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Biko statue unveiling marred by protest

September 12, 1997

EAST LONDON, South Africa (AP) _ Radical black students disrupted a ceremony honoring slain black pride leader Steve Biko today because the bronze statue of Biko was made by a white artist.

President Nelson Mandela sat on the podium waiting to give his speech for more than an hour, while hundreds of members of the Azanian Student Association shouted and chanted to delay the proceedings on the 20th anniversary of Biko’s death.

About 30 armed soldiers lined up in front of the stage to form a buffer between the melee and Mandela. Despite pleas from their leaders, the protesters continued shouting until Mandela finally stood up to deliver his speech.

``We have a rowdy and undisciplined crowd of children,″ Mandela told the crowd. ``But nevertheless I still love them.″

His comments drew cheers and laughter, and the protesters quieted down.

It was an ironic finish to an emotional week involving Biko and his death in detention on Sept. 12, 1977, at age 30. Two days of hearings before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Port Elizabeth revealed chilling details of how police beat Biko to the point of brain damage, then left him chained up for 24 hours before calling a doctor.

Today’s ceremony was supposed to be the highlight of remembrances of Biko, who urged blacks to take pride in themselves and their culture. He was a leading black figure in South Africa at a time when most well-known black leaders, including Mandela, were imprisoned or in exile due to the repression of apartheid.

Nelvis Qekema, president of the student association, said the group was angry that the life-size statue was created by a white Namibian artist, Naomi Jacobson, instead of a black South African. He also complained that Biko’s statue was placed on the ``fringe″ of the City Hall property and was much smaller than a nearby statue of an anonymous British soldier.

In his speech, Mandela praised Biko for advocating black pride without preaching intolerance.

``While Steve Biko espoused, inspired and promoted black pride, he never made blackness a fetish,″ Mandela said. ``One of the greatest legacies of the struggle that Biko waged _ and for which he died _ was the explosion of pride among victims of apartheid.″

``The value that black consciousness placed on culture reverberated across our land, in our prisons and amongst the communities in exile. Our people, who were once enjoined to look to Europe and America for creative sustenance, turned their eyes to Africa,″ Mandela said.

Mandela noted the statue was paid for by artists including Denzel Washington, Kevin Kline and Richard Attenborough of the film ``Cry Freedom,″ which depicted Biko’s life, and Peter Gabriel, who wrote the song ``Biko.″

Earlier, Mandela also unveiled a bronze bust of Biko at the barren graveyard where Biko was buried and announced Biko’s home would become a national monument.

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