Mourners Surround the Coffin of Black Leader Steve Biko

views updated

Mourners Surround the Coffin of Black Leader Steve Biko


By: The Associated Press

Date: September 25, 1977

Source: AP Images.

About the Photographer: The Associated Press is a worldwide news agency based in New York.


Apartheid is an Afrikaans word meaning "apart-ness" and it refers to a system of racial segregation practiced by a white minority against a black majority in South Africa from 1948 to 1991. Many white and black South Africans opposed the system, including a Bantu man, Steve Biko.

Biko, a charismatic speaker and tireless activist, traveled around South Africa in the 1970s promoting a message known as black consciousness. The philosophy holds that blacks could only be free if they did not feel inferior to whites. Biko's activism is credited with contributing to the 1976 Soweto riots, a turning point in the struggle against apartheid. He encouraged black pride and self-reliance in an era when South African authorities feared that a black uprising would destroy white control. Biko's activism made him a marked man.

The police arrested Biko on August 18, 1977 in Graham town. He had broken a court order restricting him to his home in nearby East London and allegedly possessed inflammatory pamphlets. He was fatally injured within thirty minutes of being arrested. Five police officers stated that Biko had tried to attack one of his interrogators while in custody in Port Elizabeth. They tackled Biko and claimed to have accidentally slammed his head against the wall. The unresponsive prisoner remained chained to a metal gate in a standing position for two days while police waited to see if they could continue the interrogation. Eventually, Biko was taken in a police van, naked and bleeding, on a 1,200—kilometer (745.6-mile) trip to a prison in Pretoria where he died of brain injuries on September 12, 1977. In 1999, the Truth and Reconciliation Committee of the South African government declared that Biko had probably been murdered because the police wanted to teach him a lesson about his defiance of white authority.



See primary source image.


Steve Biko's death did not lead to any immediate policy change. It did, however, further inflame opinion against the system of apartheid. The image of the young law student, nude, shackled hand and foot to a gate, and incoherent due to head injuries, became part of the legend of black nationalism. By 1981, South Africa and Namibia were the only remaining white-ruled countries in Africa. International and domestic pressures pushed these countries to change. South Africa faced increasingly strict international economic sanctions, which included U.S. corporations' divestiture of their South African holdings. Internally, the need for more skilled labor led to the lifting of limits on black wages and the legalization of black labor unions with the right to strike.

In 1989, F.W. de Klerk became South African prime minister and immediately announced the release of many black political prisoners. In February 1990, he declared in Parliament that apartheid had failed, that bans on all political parties would be lifted, and that African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela would be released after twenty-seven years of imprisonment. In 1991, all the remaining apartheid laws were repealed. After three years of intense negotiation, all sides agreed in 1993 to a framework for a multiracial, multiparty transitional government. Elections were held in April 1994, and Mandela became the first freely elected, black president in South African history.

To help heal South Africa's emotional and psychological wounds from the system of apartheid, Mandela created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu as its chair. In 1999, the commission denied amnesty to the four surviving policemen accused of killing Biko. In 2003, the Justice Ministry declined to prosecute the officers due to insufficient evidence remaining to support a murder charge. In that same year, new President Thabo Mbeki announced that the South African government would pay 660 million Rand (about 109 million U.S. dollars) to 22,000 people who had been detained or tortured, or who were surviving family members of those murdered during the apartheid era.



Millard Arnold, ed. Steve Biko: Black Consciousness in South Africa. New York: Random House, 1978.

Tim J. Juckes. Opposition in South Africa: The Leadership of Z.K. Matthews, Nelson Mandela, and Stephen Biko. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995.

Robin Malan, ed. The Essential Steve Biko. Cape Town: David Philip, 1997.

Donald Woods. Biko. New York: Henry Holt, 1987.