30th Anniversary of the Death of Steve Biko

By Nereshnee Govender

A Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) leader, Stephen Banto Biko was South Africa’s most influential and radical student leader in the 1970s. Biko's philosophy was that political freedom would only be achieved if blacks stopped feeling inferior to whites. This formed the heart of the Black Consciousness Movement. He believed that black people should lead the fight against apartheid. 

Early Life
Biko was born on 18 December 1946 in Ginsberg, a township outside King William's Town. Biko’s father was a clerk and his mother was a maid. His father died when he was only four years old. Biko excelled in school as a youth. His educational career started in1952 against the background of the Bantu Education Act – an Act introduced by the apartheid government to stifle Black education. Biko attended several schools, such as Brownlee Primary, Charles Morgan Higher Primary, Lovedale Institute and St Francis – a Catholic boarding School outside Durban. While Biko was a student at Lovedale, his brother was arrested and jailed for 9 months during a government crackdown for being a suspected member of POQO (later APLA), the military wing of the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC). Biko was also brought under interrogation by police and was subsequently expelled from the school after only attending for three months.

Political career
After matriculating from St Francis, Biko enrolled at the University of Natal. It was here that Biko’s political activism was unearthed. He dedicated most of his time to the cause of Black emancipation. At university his desire to study medicine was hampered by his constant involvement in political activities. He became so engaged in politics that his performance declined and he deregistered from university.

In 1968 Biko and his colleagues founded a new all-black and pro-black organisation namely the South African Students Organisation (SASO). He was elected as its first President in July 1969. In 1970 Biko was appointed Publicity Secretary of the organisation. SASO was involved in providing legal aid and medical clinics, as well as social upliftment programmes in black communities. SASO adopted a new pro-black and radical doctrine that became known as Black Consciousness. By Biko’s own definition Black Consciousness was the “cultural and political revival of an oppressed people.” By 1971, the Black Consciousness Movement had grown into a formidable force throughout the country. In an attempt to reform SASO (which originally comprised students) and incorporate the adults, Biko established the Black People’s Convention (BPC) as well as Black Community Programmes (BCP). In July 1972, the Black People's Convention (BPC) was founded. The BPC effectively brought together about 70 different black consciousness groups and associations.

In 1973, Biko was banned and confined to the magisterial district of King William’s Town by the apartheid government. The banning restricted him to his hometown of King William's Town and he was prevented from teaching or making public addresses, writing or saying anything about black consciousness. In spite of being banned, Biko continued to advance the work of Black Consciousness. For the next four years, he continued to spread his message at gatherings and with his underground publication called "Frank Talk". During this period Biko was often harassed, arrested, and detained by the South African Police. In the Eastern Cape he established a branch of BCP and organised literacy, dressmaking and health education programmes. Biko also set up a health clinic outside King William’s Town for poor rural Blacks who battled to access city hospitals. 

The banning and detention of several SASO and BPC leaders under the Terrorism Act did not deter them. The accused used the seventeen-month trial that followed as a platform to state the case of Black Consciousness. Although they were found guilty and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment for revolutionary conspiracy they were later acquitted. Their convictions further strengthened the Black Consciousness movement. The Black Consciousness philosophy sought to restore dignity to the black person who had been reduced to nothing by the apartheid regime.

During the Soweto riots of June 1976 there were violent clashes between high school students (protesting the use of Afrikaans as the medium of academic instruction) and police. This marked the beginning of widespread urban unrest in the country. The wave of strikes during and after Soweto demonstrated, to a large extent, the influence Biko exerted on South African socio-political life. Although he did not directly take part in the Soweto riots, the influence of Black Consciousness ideas spurred students to fight an unjust system particularly after they were compelled to accept Afrikaans as a language for use in schools. Biko was a symbol of hope and inspiration, and a role model among the young people.

Biko’s death and inquest
On 18 August 1977, Biko with a friend Peter Jones, an executive member of the BPC was arrested by security police while travelling home from a political meeting. At this time Biko had begun studying law by mail through the University of South Africa. He was detained in Port Elizabeth for 26 days under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act. According to testimony given at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997, "Biko sustained a head injury during interrogation on 7 September 1977, after which he acted strangely and was unco-operative. The doctors who examined him (naked, lying on a mat and manacled to a metal grille) initially disregarded overt signs of neurological injury."

By 11 September 1977, Biko had slipped into a semi-conscious state. The police doctor recommended that he be transferred to hospital. Biko was, however, transported 1 200km to Pretoria in the back of a Land Rover still naked and manacled with nothing except a container of water. A few hours after arriving at Pretoria Central Prison, Biko died from brain damage on 12 September 1977. He was alone and naked in his cell. His death was the result of sustained and merciless torture by the Security Police of the apartheid regime. Biko was 30 years old. Biko was the most dynamic sons of Africa, whose life was cut short at its prime.

The police first claimed he had starved himself to death while on a hunger strike. They later said Biko had hit his head against a wall in a fight. The tragic circumstances surrounding Biko's death caused a worldwide outcry and increased the pressure on the South African government to abolish its detention policies and called for an international probe on the cause of his death. It took eight years and intense pressure before the South African Medical Council took disciplinary action. On 30 January, 1985, the Pretoria Supreme Court ordered the SAMDC to hold an inquiry into the conduct of the two doctors who treated Steve Biko during the five days before he died. Judge President of the Transvaal, Justice W G Boshoff, said in a landmark judgment that there was prima facie evidence of improper or disgraceful conduct on the part of the “Biko” doctors in a professional respect.  Biko was buried in the Ginsberg cemetery just outside King William's Town on 25 September 1977.

Biko became a martyr of the Freedom Struggle and posed one of the strongest challenges to the apartheid structure in the country. Biko's funeral was attended by thousands of mourners at King William's Town, November 1977. Several thousand black mourners punched the air with clenched fists and shouted “Power!” as Biko’s coffin was lowered into the grave.

Honouring a hero
September 12 marked the 30th anniversary of Stephen Bantu Biko's callous torture and murder by the South African apartheid regime. Addressing the 8th annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture that formed part of commemorative events to mark the 30th anniversary of Mr Biko's death at the University of Cape Town, President Mbeki said "From the gigantic death of Stephen Bantu Biko 30 years ago today must, in time, arise an enormous birth. Stephen Bantu Biko died but his vision has not perished." Mbeki also reflected on the relevance of the legacy of black consciousness, especially its intellectual and political ideals, in the current context of South Africa.

Biko was described by former President Nelson Mandela in 1997 as "one of the greatest sons of our nation" for keeping the struggle for freedom flame burning at a time when the political pulse of the oppressed has been rendered faint due to constant banning, imprisonment, exile, murder and banishment. Mandela at the 20th anniversary of Biko's death 10 years ago quoted Biko, saying: " His hope in life, and his life of hope, are captured by his resounding words: 'In time, we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift – a more human face'."

In one of his most quoted sentences Biko warned that "The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed." On another occasion he argued, more hopefully, that "It is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die." Steve Biko's entry into the protest movement and subsequent death were therefore deciding and defining moments for southern Africa's liberation struggle movements. He had lived a life characterised by arrests, unlawful detentions, torture, banning, but he was defiant to the bitter end, a defiance that eventually led to his tragic death. His wish was to see black people as their own liberators. Biko is one of the anti-apartheid era's most eminent personalities and Biko's life is like that of many Africans who suffered and died in their quest for democracy, freedom and human rights. His untiring commitment to Black Consciousness is the legacy he has handed down to the future generations in South Africa’s struggle for freedom. Instead of mourning his death, South Africa should celebrate what he died for.