Biko, Stephen

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Biko, Stephen

south african activist1946–1977

A prominent anti-apartheid activist, Stephen Biko is known principally for his work in raising self-consciousness and pride among South African blacks. His tragic and brutal death in police custody in 1977 drew global attention and condemnation.

Born on December 18, 1946, in Kingwilliamstown, Biko won a scholarship to study medicine at the University of Natal in 1965. He quickly became active in the multiracial National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) that was composed of, and led primarily by, white liberal students who were strongly critical of the apartheid government. After attending a NUSAS conference at Rhodes University in 1968, where he was deeply offended by segregated sleeping and eating accommodations, Biko decided to break with NUSAS and form an all-black student union, the South African Students' Organization (SASO). He described his reasons for doing so as twofold. First, Biko found the proportionally small number of blacks in NUSAS an obstacle to that organization's being an effective vehicle for substantive social change. Second, he wished to advance the black consciousness movement (a movement that existed outside of South Africa as well). It is for the latter that he is most well-known.

Biko argued that blacks in South Africa had to form and realize their own sense of identity, and that this work had to be done independently of whites. Biko did not mean that the races should be segregated. Rather, he believed that years of oppression by apartheid had wrought a psychological inferiority complex among blacks—that they had literally been taught by South African society to devalue themselves because they were black. To counter such an attitude, Bike believed that blacks had to band together, create their own principles, be true to and respectful of their own history, and together struggle against the political forces of apartheid. Blacks had to do more than simply win political freedom from the government; they had to free themselves from the psychological oppression wrought by decades of political abuse.

In 1972, having terminated his study of medicine, Biko and several others formed an adult wing of SASO, called the Black People's Convention; he also simultaneously accepted a position with the Black Community Programmes in Durban (where his university was located). Soon thereafter Biko was banned from Durban and restricted to his hometown of Kingwilliamstown. His work for the Black Community Programmes continued there, as did his political efforts. Biko's particular conception of black consciousness required not only a racially exclusive struggle, but also no cooperation with anyone "in the system." This extreme attitude set him apart from the more moderate leaders in the antiapartheid movement.

Biko's political activism led to his arrest and detention in 1973 and 1975 (for over one hundred days). Rearrested in 1977, he died while in police custody on September 12, from massive brain trauma. These injuries were sustained as the result of police brutality, and Biko's death made him a global martyr in the struggle against apartheid.

See also: Apartheid; Mandela, Nelson; South Africa.


Biko, Stephen. I Write What I Like, ed. Aelred Stubbs. London: Bowerdean Press, 1978.

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

Woods, Donald. Biko, 3rd ed. New York: Henry Holt, 1991.

Andrew Costello