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President Ramaphosa pleads for compassion, selflessness and generosity

President Cyril Ramaphosa

Delivering the keynote address at the 19th Annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture, His Excellency Cyril Ramaphosa, President of the Republic of South Africa, enjoined citizens to join him in creating a society defined by solidarity, rather than competition. ‘We must build a society that is defined by compassion, selflessness and generosity,’ he said. The flagship memorial lecture is co-presented by the Steve Biko Foundation and Unisa annually, and this year coincided with the university’s celebration of 145 years as a beacon of hope to many.

A heinous murder and a remarkable life

President Ramaphosa said that it was an honour to deliver this lecture at Unisa, his alma mater. Placing Steve Biko in context, he said that it is good to have this lecture during a year that saw the celebration of the centenaries of Nelson Mandela and Mama Sisulu. ‘Madiba had huge respect for Steve Biko and loved him,’ said the President. ‘Earlier this week, we commemorated the 41st anniversary of the death in detention of Steven Bantu Biko. In the week that we commemorate a cruel death, we also honour and celebrate a remarkable life. It was a life dedicated to the pursuit of freedom, equality and truth. It was the life of a great, but humble revolutionary who fiercely rejected the false hierarchy of races. He spoke with a burning eloquence of the essential humanity of all people. He understood that the system of apartheid was predicated on the deliberate lie of white supremacy and black inferiority. The philosophy of Steve Biko was fundamentally the antithesis of this lie; it was about establishing the principles on which a new and more humane society would be established.’

Patriarchy must be eradicated

President Ramaphosa said that the economic and social equality that persists even today is not confined to race. ‘Throughout history, there are few relationships more unequal than those between men and women,’ he said. ‘Women bear the brunt of centuries of discrimination and oppression, imposed in this case not by a colonial power, but by the traditions, practices and institutions of the societies into which they were born. The struggle against patriarchy is therefore a struggle against the social norms, the attitudes and the thoughts that embolden men and enfeeble women. The assertion by women of their own power and agency is the foundation on which we must work together to eradicate all forms and manifestations of patriarchy.’

Solving the education crisis requires a shift in social mind-set

The President said that despite the progress made over the last two decades, inequality in education remains one of the greatest obstacles to the achievement of a just and prosperous future. The faultlines of race, gender, class and geography are nowhere more distinct than in access to a decent education,’ he said. ‘Unless we correct this as a matter of priority, we will not reduce inequality and we will not end poverty. It requires a shift in social mind-set, where few things are valued more than knowledge and learning – where parents, relatives, friends and neighbours take a keen interest in the development of the young mind. It requires teachers, principals, administrators, elected representatives and political formations who place at the centre of their efforts the promotion of educational excellence. We must be a society where the burning of a school, the trashing of a library, is a great affront to our sense of moral purpose.’

Speaking on inequality in all its many forms, including land distribution and endemic poverty, President Ramaphosa said that inequality severely constrains our ability as a country to realise our potential. ‘It limits growth, perpetuates hardship and promotes instability,’ he said. ‘We must therefore become a society defined by solidarity, not competition. We must build a society that is defined by compassion, selflessness and generosity.’

‘The greatest gift possible

In conclusion, President Ramaphosa said that Steve Biko led people, not parties. ‘His revolution was one of the mind, not one of membership,’ he said. ‘The alumni of his movement are spread across many formations and are found in many parts of society and different geographies. Steve Biko was a selfless revolutionary whose epoch-defining ideas contributed significantly in making South Africa what it is today. His thoughts continue to guide us in our quest for a true humanity. So let us march forth, as Steve Biko called on us to do, with courage and determination to bestow upon South Africa the greatest gift possible – a more human face.’

Senior heroes and ‘sheroes’ not recognised

Nkosinathi Biko, Founder and Executive Trustee of the Steve Biko Foundation and son of Steve Biko

Speaking earlier in the evening Nkosinathi Biko, Founder and Executive Trustee of the Steve Biko Foundation and son of Steve Biko, said that if Steve Biko had lived he would have been 72 years old this year. ‘The average age of his contemporaries who are here this evening is 70,’ said Biko. This is a generation that understood his role, seized the baton and sprinted the nation towards democracy. Yet I see around me the fading of memories and growing ignorance regarding that generation. An example is the poor treatment of veterans that I recently witnessed at a state department as they processed their social benefits. Many of these heroes and ‘sheroes’ have never shared their suffering, nor their great contribution to the establishment of democracy. They’ve not solicited undue benefits, and have had nothing named after or dedicated to them. Many will never write a book.’ Against this background, Biko implored President Ramaphosa to consider investing some of the country’s national resources towards recording the history of the true struggle generation. He said that, in December, the Steve Biko Foundation will embark on a programme to record the oral histories of seniors.

‘He belonged to all of us’

In his welcome address, Professor Mandla Makhanya, Unisa Principal and Vice-Chancellor (VC), said that each time this flagship memorial lecture is held, the country and the world take notice and participate in one form or another in remembering the iconic intellectual and liberation struggle giant, Steve Biko. ‘This tells us that he belonged to his family, his community, his organization – to all of us – a resounding testimony, if ever we needed such, that his legacy remains timely and timeless,’ said the VC. ‘Steve Biko was one of the central figures struggle against the apartheid regime. His greatness is attested to by the fact that more than four decades after his murder, his voice still reverberates from generation to generation, informing conversations and debates in our country, our continent and the global community.’

The VC said that as the country continues on its task of nation-building, it should be reminded of the timeless relevance of Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness ideology. ‘It is an ideology that recognised the redemptive, humanizing and empowering value of human consciousness,’ concluded the VC, as the most potent tool in galvanising society towards nation-building - by pricking our sense of agency as authors of our destiny and captains of our journey to that destiny.’

* By Philip van der Merwe

Who was Bantu Stephen Biko?


Click here for his official biography on the Steve Biko Foundation website.



Sharing a lighter moment

Programme director Dr Somadoda Fikeni (left) and the speakers during the singing of the National Anthem

President Ramaphosa is welcomed in the traditional manner

Publish date: 2018/09/17