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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 Nkosinathi Biko; Lerato Biko; Samora Biko; Motlatsi Biko; Hlumelo Biko

Stephen Bantu Biko (18 December 1946 – 12 September 1977) was a South African anti-apartheid activist. Ideologically an African nationalist and African socialist, he was at the forefront of a grassroots anti-apartheid campaign known as the Black Consciousness Movement during the late 1960s and 1970s.

A Xhosa, Biko grew up in Ginsberg, Eastern Cape. In 1966, he began studying medicine at the University of Natal. Here he was increasingly politicised and rose to a senior position in the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). He was strongly opposed to the apartheid system of racial segregation and white-minority rule in South Africa, but was also frustrated that the anti-apartheid movement, including NUSAS, was dominated by white liberals rather than by the blacks who were most disadvantaged by the apartheid system. He developed the view that to avoid white domination, black people had to organise independently and focus on ridding themselves of any sense of racial inferiority. To this end he was a leading figure in the creation of the South African Students' Organisation (SASO) in 1968. Membership was only open to "blacks"—a term that Biko used in reference not just to Bantu-speaking Africans but also Coloureds and Indians—although he retained friendships with several white liberals, and opposed anti-white racism.

Through SASO, Biko developed his Black Consciousness (BC) ideas, which were heavily influenced by those of Frantz Fanon. The movement campaigned for an end to apartheid and the transition of South Africa toward universal suffrage and a socialist economy. In 1972 Biko was involved in founding the Black People's Convention (BPC) to promote BC ideas among the wider population. The government was concerned by his activities, and in 1973 they placed him under a banning order, severely restricting his activities. He remained politically active and helped to organise BC programs in the Ginsberg area, including the establishment of a healthcare centre. He received anonymous threats and was detained by state security services on four occasions. Following his arrest in August 1977, Biko was tortured by state security officers. He sustained fatal head injuries, and died shortly after. Over 20,000 people attended his funeral. Many of his writings were posthumously published for a wider audience. His life was the subject of a book by his friend Donald Woods, which later became the basis for the 1987 film Cry Freedom.

Biko is regarded as the father of Black Consciousness and a martyr of the anti-apartheid movement. He is treated with great respect in South Africa and a 2004 poll ranked him as history's thirteenth greatest South African. During his lifetime he attracted criticism from various fronts. The governing National Party alleged that he hated whites, while various anti-apartheid activists accused him of sexism, and African racial nationalists criticised his friendships with whites and his united front with Coloureds and Indians.


Early life: 1946–66

Bantu Stephen Biko was born on 18 December 1946.[1] The third child of Mzingayi Mathew Biko and Alice 'Mamcete' Biko,[2] he was born at his grandmother's house in Tarkastad, Eastern Cape.[3] Mzingayi and Alice had married in Whittlesea, where the former worked as a policeman. Mzingayi was then transferred to Queenstown, Port Elizabeth, Fort Cox, and finally King William's Town, where he and Alice settled in Ginsberg township.[4] This was a settlement of around 800 families, with every four families sharing a water supply and toilet.[5] The township housed both Bantu African and Coloured individuals,[6] and Xhosa, Afrikaans, and English were all spoken.[7] There, Mzingaye worked at a clerk in the King William's Town Native Affairs Office,[8] while studying for a law degree by correspondence from the University of South Africa.[9] Alice was employed in domestic work, first for local white households and then as a cook at Grey Hospital in King William's Town.[10]

Biko was briefly educated at the Lovedale boarding school in Alice

The name 'Bantu' literally means 'people', although Biko interpreted this in terms of the saying "Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu" ("a person is a person by means of other people").[3] Among the nicknames that he acquired as a child were "Goofy" and "Xwaku-Xwaku", the latter a reference to his unkempt appearance.[11] The third of four children, Biko grew up with his older sister Bukelwa; his older brother Khaya; and his younger sister Nobandile.[12] His family were Christians,[4] and he was brought up as an adherent of the Anglican denomination of Christianity.[13] In 1950, when Biko was four, Mzingaye fell ill, was hospitalised in St. Matthew's Hospital, Keiskammahoek, and soon died.[14] Alice was now widowed and her family forced to subside on the limited income that she earned.[5]

