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Steve Biko

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Stephen Biko
Steve Biko.jpg
Born Stephen Bantu Biko
(1946-12-18)18 December 1946
Ginsberg, South Africa
Died 12 September 1977(1977-09-12) (aged 30)
Pretoria, South Africa
Occupation Anti-apartheid activist
Spouse(s) Ntsiki Mashalaba
Partner(s) Mamphela Ramphele
Children 5, including 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, until his death while in police custody.

A student leader with NUSAS, Biko went on to found the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), mobilizing much of South Africa's urban black population. Biko has been called a martyr of the anti-apartheid movement.[4] While alive, his writings and activism had the goal of empowering black people. 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]

Biko was never a member of the African National Congress (ANC), but the ANC considered him an anti-apartheid hero and used his image in 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 Mzingayi Mathew and Alice 'Mamcete' Biko in Ginsberg Township, in what is now the Eastern Cape province of South Africa.[8] His father was a government clerk and law student. His mother did domestic work in local 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] His father gave him his name, Bantu Stephen Biko, which Biko is said to have understood to mean "a person is a person by means of other people".[11] In 1950, when Biko was four, his father died.[12][13]

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.[14] 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.[15] During the apartheid era, when there was no freedom of association protection for non-white South Africans, Biko was expelled from Lovedale for his political views, and his brother was arrested for his alleged association with Poqo (now known as the Azanian People's Liberation Army).[16] After his expulsion, he attended and in 1965 graduated from St. Francis College, a Roman Catholic institution in Mariannhill, Natal.[8]

He entered the "non-European" section of the University of Natal Medical School at Wentworth, Durban, in 1966.[17]

Marriage and children

Biko married Ntsiki Mashalaba in 1970.[18] 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 Black Consciousness Movement: 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 Ginsberg, 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."[19] 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.[20] In 1972, he was expelled from the University of Natal because of his political activities[19] and he became honorary president of the Black People's Convention. He was banned by the apartheid government in February 1973,[21] 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.[19] 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

Stephen Bantu Biko's grave in Ginsberg cemetery, King William's Town

On 18 August 1977, Biko was arrested at a police roadblock under the Terrorism Act No 83 of 1967 and interrogated by the Port Elizabeth security police, including officers Harold Snyman and Gideon Nieuwoudt. The interrogation took place in Police Room 619 of the Sanlam Building in Port Elizabeth. The 22-hour interrogation included torture and beatings, sending Biko into a coma.[19] 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 into the back of a Land Rover, naked and manacled, for a 1,100-kilometre (680 mi) drive to Pretoria, where there was a prison that had hospital facilities. He was nearly dead from his injuries,[22] and died shortly after he arrived at the Pretoria prison on 12 September. Police said his death was the result of an extended hunger strike, but an autopsy revealed multiple bruises and abrasions and found that he succumbed to a brain hemorrhage from massive head injuries.[19] Many saw this as strong evidence that he had been brutally beaten by his captors. Donald Woods, a journalist and editor who had been a close friend of Biko's, exposed the truth behind Biko's death, along with Helen Zille, who became the leader of the Democratic Alliance political party.[23][24]

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 had photographed his injuries in the morgue as proof of police abuse, was later forced to flee South Africa for England. Woods campaigned against apartheid and further publicised Biko's life and death, writing many newspaper articles about him as well as a book titled Biko, which was later made into the film Cry Freedom.[25] 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 that there was not enough evidence to charge the officers with murder, since there were no eyewitnesses.[26][27] On 2 February 1978, based on the evidence given at the inquest, the attorney general of the Eastern Cape stated that he would not prosecute the officers.[28] On 28 July 1979, the attorney for Biko's family announced that the South African government had agreed to pay the family R65,000 ($78,000) in compensation for Biko's death.[27][29]

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission created following the end of minority rule and of apartheid reported that five former members of the South African security forces had admitted to killing Biko and applied for amnesty. Their application was rejected in 1999.[26] On 7 October 2003, the South African justice ministry announced that the five policemen accused of killing Biko would not be prosecuted because the statute of limitations had elapsed and there was not enough evidence.[26]

Biko was buried in the Ginsberg cemetery, King William's Town.[30][31] In 1997 the graveyard was upgraded and renamed the Steve Biko Garden of Remembrance.[30]

A year after Biko's death, some of his writings were collected and released under the title I Write What I Like.[32]

Influences and formation of ideology

See also: Négritude

The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.

