18 December 2019

Biko, by Dawn Promislow

In September of nineteen seventy-seven she was seventeen years old. She was a schoolgirl in a white school, in white Johannesburg. She was living with her grandmother in a flat, as her parents and brothers had recently left to live in London (she was to follow them after her school year finished).

What she remembers most is: the newspapers, day after day after day. At the kitchen table, before school each morning, she read the newspaper. The newspaper used to be an easy way to pass time while drinking her orange juice and eating her toast. But the newspaper, this newspaper, her mornings, became greyer and greyer as they filled, daily now, with reports of a man who had died in detention—a new use of an old word, for her. He was a black man, of course. She hadn't known his name before, perhaps she had heard it whispered, in conversations she wasn't meant to hear, but she knew his name now. Steve Biko. Dead in detention. The newspaper reports were in black and white, as newspapers are, but the news, to her, was grey: a grey prison, she imagined, grey walls, grey concrete, a grey prison van she read about, concrete floors. It was the greyness, the slipperiness, of dusk, of light leaving. Her mornings, now, greyed: they dimmed, a little.

She'd leave for school in her blue uniform, in black shoes and short white socks. At school there was no mention of the news, or of the grey news reports. At school they were studying for their matriculation exams, so they talked about The Great Gatsby, and Macbeth, and equilateral triangles, and irregular French verbs. The sun shone through the trees, they were boys and girls flirting, she was seventeen.

But the next morning, at the kitchen table, would be the newspaper. It was the liberal newspaper of South Africa that she read in her home, the Rand Daily Mail, which is the only reason she knew that the black man who died in detention did not die, but was murdered. She read on. There was a battle in the newspapers, the liberal newspaper was censored, later with black ink blocks, once again, and again. She followed all this now, an obsession. The editor, the journalist, the writers, were threatened, again and again. They fought back. The greyness, the seeping greyness, could not be hidden. And then it wasn't greyness any more, but bleak, unremitting brutality.

Usually we say that black is evil, but as the schoolgirl's days filled with grey, like smoke, she understood (secretly, for she had no-one to talk about this with) that evil's closest companion is grey. The grey of muffled words and actions, of censored words and actions, of forbidden words and acts: the grey of muffled truth.

She left South Africa on an airplane three months later. She remembers the airport, which was also grey, and the many policemen who stood around the airport, in the departure hall, wherever you looked. They wore blue uniforms, she thinks now, but she could have the colour wrong, in memory. Stepping out of the departure hall was like stepping out of a prison. A large, a great prison—a whole country, a prison.

She sat for twelve hours breathing the close air of an airplane cabin, not able to move much, and landed at Heathrow airport, to be met by beloved and missed people. But the air in London, she remembers, was sharp and cold, cold like she never knew, and grey. It wasn't home at all, and it wasn't freedom, either. But that is another story, for another day.

The schoolgirl became a woman, in the new, cold country, and later, much later, she wrote a book about Johannesburg in nineteen seventy-seven, a work of fiction, which as we all know, can reveal the greatest truths.

She never forgot the newspapers: the fact that freedom of the press, the freedom of newspapers to report facts, was a sacrosanct value, a life-and-death value, among many that were lost in the wasteland that was Johannesburg of nineteen seventy-seven.

She doesn't like writing about this, it takes a tremendous effort of will to do so, but she will write about it.

May the great and good soul of Stephen Bantu Biko, and his many murdered compatriots, rest in peace.

Dawn Promislow
Dawn Promislow was born and raised in Johannesburg, Gauteng, in South Africa. She left the continent with her family in 1977 and lived in London, England, before returning to study English and French literature at the University of Cape Town. Dawn has lived in Toronto since 1987, where she works as a magazine journalist. Jewels and Other Stories is her first collection. In March 2014 she was the Featured Voice at Canopic Jar with two stories, "Gleaming Like Light" and "Path." For more information, please contact the publisher.


Bigger Than Ben Hur said...

Peter Gabriel has a wonderful song simply called "Biko". I feel very moved whenever I hear that song.

Kay Cooke said...

A lovely description. Another reminder of why it is important to write.

Africanson said...


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