Biko, Steven 1946–1977
Steven Biko 1946–1977
South African activist
Black South African activist Steven Biko is perhaps best remembered for his grisly death. His imprisonment on capricious charges, the South African government’s shocking announcement that he had died after hitting his head against a jail wall, and the exoneration of police officers later accused of beating him symbolized for many the viciousness and un-scrupulousness of the country’s apartheid regime. In 1977 the world conferred on Biko the status of martyr, a fallen hero who had given his life to the cause of racial justice in his divided homeland.
But South Africans saw more in his vibrant life than in his untimely death. In spite of the white minority government’s efforts to silence him, Biko, while still in his twenties, became a near mythic figure in South Africa. He called upon black activists to dissociate themselves from white liberals and to form a new political movement grounded in racial pride and dignity. Biko believed that blacks needed to elevate their racial consciousness before meaningful social change could take place in South Africa; his views deeply altered the nature of the apartheid resistance.
Steven (sometimes spelled Stephen) Bantu Biko was born December 18, 1946, in King William’s Town, along the eastern coast of South Africa. The son of a clerk and a housemaid, Biko was first exposed to the racial currents of his country in 1963. That year he was expelled from high school because of the political activities of his brother, who had been arrested and jailed in a nationwide police crackdown on “subversives.” Biko was first sent to St. Francis College in Natal, a liberal boarding school from which he graduated in 1966. Next he enrolled at the black medical section of Natal University, placing him among the first handful of blacks in South Africa to attend a major university. In the mid-1960s Biko was thrust into the leadership vacuum created by the imprisonment of African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela. Biko, who had been elected to the Students’ Representative Council, had become involved with the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), a multi-racial group that had been attracting increasing numbers of members since the 1961 banning of the ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress, but he quickly grew disenchanted with the group’s leadership.
For many young blacks at the time, NUSAS had been growing alarmingly conservative. They accused the group
Born Steven Bantu Biko (some sources cite given name as Stephen), December 18, 1946, in King William’s Town, South Africa; died of severe head injuries, September 12, 1977; married Mamphela Ramphele. Education: Graduated from St. Francis College, Natal, South Africa, 1966; attended Natal University.
Founder, Black Consciousness movement; founder and first president, South African Students’ Organization, 1969; established Zimele Trust Fund (to help political prisoners and their families), 1975.
of favoring impotent talk over action. Biko, an emerging leader of those alienated activists, saw a disabling weakness where NUSAS boosters saw one of the organization’s greatest strengths. The problem, in Biko’s eyes, was multiracialism—the united front of progressive whites and blacks loudly condemning a racist caste system. Recognizing that opposition groups over the years had done little to break, much less shake, the pillars of apartheid, Biko surmised that blacks had not sufficiently recognized the psychological prison in which the South African government had locked them. He argued that blacks needed a movement of their own, a political vehicle they could steer for their own spiritual uplifting.
According to Biko, although some white liberals were genuine in their opposition to apartheid, others, particularly those in leadership positions, merely paid lip service to the cause. Blacks, he said, had been conditioned to listen subserviently, even if the words were ineffective in stopping the subjugation. Leonard Thompson, author of A History of South Africa, quoted Biko as having written: “Black consciousness is in essence the realization by the black man of the need to rally together with his brothers around the cause of their subjection—the blackness of their skin—and to operate as a group in order to rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude.... It seeks to infuse the black community with a newfound pride in themselves, their efforts, their value systems, their culture, their religion, and their outlook to life. The interrelationship between the consciousness of self and the emancipatory programme is of paramount importance.”
In 1969 Biko founded and became the first president of the South African Students’ Organization, a spin-off of NUSAS that had as one of its central tenets the Black Consciousness philosophy that Biko had been articulating. At first Biko’s spirited repudiation of white liberal activism as being short on action angered those whites who had always considered themselves unbending allies with blacks in the fight against apartheid. Biko argued that the most dedicated white liberal will not try to join the black activist camp, but will concentrate on preparing other whites for a future governmental system of majority rule. After the sting of rejection had subsided, many whites began to see wisdom in Biko’s plea for black political self-reliance.
Biko traveled throughout the country issuing the clarion call that blacks needed to discover a sense of dignity within themselves and muster a spiritual strength to combat injustice. In 1973 the South African government, alarmed at the following this nonviolent revolutionary was attracting, tried to stop Biko in his tracks and halt the progress of the Black Consciousness movement.
Under house arrest, Biko was forbidden from speaking to more than one person at a time, denied the right to travel outside the King William’s township, and could not be quoted in the press. But his words, usually disseminated in pamphlets and through surrogates, found audiences in the countryside. Indeed the governmental clamp merely intensified his celebrity status in South Africa and around the world. Aware of the importance that international pressure could play on the South African government—particularly economic leverage from the United States—Biko lamented in an interview published in the New Republic, “Many Americans just don’t know where South Africa is, who [then-prime minister Balthazar] Vorster is. They couldn’t be bothered right now. But then we are having, or we will have here, a Vietnam situation at some stage. There is no doubt about that if America continues the present policy.” He added that individuals in the United States needed to build up their own “consciousness that lives of whole population groups are being brutalized by the system out here and that there is a complete exclusion of blacks from the political process, and what it means.” In the mid-1970s, the United States, trying to protect Biko from a South African government infamous for silencing voices of dissent, indicated that he was one of the men Vorster had to meet with before the strained South African-American relations could improve.
