11th Annual Steve Biko Lecture by Alice Walker

17 Sep 2010

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American, author, poet and activist, Alice Walker delivered the 11th Annual Steve Biko Lecture at the University of Cape Town on 13 September 2010. 

In her speech reflecting on South Africa, Walker said, "I have seen the hovels, the shacks, the unpaved roads, the unkempt children on one side of Johannesburg, and the mansions with the highest walls I have ever seen around dwellings on another. What to make of this? What to make of the words of your Constitution, in which you profess such an understanding of the unique sufferings of the poor?"

Read the rest of her transcribed speech below.

Note that the clip above only covers a portion of Walker's speech. Watch the rest of her speech here and here.


11th Annual Steve Biko Lecture

Coming to See You Since I was 5 Years Old: A Poets Connection to the South African Soul

By Alice Walker

I wrote this, this morning… so it’s fresh [laughs and applause]

I have spent most of the early morning from 3 o’ clock thinking what I’ll say to you… there is so much. First of all I want to say that I am in your country and have been drawn to your country, the beautiful South Africa – which for some years in our own struggle we referred to as Azania – because of a deep love for you, of your heroines and heroes, of your long long struggle toward positive humanity for yourselves and all oppressed people on the planet. You have been a great inspiration to all the people on earth who are interested in and devoted to justice, peace, and happiness. I was asked to provide a title for my talk and this is what came to me: “Coming to See You Since I was 5 Years Old: A Poets Connection to the South African Soul.”

The reason I have been coming to you for over sixty years is because when I was five years old, my eldest sister – Mamie-Lee Walker – came home from college, her freshman year, and taught my 11 year old sister and myself your national anthem, “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrica.” We were the only children of any colour who were taught this song in our tiny, totally segregated town, in the deep south of the United States in Georgia. The somber intense passion and dignity in the melody entered my heart and it has lodged there for the last 60 years. It did not just lodge there; it propelled me into the deepest of curiosities about who Africans might truly be, because in the deeply racist United States of the 40s and 50s (when I was born) Africa was shrouded in the most profound mists of distortion, racially motivated misperceptions, gross exploitation, and lies. Africans were almost cheerfully despised, considered to be savages certainly, and yet for me and my sister Ruth there was our sister Mamie coming home from college – whose fees my materially poor parents sweated to pay – there were the sounds of “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrica.” “God bless mother Africa” was sung so earnestly by her loving sons and daughters, her horribly abused children, that had made an impression on our psyches never to be erased.

Here is part of the poem that goes with this awakening to Africa:

[In the poem I changed my sister’s name from Mamie to Molly]

For my sister Molly who in the fifties

Knew Hamlet well and read into the night

And coached me in my songs of Africa

A continent I never knew

But learned to love

Because "they" said she could carry

A tune

And spoke in accents never heard in Eatonton.

When I myself went to college it was that song “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrica,” that sound of so much humility, love, devotion, and trust, that led me to the most important friendship I encountered during my student years; a friendship with an African woman named Constance Wangero who hailed from Uganda. From that friendship and the understanding that Constance and I were sisters, developed my deep interest in and concern for Africa and its peoples, its animals, its rain forests and its diverse cultures. Through the writings of Africans both male and female, I began to encounter an intellectual and moral thoughtfulness that bordered on – and often embodied – the most astonishing profundity. I remember reading The Radiance of the King (by Camara Laye) for instance and just being stunned. It should not have been surprising that as soon as I found a way to do so, while I was still 19 or 20, I made my way to east Africa to the land of Constance Wangero’s birth to discover for myself what made her such a wonderful person, wise and gentle beyond her years and certainly beyond those of any of the other girls at our school. I am happy to say that I encountered a Uganda that bears little resemblance to the one that we see today. Uganda was once referred to as the Asian part of Africa, because of the people’s gentle courtesy and kindness. It was also a land of the greenest valleys and hills, where there was a palpable feeling of peace and patience with a stranger. I was taken in immediately by a Ugandan family who sheltered and cared for me during my visit, dispelling at once any sense I might have had that I would not be recognized as one of Africa’s children. 

