Biography of Stephen Bantu (Steve) Biko, Anti-Apartheid Activist

Memorial to Steve Biko

By Bfluff (Own work) [ CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Steve Biko (Born Bantu Stephen Biko; December 18, 1946–September 12, 1977) was one of South Africa's most significant political activists and a leading founder of South Africa's Black Consciousness Movement. His death in police detention in 1977 led to his being hailed as a martyr of the anti-apartheid struggle.

Fast Facts: Stephen Bantu (Steve) Biko

  • Known For: Prominent anti-apartheid activist, writer, founder of Black Consciousness Movement, considered a martyr after his death in a Pretoria prison
  • Also Known As: Bantu Stephen Biko, Steve Biko, Frank Talk (pseudonym)
  • Born: December 18, 1946 in King William's Town, Eastern Cape, South Africa
  • Parents: Mzingaye Biko and Nokuzola Macethe Duna
  • Died: September 12, 1977 in a Pretoria prison cell, South Africa
  • Education: Lovedale College, St Francis College, University of Natal Medical School
  • Published Works: "I Write What I like: Selected Writings by Steve Biko," "The Testimony of Steve Biko"
  • Spouses/Partners: Ntsiki Mashalaba, Mamphela Ramphele
  • Children: 2
  • Notable Quote: "The blacks are tired of standing at the touchlines to witness a game that they should be playing. They want to do things for themselves and all by themselves."

Early Life and Education

Stephen Bantu Biko came from Xhosa family. His father, Mzingaye Biko worked as a policeman and later as a clerk in the King William’s Town Native Affairs office. His father achieved part of a university education through the University of South Africa (UNISA), the distance-learning university, but died before completing his law degree. After his father's death, his mother Nokuzola Macethe Duna supported the family as a cook at Grey's Hospital.

From an early age, Steve Biko showed an interest in anti-apartheid politics. After being expelled from his first school, Lovedale College, in the Eastern Cape, for "anti-establishment" behavior, he was transferred to St Francis College, a Roman Catholic boarding school in Natal. From there he enrolled as a student at the University of Natal Medical School (in the university's Black Section).

While at medical school, Biko became involved with the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). The union was dominated by white liberals and failed to represent the needs of black students. Dissatisfied, Biko resigned in 1969 and founded the South African Students' Organisation (SASO). SASO was involved in providing legal aid and medical clinics, as well as helping to develop cottage industries for disadvantaged black communities.

Biko and Black Consciousness

In 1972 Biko was one of the founders of the Black Peoples Convention (BPC), working on social upliftment projects around Durban. The BPC effectively brought together roughly 70 different black consciousness groups and associations, such as the South African Student's Movement (SASM), which later played a significant role in the 1976 uprisings, the National Association of Youth Organisations, and the Black Workers Project, which supported black workers whose unions were not recognized under the apartheid regime.

Biko was elected as the first president of the BPC and was promptly expelled from medical school. He started working full-time for the Black Community Programme (BCP) in Durban, which he also helped found.

Banned by the Apartheid Regime

In 1973 Steve Biko was "banned" by the apartheid government. Under the ban, Biko was restricted to his hometown of Kings William's Town in the Eastern Cape. He could no longer support the Black Community Programme in Durban, but was able to continue working for the Black People's Convention.

From King William's Town, he helped set up the Zimele Trust Fund which assisted political prisoners and their families. Despite the ban, Biko was elected Honorary President of the BPC in January 1977.

Detention

Biko was detained and interrogated four times between August 1975 and September 1977 under Apartheid era anti-terrorism legislation. On August 21, 1977, Biko was detained by the Eastern Cape security police and held in Port Elizabeth. From the Walmer police cells, he was taken for interrogation at the security police headquarters. According to the "Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa" report, on September 7, 1977,

"Biko sustained a head injury during interrogation, after which he acted strangely and was uncooperative. The doctors who examined him (naked, lying on a mat and manacled to a metal grille) initially disregarded overt signs of neurological injury."

Death

By September 11, Biko had slipped into a continual semi-conscious state and the police physician recommended a transfer to hospital. Biko was, however, transported 1,200 kilometers to Pretoria—a 12-hour journey which he made lying naked in the back of a Land Rover. A few hours later, on September 12, alone and still naked, lying on the floor of a cell in the Pretoria Central Prison, Biko died from brain damage.

The Apartheid Government's Response

The South African Minister of Justice, James (Jimmy) Kruger initially suggested Biko had died of a hunger strike and said that his death "left him cold." The hunger strike story was dropped after local and international media pressure, especially from Donald Woods, the editor of the East London Daily Dispatch.

It was revealed in the inquest that Biko had died of brain damage, but the magistrate failed to find anyone responsible. He ruled that Biko had died as a result of injuries sustained during a scuffle with security police while in detention.

An Anti-Apartheid Martyr

The brutal circumstances of Biko's death caused a worldwide outcry and he became a martyr and symbol of black resistance to the oppressive apartheid regime. As a result, the South African government banned a number of individuals (including Donald Woods) and organizations, especially those Black Consciousness groups closely associated with Biko.

The United Nations Security Council responded by finally imposing an arms embargo against South Africa. Biko's family sued the state for damages in 1979 and settled out of court for R65,000 (then equivalent to $25,000). The three doctors connected with Biko's case were initially exonerated by the South African Medical Disciplinary Committee.

It was not until a second enquiry in 1985, eight years after Biko's death, that any action was taken against them. The police officers responsible for Biko's death applied for amnesty during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, which sat in Port Elizabeth in 1997.

The Biko family did not ask the Commission to make a finding on his death. The "Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa" report, published by Macmillan in March 1999, said of Biko's death:

"The Commission finds that the death in detention of Mr Stephen Bantu Biko on 12 September 1977 was a gross human rights violation. Magistrate Marthinus Prins found that the members of the SAP were not implicated in his death. The magistrate's finding contributed to the creation of a culture of impunity in the SAP. Despite the inquest finding no person responsible for his death, the Commission finds that, in view of the fact that Biko died in the custody of law enforcement officials, the probabilities are that he died as a result of injuries sustained during his detention."

Legacy

In 1987, Biko’s story was chronicled in the film “Cry Freedom.” The hit song "Biko," by Peter Gabriel, honored Steve Biko's legacy in 1980.

Stephen Biko remains a model and hero in the struggle for autonomy and self-determination for people around the world. His writings, his life work, and his tragic death were all historically crucial to the momentum and success of the South African anti-apartheid movement. Nelson Mandela called Biko: "the spark that lit a veld fire across South Africa."

Sources

  • Mangcu, Xolela. Biko, A Biography. Tafelberg, 2012.
  • Sahoboss. “Stephen Bantu Biko.” South African History Online, 4 Dec. 2017, www.sahistory.org.za/people/stephen-bantu-biko.
  • Woods, Donald. Biko. Paddington Press, 1978.