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  • A tribute to Steve Biko*
  • Mahmood Mamdani (bio)

I would like to congratulate you warmly on successfully completing this part of your journey. I know that ceremony should not stand in the way of celebrations. But I promise to be short.

I was invited to give a talk at the American University of Cairo in May, 2011. It was the time of Tahrir Square. Others had seen Tahrir Square as a continuation of colour revolutions said to have begun in Eastern Europe with the fall of the Soviet Union. I said that Tahrir Square evoked for me a period more than a quarter of a century ago, marked by an event we know as the Soweto Uprising of 1976.

Tahrir Square evoked the memory of Soweto in a powerful way – for me, in three different ways. One, like Soweto 1976, Tahrir Square in 2011 too shed a generation’s romance with violence.

What does it mean to move from armed struggle to peaceful protest? More than just dropping lethal weapons, it means dropping fixed ideas about who is a friend and who an enemy. It means not thinking in terms of good and evil – where the enemy is evil and has to be eliminated. The language of evil comes from a long religious tradition, secularised over time: you cannot live with evil, you can not convert it, you must eliminate it. This is why the struggle against evil is necessarily a violent struggle. The lesson of Egypt, unlike that of Libya next door but like that of Soweto over three decades before, is the moral force of non-violence. Unlike violence, non-violence does not just resist and exclude. It also embraces and includes, thereby opening up new possibilities of reform, possibilities that may have seemed unimaginable only yesterday. [End Page 76]

The second resemblance between Soweto and Tahrir Square was on the question of unity. Just as the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa had uncritically reproduced official distinctions between races and tribes, so had mainstream politics in Egypt politicised religious difference. Black unity in South Africa became a banner for the unity of all the oppressed, across races. In Egypt, Tahrir Square became a symbol of unity across religions. Who can forget the powerful image of Christians in Tahrir Square forming a protective cordon around Muslims in prayer when threatened with police violence?

Tahrir Square shared a third significance with Soweto. Soweto forced many people internationally to rethink their notions of Africa and the African. Before Soweto, the convention was to assume that violence was second nature with Africans who were incapable of living together peacefully. Before Tahrir Square, and particularly after the 9/11 events in the United States, official discourse and media representations, particularly in the West, were driven by the assumption that Arabs are genetically predisposed not only to violence but also to discrimination against anyone different.

Today, I want to talk about Soweto, and not Tahrir Square. At the heart of the movement that led to Soweto and beyond was one remarkable individual, Steve Biko, an alumnus of this university. Please consider this address a salute to Steve Biko.

Soweto was a youthful uprising. In an era when adult political activists had come to accept as a truism the notion that meaningful change could only come through armed struggle, Soweto pioneered an alternative imagination and an alternative mode of struggle. Not armed struggle but popular struggle. The youth of Soweto stopped thinking of struggle as something waged by professional fighters, armed guerrillas, with the people cheering from the stands, but as a popular movement with ordinary people as key participants. The potential of popular struggle lay not just in sheer numbers, but in a new imagination that laid the basis for a wider unity.

To understand the power of this new imagination, we need to understand the nature of the power to which it was a response. Apartheid rule had split South African society into so many races (Whites, Indians, Coloureds) and so many tribes (Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Venda and so on), by putting races and tribes, and then each tribe, under a separate set of laws, so that even when they organised to...


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pp. 76-79
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