Watch Steve Biko Documentary
|Born||18 December 1946
King William’s Town, South Africa
|Died||12 September 1977 (aged 30)
Pretoria, South Africa
|Children||Nkosinathi Biko, Samora Biko, Lerato Biko, Motlatsi Biko andHlumelo Biko|
Stephen Bantu Biko (18 December 1946 – 12 September 1977) was an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s.
A student leader, he later founded the Black Consciousness Movement which would empower and mobilize much of the urban black population. Since his death in police custody, he has been called amartyr of the anti-apartheid movement. While living, his writings and activism attempted to empower black people, and he was famous for his slogan “black is beautiful”, which he described as meaning: “man, you are okay as you are, begin to look upon yourself as a human being”.
Despite friction between the African National Congress and Biko throughout the 1970s the ANC has included Biko in the pantheon of struggle heroes, going as far as using his image for campaign posters in South Africa’s first non-racial elections in 1994.
Biko was born in King William’s Town, in the present-day Eastern Capeprovince of South Africa. He studied to be a doctor at the University of Natal Medical School. Biko was a Xhosa. In addition to Xhosa, he spoke fluent English and fairly fluent Afrikaans.
He was initially involved with the multiracialNational Union of South African Students, but after he became convinced that Black, Indian andColoured students needed an organization of their own, he helped found the South African Students’ Organisation(SASO), whose agenda included political self-reliance and the unification of university students in a “black consciousness.” In 1968 Biko was elected its first president. SASO evolved into the influentialBlack Consciousness Movement (BCM). Biko was also involved with theWorld Student Christian Federation.
Biko married Ntsiki Mashalaba in 1970. They had two children together: Nkosinathi, born in 1971, and Samora. He also had two children withDr Mamphela Ramphele(a prominent activist within the BCM): a daughter, Lerato, born in 1974, who died of pneumonia when she was only two months old, and a son, Hlumelo, who was born in 1978, after Biko’s death. Biko also had a daughter with Lorraine Tabane, named Motlatsi, born in May 1977.
In the early 1970s Biko became a key figure inThe Durban Moment. In 1972 he was expelled from the University of Natal because of his political activities and he became honorary president of the Black People’s Convention. He wasbanned by the apartheid regime in February 1973, meaning that he was not allowed to speak to more than one person at a time nor to speak in public, was restricted to the King William’s Town magisterial district, and could not write publicly or speak with the media. It was also forbidden to quote anything he said, including speeches or simple conversations.
When Biko was banned, his movement within the country was restricted to the Eastern Cape, where he was born. After returning there, he formed a number of grassroots organizations based on the notion of self-reliance: Zanempilo, the Zimele Trust Fund (which helped support former political prisoners and their families), Njwaxa Leather-Works Project and the Ginsberg Education Fund.
In spite of the repression of the apartheid government, Biko and the BCM played a significant role in organising the protests which culminated in the Soweto Uprising of 16 June 1976. In the aftermath of the uprising, which was crushed by heavily armed police shooting school children protesting, the authorities began to target Biko further.
Death and aftermath
On 18 August 1977, Biko was arrested at a police roadblock under the Terrorism Act No 83 of 1967 and interrogated by officers of the Port Elizabeth security police including Harold Snyman and Gideon Nieuwoudt. This interrogation took place in the Police Room 619. The interrogation lasted twenty-two hours and included torture and beatings resulting in a coma. He suffered a major head injury while in police custody, and was chained to a window grille for a day.
On 11 September 1977, police loaded him in the back of a Land Rover, naked and restrained in manacles, and began the 1100 km drive toPretoria to take him to a prison with hospital facilities. He was nearly dead owing to the previous injuries. He died shortly after arrival at the Pretoria prison, on 12 September. The police claimed his death was the result of an extended hunger strike, but an autopsy revealed multiple bruises and abrasions and that he ultimately succumbed to a brain hemorrhage from the massive injuries to the head, which many saw as strong evidence that he had been brutally clubbed by his captors. Then Donald Woods, a journalist, editor and close friend of Biko’s, along with Helen Zille, later leader of the Democratic Alliancepolitical party, exposed the truth behind Biko’s death.
