IF ANYONE was going to make a big deal about having known Steve Biko, it was always going to be Xolela Mangcu, as he does in his latest book, Biko: A Biography.

Being the colourful commentator he is, Mangcu has always made much of having known Biko in his previous works and in newspaper columns.

There’s nothing wrong with idolising one’s hero; after all, Biko had a big influence on people he didn’t even meet. For Mangcu, who was a boy of 11 when Biko died, the influence is certainly profound and evident.

Mangcu, like Biko, is one of the famous sons from Ginsberg, a township in King William’s Town. But if the reader indulges Mangcu’s tales about knowing Biko a bit, and gets past that, there is a wealth of information from which to benefit. The book does a good job of weaving a number of strands together that make the totality of the powerful persona Biko became.

Mangcu pulls together various facets of political influences that may have shaped Biko’s philosophical outlook. It did not happen out of the blue that Biko became a towering giant of black consciousness.

He tracks the underpinning of black consciousness from historic events, such as colonial resistance and the work of historic chiefs and intellectuals.

In one of the early reviews, Mangcu has been accused, by a fellow Biko worshiper, Andile Mngximtama, of revealing nothing new about Biko in the book.

It’s no surprise that Mngximtama took a swipe at Mangcu. Mngximtata fancies himself as the authentic modern-day articulator of black consciousness.

While biographies do not necessarily or always have to reveal the unknown — they must pull together and present a life in a comprehensive manner. That is what Mangcu does in this book.

Mngximtama says the book reveals more about Mangcu than about Biko, but that’s how Mangcu has always been. He is not too shy to use "I" or to talk about himself.

As you turn the pages, you wonder if the book is about Mangcu, or the politics that shaped black consciousness, instead of being about Biko’s life. But that may well be the great thing about Mangcu’s work; he does not merely zoom in on Biko, he goes beyond that to the politics that created Biko and how he in turn shaped black consciousness.

I found the book not specific enough on Biko, and perhaps it is wrong to call it a biography. But beyond that, it is a nuanced account of the political factors and the environment that shaped Biko’s politics. Mangcu does this, by capturing Biko’s rise, his strength and weaknesses, through work that shows broad research, reading and interviews.

And he doesn’t fall for the trap that many biographers fall into — that of portraying their subjects as heroes without shortcomings.

Biko’s leadership, for instance, is presented at its most strategic as a student leader’s, and at its weakest, when he reluctantly backed the establishment of a political formation in the Black People’s Convention, when he wasn’t convinced of the need for it.

Biko was not the brightest among his peers, but the most influential. Mangcu says Barney Pityana was considered to be more analytical. He boldly calls Pityana, now an accomplished academic and university administrator, Biko’s "philosophical counterpart". It was Biko who sold the political concept of black consciousness to Pityana.

Biko did not lead from the front: he articulated the outcome of discussions and debates he would have facilitated. But that leadership style battled against an assertive and militant group which, in 1970s, pushed for the formation of the Black People’s Convention, and saw him reluctantly back it.

Biko’s life and the ideals he stood for have been a subject of interpretation in South Africa’s political discourse since his death. This book adds to the mix, and does so authoritatively. It also captures the politics and trials of establishing black consciousness campaigns. As one of the most comprehensive books about the inspirational leader since he was killed by apartheid police on September 12 1977, Mangcu’s book sheds new light on more than just Biko.

About the author: DR Xolela Mangcu

Born in the Eastern Cape, Mangcu is an internationally respected analyst and commentator often quoted in South Africa’s media. Based at the University of Cape Town, he is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. He was executive director of the Human Sciences Research Council and has held fellowships at Harvard University; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Rockefeller Foundation. He also chairs the prestigious Sunday Times Alan Paton Awards. He has a BA and MSc from the University of the Witwatersrand and a PhD from Cornell University in the US.

Mangcu has written weekly columns for the Sunday Independent, Business Day and the Weekender, and is a guest analyst for the BBC, CNN and Al-Jazeera. He has written and co-authored six books including Becoming Worthy Ancestors: Archive, Identity and Public Deliberation in Democratic South Africa. The Sunday Times has called Mangcu "possibly the most prolific public intellectual in South Africa". Peter Vale, professor of humanities at the University of Johannesburg, described him as "the most interesting, certainly the most engaging voice among the new generation of public intellectuals in South Africa".

Mangcu grew up alongside Steve Biko and writing this book is fulfilling a life’s dream.

Source: NB Publishers and Who’s Who SA