Steve Biko

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Stephen Biko
File:Steve Biko.jpg
Born Stephen Bantu Biko
(1946-12-18)18 December 1946
Ginsberg Township, South Africa
Died 12 September 1977(1977-09-12) (aged 30)
Pretoria, South Africa
Occupation Anti-apartheid activist
Spouse(s) Ntsiki Mashalaba
Children Nkosinathi Biko, Samora Biko, Lerato Biko, Motlatsi Biko and Hlumelo Biko[1][2]

Stephen Bantu Biko (18 December 1946 – 12 September 1977)[3] was an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s.

A student leader, he later founded the Black Consciousness Movement which would empower and mobilize much of the urban black population. Since his death in police custody, he has been called a martyr of the anti-apartheid movement.[4] While living, his writings and activism attempted to empower black people, and he was famous for his slogan "black is beautiful", which he described as meaning: "man, you are okay as you are, begin to look upon yourself as a human being".[5]

Even though Biko was never a member of the African National Congress (ANC), the ANC has included him in the pantheon of struggle heroes, going as far as using his image for campaign posters in South Africa's first non-racial elections in 1994.[6] Nelson Mandela said of Biko: "They had to kill him to prolong the life of apartheid."[7]

Early life

Biko was born to parents Mzingayi Mathew and Alice 'Mamcete' Biko in Ginsberg Township, in the present-day Eastern Cape province of South Africa.[8] His father was a government clerk, while his mother did domestic work in surrounding white homes.[9] The third of four children, Biko grew up with his older sister Bukelwa; his older brother Khaya; and his younger sister Nobandile.[10] In 1950, at the age of four, Biko suffered the loss of his father who was studying law.[11][12]

Biko was a Xhosa. In addition to Xhosa, he spoke fluent English and fairly fluent Afrikaans. As a child, he attended Brownlee Primary School and Charles Morgan Higher Primary School.[13] He was sent to Lovedale High School in 1964, a prestigious boarding school in Alice, Eastern Cape, where his older brother Khaya had previously been studying.[14] During the apartheid era, with no freedom of association protection for non-white South Africans, Biko was expelled from Lovedale for his political views, and his brother arrested for his alleged association with Poqo (now known as the Azanian People's Liberation Army).[15] After being expelled, he then attended and later graduated from St. Francis College, a Roman Catholic institution in Mariannhill, Natal.[8]

He studied to be a doctor at the University of Natal Medical School.

Marriage and children

Biko married Ntsiki Mashalaba in 1970.[16] They had two children together: Nkosinathi, born in 1971, and Samora.

He also had two children with Dr Mamphela Ramphele, a prominent activist within the BCM: a daughter, Lerato, born in 1974, who died of pneumonia when she was only two months old, and a son, Hlumelo, who was born in 1978, after Biko's death.[1]

Biko also had a daughter with Lorraine Tabane, named Motlatsi, born in May 1977.[citation needed]


Steve Biko's house in King William's Town, Eastern Cape.

Biko was initially involved with the multiracial National Union of South African Students, but after he became convinced that Black, Indian and Coloured students needed an organization of their own, he helped found the South African Students' Organisation (SASO), whose agenda included political self-reliance and the unification of university students in a "black consciousness."[17] In 1968 Biko was elected its first president. SASO evolved into the influential Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). Biko was also involved with the World Student Christian Federation.

In the early 1970s, Biko became a key figure in The Durban Moment.[18] In 1972, he was expelled from the University of Natal because of his political activities[17] and he became honorary president of the Black People's Convention. He was banned by the apartheid government in February 1973,[19] meaning that he was not allowed to speak to more than one person at a time nor to speak in public, was restricted to the King William's Town magisterial district, and could not write publicly or speak with the media.[17] It was also forbidden to quote anything he said, including speeches or simple conversations.

