Biko, Stephen Bantu

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Biko, Stephen Bantu 1946–1977

Stephen Bantu Biko was born to Alice Duna Biko and Mzingaye Biko, Stephen was the third of four children. His eldest sister Bukelwa and elder brother Khaya were born in Queenstown in 1942 and 1944 respectively. His youngest sister Nobandile was born in 1949. Biko’s birthplace is uncertain because his parents frequently moved around. As a policeman, his father was transferred to different locations in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. At the time of Stephen’s birth his father was stationed in the small town of Tilden just outside of Queenstown, and his mother was staying at her home in the nearby town of Tarkastad. Home births were common among black people because of lack of other health facility options.

Mzingaye Biko had resigned from the police force by 1948 and took a position as a government clerk in King William’s Town. Because of apartheid laws, the family moved into the nearby black township of Ginsberg. Alice took various jobs as a cook at the local hospital and a domestic worker for the township’s superintendent. She devoted her weekends to the Anglican Church in Ginsberg. However, Mzingaye died from a mysterious illness soon after their arrival in Ginsberg, and Alice was left to fend for the children from her meager wages. Young Stephen attended primary and secondary school in Ginsberg, where by all accounts he was a gifted student, always at the top of his class. In 1963 he obtained a scholarship to attend the prestigious Lovedale College in Cape Province, South Africa, just outside of the small town of Alice also in the Eastern Cape, where his older brother Khaya was enrolled. However, the two Biko brothers were expelled in March 1963, mainly because of Khaya’s political activities. They were also barred from attending government schools. The unfairness of it all had a radicalizing impact on Stephen. In Khaya, according to Biko, “the giant was awakened” (said in frequent conversations with the author).

In 1964 Biko was admitted to the equally prestigious missionary school at St. Francis in Marianhill, just outside Durban in Kwazulu-Natal. He excelled academically at St. Francis and was admitted to the University of Natal Medical School in Durban. It was while at St. Francis that Steve started writing letters to his mother questioning the church’s support of apartheid. His mother’s friends were progressive white priests, David Russell and Aelred Stubbs (who had been sent to South Africa by the U.K.-based Community of the Resurrection). They took to writing back, and from there on began to develop lifelong friendships.

The political seed had already been planted when Biko arrived at the University of Natal. There he found a group of older students who often got together to discuss the place of black students in a predominantly white university and their specific political role in the predominantly white National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). They tried to get Biko to leave NUSAS, but he remained steadfast in his belief that black students needed to be part of the multiracial student movement. A wakeup call for Biko took place during a NUSAS conference at Rhodes University in 1967. The university authorities went along with the government’s position that black students had to leave the university campus every evening to sleep in the townships. Biko asked the white students to join them in the township. He also proposed a motion that the conference be cancelled until a venue where they could all be accommodated in one place could be found. He lost both arguments.

Biko then left the conference to join another conference organized by the newly established University Christian Movement (UCM). Led by two white radical clerics— Colin Collins and Basil Moore—UCM was far more radical than NUSAS. The group invited him to attend a subsequent UCM conference in 1968 in the small town of Stutterheim. One of apartheid’s stipulations was that black people could not be in a white area for longer than seventy-two hours, so black students were forced to leave the boundaries of the town, then reenter it. Biko stood up at one of the plenary sessions and suggested that black students needed to have a separate meeting to discuss their continued participation in white-led organizations. The students left the meeting, having decided to explore the formation of an all-black organization. The South Africa Student Organization (SASO) was thus launched in 1968 at the University of the North (Turfloop), and Biko was elected the first president. However, SASO immediately recognized its limitations as a student body trying to organize a community that had been demoralized when the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress had been in 1960.

SASO set on a course of building community-based organizations in the arts, education, health, the economy, and politics. It established community-based research institutes and newspapers and journals. These programs were later incorporated into the activities of the Black Community Programmes. In 1972 Biko announced the formation of the Black People’s Convention as the home of black political opinion in the country, thereby formally filling the political hole left by the banning of the ANC and the PAC. The apartheid government first welcomed the birth of black consciousness and thought these were harmless activities. Little was the government aware of the potential for revolution being awakened in communities and students through the movement’s cultural, theological, and political consciousness raising. This changed with the explosion of the student uprisings on June 16, 1976.

For a very long time Biko wanted to unite South Africa’s various liberation movements—the African National Congress, the Pan Africanist Congress and the Unity Movement. On August 17, 1977, he undertook a dangerous journey from King William’s Town—where he was restricted from leaving—to meet for unity talks with veteran activist Neville Alexander of the Unity Movement. The meeting however did not materialize and Biko had to return to King William’s Town immediately. He was arrested on 18 August 1977 together with his colleague Peter Jones at a roadblock near the small town of Grahamstown, only an hour from his home, and taken to the notoriously violent police headquarters in Port Elizabeth. After severe beatings he was transported naked and manacled at the back of a van for 800 miles to Pretoria. Stephen Bantu Biko died from brain damage on September 12, 1977.

The apartheid government covered up for his murderers, and they all died before they could face a court of law. But as Biko had prophesied in one of his writings, his death became “a politicizing thing.” The international outcry and mass mobilization following his death would in less than a decade lead to the first tentative steps toward a negotiated settlement in South Africa. The unique contribution of the black consciousness movement lay in its political approach to black identity.

Instead of defining blackness as a matter of skin pigmentation, the movement defined blackness in terms of identification with the black liberation struggle. Blacks were defined, according to the generally prevalent description from black consciousness activists, as all those who are by law and tradition discriminated against and identify themselves as a unit towards their liberation. Instead of seeing themselves as distinct groups, the so-called coloureds, Indians, and Africans now saw themselves as part of one black political identity. Inspired by people such as Aimé Cesaire, Paolo Freire, Malcolm X, and Frantz Fanon, they gave the black community a new sense of pride, dignity, and political agency, leading ultimately to the reclamation of political space and the birth of democracy in 1994.


Biko, Stephen Bantu. 1978. Black Consciousness in South Africa. New York: Random House.

———. I Write What I Like. London: Bowerdean Press, 1978; reprint. London: Pacador Press, 2006.

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

Xolela Mangcu