From this encounter in Africa, and later in Kenya,  where I joined others in beginning the construction of a school, followed my curiosity about the African continent in many of my works. It was in Kenya that I first learnt of female genital cutting, I was so shocked that I hid from this subject for many years, and then (because by then I knew I loved Africa whatever was happening) I set out to learn all that I could about this practice. And then I set out to write about it as fully as I could. This I did in a novel called, “Possessing the Secret of Joy.” I was driven to find the answer to the question, “Why would any parent who loved them willingly hurt their children?”

One of the things I began to understand about oppression as I worked on this issue was how the oppressor – whoever it is – will happily steal everything we have, but they will leave us our self-inflicted suffering. They will leave us; gladly leave us, our scars. And then they will help others define us by the wounds and scars we give ourselves.  They will take all our land, our water, our minerals – our dances even – and they will feel justified in doing so, but they will leave us with visibly very little, except that which is gruesome to outsiders and painful to those of us who must suffer it.

The resonance of “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrica” is also deeply deeply embedded in The Colour Purple. Half of that novel is set in Africa, in colonial Africa, among Africans and explores what happens to the Africans as their land is confiscated by plantation owner thieves. The discovery that Africans are enslaved in their own land is of grave concern to the African-American missionaries who come to realize that they too in America have been stolen from the African people and the African continent in the same way that the land has been. This is a horrible realization and sends them into intense pain and grief. They are also awakened to the sham of their missionary mission which is to “uplift the hapless natives.” Many readers fail to realize this, but The Colour Purple is a theological text. It is about the reclamation of one’s original God – the earth and nature – it is about re-examining that word that most colonized people are taught to loathe, “pagan.” One who loves and worships nature, venerates and protects mother nature, one who cares for all of her creatures with a degree of acceptance and tolerance. There is a built-in humility toward nature, that means that it is respected for the very wonder of its being; and that if a tree must be cut down, for instance, one must beg its pardon. This respect for nature is one of the biggest losses to Africans and other indigenous peoples since is our domination and colonization by people who think about nature entirely differently than we do (or than we USED to do); those unfortunate sufferers in the northern part of the globe, who suffered from the ravages and hardships so severely, of the last ice-age.

“Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrica!”

[GOD bless Africa!]

Hearing this song, learning this song, hearing your heart and soul coming through it; even as a five year old, how could I ever leave you? An so I have taken you and your spirit, the spirit of Steve Biko, of Winnie Mandela, of Nelson Mandela, the children of Sharpeville completely into the very marrow of my bones. In our own struggles to end American apartheid you have been with us, in our struggles against nuclear wars and weapons that threaten to end all of our lives, your struggle has encouraged us. In the infinitely long struggle to affirm the rights of women, your example of never giving up sustains us. For we have seen in your struggle, the completely complimentary nature of male and female solidarity in the pursuit of the common objective – Freedom. In my ongoing befriending of the other animals of the planet, it is your struggle that is part of my passionate defense of them. For who knows better than black South Africans and those who stood with them, what it means to be treated as if one did not deserve to live?

Another poem, from my very first visit to east Africa, when I didn’t understand that just as the white man wantonly slaughtered the buffalo in my country, he was busily destroying the animals of Africa, I saw this in a shop window in Nairobi. But naïve as I was, I did not understand what I was seeing. It is a short poem, if you blink, you could miss it.

Only this, a Haiku:

Elephant legs

In a store

To hold


And today when I write about Aung San Suu Kyi, in Burma/ Myanmar or visit Gaza to see the devastation cause by the Israel assault on a people under present-day apartheid laws. It is as if a tiny recording of “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrica” is lodged in my brain. And because it is there never seizing, just as your desire for freedom never stopped, I know that whatever the disaster I am witnessing, will have an end. The people of Palestine, like the people of South Africa, have a right to their land, their resources, and their freedom. I know from the world’s gradual embracing of the South African struggle that the same will be the fate of the Palestinians. And the “Why” of it is so simple: no lies will live forever! And when a lie is exposed; that Africans are merely savages, that Palestinians are merely terrorists, that women are basically servants of men or whores; there in the bright glare of our collective awareness, it dies, the lie dies. And when lies die, people live!

