Biko Had No Special ‘Relationship’ With Johan Rupert
42 years after his brutal assasination in police detention, serious contestations around the legacy, and indeed the person, of Bantu Stephen Biko persist and prevail in democratic South Africa. There’ve been various concerted efforts by intelligentsia, activists, politicians, businessmen and outright opportunists to appropriate Biko for their own respective agendas.
These groups and individuals have all claimed Biko - his ideas, his philosophy and his very soul – for themselves, for one motive or another. In attempts to concretize and legitimize some misappropriations of Biko, mythologies, lies and outright propaganda materials have been constructed about him.
The most recent of these obnoxious and false misconceptions about Biko is the statement made by journalist and author, Pieter Du Toit in his book, ‘The Stellenbosch Mafia’, that Johan Rupert “struck up a relationship with Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko”.
This incongruous claim of a “relationship” with Biko was initially made by Rupert himself last year on the 04th December 2018 during a televised interview with Given Mkhari on PowerFM, wherein he said “I met Steve Biko when he was in his 20’s, and he would’nt have carried on in Taboo… We also felt oppressed and we still feel endangered. When I met the late Steve Biko, after many many hours of discussions, we came to conclusion that we will never have peace in this country if Afrikaner nationalism and Black nationalism cannot come to a compromise”.
Neither Rupert nor his interviewer, Mkhari, cared enough to elaborate on this alleged meeting with Biko, or this perceived ‘endangerment’ of white (Afrikaner) people. Simply because Johan Rupert said it, these claims warranted no further investigation.
However, both the statement by Du Toit and the claims made by Rupert have no factual basis; the truth is that Steve Biko had absolutely no “relationship” with Johan Rupert.
Rupert’s claims were unequivocally dispelled last year by Biko’s colleagues during the First Black Consciousness Movement Reunion held at the Steve Biko Centre in Ginsberg, King William’s Town, from Friday 14th to Monday 17th December 2018.
This event was attended by stalwarts of the Black Consciousness Movement and, during a dialogue titled ‘The Legacy of the Black Consciousness Movement on South African Politics’, I posed a question to Advocate Mojanku Gumbi regarding Rupert’s claims that she could vouch for him regarding his alleged meeting with Biko.
Gumbi denied knowing anything about the alleged meeting with Biko. She said “I really know nothing about the circumstances of the meeting between him and Biko because… I never met Steve myself to check the accuracy or otherwise of that”.
Dr. Mamphela Ramphele then laid the facts on the table stating that “Johan Rupert’s meeting with Biko is a meeting that happened between SASO (South African Students’ Organisation) and the Afrikaanse Studentbond (ASB). And Rupert is a drop-out from all of us. He was just a small man on the background; there was no meeting, there was no discussion of any substance between the two of them. So that is fake news and he uses it to justify his privilege. And I think it’s really important that that distortion be challenged publicly so he can stop using that man’s name in vain”.
Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana further clarified that “the meeting with the ASB was not the only one; there were also meetings with NUSAS (National Union of South African Students), and th messaging was the same, it’s not just the Afrikaners who were being singled out. We used to say to them that the best thing you can do is to go and pursuade your own communities, we need you to talk to your community to come to terms with our reality. That message is exactly the same to the ASB who are actually the children of those in power and control. So that language of a compromise between Afrikaner nationalism and Black nationalism may have been an extrapolation from a statement that says if Afrikaner nationalists will come to terms with the demans of Black nationalists, then there will be change. And it is out of this that people like Horst Kleinschmidt did what was called ‘white consciousness programmes’.
The book ‘Unfinished Business: End of Apartheid’ by Terry Bell and Dumisa Ntsebeza also makes reference to the meeting beteen SASO and the ASB. The authors write that “at the 1971 conference, which brought together representatives from NUSAS, SASO and the ASB, Steve Biko clarified the SASO and Black Consciousness perspective”.
Furthermore, the chapter titled ‘Letter to SRC Presidents’ in the book ‘I Write What I Like’, shows a letter Biko wrote in February 1970 as Presdient of SASO to the SRC (Students' Representative Council) Presidents of English and Afrikaans medium universities, to national students’ and other (including overseas) organisations.
In this letter Biko wrote about SASO’s relations and perspective regarding various student organizations including the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), the Afrikaanse Studentbond (ASB) and the University Christian Movement (UCM).
Regarding ASB Biko wrote “it lays stress on Calvinism and Afrikanerdom as criteria for membership… We tend to dismiss ASB as an incorrigible group with whom no worthwhile contact can be maintained”.
Frankly, what is most questionable more than the false claims made by Johan Rupert about an alleged “relationship” with Biko, is the ethos, approach and methodology of the journalist and author, Du Toit, in writing this book. He opens up serious historical matters which he then fails to deal with accurately.
From a journalistic perspective he doesn’t do justice to the book. He chose to ignore and abandon the basic tenets and principles of ethical journalism - truth and accuracy, independence, fairness and impartiality – opting to peddle a white lie about Biko without any substantive attempts at verifying the facts.
To avoid being misconstrued as mere propagandists, journalists and authors ought to be inquisitive enough to interrogate and verify information attained from their sources. Yet, Du Toit never made any attempts at communicating with the Steve Biko Centre, which houses the country’s major archives related to Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement, to try and confirm Rupert’s allegations.