When Biko was banned, his movement within the country was restricted to the Eastern Cape, where he was born. After returning there, he formed a number of grassroots organizations based on the notion of self-reliance: Zanempilo, the Zimele Trust Fund (which helped support former political prisoners and their families), Njwaxa Leather-Works Project and the Ginsberg Education Fund.

In spite of the repression of the apartheid government, Biko and the BCM played a significant role in organising the protests that culminated in the Soweto Uprising of 16 June 1976. In the aftermath of the uprising, which was met with a heavy hand by the security forces, the authorities began to target Biko further.

Death and aftermath

Steven Bantu Biko's grave

On 18 August 1977, Biko was arrested at a police roadblock under the Terrorism Act No 83 of 1967 and interrogated by officers of the Port Elizabeth security police including Harold Snyman and Gideon Nieuwoudt. This interrogation took place in the Police Room 619 of the Sanlam Building in Port Elizabeth. The interrogation lasted twenty-two hours and included torture and beatings resulting in a coma.[17] He suffered a major head injury while in police custody at the Walmer Police Station, in a suburb of Port Elizabeth, and was chained to a window grille for a day.

On 11 September 1977, police loaded him in the back of a Land Rover, naked and restrained in manacles, and began the 1,100 kilometres (680 mi) drive to Pretoria to take him to a prison with hospital facilities. He was nearly dead owing to the previous injuries.[20] He died shortly after arrival at the Pretoria prison, on 12 September. The police claimed his death was the result of an extended hunger strike, but an autopsy revealed multiple bruises and abrasions and that he ultimately succumbed to a brain hemorrhage from the massive injuries to the head,[17] which many saw as strong evidence that he had been brutally clubbed by his captors. Then Donald Woods, a journalist, editor and close friend of Biko's, along with Helen Zille, later leader of the Democratic Alliance political party, exposed the truth behind Biko's death.[21][22]

Because of his high profile, news of Biko's death spread quickly, publicizing the repressive nature of the apartheid government. His funeral was attended by over 10,000 people, including numerous ambassadors and other diplomats from the United States and Western Europe. Donald Woods, who photographed his injuries in the morgue as proof of police abuse, was later forced to flee South Africa for England. Woods later campaigned against apartheid and further publicised Biko's life and death, writing many newspaper articles and writing the book, Biko, which was later turned into the film Cry Freedom.[23] Speaking at a National Party conference following the news of Biko's death then–minister of police, Jimmy Kruger said, "I am not glad and I am not sorry about Mr. Biko. It leaves me cold (Dit laat my koud). I can say nothing to you ... Any person who dies ... I shall also be sorry if I die."

After a 15-day inquest in 1978, a magistrate judge found there was not enough evidence to charge the officers with murder because there were no eyewitnesses.[24][25] On 2 February 1978, based on the evidence given at the inquest, the attorney general of the Eastern Cape stated he would not prosecute.[26] On 28 July 1979, the attorney for Biko's family announced that the South African government would pay them R65,000 ($78,000) in compensation for Biko's death.[25][1]

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was created following the end of minority rule and the apartheid system, reported that five former members of the South African security forces who had admitted to killing Biko were applying for amnesty. Their application was rejected in 1999.[24]

On 7 October 2003, the South African justice ministry announced that the five policemen accused of killing Biko would not be prosecuted because the time limit for prosecution had elapsed and because of insufficient evidence.[24]

A year after his death, some of his writings were collected and released under the title I Write What I Like.[27]

Influences and formation of ideology

Like Frantz Fanon, Biko originally studied medicine, and, like Fanon, Biko developed an intense concern for the development of black consciousness as a solution to the existential struggles that shape existence, both as a human and as an African (see Négritude). Biko can thus be seen as a follower of Fanon and Aimé Césaire, in contrast to more multi-racialist ANC leaders such as Nelson Mandela after his imprisonment at Robben Island, and Albert Luthuli who were first disciples of Gandhi.[28][29][30][31]

Biko saw the struggle for African consciousness as having two stages, "Psychological liberation" and "Physical liberation". The nonviolent influence of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. upon Biko is then suspect, as Biko knew that for his struggle to give rise to physical liberation, it was necessary that it exist within the political realities of the apartheid government, and Biko's nonviolence may be seen more as a tactic than a personal conviction.[32]

Biko's relevance in the present

In the present post-Apartheid South Africa, Biko is now revered across the political spectrum despite obvious ideological differences. Many of these people see Biko's philosophy as irrelevant after 1994. However, in 2004, he was voted 13th in the SABC3's Great South Africans.

