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Steve Biko's Struggle Against Apartheid

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Stephen Bantu Biko.

Stephen Bantu Biko.

Who Was Steve Biko?

Steve Biko, founder of the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa in the 1970s, had the goal of encouraging African people to embrace their identities and to struggle against the oppression of apartheid.

Steve Biko's Early Life

Born into a Xhosa family in 1946, he was two years old when the white government of South Africa introduced apartheid.

It was a systematized separation of races in which Blacks were relegated to menial jobs and prohibited from living in certain areas.

As noted by history.com, the aim of the Afrikaner-dominated National Party was “not only to separate South Africa’s white minority from its non-white majority, but also to separate non-whites from each other, and to divide Black South Africans along tribal lines in order to decrease their political power.”

At an early age, Steve Biko developed an interest in the anti-apartheid movement. He was a very bright student but rebellious. As a teenager, he was kicked out of school for what was termed “anti-establishment” behaviour.

Later, he commented that “I began to develop an attitude which was much more directed at authority than at anything else. I hated authority like hell.”

Housing, and all other amenities for Blacks, were of low quality under apartheid.

Housing, and all other amenities for Blacks, were of low quality under apartheid.

The Student Activism Years

With a scholarship in hand, Biko entered the Black section of the University of Natal Medical School. At university, it was easy for like-minded students who opposed apartheid to find each other. He joined the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), which was a liberal group that was against apartheid.

NUSAS was multi-racial but white-dominated and, as with everything else in South Africa, Biko came to realize he was a second-class member. This was made obvious at an NUSAS conference in 1967. White and Indian students were assigned dormitory accommodation, Black attendees had to bunk down in a nearby church.

Until then, Biko had advocated nonracial activism, but he saw that liberal whites did not understand what being Black in their country really meant. It was time to set up a Black-only organization and that led to the founding of the South African Students' Organization (SASO) in 1968.

The Steve Biko Foundation tells us that “SASO was founded, therefore, as a call to Black students to refrain from being spectators in a game in which they should be participants.”

Under the subjugation of apartheid, Black people had been told thousands of times they were inferior and that mindset had become internalized. SASO worked to counter the passivity that had been drilled into South Africa's Blacks. Steve Biko was also involved in the founding of the Black Consciousness Movement in 1971.

He wrote that “Black Consciousness is an attitude of the mind and a way of life, the most positive call to emanate from the Black world for a long time. Its essence is the realisation by the Black man of the need to rally together with his brothers around the cause of their oppression—the blackness of their skin—and to operate as a group to rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude.”

The South African government did not like the sound of that.

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The motif used by the Black Consciousness Movement.

The motif used by the Black Consciousness Movement.

Ban on Biko

In 1973, the government put a stop to Biko's writing and confined him to the Eastern Cape community of Ginsberg where he had grown up. He was forbidden from speaking in public and the news media was not allowed to quote him; the hope was to muzzle and isolate him and stop him from criticizing apartheid. And, he was expelled from medical school.

Others took up the torch but the security forces harassed Biko even in his seclusion. He was detained several times without charge or trial as part of the government's intimidation program.

In August 1977, Steve Biko broke the ban on his movements and drove to Cape Town to meet with another prominent anti-apartheid campaigner. On the way back to Ginsberg, on August 21, he was arrested at a police road block and charged with violating his banning order. He was taken to Port Elizabeth and placed in a police cell.

In 1976, student protests had erupted in Soweto, a huge Black township near Johannesburg., and police were in the mood to crackdown hard on any signs of dissent.

Steve Biko's Final Ordeal

Once in the hands of South Africa's security forces, Biko was treated brutally, as many other Black detainees were. This was part of a deliberate policy of state-sponsored violence directed against Blacks to suppress dissent.

Police stripped him naked to humiliate him and make him feel vulnerable, then the interrogation began. The questioning was carried out in the manner euphemistically termed “enhanced” by the George W. Bush Administration in the U.S.; that is with torture.

Later, the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that “Biko sustained a head injury during interrogation, after which he acted strangely and was uncooperative.” The first doctors to examine him, following police instructions, found nothing wrong with him. Then he slipped into semi-consciousness and a physician recommended hospitalization.

On September 11, 1977, Biko was loaded, naked and shackled, into the back of a Land Rover and driven 740 miles to Pretoria. He died there the following day.

The Justice Minister, Jimmy Kruger, made the ludicrous claim that Biko had died as a result of a hunger strike. Then, the story changed; Biko had been injured in a scuffle with police when he tried to attack them with a chair.

An autopsy determined the civil rights activist had died from a brain hemorrhage and kidney failure. The exact circumstances surrounding his death have never been established, but few people doubt that he was murdered by South African police.

This was not an unusual occurrence for anti-apartheid campaigners, as the Rand Daily Mail reported that “Mr. Biko, honorary president of the Black People’s Convention and the father of two small children, is the 20th person to die in Security Police custody in 18 months.” He was 30 years old.

Steve Biko's Legacy

At least 20,000 people attended Biko's funeral in Ginsberg; far more people would have been there had police not set up roadblocks around the township.

One of those who spoke at the funeral was Biko's friend, and later, biographer, Donald Woods, the editor of the East London Daily Dispatch. He said that “In the three years that I grew to know him my conviction never wavered that this was the most important political leader in the entire country, and quite simply the greatest man I have ever had the privilege to know.”

In the wake of Biko's death, the South African government banned 18 groups that were advocating for an end to apartheid. But the activist's murder galvanized opposition to the white minority government.

Around the world, many nations condemned South Africa and the United Nations placed an arms embargo on the country. Some countries, such as Canada, applied trade embargoes and ordinary people boycotted South African products.

By the early 1980s, the Black Consciousness Movement had faded and others had taken up the struggle against apartheid, although Steve Biko remained a potent symbol of the fight.

It wasn't until 1994, that South Africa held its first democratic elections in which the majority Black population voted. The Black-dominated African National Congress party won power under the leadership of Nelson Mandela.

In 2002, Mandela paid tribute to Steve Biko: “Living, he was the spark that lit a veld fire across South Africa. His message to the youth and students was simple and clear: Black is Beautiful! Be proud of your Blackness! And, with that he inspired our youth to shed themselves of the sense of inferiority they were born into as a result of more than three hundred years of white rule.”

Bonus Factoids

  • An inquest into Steve Biko's death was held under magistrate Marthinus Prins in November 1977. Author and anti-apartheid activist Hilda Bernstein wrote that “This was no ordinary inquest. It was in essence a conspiracy to defeat the ends of justice; a conspiracy in which almost all the witnesses and most of the court officials joined. Their purpose was not to establish the cause of death but to conceal it; not to discover who might be responsible, but to hide them.” Magistrate Prins determined that Biko's death was the result of “a prison accident.” The Truth and Reconciliation Commission heavily criticized Prins's ruling saying it gave police permission to do anything they wanted without fear of consequences.
  • After much stalling, Dr. Benjamin Tucker, who examined Biko in prison and declared him to be in good health had his medical license suspended in 1985.
  • Three police officers involved in the detention of Steve Biko appeared before that country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and asked for amnesty from prosecution. The commission refused to grant amnesty, but the police officers avoided charges anyway.

Sources

  • “Apartheid.” history.com, March 3, 2020.
  • Steve Biko Foundation
  • “Biography of Stephen Bantu (Steve) Biko, Anti-Apartheid Activist.” Alistair Boddy-Evans, thoughtco.com, December 5, 2020.
  • “Stephen Bantu Biko.” South African History, undated.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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