Names: Biko, Stephen Bantu
Born: 18 December 1946, King Williams Town, Eastern Cape, South Africa
Died: 12 September 1977, Pretoria detention cells, South Africa
In Summary: A Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) leader, South Africa’s most influential and radical student leader in the 1970s and a law student at the time of his death. He became a martyr of the Freedom Struggle and posed one of the strongest challenges to the apartheid structure in the country.
Born in King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape Province on December 18, 1946, Stephen Bantu Biko’s early life was modest. His main pre-occupation was the pursuit of academic excellence, which was in line with his father’s expectations. His father encouraged all his children to pursue an education as the only possible route to upward social movement and independence. Biko started his education around 1952 (the exact date varies from source to source) against the background of the Bantu Education Act – an Act introduced to stifle Black education. Essentially, the Act was designed to provide Blacks with sufficient education which would not allow “a future without back-breaking labour.” Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, who authored the Bill, said “There is no place for him [the Bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour.”
Exposed to this type of education since primary school where he attended several schools, such as Brownlee Primary, Charles Morgan Higher Primary, Lovedale Institute (which was eventually closed due to student protest) and finally, St Francis (A Catholic boarding School outside Durban), his political orientation emerged. While Biko was a student at Lovedale, his brother was arrested and jailed for 9 months during a government crackdown for being a suspected member of POQO (later APLA), the military wing of the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC). Biko was also brought under interrogation by police and was subsequently expelled from the school after only attending for three months. This event gave Biko a “strong resentment toward white authority,” which he would harbour for years to come and this was to shape his political career.
From his expulsion from school incident, Biko’s career was characterised by political activism which culminated in him engaging in educating and making Black people conscious of their plight under an oppressive system. Throughout his career he became more distinguished as a political agitator than as a student. His untiring commitment to Black Consciousness is the main legacy he has bequeathed to later generations in South Africa’s struggle for freedom.
After matriculating from St Francis he enrolled at the University of Natal. It was here that Biko’s political activism began to blossom and grow. He devoted much of his time to the cause of Black emancipation. At university his desire to study medicine was hampered by his constant involvement in political activities and organisations such as NUSAS. He became so immersed in politics that his performance declined to levels that compelled university authorities to deregister him. This happened at a time when he had also grown critical of the generally anti-black structure of NUSAS. Since NUSAS’s power base was centred at the major white universities, it was virtually impossible for Black students to achieve positions of leadership. In fact, a NUSAS leader, Clive Nettleton, accused the organisation of “preaching the ideal of non-racism” while some members were “unable to live out their ideals.” Thus, in 1968 Biko established a new all-black and pro-black organisation namely the South African Students Organisation (SASO). He was elected as its first President in July 1969. One year later he was appointed Publicity Secretary of the organisation.
SASO adopted a new pro-black and radical doctrine that became known as Black Consciousness which by Biko’s own definition was the “cultural and political revival of an oppressed people.”
By 1971, the Black Consciousness Movement had grown into a formidable force throughout the country. In an attempt to reform SASO (which originally comprised students) and incorporate the adult element Biko established the Black People’s Convention (BPC) as well as Black Community Programmes (BCP).
The development of the BCM clearly threatened the settler machinery. It was only a matter of time before Steve Biko was banned by the government. In 1973 he was formally banned and confined to the magisterial district of King William’s Town, his birth place. Among other things, the banning entailed prohibiting him from teaching or making public addresses (or speaking to more than one person at a time), preventing him from entering educational institutions and reporting to the local police station once every week. For breaking these provisions a “banee” would be stigmatised as a criminal. In spite of being banned, Biko continued to advance the work of Black Consciousness. For instance, he established an Eastern Cape branch of BCP and through BCP he organised literacy and dressmaking classes and health education programmes. Quite significantly, he set up a health clinic outside King William’s Town for poor rural Blacks who battled to access city hospitals.
The banning and detention of several SASO and BPC leaders under the Terrorism Act threatened to cripple the Black Consciousness Movement. However, the accused used the seventeen-month trial that followed as a platform to state the case of Black Consciousness. Although they were found guilty and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment for revolutionary conspiracy they were later acquitted. Their convictions further strengthened the Black Consciousness movement. The repression instituted under the Terrorism Act caused Blacks to lose sympathy with moderate revolutionary policies, leading to more militancy and hope for emancipation. During the Soweto riots of June 1976 there were violent clashes between high school students (protesting the use of Afrikaans as the medium of academic instruction) and police marking the beginning of widespread urban unrest, which threatened law and order.