However, many present-day social movements, activists, and academics continue to stress the relevance of Biko's black consciousness. This includes a strong critique of voting by writer and political activist Andile Mngxitama who has said that if Biko were alive today, he would not be supporting any political party, would not even vote, but would be marching with the social movements against government.[33] [34] [35]


Biko is buried in the Ginsberg township cemetery, a place called the Steve Biko Garden of Remembrance in the Eastern Cape.[citation needed]

Apart from Donald Woods's book called Biko, his name has been honoured at several universities. Locally, the main Student Union buildings of the University of Cape Town are named in his honour and each year a commemorative Steve Biko lecture, open to all students, is delivered on the anniversary of his death. Internationally, the University of Manchester's student union, the Steve Biko Building, on the Oxford road campus, is named in his honour. Ruskin College, Oxford has a Biko House student accommodation. The bar at the University of Bradford was named after Biko until its closure in 2005. Numerous other venues in Students Unions around the United Kingdom also bear his name. The Santa Barbara Student Housing Cooperative has a house named after Steve Biko, themed to provide a safe, respectful space for people of colour. In London, streets in both Finsbury Park[36] and Hounslow[37] are named after him. At the University of California, Santa Cruz, there is a section of dormitories named "Biko House" located in the Oakes College Multicultural Theme Housing. The Steve Biko Institute was founded in Salvador, Brazil to support the education and pride of Black Brazilians.[38] The Pretoria Academic Hospital was renamed the Steve Biko Academic Hospital[39] in 2008. Durban University of Technology has acknowledged Steve Biko's contribution to South African Society by naming its largest campus after him. A bronze bust of Steve Biko was unveiled in Freedom Square on this campus as a tribute to him.

References in the arts


  • Benjamin Zephaniah wrote a poem titled "Biko The Greatness", included in Zephaniah's 2001 collection, Too Black, Too Strong.
  • "The Compound Arcane" is a poem written in 1975 by Jack Hirschman, subtitled Homage to Steve Biko, which is published in The Arcanes. This poem is notable for having been composed before Biko's death, yet already the poet was inspired enough by Biko's life to recognize him as a martyr.
  • "In Detention" by Chris van Wyk (b. 1957)