Steve Biko, White Racism and Black Consciousness

Biko was profoundly influenced by Fanon's ideas about liberation.[33] He argued that in apartheid South Africa, white people not only participated in the oppression of black people and were also the main voices in the opposition to that oppression.[34] He thus argued that in dominating both the apartheid system and the anti-apartheid movement, white people totally controlled the political arena, leaving black people marginalised.[34] Biko and his comrades decided not to participate in multi-racial organisations that were dominated by white individuals and which focused their attention largely on issues facing white students.[34] Instead, they called for an anti-apartheid programme that was controlled by black people.[34] They saw their main purpose as combating the feeling of inferiority that most black South Africans experienced.[34]

Noting that there was significant inequality in the distribution of wealth in South Africa, Biko believed that a socialist society would have to be established in order to ensure social justice.[35] In his view, this would require moving towards a mixed economy that allowed private enterprise but in which all land was owned by the state and in which state industries played a significant part in forestry, mining, and commerce.[36] He believed that if post-apartheid South Africa remained economically capitalist then black individuals would join the bourgeoisie but that economic inequality and poverty would remain.[35] He envisioned that a future socialist South Africa could become a completely non-racial society, with individuals of all ethnic backgrounds living peacefully together.[36] He did not support guarantees of minority rights, believing that doing so would continue to recognise divisions along racial lines.[36] Instead he supported a one person, one vote system, whereby everyone would vote as an individual rather than as a member of a racial group.[36]

Biko argued that it was the responsibility of a vanguard movement to ensure that, in a post-apartheid society, the black majority would not seek vengeance upon the white minority.[36] He stated that this would require an education of the black population in order to teach them how to live in a non-racial society.[36]

Biku opposed any collaboration with the apartheid government, whether in the form of Bantustans or Coloured and Indian agreements with the regime.[36] He believed that those fighting apartheid in South Africa should link with anti-colonial struggles elsewhere in the world and with activists in the global African diaspora who were combatting racial prejudice and discrimination.[37]

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. Biko can thus be seen as a follower of Fanon and of Aimé Césaire, in contrast to more multi-racialist ANC leaders such as and Albert Lutuli and Nelson Mandela after his imprisonment at Robben Island, who were initially disciples of Gandhi.[38][39][40][41]

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 must exist within the political realities of the apartheid government, so Biko's nonviolence may be seen more as a tactic than a personal conviction.[42]


Steve Biko statue in East London, Eastern Cape

Biko is regarded as the "father" of the Black Consciousness Movement,[34] and one of the most important black political leaders in South Africa prior to the 1994 general election.[34] Ahluwalia and Zegeye referred to him as "an articulate and visionary black South African intellectual and hero".[37]

In the present post-apartheid South Africa, Biko is revered across the political spectrum regardless of ideology. Some people see Biko's philosophy as irrelevant after 1994, since his dream was not achieved and the ANC became the ruling party after the first democratic elections.[43] However, in 2004, he was voted 13th in the SABC3's Great South Africans. Many present-day social movements, activists, and academics continue to stress the relevance of Biko's black consciousness as well however. 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.[44][45][46]

Biko also came to be closely associated with Frantz Fanon; the pair "share a highly similar pedigree in their interests in the philosophical psychology of consciousness, their desire for a decolonising of the mind, the liberation of Africa and in the politics of nationalism and socialism for the 'wretched of the earth'."[47] Posthumously however, Biko has not received the same level of attention as Fanon.[47]


