The Biko affair: a response to Mandla Seleoane

RW Johnson says white liberals should be given their due

The Biko Affair: a response to Mandla Seleoane

I would like to thank Mandla Seleoane for his interesting and considered response to my article on Biko. I should say at the outset that there are various points in the Biko story - such as whether the Security Police were upset by Biko's meeting with Sobukwe and whether and how far they anticipated Biko's return from Cape Town – where my account did indeed depend on reasonable surmise rather than historical fact. This was inevitably so because, as I said at the outset, no proper biography of Biko exists and in the absence of such a study surmise is often just the best one can do. Of course it is open to question. All we have to guide us is the balance of probabilities.

Mr Seleoane is sceptical of my suggestion that the Security Police probably had all the details of Biko's trip. Frankly, I think he may be making the same mistake that many of us did at the time. The police had plenty of time and manpower, they had many, many informants and they also often had quite advanced technology, so that phones, cars and rooms were bugged more often than we realised. I remember, when I was a student, holding secret meetings in the middle of a rugby field at night (we were planning a protest over Sharpeville) but even so the police pounced on us. It turned out they had men on the edge of the field with direction-throwing microphones. We were simply out-matched.

The main question which seems to disturb Mr Seleoane is my assertion that Biko's writings would not count as philosophy in a university philosophy department. I am not a professional philosopher but I did teach alongside some very eminent philosophers for more than twenty years at Oxford. They were interested in such things as the theory of knowledge, linguistic analysis, the meaning of meaning, the problem of personal identity and logic. This latter subject quickly became fairly mathematical and it was noticeable that those who were good at it were often also very good econometricians. I think you would find that these are still pretty much mainline concerns in most philosophy departments at least in the English-speaking world. (France is different and most of my Oxford colleagues had a very low opinion of what the French termed philosophy, feeling that it lacked all rigour.) So I do indeed think that Biko, whatever his other merits, didn't make any contribution to these fields – indeed, I don't think he ever studied philosophy or knew what went on in philosophy departments.

Mr Seleoane writes that “the challenge to black people to rethink themselves conveys normative, epistemological and ontological considerations – that is philosophy”. I'm afraid it doesn't work like that. I could challenge you to rethink yourself but simply issuing such a challenge would not make me a philosopher. All I can suggest is that, if Mr Seleoane doesn't believe me he should consult any philosophy department in the country.

I hasten to add that this in no way diminishes Biko's status – Mr Seleoane writes rather as if he feels I am making this point in order to belittle Biko. Not at all. I have written many books and God knows how many articles but I would not for one minute think that anything I have written should be studied as philosophy. I simply operate in quite different fields, just as Biko did.

The same applies to my observation that Biko was a poor student. This is simply empirical fact. Anyone who gets kicked out of medical school after six years when they have yet to complete three years of the course is not a good student. Of course, Mr Seleoane is right that Biko, like many others amongst us, had other and urgent calls on his time and energy. Absolutely. In the same way I was quite good at a number of sports but when I was a student I gave them little time and did not practice. The result was that at university I was a poor sportsman. The fact that I was distracted by what I thought were more important things is not the point. I just didn't play well.

Of course SASO was weak compared to NUSAS, just as SASCO is today. NUSAS was very impressively organised. It ran a student health scheme, it ran SACHED which provided a non-apartheid higher education for blacks, it ran regular seminars, it organised scholarships, a highly organised national congress, a student travel scheme, a student discount scheme, it had far more members than SASO, more funds, had international recognition (with NUSAS delegates attending international student meetings around the world) and it had more highly capable and committed members.

One of the most impressive things about NUSAS was the volume and high quality of its documentation – we would be showered with regular and detailed analyses of new legislation, of the dreadful workings of the apartheid system and so forth. Only the publications of the SA Institute of Race Relations were comparable in number and quality. It is one of the tragedies of modern South African life that the magnificent tradition of NUSAS was turned over to SASCO which does none of these things. Today's South African students are much the poorer as a result.

And this, of course, was why Biko continued to maintain links with NUSAS and retained friendships with many NUSAS leaders. It was a way of accessing resources, contacts and networks far greater than anything SASO had. Any sensible person in his situation would have done so. NUSAS was completely committed to black liberation, after all, and was perfectly willing to go along with SASO and co-operate with it. NUSAS leaders frequently got banned, detained, had to go into exile and some of them joined the armed struggle: there could be no doubting their commitment.

The whole subject of black activists getting help from white liberals is a matter for ridiculous sensitivity. White liberals were only too willing to help, so why shouldn't blacks accept that help and be glad of it – as most did and were? There was and is nothing shameful about that. In the same way, it is absurd that black activists wasted their energies on attacking white liberals at a time when apartheid reigned supreme.

Why not give the liberals their due and agree that they were by far the most generous and principled whites in many situations? If you go back to the late 1950s the Liberal party had a better organization in Soweto than the ANC did and whenever the ANC called a boycott or stay-away Mandela would be found at the door of Liberals like Ernie Wentzel demanding that they threw their weight behind such initiatives, for he knew full well that without Liberal help they would fail.

The main task of the ANC in exile was to maintain a barrage of anti-apartheid propaganda to help the anti-apartheid movements around the world. For this it had to have a plentiful, reliable and continuous source of information about what was happening in South Africa. How did they get this? Did they rely on their own networks, their cadres or the SACP? Not at all: they relied completely on the publications of the SAIRR and the information dug out of Nationalist ministers by Helen Suzman's parliamentary questions.

Over the years I saw many white liberals in South Africa and abroad extend help of one sort or another to black South Africans and I never once saw any black person refuse that help. Just as Biko was happy to accept help from Donald Woods, from Anglo-American, the Scandinavian churches and Christian groups. It is simply ungracious and unworthy to try to write the contribution of white (or any other colour) liberals out of the story or to deny the crucial role played by organizations like the Liberal Party, the Progressive Party, the SAIRR – or NUSAS.

I have nothing to add to the subject of Biko and a guerrilla force: I simply relate what Felgate told me (Seleoane calls him Felton). But it made perfectly good sense and it was hardly shocking that he might get help from Idi Amin. As Churchill said, “if my enemy invades Hell then I shall find some good words to say about the Devil”. Similarly, Nehru and other Asian nationalists initially played with the idea of siding with the Axis in order to overthrow the British. It took them some time to understand that, as Kissinger observed, “the enemy of my enemy may also be my enemy too”. And it just isn't true that BC activists had many foreign supporters. When thousands of young BC activists flooded out of the country after the Soweto events they found themselves alone and without support – unless they joined the ANC. Which, overwhelmingly, they did.

Mr Selkeoane misreads what I wrote about Biko's trip to Cape Town. All I meant to convey was that there was trouble in the BC community down there because of NEUM elements. Exactly what Biko could hope to do about it, I don't know. Seeing Alexander, the NEUM leader, was an obvious move but, of course, not the only one. And I defer to Mr Seleoane's greater knowledge of the other circumstances around this trip.

Finally, a point raised by another comment: what happened to the thugs who tortured and killed Biko? They tried to get amnesty out of the TRC but failed. There was, though, insufficient evidence for them to be convicted by any court – who, after all, can say exactly what happened in the cell where they held Biko? So they got clean away. I have always marvelled at the forbearance of the Biko family over the matter.

R.W. Johnson