Theatre, film and television


See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Mothibeli, Tefo. "Mamphela Ramphele: Academic Giant and Ray of Hope", Financial Mail, Johannesburg, 7 July 2006.
  2. Daley, Suzanne. "The Standards Bearer", NY Times, New York, 13 April 1997.
  3. "Stephen Bantu Biko". South African history on-line. September 2007. Retrieved 27 August 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "Background: Steve Biko: martyr of the anti-apartheid movement". BBC News. 8 December 1997. Retrieved 16 April 2007.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Biko, Steve (1986). I Write What I Like. San Francisco: Harper & Row. pp. 103–104.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. See, for instance, Rian Malan's book My Traitor's Heart
  7. "Row clouds Biko anniversary". BBC News. 12 September 2002. Retrieved 18 December 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 8.0 8.1 Elizabeth J. Verwey; HSRC Press (1995). New Dictionary of South African Biography, Volume 1. ISBN 978-07969-1648-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Leslie M. Alexander, Walter C. Rucker; ABC-CLIO (2010). ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY 3 VOLUME. p. 643. ISBN 978-1851097692.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Lindy Wilson; Ohio University Press (2012). Steve Biko (Ohio Short Histories of Africa). pp. 19, 22. ISBN 978-0821420256.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Rutgers University. "Black Consciousness and the Quest for True Humanity" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 29 October 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. "Biko, Stephen Bantu (1946–1977)". 24 June 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. F. Abiola Irele, Biodun Jeyifo; Oxford University Press (2010). The Oxford Encyclopedia of African Thought, Volume 1. p. 155. ISBN 978-0195334739.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Lindy Wilson; Ohio University Press (2012). Steve Biko (Ohio Short Histories of Africa). p. 23. ISBN 978-0821420256.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Peter Joyce (2007). The Making of a Nation: South Africa's Road to Freedom. p. 142. ISBN 978-1770073128.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. "King William's Town's hero: Steve Biko 1946 – 1977". Buffalo City government. Retrieved 2 September 2007.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 17.4 Appiah, Kwame Anthony; Henry Louis Gates, Jr (1997). The Dictionary of Global Culture. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 76–77. ISBN 0-394-58581-X.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Black Consciousness in Dialogue: Steve Biko, Richard Turner and the "Durban Moment" in South Africa, 1970 – 1974, Ian McQueen, SOAS, 2009
  19. "Martyr of Hope: A Personal Memoir" by Aelred Stubbs C.R., in Biko, Steve (2002). I Write What I Like. Chicago: Harper & Row. p. 161.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. Pillay, Verashni (12 September 2007). "Keeping Steve Biko alive was really hard but we succeeded". News24. Retrieved 19 September 2007.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>[dead link]
  21. Helen, Zille (9 September 2007). "Steve Biko's legacy lives on".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. Biko by Donald Woods. Originally published by Paddington Press, London and New York, 1978; later edition published by Henry Holt, New York, 1987
  23. Blandy, Fran (31 December 2007). "SA editor's escape from apartheid, 30 years on". Mail & Guardian. Retrieved 19 June 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 Whitaker, Raymond (8 October 2003). "No prosecution for death of anti-apartheid activist Biko". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 13 October 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. 25.0 25.1 "South Africa Will Pay Biko Kin $78,000". Youngstown Vindicator. Associated Press. 28 July 1979. Retrieved 13 October 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. "No prosecution of Biko's interrogators". The Calgary Herald. Reuter. 2 February 1978. Retrieved 13 October 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. Biko, Steve; Mpumlwana, Thoko (1997). Aelred Stubbs (ed.). I write what I like: a selection of his writings. London: Bowerdean Pub. ISBN 9780906097496.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. Stiebel, Lindy (2005). Still beating the drum: critical perspectives on Lewis Nkosi. Rodopi. p. 80.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  29. Kee, Alistair (2006). The rise and demise of black theology. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  30. Heinrichs, Ann (2001). Mahatma Gandhi. Gareth Stevens. p. 12.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  31. Lens, Sidney (1963). Africa — awakening giant. Putnam. p. 180.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  32. Wiredu, Kwasi; William E. Abraham; Abiola Irele; Ifeanyi A. Menkiti (2003). Companion to African philosophy. Blackwell Publishing.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  33. "Why Steve Biko wouldn't vote". Andile Mngxitama. Pambazuka News.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  34. Mngxitama, Andile; Andile Mngxitama; Amanda Alexander; Nigel C. Gibson (2008). BIKO LIVES! Contesting the Legacies of Steve Biko. Palgrave Macmillan.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  35. "A homemade politics' Rights, democracy and social movements in South Africa". Matt Birkinshaw. Abahlali baseMjondolo.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  38. Martins, Alejandra (25 May 2005). "Black Brazilians learn from Biko". BBC News. Retrieved 19 June 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  39. Newsbeat. "The Steve Biko Academic Hospital". Retrieved 19 June 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  40. "The Life and Death of Steve Biko (1977) Part 1". Headlines Africa. Retrieved 26 December 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  41. "The Biko Inquest". IMDb.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  42. "Peter Gabriel on 30 years of Womad – and mixing music with politics". The Guardian. 26 July 2012. Retrieved 17 September 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

External links