And that brings us to consciousness, and to Steve Biko. Steve Biko is known as The Father of Black Consciousness in South Africa. He taught that black people must investigate and validate their own existence, irrespective of other people’s opinions of them; that they must see themselves in the warm light of their own genius - the unique gift that they come into the world carrying to deliver to all of human kind; that they must have faith that they are made perfectly for the singular expression of the divine that they are. This is why one reveres Steve Biko. Because, in short, he fully understood that the foundation of any true liberation, any true liberation, is self-love. And that reminds me of an earlier poem that I wrote about missing things like my car keys, my glasses, and where I parked the car. That short poem in my book, Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth, its title

“Where is that Nail file? Where are my glasses? Have you seen my car keys?”  is very short and it goes like this:

Nothing is ever lost

It is only misplaced

If we look we can find it again

Human kindness

There’s also a lovely comment from poet Galway Kinnel that comes to mind here that, “Sometimes it is necessary/ to reteach a thing its loveliness.” This is perhaps where South Africans are, many of them, at the moment. Needing the rest of us who have been so deeply inspired and imprinted by your courage, dignity, and beauty of soul and body to remind you all this; to remind you of who you are. It is with so much sadness, so much sadness, that one reads about South Africa in recent news. As an activist, a revolutionary, a poet and writer, and yes for all my daughter’s criticisms of me as a mother [giggles]; I am unable to comprehend how you now have a president who has 3 wives and 20-odd children. A president who has been accused of atrocious acts, and seems to have little restraint in his personal life that would mean dignity and respect accorded to his people [applause]. I am by no means the only person in the world scratching my head over this. I have been in your country for three or four days. Each day has brought a new disclosure in the news of rampant greed and materialism that quite takes ones breath away. There’s news about the desperation of the poor, news of violence and despair, a lack of faith in the persons guiding the country, the feeling that perhaps people have lost the will to guide themselves. Was it all for this? Was Mandela’s incarceration for nearly three decades, and Steve Biko’s death from torture, for this; were people fighting over mines they own not just in South Africa -- but in battered and bleeding countries like the Congo for instance far (but not so far) away?

Perhaps my heart is heavier regarding the Congo, because I was recently there. As you know it has become known as the worst place on earth to be a woman. And indeed while I was there I witnessed what was happening to our brothers and sisters, because of the greed that is devouring their land on a level almost too horrible to contemplate. The people themselves are being devoured, sometimes literally. I know I am not the only one in this room who remembers the beauty and dignity, the grace and eloquence of Patrice Lumumba [ululation, cheers and applause]. That last view of him, his hands tied behind his back, his torturers attempting to force something into his mouth, his proud refusal to open to whatever it was; then the news later that he had been tortured, had been killed, his body thrown from a plane. Then later, the colonialists placed another African in his place who was not bothered by the rape of his country; in fact he profited from it. Is this to be the fate of South Africa?

“Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrica!”

South Africans of that era as well as black activists in the United States saw exactly what was going on and we wept for the dream of Africa for Africans that we witnessed being lost. All true revolutionaries like Lumumba love us; they want us to have abundant joyful life. “Tenderness,” said Ché Guevara “is at root, what revolution is about; caring for each other, honoring the other in ourselves, ourselves in the other.”


I have seen the hovels, the shacks, the unpaved roads, the unkempt children on one side of Johannesburg, and the mansions with the highest walls I have ever seen around dwellings on another. What to make of this? What to make of the words of your Constitution, in which you profess such an understanding of the unique sufferings of the poor? What to make of the stories one sets outside one’s mind they are so troubling: the young woman

You can find this page online at http://sacsis.org.za/site/article/274.19.

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