Because of his high profile, news of Biko’s death spread quickly, opening many eyes around the world to the brutality of the apartheidregime. His funeral was attended by over 10,000 people, including numerous ambassadors and other diplomats from the United States and Western Europe. The liberal white South African journalist Donald Woods, a personal friend of Biko, photographed his injuries in the morgue. Woods was later forced to flee South Africa for England. Donald Woods later campaigned against apartheid and further publicised Biko’s life and death, writing many newspaper articles and authoring the book, Biko, which was later turned into the film Cry Freedom. Speaking at a National Party conference following the news of Biko’s death then-minister of police, Jimmy Kruger said, “I am not glad and I am not sorry about Mr. Biko. It leaves me cold (Dit laat my koud). I can say nothing to you … Any person who dies … I shall also be sorry if I die.”
After a 15-day inquest in 1978, a magistrate judge found there was not enough evidence to charge the officers with murder because there were no eyewitnesses. On 2 February 1978, based on the evidence given at the inquest, the attorney general of the Eastern Capestated he would not prosecute. On 28 July 1979, the attorney for Biko’s family announced that the South African government would pay them $78,000 in compensation for Biko’s death.
On 7 October 2003, the South African justice ministry announced that the five policemen accused of killing Biko would not be prosecuted because the time limit for prosecution had elapsed and because of insufficient evidence.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was created following the end of minority rule and the apartheid system, reported that five former members of the South African security forces who had admitted to killing Biko were applying for amnesty. Their application was rejected in 1999.
A year after his death, some of his writings were collected and released under the title “I Write What I Like”.
Influences and formation of ideology
Like Frantz Fanon, Biko originally studied medicine, and, like Fanon, Biko developed an intense concern for the development of black consciousness as a solution to the existential struggles which shape existence, both as a human and as an African (see Négritude). Biko can thus be seen as a follower of Fanon and Aimé Césaire, in contrast to more multi-racialist ANC leaders such as Nelson Mandela after his imprisonment at Robben Island, and Albert Luthuli who were first disciples of Gandhi.
Biko saw the struggle to restore African consciousness as having two stages, “Psychological liberation” and “Physical liberation”. Thenonviolent influence of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. upon Biko is then suspect, as Biko knew that for his struggle to give rise to physical liberation, it was necessary that it exist within the political realities of the apartheid regime, and Biko’s nonviolence may be seen more as a tactic than a personal conviction.
Biko’s relevance in the present
In the present post-Apartheid South Africa, Biko is now revered across the political spectrum despite obvious ideological differences. Many of these people see Biko’s philosophy as irrelevant after 1994. However, in 2004, he was voted 13th in the SABC3’s Great South Africans.
However, many present-day social movements, activists, and academics continue to stress the relevance of Biko’s black consciousness. This includes a strong critique of voting by academic Andile Mngxitama who has said that if Biko were alive today, he would not be supporting any political party, would not even vote, but would be marching with the social movements against government.
Biko is buried in King William Town, Eastern Cape Province in the town cemetery near the railroad tracks.
Apart from Donald Woods’ book called Biko, his name has been honoured at several universities. Locally, the main Student Union buildings of the University of Cape Town are named in his honour and each year a commemorative Steve Biko lecture, open to all students, is delivered on the anniversary of his death. Internationally, the University of Manchester’s student union, the Steve Biko Building, on the Oxford road campus, is named in his honour. Ruskin College, Oxford has a Biko House student accommodation. The bar at the University of Bradford was named after Biko until its closure in 2005. Numerous other venues in Students Unions around the United Kingdom also bear his name. The Santa Barbara Student Housing Cooperative has a house named after Steve Biko, themed to provide a safe, respectful space for people of colour. A street in Hounslow, West London, is named “Steve Biko Way”. At the University of California, Santa Cruz, there is a section of dormitories named “Biko House” located in the Oakes College Multicultural Theme Housing. The Steve Biko Institute was founded in Salvador, Brazil to support the education and pride of Black Brazilians. The Pretoria Academic Hospital was renamed the Steve Biko Academic Hospital in 2008. Durban University of Technology has acknowledged Steve Biko’s contribution to South African Society by naming its largest campus after him. A bronze bust of Steve Biko was unveiled in Freedom Square on this campus as a tribute to him. Peter Gabriel and the Hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest each named a song after him in his honour.