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Remembering South Africa’s Anti-Apartheid Activist – Steve Biko
Remembering South Africa’s Anti-Apartheid Activist – Steve Biko

By - Victoria Akindele

Posted - 12-09-2019

Born Bantu Stephen Biko, on Dec. 18, 1946, in in Tarkastad, Eastern Cape, South Africa to Mzingaye Biko and Nokuzola Macethe Duna. Mzingaye worked as a policeman, and later as a clerk in the King William’s Town Native Affairs office. Biko’s given name “Bantu” means “people”; Biko interpreted this in terms of the saying “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” (“a person is a person by means of other people”). Mzingaye died in 1950 due to illness when Steve was four years old, leaving his mother to raise him and his siblings on her own, working as a cook at Grey’s Hospital. Biko was one of South Africa’s most significant political activists and a leading founder of South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement (BCM).

Early years
Biko attended St. Andrews Primary School and Charles Morgan Higher Primary School, both in Ginsberg. He was considered a “brainy” and in 1963, he transferred to the Forbes Grant Secondary School in the township. In 1964, the Ginsberg community offered him a bursary to join his brother Khaya as a student at Lovedale, a prestigious boarding school in Alice, Eastern Cape. While in school, both brothers were accused of having connections to Poqo, the armed wing of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), an African nationalist group which the government had banned. Both Khaya and Steve were arrested and interrogated by the police; the former was convicted, then acquitted on appeal while the latter was expelled since there was no clear evidence of his connection to Poqo. He was then transferred to St. Francis College, a Roman Catholic boarding school in Natal and further enrolled as a student at the University of Natal Medical School where he became active with the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), a multiracial organization advocating for the improvement of black citizens’ rights.

However, he soon grew disenchanted with NUSAS, believing that, instead of simply allowing blacks to participate in white South African society, the society itself needed to be restructured around the culture of the black majority.

In 1968, Biko co-founded the South African Students’ Organization (SASO), an all-black student organization focusing on the resistance of apartheid, and subsequently spearheaded the newly started Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa.

“It becomes more necessary to see the truth as it is if you realise that the only vehicle for change are these people who have lost their personality. The first step therefore is to make the black man come to himself; to pump back life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity, to remind him of his complicity in the crime of allowing himself to be mis-used and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the land of his birth. That is what we mean by an inward-looking process. This is the definition of Black Consciousness.” — Steve Biko

Thereafter, Biko became SASO’s president in 1969. Three years later, in 1972, he was expelled from the University of Natal due to his political activism. That same year, Biko co-founded another black activist group, the Black People’s Convention (BPC), and became the group’s leader. This group would become the central organization for the BCM, which continued to gain traction throughout the nation during the 1970s. The BCM, together with the Study Project on Christianity in Apartheid Society (Spro-cas), set up a branch for community activities, called Black Community Programmes (BCP), in January 1972. The BCP embarked on a series of projects, including community development programmes in King William’s Town, Winterveldt and other areas.

In 1973, Biko was banned by the apartheid regime; he was forbidden to write or speak publicly, to talk with media representatives or to speak to more than one person at a time, among other restrictions. As a result, the associations, movements and public statements of SASO members were halted. For Biko, community development was part of the process of infusing black people with a sense of pride and dignity. Near King William’s Town, a BCP Zanempilo Clinic was established to serve as a healthcare centre catering for rural black people who would not otherwise have access to hospital facilities. He helped to revive the Ginsberg crèche, a daycare for children of working mothers and establish a Ginsberg education fund to raise bursaries for promising local students. He helped establish Njwaxa Home Industries, a leather goods company providing jobs for local women. He also created the Zimele Trust Fund to aid political prisoners and their families in 1975. Despite the ban, Biko was elected Honorary President of the BPC in January 1977. Biko’s friendship with prominent white liberals like Donalds Woods, Duncan Innes among some others brought him under criticism from some members of the BCM.

Personal Life

In 1970, Biko married Ntsiki Mashalaba and had two sons Nkosinathi and Samora. He also had two children with Mamphela Ramphele, an active member of the Black Consciousness Movement, daughter Lerato, who was born in 1974 and died of pneumonia at two months old, and son Hlumelo, born in 1978. Additionally, Biko had a child with Lorraine Tabane in 1977, a daughter named Motlatsi.

Arrests, Death and Legacy
During the late 1970s, Biko was arrested four times and detained for several months at a time.
On Aug. 18, 1977, he and a fellow activist were seized at a roadblock and jailed in Port Elizabeth. Steve was stripped and manacled for 20 days before he was transferred to the Sanlam Building in Port Elizabeth, where the Security Police were based. He was told to remain standing, but he defied his captors and sat down. Infuriated, a Captain Siebert manhandled him, but Steve fought back.
Steve was badly beaten, and between the night of September 6 and the morning of September 7, he sustained a brain haemorrhage. Despite his injury, the police kept him shackled to a grille, still naked. When doctors examined him, they yielded to the security police by glossing over Steve’s injuries. Dr Ivor Lang could find nothing wrong with Steve on September 7. When specialist Dr Benjamin Tucker examined Steve, he suggested that the badly injured detainee be taken to hospital, but he backed down when police objected.

Lang did not object when police said they were driving Steve to Pretoria, 700 kilometres away. This they did, on September 11, in the back of a van, with Steve still naked, frothing at the mouth, and unable to speak. In Pretoria, a district surgeon examined Steve and tended to him, but it was too late. Alone in his cell, Steve died some time on the night of Sept. 12, 1977.

His death from injuries suffered while in police custody made him an international martyr for South African Black Nationalism.

Police initially denied any maltreatment of Biko but was determined later that he had probably been severely beaten while in custody, though, the officers involved were cleared of wrongdoing.

However, in 1997, five former police officers confessed to having killed Biko and applied for amnesty to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (a body convened to review atrocities committed during the apartheid years); amnesty was denied in 1999.

Donald Woods, a South African journalist, depicts his friendship with Biko in Biko (1977; 3rd rev. ed., 1991), and their relationship is portrayed in the film Cry Freedom (1987). Also, the hit song “Biko,” by Peter Gabriel, honored Steve Biko’s legacy in 1980.

Shortly after Steve’s death, the state banned 18 organisations on Oct. 17, 1977, the majority of them allied to the BCM. These included, SASO, BPC, BCP and many others. The Christian Institute (CI), led by the Reverend Beyers Naude, was also banned, as was Reverend Naude himself. Scores of BC activists were banned, and Donald Woods was also served with a banning order.

The BCM launched the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO) in 1979, but the organisation was also banned soon thereafter. By the early 1980s the Black Consciousness Movement was in decline, eclipsed by the re-emergence of the Congress movement, most notably in the shape of the United Democratic Front. Steve’s dream of uniting the various liberation organisations never came to fruition; rather, the Congress Movement took the reins of the anti-apartheid struggle and eventually the ANC became the ruling party after the first democratic elections in 1994.

His son Nkosinathi launched the Steve Biko Foundation, which has become a non-profit organisation with a large presence in the Eastern Cape.

In 2013, the institute celebrated the opening of a large community centre in Ginsberg, in King William’s Town. The foundation promotes debates on current issues and is growing into a valuable resource in Biko’s hometown.

Stephen Biko remains a model and hero in the scuffle for liberty and self-determination for people around the world. His texts, his life work, and his awful death were all crucial to the impetus and success of the South African anti-apartheid movement. According to Nelson Mandela, Biko is “the spark that lit a veld fire across South Africa.”

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