Biko spent two years at St Andrews Primary School and then a further four years at Charles Morgan Higher Primary School, both in Ginsberg.[15] He was recognised as being a particularly intelligent pupil, with his teacher allowing him to skip a year.[16] In 1963 he transferred to the Forbes Grant Secondary School in the township.[17] Biko excelled at maths and English and established himself as top of the class in his exams.[18] In 1964 the Ginsberg community offered him a bursary to transfer to Lovedale, a prestigious boarding school in Alice, Eastern Cape, where Khaya had been studying.[19] Within three months of Steve's arrival, Khaya was accused of having connections to Poqo, the armed wing of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), an African nationalist group which the government had banned. Both Khaya and Steve were arrested and interrogated by the police; the former was convicted although acquitted on appeal.[20] Although no clear evidence of Steve's connection to Poqo was presented, he was expelled from Lovedale.[21] He later noted that after this experience, he "began to develop an attitude which was much more directed at authority than at anything else. I hated authority like hell."[22]

From 1964 to 1965, Biko studied at St. Francis College, a Roman Catholic boarding school in Mariannhill, Natal.[23] The college had a liberal political culture and it was here that Biko developed a growing political consciousness.[24] He became particularly interested in the replacement of South Africa's white minority colonial government with an administration that reflected the views of the country's black majority.[25] Among those anti-colonialist leaders who became Biko's heroes at this time were Algeria's Ahmed Ben Bella and Kenya's Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.[25] He later revealed that most of the "politicos" in his family were sympathetic to the PAC, which had anti-communist and African racialist ideas. Biko stated that he admired the PAC's "terribly good organisation" and the courage of many of its members, but that he was not convinced by its racially exclusionary approach, instead believing that members of all racial groups could unite in opposition to the government.[26] In December 1964, he travelled to Zwelitsha and there underwent the ulwaluko circumcision ceremony, symbolically marking his move from boyhood to manhood.[27]

Early student activism: 1966–68

The apartheid system of racial segregation pervaded all areas of life; Biko was committed to its overthrow

Biko had initially been interested in studying law at university, however many of those around him discouraged this, believing that law was too closely intertwined with political activism. Instead they convinced him to choose medicine, a subject deemed to have better career prospects.[28] He secured a scholarship,[28] and in 1966 entered the "non-European" section of the University of Natal Medical School at Wentworth, Durban.[29] There, he joined what his biographer Xolela Mangcu called "a peculiarly sophisticated and cosmopolitan group of students" from across South Africa;[30] many of these individuals would later have prominent roles in the post-apartheid era.[31] Biko was eager to involve himself in student politics,[32] and soon after he arrived at the university, he was elected to the Students' Representative Council (SRC).[33] The latter part of the 1960s saw the heyday of radical student politics across the world, as reflected in the Protests of 1968.[34]

The university's SRC was affiliated with the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS).[35] NUSAS had taken pains to cultivate a multi-racial membership but remained white-oriented because the majority of South Africa's students were from the white minority.[36] As Clive Nettleton, a white NUSAS leader, put it: "the essence of the matter is that NUSAS was founded on white initiative, is financed by white money and reflects the opinions of the majority of its members who are white".[37] Although NUSAS officially opposed apartheid, it moderated its opposition in order to maintain the support of conservative white students.[38]

Biko and a number of other black African members of NUSAS were frustrated when it organised parties in white dormitories, which black Africans were forbidden from entering.[39] In July 1967, a NUSAS conference was held at Rhodes University in Grahamstown; after the students arrived, they found that dormitory accommodation had been arranged for the white and Indian delegates but not the black Africans, who were told that they could sleep in a local church. Biko and other black African delegates promptly walked out of the conference in anger.[40] Biko later related that this event forced him to rethink his belief in the multi-racial approach to activism.[41]

