Steve Biko would have been 70 today.
Steve Biko died at the age of 31 while in police custody at the Walmer Police Station, Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape on 12th September 1977 – he was murdered 39 years ago by a white racist regime which was then supported by all the “Freedom Loving Democracies.” The power of his life still resonates. The former medical student and founder of the Black Consciousness Movement is considered by many to be a martyr of the anti-apartheid movement. His life has been commemorated in the film “Cry Freedom” where Denzel Washington played Biko. His encouragement of black self-reliance and his support for black institutions made him a popular figure, and, in 1972, he gave up his studies to become honorary president of the Black People’s Convention (BPC), a coalition of over 70 black groups.
SASO had decided to form this body since both the main parties supported by black South Africans – the African National Congress and the Pan-African Congress – had been banned. But the BPC was not trying to compete with the ANC and PAC. ‘There will be one movement of revolt against the system of injustice’, Biko said. The BPC wanted to unite blacks with the aim of freeing them from ‘psychological and physical oppression’ and it intended to ‘popularise and implement the philosophy of Black Consciousness and black solidarity’. It also believed in trying to create a society which was based on social, judicial and economic equality.
Steve Biko was born on 18 December 1946 just months before the racist National Party, which introduced apartheid in South Africa, came to power. His father died when he was four and his mother worked as a domestic servant for white families in King William’s Town in Cape Province. He became involved in politics while studying medicine at Natal University and was one of the founders (and first president) of the all-black South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) in 1969. He travelled to different black campuses to spread ideas about establishing black solidarity and to get black students ‘accepted on their own terms as an integral part of the South African community’. Many of his basic ideas were similar to those developed in the US Black Power movement, and emphasised pride, self-respect, and the ability to achieve political and social justice on black people’s own terms.
Biko explained Black Consciousness:
“The black man is a defeated being who finds it very difficult to lift himself up by his bootstrings. He is alienated – alienated from himself, from his friends, and from society in general. He is made to live all the time concerned with matters of existence: “What shall I eat tomorrow?” We felt that we must attempt to defeat and break this kind of attitude and to instil once more a sense of human dignity within the black man. So what we did was to design various types of programmes, present these to the black community with an obvious illustration that these are done by black people for the sole purpose of uplifting the black community.”
Biko and his group were put under government bans which severely restricted their movements and their freedom of speech and association. They were frequently imprisoned. When Biko died in prison, the government claimed it was because he had gone on hunger strike. Few believed this and there was outrage across the world. (This was partly because of publicity from a well-known white South African journalist, Donald Woods, who had known Biko well, and had himself gone into exile in Britain.)
His funeral was attended by more than 15,000 mourners. Thousands more were barred from going by security forces. Twelve Western countries sent representatives to the service, which was conducted by the Right Reverend Desmond Tutu.
It emerged at Biko’s inquest that he had been held in a cell for 20 days, naked, deprived of exercise, unable to communicate with anyone, half-starved and beaten. Doctors were amongst those officers who tried to cover up the way he had died. Those who beat him to death have now been named and forced to appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
His life story was dramatised in the film Cry Freedom, based on the book “Biko” by Donald Woods.
“You can blow out a candle
But you can’t blow out a fire
Once the flame begins to catch
The wind will blow it higher
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko…
The eyes of the world are
watching now… “
Even though Biko was never a member of the African National Congress (ANC), the ANC has included him 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. Nelson Mandela said of Biko: “They had to kill him to prolong the life of apartheid.”
Stephen Bantu Biko (18 December 1946 – 12 September 1977) – Student Leader, Anti-Apartheid activist and founder of the Black Consciousness Movement.
See also: Kader Asmal – Freedom’s friend