfully. “And we wouldn’t have had the fees must fall campaign – free education was one of his priorities.”

More support for black entrepreneurs, empowering young people, real equality, more integrity in government and no xenophobic attacks are phrases that roll off her tongue easily. “Just a more human face to society,” she sums up. I’m happy to see Steve’s values have taken root in the younger generation.

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The Biko Centre carries on his legacy in a concrete way, running many of the community sport, education and welfare projects that Steve started. It’s a popular venue for film screenings, book launches, concerts, festivals and career days. “Schoolchildren can also get help with their homework at the library and use the computer lab, and a business incubator assists entrepreneurs,” says Asanda.

The library in the Biko Centre is on the Steve Biko Heritage Trail
Librarian Inke Magada welcomes visitors to the library and archive at the Steve Biko Centre.

The centre is the brainchild of Nkosinathi Biko, Steve’s eldest son who was only four when police killed his father. The unveiling of the Biko statue in East London in 1997, financed with help from those involved in the Cry Freedom movie starring Denzil Washington as Steve, was a light-bulb moment for Nkosinathi. A crowd of 2 000 had been expected, but about 20 000 pitched up. He
realised this huge interest in his father’s legacy could translate into an economic resource for the Ginsberg community, one of the least developed townships in an underdeveloped province.

He set up the Steve Biko Foundation in 1998 and started raising funds for the centre in Ginsberg to be an intellectual and cultural resource for the community and a tourist drawcard. His dream was realised in 2012 when the centre was officially opened.

Nkosinathi Biko started the Steve Biko Foundation in memory of his father on the Steve Biko Heritage Trail
Nkosinathi Biko, eldest son of Steve and founder of the Steve Biko Foundation and Centre

Our second-last stop on the route is the spot where Steve had an office, courtesy of his great friend Rev David Russell. It was just a room behind the Anglican Church at 15 Leopold Street in King William’s Town but, as the branch executive for the Black People’s Convention, Steve ran a swathe of community projects from here, including the Zanempilo Clinic in the village of Zinyoka outside King, which is also part of the heritage trail.

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“The Special Branch monitored everyone coming to the side gate, so his visitors had to pretend they were on church business and go through the front door, then go out the back to the little office,” says Asanda. The church is now a library for the Dumisani Theological Institute, serving various denominations.

The last stop on the route is the most heart wrenching. Steve was buried in the segregated cemetery outside town after a packed funeral service at the Victoria sports ground. His coffin arrived on a humble ox cart, followed by some 20 000 mourners from around the country. Police blocked thousands more from attending.

Today the cemetery has been upgraded and it’s now the Steve Biko Garden of Remembrance. Steve’s original gravestone has been replaced by a grander monument in sombre, black granite. Standing silently at his graveside, my thoughts went beyond the loss suffered by his mother, his wife and sons, and my own memories of our student protest at losing an admired leader.

His grave is one of the last stops on the Steve Biko Heritage Trail
Sobre, black granite marks the last resting place of idealist and activist Bantu Stephen Biko.

The sorrow that bit deepest was the great loss to this country, the land for which he sacrificed so much. Steve’s words encouraging us to march forth with courage and determination took on an even greater poignancy, ‘In time we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest gift possible – a more human face’.

A fitting tribute to a giant of a spirit.

Travel Tips

The Steve Biko Centre is in Zotshie Street at the entrance to Ginsberg. From the N2 through King William’s Town, turn down Wodehouse Street and cross the railway line and Buffalo River to Ginsberg.

The centre is open Monday to Saturday, visits on Sundays are by appointment. Book a half- or full-day tour. 043 605 6700

Eat at the centre’s classy Aluta Restaurant and Lounge. It’s a cut above the fast food franchises in town, their delicious buffet lunch has a different theme each day and the à la carte menu offers a wide choice. 043 605 6723

Sleep over in the various wings of Twins Guesthouse in King. It’s well run and extremely comfortable. 043 642 1149

Leigh Hermon

A journalist by trade, features writer on occasion and now the digital editor of SA Country Life. The first chance she gets, Leigh will tell you about a podcast she was recently listening to and how you simply have to make the move from radio. In a previous life, she once taught English on Jeju which left her with an insatiable craving for kimchi.

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