Founding the South African Students' Organisation: 1968–72

Following the 1968 NUSAS conference in Johannesburg, many of its members attended a July 1968 conference of the University Christian Movement at Stutterheim. There, the black African members had a meeting among themselves, deciding that they would hold a further conference in December to discuss the issue of forming an independent black student group.[42] The South African Students' Organisation (SASO) was officially launched at a July 1969 conference held at the University of the North; there, the group's constitution and basic policy platform was adopted.[43] The group's main impetus was on the need for contact between centres of black student activity, including through sport, cultural activities, and debating competitions.[44] Biko was elected as SASO's first president, while Pat Matshaka was elected vice president and Wuila Mashalaba as secretary.[45]

"Like Black Power in the United States, South Africa's "Black Consciousness movement" was grounded in the belief that African-descendant peoples had to overcome the enormous psychological and cultural damage imposed on them by a succession of white racist domains, such as enslavement and colonialism. Drawing upon the writings and speeches of Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, and Malcolm X, advocates of Black Consciousness supported cultural and social activities that promoted a knowledge of black protest history. They actively promoted the establishment of independent, black-owned institutions, and favored radical reforms within school curricula that nurtured a positive black identity for young people."

— Manning Marable and Peniel Joseph[46]

During the formation of SASO, Biko sought a low public profile.[47] His tenure as president was taken up largely by fundraising activities,[48] and involved him travelling around various campuses in South Africa to recruit students and deepen the movement's ideological base.[49] Some of the students he met censured him for abandoning the multi-racial approach of NUSAS, while others expressed disapproval that SASO allowed Indian and Coloured students to be members along with black Africans.[50]

Biko developed SASO's ideology of "Black Consciousness" in conversation with other black student leaders,[51] delivering a paper on "White Racism and Black Consciousness" at an academic conference in the University of Cape Town's Abe Bailey Centre.[52] He also expanded on his ideas in the column that he wrote for the SASO Newsletter, using the pseudonym of "Frank Talk".[53] Biko stood down from the presidency after a year, insisting that it was necessary for a new leadership to emerge and thus avoid any cult of personality forming around him.[54]

After SASO members debated what their union's relationship should be with NUSAS, it was agreed that it would remain non-affiliated with the larger organisation, but would nevertheless recognise it as the national student body.[55] One of SASO's founding resolutions was that it would send a representative to each NUSAS conference.[48] However, in 1970 SASO abandoned its recognition of NUSAS after accusing the latter of attempting to hinder SASO's growth on various campuses.[50] SASO's split from NUSAS was a traumatic experience for many white liberal youth who had committed themselves to the idea of a multi-racial organisation.[36] The NUSAS leadership regretted the split, but nevertheless largely refrained from criticising SASO.[56]

The idea behind SASO and the Black Consciousness ideas which it promoted was that black South Africans should break away from established mentalities and attain a new sense of self-reliance and dignity.[57] It adopted the term "black" over "non-white" because its leadership felt that simply defining itself in opposition to white people was not a positive self-description.[58] Biko began promoting the slogan "Black is beautiful", explaining that this meant "Man, you are okay as you are. Begin to look upon yourself as a human being."[59] Much of the early message of the Black Consciousness movement focused on criticising anti-racist white liberals and liberalism itself, accusing it of "paternalism" and being a "negative influence" on black Africans.[60] In one of his early published articles, Biko stated although he was "not sneering at the [white] liberals and their involvement" in the anti-apartheid movement, "one has to come to the painful conclusion that the [white] liberal is in fact appeasing his own conscience, or at best is eager to demonstrate his identification with the black people only insofar as it does not sever all ties with his relatives on his side of the colour line."[61]

In Durban, Biko met a nurse, Nontsikelelo "Ntsiki" Mashalaba, and they entered a relationship before marrying at King William's Town magistrates court in December 1970.[62] Their first child, Nkosinathi, was born in 1971.[63] Biko had initially done well in his university studies, but his grades began to slip as he devoted increasing amounts of his time to political activism.[64] Six years after starting is degree, he found himself repeating his third year.[65] In 1972, the University of Natal barred him from further study.[66]

The Black People's Convention and Biko's Banning: 1971–77

"My major problem at this moment is a strange kind of guilt. So many friends of mine have been arrested for activities in something that I was most instrumental in starting. A lot of them are blokes I spoke into the movement. And yet I am not with them. One does not think this way in political life of course. Casualties are expected and should be bargained for."