But the South African government proved to be more worried about the domestic spread of Black Consciousness than about international political pressure. In 1976 thousands of black school children in Soweto protested against a government order that half their subjects be taught in Afrikaans, the Dutch-derived language of the South African whites. The young blacks felt studying the language of their oppressors would leave them at a great disadvantage; they wanted, instead, to devote more time to learning English, with which most of the world communicates. After the police killed a 13-year-old girl who was demonstrating, protests erupted throughout the country, and again the government responded with violence, killing at least 575 people, many of whom were under the age of 18.
On August 18, 1977, Biko was arrested at a security police roadblock under the country’s notorious Terrorism Act, which allowed for the indefinite detention of anyone the state considered dangerous. The government claimed Biko was on his way to Cape Town to distribute pamphlets encouraging black violence against whites. Biko had been imprisoned before—in 1975 he was arrested and held 137 days without charge or trial—and he knew that at least 20 black political prisoners had died in jail within the past 18 months. These deaths were called suicides or the results of improbable accidents, such as slipping in the prison showers. Blacks along with white liberals pointed fingers at the police, but the government protected its own. Still, Biko believed that his prominence would shield him from so terrible a fate.
The next day he was moved to the police station in Port Elizabeth, where he was stripped—the police said they feared he would try to hang himself with a piece of clothing—and placed in a cell. On September 6, after being moved to the security police headquarters, Biko was handcuffed, put into leg irons, chained to a grille and subjected to 22 hours of interrogation—an interrogation that would become the stuff of unending speculation and dark legend. Several days later, as Biko drifted in and out of consciousness, he was thrown naked into the back of a police vehicle and taken 750 miles to the city of Pretoria.
Biko’s death was announced seven days later, on September 13, by South African Justice Minister James Kruger; the clear implication was that the prisoner had died as a result of a hunger strike initiated on September 5. Skeptics immediately challenged that call, saying that Biko was too big and seemingly healthy—he weighed 200 pounds and stood six-foot two—to succumb to malnutrition so quickly. Also, Donald Woods, a liberal, white South African journalist whose friendship with Biko formed the basis of the 1987 film Cry Freedom, said that Biko had recently promised he would never go on a hunger strike and that it would be a lie if anyone ever said he had died that way. “Steven would never, never have cracked on that one,” Newsweek quoted Woods as saying. When autopsies revealed severe brain damage, the police claimed that Biko had sustained head injuries during a scuffle he had started with them. Doctors brought in to examine the dying Biko in the prison cell had accepted the police explanation that the prisoner was faking his illness and therefore refrained from thoroughly evaluating his medical situation.
South African critics around the world immediately challenged the official version of events. The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, compared Biko’s death to the late 1960s assassinations of former U.S. attorney general Robert Kennedy and American civil rights leader Martin Luther King. Political observers predicted that Biko’s death and the ensuing transparent government cover-up would deepen the chasm between blacks and whites and could spark racial violence of unprecedented ferocity.
The government did its best to shut down demonstrations, in one case arresting 1200 students who, by gathering to mourn Biko, had violated a ban on unauthorized assemblies. A court inquest capped off what many felt was a sick political charade. A lawyer representing Biko’s widow caught several police witnesses in glaring contradictions concerning such fundamentals as when, where, and how the prisoner had died. In one case, the chief interrogator, who claimed he had not told his superiors about Biko’s injuries, was shown a memo he had written to his boss saying the head wounds had been “inflicted on” Biko, a phrase the interrogator dismissed as a play on words. The presiding magistrate, a civil servant with no legal training, absolved the police and the doctors of any wrongdoing. Again global criticism poured in, including statements from the United States, traditionally silent on foreign court rulings. “We are shocked by the verdict in the face of compelling evidence at the least that Steven Biko was the victim of flagrant neglect and official irresponsibility,” Newsweek quoted the U.S. State Department spokesman as having said. The subsequent prohibition of the South African Students’ Organization, and the imprisonment of several black political leaders, caused the United Nations Security Council to vote for a mandatory arms embargo against South Africa.
Although the Black Consciousness movement is seen as having given way to a resurgent African National Congress, Biko is credited with having shaped the nature of political discourse and dissent in South Africa. Allister Sparks wrote in The Mind of South Africa that the movement’s “impact among the ‘coloureds’ was enormous and lasting. Gone is the shame at the dark side of their parentage. Gone, too, is the fawning desire to be patronized by whites. Instead there is a positive, almost vehement, rejection of the white community and a growing identification with the black cause. The change is partly emotional and partly a matter of political judgment. ‘Coloureds’ can see which way the political wind is blowing in South Africa.”
Reader’s Digest Illustrated History of South Africa: The Real Story, The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1988.
Sparks, Allister, The Mind of South Africa, Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.
Thompson, Leonard, A History of South Africa, Yale University Press, 1990.
Nation, October 15, 1977.
New Republic, January 7, 1978.
Newsweek, September 26, 1977; December 12, 1977.
New York Times, April 30, 1978.
Time, September 26, 1977; November 28, 1977.
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