Commenting on this matter the Founder and Executive Trustee at the Steve Biko Foundation, Mr. Nkosinathi Biko, who is also the first born son to Steve Biko, said “had Pieter Du Toit visited our archives at the Steve Biko Centre as a journalist he would have known that Biko was 27 years old in 1973 (the time Rupert claims he met Biko) and, therefore, out of student life and student politics. He would not have been in Stellenbosch meeting up with Rupert around 1973-74”.
Left to Right - Brigette Savage, Rogers Ragavan, Ben Ngubane, Steve Biko - Medical Students University of Natal
Biko started working in Durban at the Black Community Programmes (BCP) office from 1972 until he was banned with seven other SASO leaders on the 26th February 1973 and was therefore unable to leave the magisterial district of King William’s Town. Thereafter, he joined the office of the BCP at No.15 Leopold Street in King William’s Town within the confines of the restrictions of the banning orders imposed on him. At this time Rupert was 23 years of age.
It’s also equally ignorant, arrogant and condenscending that a national figure of Biko’s stature is simply cast as a paraiah or persona non grata, an insignificant shadow of no economical substance in the book. For example, Biko’s name only appears twice in the book, and, on both instances, it’s only in passing and in relation to Rupert’s false claims.
On the first chapter of ‘The Stellenbosch Mafia’ Du Toit writes that Rupert “knew Steve Biko”, without offering any explaination of how. And then on the fifth chapter he writes that Rupert “struck up a relationship with Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko” and quotes Rupert as having said “Biko was in Stellenbosch to attend a conference of the South African Students’ Organisation. I wanted to meet him and talk about his convictions and beliefs. We met one day and we continued talking until very late. I told him that if I were a black man I would also be a Pan-Africanist, I would also be a member of the PAC, not the ANC”.
Yet, Du Toit fails to make any further enquiries or to expand on this alleged “relationship”, the circumstances surrounding this alleged meeting; there is absolutely no context given.
Steve Biko lighting up with Rick Turner (right), Dave Turnbull (centre) and volunteers who were helping restore the Mahatma Gandhi Ashram in Phoenix, Durban, 1971
Moreover, he does not even question why Rupert would tell Biko about being a Pan-Africanist or a member of the PAC when Biko was never a member of the PAC. This contradiction is not questioned by Du Toit; it is merely legitimised and inscribed as fact.
Biko never joined the PAC nor the ANC; he was part of a collective that founded the Black Consciousness Movement of Azania.
This distortion is also mentioned in a recent news article titled ‘Rupert Trying To Distort History On Biko, Says PAC’, published by Independent Online on the 23rd July 2019, which also makes reference to Rupert’s claims as quoted in Du Toit’s book.
Steve Biko met with a number of white people during his lifetime, including Brigette Savage and Dr Richard Albert Turner whom he met at the University of Natal, as well as US Senator, Dick Clarke, who was chairman of the US Senate Sub-committee for Africa. But Biko had no special ‘relationship’ with none of them, including Rupert.
There can be no greater exposé of the continued hegemony of the monolithic white gaze and narrative than this. Although all the claims in Du Toit’s book in relation to Biko have no basis on truth, Rupert’s word is taken as de facto because it comes from a white man. Simply because the lie is told by Johan Rupert, a white billionaire with power and influence, it is taken as truth and warrants no investigation or inquiry.
The media agencies that simply lifted this narrative without any investigation or verification of the facts are also complicit in the reproduction of this singular white hegemony over narrative and historical memory. They help in reconfiguration and legitimization of lies as facts.
Although the claim made by Rupert has a number of holes in it, what is most problematic is the simple overall acceptance of his claims as absolute truth, without any substantiation or verification of the facts.
This speaks to the prevalance of a normalised white hegemony over narrative and discourse in this country. White people not only continue to have uncritical platforms wherein they diseminate their ideas, they actually still construct and shape reality and maintain an almost absolute monopoly over narrative.
In her July 2009 TED Talk, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adiche Ngozi warns against this “danger of a single story”, questioning ideas such as the potential of a single narrative to create stereotypes and perpetuate horrendous erasures.
Therefore, being products of a draconian colonial system that has erased indigenous epistemologies and distorted historical facts about African people, we ought to be wary of journalist and authors like Du Toit whose prime interests are to publish books littered with inaccuracies, than to provide thoroughly researched, factual information for the public good and benefit.
And perhaps his own admission in the Preface to the book that he is “a beneficiary of those networks and schools ties that are so reviled by many” and that “the hallowed halls of school and university where many of these corporate captains were educated are the same institutions to which I owe allegiance” explains Du Toit’s lack of due diligence regarding further inquiry on Rupert’s claims.
His bias and close proximity to his subject(s) compromised his integrity and credibility as a journalist and author; he completely abandoned his journalistic ethos.
Ironically, he also says that a “study like this one, incomplete as it undoubtedly is, cannot rely solely on anecdotes”, yet the book is almost wholly anecdotal, with very minimal investigative work pursued.
It is no wonder that within a period of one year (between November 2017 and November 2018) Du Toit was found guilty of serious contravention of the press code of ethics and conduct in South Africa for publishing fake news about AfriForum, and was ordered by the press ombudsman, Johan Ritief, to apologise to them.
It seems evident, therefore, that the publishing of fake news is Du Toit’s modus operandi.
For the sake of history and posterity, let it be known that Steve Biko had no special “relationship” with Johan Rupert.
Thando Sipuye is an Afrikan-centred historian and social scientist. He is currently the Programme Officer at the Steve Biko Foundation. He writes for the Foundation.