The wave of strikes during and after Soweto demonstrated, to a large extent, the influence Biko exerted on South African socio-political life. Although he did not directly take part in the Soweto riots, the influence of Black Consciousness ideas spurred students to fight an unjust system particularly after they were compelled to accept Afrikaans as a language for use in schools. In the wake of the urban revolt of 1976 and with the prospects of national revolution becoming increasingly real, security police detained Biko, the outspoken student leader, on August 18th. At this time Biko had begun studying law by mail through the University of South Africa/UNISA. He was thirty years old and was reportedly extremely fit when arrested. He was taken to Port Elizabeth but was later transferred to Pretoria where he died in detention under mysterious circumstances in 1977.
Thirteen Western nations sent diplomats to his funeral on 25 September. Nevertheless, police actions prevented thousands of mourners from reaching the funeral venue from Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town and other areas on the grounds that this would lead to lawlessness. Police armed with FN rifles and machine guns erected and manned a number of roadblocks to prevent thousands of mourners from all over the country to converge on the town for the funeral of Steve Biko. Mourners from the Transvaal were barred from attending the funeral when permits were refused for buses. One of the speakers, Dr. Nthato Motlana, who flew from Johannesburg after he was blocked off when attempting to travel by road, said at the funeral that he had watched with disgust as black police hauled mourners off the buses in Soweto and assaulted them with truncheons. The physician said he had treated 30 of the mourners, some for fractured skulls, and allegedly witnessed a number of young women being raped.
Later in the day, Steve Biko was buried in a muddy plot beside the railroad tracks after a marathon funeral that was as much a protest rally against the white minority government’s racial policies as it was a commemoration of the country’s foremost young black leader. Several thousand black mourners punched the air with clenched fists and shouted “Power!” as Biko’s coffin was lowered into the grave. The crowd of more than ten thousand listened to successive speakers warning the government that Biko’s death would push Blacks further towards violence in their quest for racial equality.
Due to local and international outcry his death prompted an inquest which at first did not adequately reveal the circumstances surrounding his death. Police alleged that he died from a hunger strike and independent sources said he was brutally murdered by police. Although his death was attributed to “a prison accident,” evidence presented during the 15-day inquest into Biko’s death revealed otherwise. During his detention in a Port Elizabeth police cell he had been chained to a grill at night and left to lie in urine-soaked blankets. He had been stripped naked and kept in leg-irons for 48 hours in his cell. A blow in a scuffle with security police led to him suffering brain damage by the time he was driven naked and manacled in the back of a police van to Pretoria, where, on 12 September 1977 he died.
Two years later a South African Medical and Dental Council (SAMDC) disciplinary committee found there was no prima facie case against the two doctors who had treated Biko shortly before his death. Dissatisfied doctors, seeking another inquiry into the role of the medical authorities who had treated Biko shortly before his death, presented a petition to the SAMDC in February 1982, but this was rejected on the grounds that no new evidence had come to light. Biko’s death caught the attention of the international community, which increased the pressure on the South African government to abolish its detention policies and called for an international probe on the cause of his death. Even close allies of South Africa, Britain and the United States of America, expressed deep concern about the death of Biko. They also joined the increasing demand for an international probe.
It took eight years and intense pressure before the South African Medical Council took disciplinary action. On 30 January, 1985, the Pretoria Supreme Court ordered the SAMDC to hold an inquiry into the conduct of the two doctors who treated Steve Biko during the five days before he died. Judge President of the Transvaal, Justice W G Boshoff, said in a landmark judgment that there was prima facie evidence of improper or disgraceful conduct on the part of the “Biko” doctors in a professional respect. This serves to illustrate that so many years after Biko’s death his influence lived on.
He is survived by two sons.
- Bernstein, H. (unknown), No. 46-Steve Biko [online]. South African History Online
- Mufson, S. (1990), Fighting Years: Black Resistance and the Struggle for a New South Africa, Boston: Beacon Press.
- Ndlovu S. M. (1978), The Soweto Uprisings: Counter-memories of June 1976.
- Woods Donald, Biko, New York: Paddington Press.