NMMU: We did not bar Zille from giving Biko memorial lecture

Helen Zille was once an investigative journalist at the Rand Daily Mail, the paper that uncovered the truth about Biko’s death.

The Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University said they did not bar Democratic Alliance Leader and Western Cape premier, Helen Zille, from presenting a memorial lecture on Steve Biko, which was scheduled to take place today.

Today is the 35th year anniversary of the death of Biko in police custody. Biko, who was the leader of the South African Students’ Organisation at the time, was arrested in the outskirts of Grahamstown on 18 August 1977 and detained in a Port Elizabeth police cell, where he had been chained to a grill at night and left to lie in urine-soaked blankets.

Biko was stripped naked and kept in leg-irons for 48 hours in his cell. A blow in a scuffle with security police led to him suffering brain damage and he was transferred to a prison hospital in Pretoria, which was 1133 km away. He died shortly after his arrival there.

Zille, who was an investigative journalist at the Rand Daily Mail at the time of Biko’s death, wrote extensively about what had happened, and had been scheduled to address students at the university today.

However, yesterday NMMU Student Representative Council president, Yusuf Cassim, said the memorial lecture had been cancelled following consultation with university management, Azasco and the centre for the advancement of non racialism and democracy.

“We were well ready to go ahead with the event, however as the SRC, after consultation with the vice chancellor, the dean of students as well as one of our affiliates, we took a decision, based on requests made to us, and based on advice from members of management, to cancel the programme,” he said.

Asked about the cancellation on Twitter yesterday, Zille tweeted “Very sadly the university refused me permission to be there. They said there is another one [lecture]. I was v disappointed.”

In another post on the subject, she wrote “They said there was another lecture and that we did not apply for permission from the Biko family. We doubt these are the real reasons.”

The university’s Director: Marketing and Corporate Relations, Pieter Swart, responded today, saying that Zille  failed to inform the public that she had spoken at the University just a week ago, with full consent of the university.

“The University does not permit two similar public lectures on the same topic – it simply does not make sense, it would confuse the public, split attendance, and detract from the honour to bestowed on Steve Biko and his memory,” he said.

Zille actually visited the university two weeks ago, when she spoke about the “importance of economic freedom in our lifetime”.

Swart also went on to say that CANRAD event, which is currently taking place at the university in honour of Biko, had been planned at the start of the year, whereas the Democratic Alliance Students Organisation’s request to host Zille had come less than a week ago;

“NMMU does not truck any political interference in its decisions, so the DA leader’s statement alleging the contrary is untrue, and disappointing for someone campaigning against unfairness and bullying,” said Swart.

“We will simply not accept bullying from any quarter. The decision not to grant permission for a parallel Biko lecture is one taken by the Dean of students, and supported by Management,” he said.