Peter Gabriel performing his song "Biko" in 2011

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 it closed in 2005. Many 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[48] and Hounslow[49] are named after Biko. At the University of California, Santa Cruz, there is a dormitory named "Biko House" in the Oakes College Multicultural Theme Housing. The Instituto Cultural Steve Biko in Salvador, Brazil supports the education and pride of Black Brazilians.[50] The Pretoria Academic Hospital was renamed the Steve Biko Hospital in 2008.[51] 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 that campus as a tribute. On Dec 18th, 2016 Google had a commemorative doodle in the name of Steve Biko.[52]

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: Homage to Steve Biko a poem written in 1975 by Jack Hirschman, is published in The Arcanes. This poem was 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 Christopher van Wyk, was published in 2007. Van Wyk, (b. 1957), also wrote We Write what we like: Celebrating Steve the same year.

Theatre, film, and television


See also


  1. ^ a b Mothibeli, Tefo. "Mamphela Ramphele: Academic Giant and Ray of Hope", Financial Mail, Johannesburg, 7 July 2006.
  2. ^ Daley, Suzanne, "The Standards Bearer", New York Times, 13 April 1997.
  3. ^ "Stephen Bantu Biko". South African history Online. September 2007. Retrieved 27 August 2014. 
  4. ^ "Background: Steve Biko: martyr of the anti-apartheid movement". BBC News. 8 December 1997. Retrieved 16 April 2007. 
  5. ^ Biko, Steve (1986). I Write What I Like. San Francisco: Harper & Row. pp. 103–104. 
  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. 
  8. ^ a b Elizabeth J. Verwey; HSRC Press (1995). New Dictionary of South African Biography, Volume 1. ISBN 978-0-7969-1648-8 – via 
  9. ^ Leslie M. Alexander, Walter C. Rucker; ABC-CLIO (2010). ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY 3 VOLUME. p. 643. ISBN 978-1-85109-769-2 – via 
  10. ^ Lindy Wilson (2012). Steve Biko (Ohio Short Histories of Africa). Ohio University Press. pp. 19, 22. ISBN 978-0-8214-2025-6. 
  11. ^ Wilson, Lindy; Selassie, Bereket Habte; Harsch, Ernest; Nzongola-Ntalaja, Georges (2015-02-17). African Leaders of the Twentieth Century: Biko, Selassie, Lumumba, Sankara. Ohio University Press. ISBN 978-0-8214-2161-1. 
  12. ^ "Black Consciousness and the Quest for True Humanity" (PDF). Rutgers University. Archived from the original (PDF) on 29 October 2013. 
  13. ^ "Biko, Stephen Bantu (1946–1977)". 24 June 2013. 
  14. ^ F. Abiola Irele, Biodun Jeyifo (2010). The Oxford Encyclopedia of African Thought, Volume 1. Oxford University Press. p. 155. ISBN 978-0-19-533473-9. 
  15. ^ Wilson (2012). Steve Biko. p. 23. 
  16. ^ Peter Joyce (2007). The Making of a Nation: South Africa's Road to Freedom. p. 142. ISBN 978-1-77007-312-8. 
  17. ^ Martin, G. (2012-12-23). African Political Thought. Springer. ISBN 978-1-137-06205-5. 
  18. ^ "King William's Town's hero: Steve Biko 1946–1977". Buffalo City Government. Retrieved 2 September 2007. 
  19. ^ a b c d e 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. 
  20. ^ Black Consciousness in Dialogue: Steve Biko, Richard Turner and the "Durban Moment" in South Africa, 1970–1974, Ian McQueen, SOAS, 2009
  21. ^ "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. 
  22. ^ Pillay, Verashni (12 September 2007). "Keeping Steve Biko alive". News24. Archived from the original on 17 October 2007. Retrieved 19 September 2007. 