— Steve Biko[67]

In August 1971, Biko attended a conference on "The Development of the African Community" that was held in Edendale.[68] There, a resolution was presented calling for the formation of the Black People's Convention (BPC), a vehicle for the promotion of Black Consciousness among the wider population. Biko voted in favour of the group's creation but expressed reservation that the event had not consulted South Africa's Coloureds or Indians.[69] Biko did not stand for any leadership positions in the BPC, while A. Mayatula became its first president.[70] The BPC was formally launched in July 1972 in Pietermaritzburg.[70] By 1973, it had 41 branches and 4000 members, sharing much cross-membership with SASO.[65] Several months after the group was founded, in September 1972, Biko was in Kimberley, where he took the opportunity to meet with Robert Sobukwe, a prominent anti-apartheid activist who had founded the PAC.[71]

In March 1973 the government placed a banning order on Biko, restricting him to the King William's Town magisterial district, prohibiting him from speaking to more than one person at a time or speaking in public, barring his membership of political organisations, and preventing him from being quoted in the media.[72] As a result, he settled back in Ginsberg, initially living in his mother's house before obtaining his own residence.[73] The banning order prevented Biko from working officially for the BC Programs from which he had previously earned a small stipend.[63] He nevertheless helped establish a BPC branch in Ginsberg,[74] which held its first meeting in the church of a sympathetic white clergyman, David Russell.[75] To promote Black Consciousness, he helped to establish Black Community Programs from the BCM headquarters in Leopold Street; these included self-help schemes such as classes in literacy, dressmaking and health education.[76] Near King William's Town they established the Zanempilo Clinic, a healthcare centre to cater for rural black people who would not otherwise have access to hospital facilities.[77] He helped to revive the Ginsberg Crèche,[78] and establish a Ginsberg Education Fund to raise bursaries for promising local students.[79] He assisted the establishment of Njwaxa Home Industries, a company that provided jobs for local women in producing leather goods.[80] In 1975, he was also a founding member of the Zimele Trust, a fund for the families of political prisoners.[81]

Steve Biko's house in Ginsberg, Eastern Cape.

In December 1975, the BPC declared Biko to be their honorary president, which was an attempt to circumvent the restrictions of the banning order. [82] After Biko and other BCM leaders were banned, a new leadership rose to the fore, led by Muntu Myeza and Sathasivian Cooper, who were considered part of the Durban Moment.[83] Myeza and Cooper organised a BCM demonstration to mark Mozambique's independence from Portuguese colonial rule in 1975.[84] Biko disagreed with this action, believing that the government would use it as a reason to crack down on the BCM.[84] Biko's prediction was right as the government arrested around 200 BCM activists.[85] Nine of these activists were brought before the Supreme Court, accused of subversion by intent. The state had claimed that Black Consciousness philosophy was likely to cause "racial confrontation" and thus was a threat to public safety. Biko was called as a witness for the defence to refute this by outlining the movement's aims and development.[86] Ultimately, the accused were convicted and imprisoned on Robben Island.[87]

In 1973, Biko enrolled for a law degree by correspondence from the University of South Africa. He passed several exams, but had not completed the degree at his time of death.[88] His performance on the course was poor, for he was absent from several exams and failed his Praktiese Afrikaans module.[89] Individuals linked to the state security services repeatedly sought to intimidate him; he received a number of anonymous threatening phone calls,[90] and gun shots were fired into the walls of his house.[91] A group of young men calling themselves 'The Cubans' began guarding him from these attacks.[92] The security services also detained him on four separate occasions prior to his death; on one occasion, his detainment lasted for 101 days.[93] With the ban preventing Biko from gaining employment, the strained economic situation impacted his marriage.[63] Biko had also begun an extra-marital relationship with Mamphela Ramphele, a fellow BCM activist who worked as a doctor at the Zanempilo Clinic.[63] She bore him a daughter, Lerato, in 1974, although the latter died after two months.[63] He was also in a relationship with Lorrain Tabane, who bore him a child named Motlatsi in 1977.[63] Ntskiki bore Biko a second child, this time a son named Samora, in 1975.[63] However, she was angered by her husband's serial adultery, and ultimately moved out of his move and filed for divorce.[63]

