17th Annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture Remarks by Ms Obenewa Amponsah
17th Annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture
Remarks by Ms Obenewa Amponsah
CEO of the Steve Biko Foundation
November 12, 2015
Good evening ladies and gentlemen, thank you for joining us for the 17th Annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture.
In addition to those guests whom have already been mentioned, I would personally like to extend a special word of welcome to the Biko Family, in particular Mrs. Ntsiki Biko and Mr. Nkosinathi Biko who also serve as Trustees of the Steve Biko Foundation. Additionally, a very warm welcome to our other Trustees: Mr. Millard Arnold, Prof. Ben Khoapa, and Mr. Ishmael Mkhabela, who has served as the Chairman of SBF’s board, for over a decade, and who has led us with an extraordinary amount of wisdom and grace. Thank you Bra Ish.
Vice Chancellor, it is an absolute delight to be here again at UNISA, and it is particularly significant that we are commemorating the 39th anniversary of Biko’s death on your main campus, not far from Pretoria Maximum Security Prison where Biko died.
Many will recall that there were those within the apartheid system were left “cold” in the wake of Biko’s death. Little did they know that Biko’s words, that “your method of death can itself be a politicizing thing” would continue to ring true 39 years later.
While political freedom has been won in the years since Biko’s death, the struggle for economic, gender and cultural equality is still being waged here in South Africa and abroad. Throughout the Diaspora, the continent and the country, a new generation of young people, inspired by the words and actions of Biko, Audrey Lorde and Marcus Garvey—among others—are addressing the challenges of the 21st century.
We are proud that in the audience tonight, are students from Pretoria Girls’ High. In the past few weeks, they have not only shown us who they are, but they have reminded us of our responsibility to be agents of change wherever we are. Ladies, for that, we thank you.
For many of us, the images emanating from Pretoria Girls’ High recalled the iconic Angela Davis, with her fist raised and trademark afro. Today, Professor Davis remains the reference point for many activists of her generation and those that came after.
But not only did Professor Davis embody the style of the movement, she also the substance of the movement.
For me personally, as a young, African woman growing up in the United States, I cannot recall a time in which I did not know the name Angela Davis. But it was only when I reached university that I really began to explore her ideas. One week into my four year course, a young, white, male, Russian immigrant, who lived in my res, told me point blank that, “everyone knows black people are dangerous.” Encountering blatant, and many more subtle expressions of discrimination, I sought to better understand racism, and how to challenge it, and encountered the work of Professor Davis and many of her peers. Needless to say that by my fourth year I was rocking my afro, but more importantly, I had a better sense of who I was, and I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it was possible to challenge the status quo. Not only as a black person, not only as a woman but as a black woman.
And my story is by no means unique. In the two short days since Professor Davis arrived in South Africa, I have been privileged to hear person after person speak about the impact she had upon their lives. From taking the pseudonym of Davis when going for military training, to inspiring people to political activism, Professor Davis has had an indelible impact upon individuals and communities worldwide.
Long before the term intersectional became common, Professor Davis was “woke.” It was she, through her intellectual labor on race, class and gender, awakened many of us. 40 years after she came to international prominence, Davis’s work remains exceedingly, and almost painfully, relevant. Painfully, because in the wake of the passage of the American Civil Rights Act and the “winds of change” that heralded the success of African liberation movements, it seemed as if a revolution that would entrench racial equality was imminent. Yet, still today, this is not the case. From Ferguson to Freetown to Free State, we must continually assert that #BlackLivesMatter
If anything, with the attainment of each landmark act, the independence of an African state, or the end of apartheid, it was as if the other fault lines within our societies emerged, whether they be about race, class, gender or sexual orientation. Indeed, these fissures do not only appear within society, but within the very organizations and movements, meant to address them; whether they be feminist, student or political.
While this is not a new phenomenon, it is one that must be interrogated. To be clear, the call for an intersectional, multidimensional approach is not a nice to do, or a good to have, it is imperative. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
In short, if our struggles for equality are to truly bring about justice, they cannot be about just us.
This paradox, of which struggle will be at the forefront of society’s agenda is not a new one. It was one articulated by members of the Black Consciousness Movement when they spoke, as black women, of having to choose between prioritizing racial or gender justice. Similarly, members of the Black Panther party, whose ethos was in some ways similar to that of BCM, also spoke of the patriarchy within their movement and the struggle to overcome it. It was in fact in 1966, 50 years ago, that the Black Panther Party was formed. So again, this is a timely opportunity to reflect on the life and legacy of Biko, his ideas and those of similar international movements.
In honestly assessing what has gone before, and in highlighting some of the unfinished business of earlier movements, the intention is not to undermine the significant contributions that were made, or to minimize their impact. Rather, it is about learning, about better understanding where we have been so we are fully able to understand ourselves and the possibilities of who we can be. In the words of Biko, “Attention has to be paid to our history…if we want to aide each other in our coming into consciousness.”
Which is why we are so honored that Professor Davis accepted our invitation. An activist for over four decades, Davis is someone Cornell West has described as “one of the few great long-distance intellectual freedom fighters in the world.”
She became known to the world in large part through the organizing of the Black Panther Party, among others, who ensured that “Free Angela” was the international rallying cry in the wake of her incarceration in 1970. The third woman in US history to be on the FBI’s most wanted list, Prof Davis’s alleged crimes were murder, kidnapping and conspiracy. A conviction for any of these three charges, could have meant death.
Professor Davis herself has noted that although many thought she was innocent, few believed it was possible that she would be acquitted. Her freedom was due in large part to international solidarity. Professor Davis further indicated that if she is an icon representing anything, her freedom represents our collective power, our ability to bring about change when we act together.
This is why we come together tonight, physically and virtually, to reflect on this collective power. To remind ourselves, whether or not we consider ourselves activists in the traditional sense, that we each have a role to play. In the words of Steve Biko, “history works through people, and we have availed ourselves to history to work through us.”
This idea is what drives us at the Steve Biko Foundation. The idea that we are each history makers, in our own lives, the lives of our communities and ultimately the life of humanity.
Our hope is that through our work at SBF at large, and our gathering tonight, that we would all be empowered to make the contribution Biko articulated when he wrote, “We believe that in the long run the special contribution to the world by Africa will be in this field of human relationship. The great powers of the world may have done wonders in giving the world an industrial and military look, but the great gift still has to come from Africa, giving the world a more human face.”
I thank you.