  23. ^ Zille, Helen (9 September 2007). "Steve Biko's legacy lives on". 
  24. ^ Biko by Donald Woods. Originally published by Paddington Press, London and New York, 1978; later edition published by Henry Holt, New York, 1987
  25. ^ Blandy, Fran (31 Dec 2007). "SA editor's escape from apartheid, 30 years on". Mail & Guardian. Retrieved 19 June 2011. 
  26. ^ a b c Whitaker, Raymond (8 October 2003). "No prosecution for death of anti-apartheid activist Biko". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 13 October 2012. 
  27. ^ a b "South Africa Will Pay Biko Kin $78,000". Youngstown Vindicator. Associated Press. 28 July 1979. Retrieved 13 October 2012. 
  28. ^ "No prosecution of Biko's interrogators". The Calgary Herald. Reuter. 2 February 1978. Retrieved 13 October 2012. 
  29. ^ "Steve Biko, one of South Africa's favourite sons, remembered...". 
  30. ^ a b "Steve Biko Garden of Remembrance". 
  31. ^ "Bantu Steven Biko (1946–1977) – Find A Grave Memorial". Find a Grave. 
  32. ^ Biko, Steven; Mpumlwana, Thoko (1997). Aelred Stubbs, ed. I Write What I Like: A selection of his writings. London: Bowerdean Pub. ISBN 978-0-906097-49-6. 
  33. ^ Ahluwalia & Zegeye 2001, p. 459.
  34. ^ a b c d e f g Ahluwalia & Zegeye 2001, p. 460.
  35. ^ a b Ahluwalia & Zegeye 2001, pp. 461–462.
  36. ^ a b c d e f g Ahluwalia & Zegeye 2001, p. 462.
  37. ^ a b Ahluwalia & Zegeye 2001, p. 463.
  38. ^ Stiebel, Lindy (2005). Still Beating the Drum: Critical Perspectives on Lewis Nkosi. Rodopi. p. 80. 
  39. ^ Kee, Alistair (2006). The rise and demise of black theology. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. 
  40. ^ Heinrichs, Ann (2001). Mahatma Gandhi. Gareth Stevens. p. 12. 
  41. ^ Lens, Sidney (1963). Africa — Awakening Giant. Putnam. p. 180. 
  42. ^ Wiredu, Kwasi; William E. Abraham; Abiola Irele; Ifeanyi A. Menkiti (2003). Companion to African philosophy. Blackwell Publishing. 
  43. ^ Anonymous (17 February 2011). "Stephen Bantu Biko". 
  44. ^ "Why Steve Biko wouldn't vote". Andile Mngxitama. Pambazuka News. 
  45. ^ Mngxitama, Andile; Andile Mngxitama; Amanda Alexander; Nigel C. Gibson (2008). Biko Lives! Contesting the Legacies of Steve Biko. Palgrave Macmillan. 
  46. ^ "A homemade politics' Rights, democracy and social movements in South Africa". Matt Birkinshaw. Abahlali baseMjondolo. 
  47. ^ a b Ahluwalia & Zegeye 2001, p. 455.
  48. ^ "Steve Biko Road", LondonTown.
  49. ^ "Steve Biko Way", LondonTown.
  50. ^ Martins, Alejandra (25 May 2005). "Black Brazilians learn from Biko". BBC News. Retrieved 19 June 2011. 
  51. ^ "Background". The Steve Biko Academic Hospital. Retrieved 18 December 2016. 
  52. ^ Zulu, Sifiso. "Google celebrates Biko with commemorative doodle". Retrieved 2016-12-18. 
  53. ^ "The Life and Death of Steve Biko (1977) Part 1". Headlines Africa. Retrieved 26 December 2013. 
  54. ^ "The Biko Inquest". IMDb. 
  55. ^ Dorian Lynskey (26 July 2012). "Peter Gabriel on 30 years of Womad – and mixing music with politics". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 17 September 2014. 
  56. ^ "Biko Drum". Christy Moore. Retrieved 19 February 2017. 


  • Ahluwalia, Pal; Zegeye, Abebe (2001). "Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko: Towards Liberation". Social Identities. 7 (3): 455–469. doi:10.1080/13504630120087262. 

Further reading

External links