Biko became a close friend of white liberal activist Donald Woods, who wrote a book about Biko after the latter's death

During his ban, Biko asked for a meeting with Donald Woods, the white liberal editor of the Daily Dispatch. Under Wood's editorship, the newspaper had published a number of articles criticising apartheid and the white-minority regime and had also given space to the views of various black groups, but not members of the BCM. Biko hoped that by meeting Woods he could convince him to give the movement greater coverage and an outlet in which to express its views.[94] Woods was initially reticent, believing that Biko and the BCM advocated a form of anti-white racism.[95] On meeting Biko in King William's Town, Woods expressed his concern about some of the criticism of white liberals present in Biko's early writings. Biko acknowledged that his earlier "antiliberal" writings were "overkill", but that he remained committed to the basic message contained within them.[96]

Biko clarified his position to Woods: "I don't reject liberalism as such or white liberals as such. I reject only the concept that black liberation can be achieved through the leadership of white liberals."[96] He added that "the [white] liberal is no enemy, he's a friend – but for the moment he holds us back, offering a formula too gentle, too inadequate for our struggle".[94] Over the coming months and years the pair met on further occasions and became close friends.[97] Woods later related that although he continued to have concerns about "the unavoidably racist aspects of Black Consciousness", it was "both a revelation and education" to socialise with blacks who had "psychologically emancipated attitudes".[98] Biko was criticised by some members of the BCM for his friendships with white liberals.[99]

Biko also supported the idea of unifying South Africa's black liberationist group in order to concentrate their efforts in overthrowing apartheid.[100] In his words, "I would like to see groups such as the ANC, PAC, and Black Consciousness deciding to form one liberation group".[100] To this end, he began reaching out to leading members of the ANC, PAC, and Unity Movement.[101] His communications with the ANC were largely via Griffiths Mxenge,[101] and plans were being developed to smuggle Biko out of the country to meet leading ANC figure Oliver Tambo.[102] His clandestine negotiations with the PAC were primarily through intermediaries who exchanges messages between him and Subokwe,[103] while those with the Unity Movement were largely via Fikile Bam.[104]

Death: 1977

Biko decided to break his banning order by traveling to Cape Town. There, he hoped to meet with Unity Movement leader Neville Alexander and deal with growing dissent in the Western Cape branch of the BCM, which was dominated by Marxists like Johnny Issel.[105] Biko drove to the city with his Coloured friend Peter Jones on 17 August, however once there Alexander refused to meet with Biko, fearing that he was being monitored by the police.[106] Biko and Jones drove back toward King William's Town but, on 18 August 1977, were stopped at a police roadblock near Grahamstown.[107] Biko was arrested for having violated the order restricting him to King William's Town.[108] Allegations have been made that the security services were aware of Biko's trip to Cape Town and that the road block had been established to catch him; these however have never been substantiated.[109]

The security services imprisoned Biko at Walmer Police Station in Port Elizabeth, where he was held in custody for almost a month.[110] On arrival, he was kept naked in a cell for twenty days, with his legs in shackles.[111] During his interrogation, he was severely beaten by one of the ten security police officers,[112] although the exact events have never been ascertained.[113] He received three brain lesions that resulted in a massive brain haemorrhage on 6 September.[114] Following this incident, Biko's captors forced him to remain standing and shackled to the wall.[115]

Two doctors examined him, and recommended that he be transferred to the police hospital at Pretoria.[113] On 11 September, police loaded him into the back of a Land Rover, naked and manacled, and drove him the 700 kilometres to the hospital.[116] There, Biko died alone in a cell on 12 September 1977.[117] According to a subsequent autopsy, Biko had died following a brain injury which had centralised blood circulation in his body and resulted in intravasal blood coagulation, acute kidney failure, and uremia.[118] Biko was the twenty-first person to die in a South African prison in the span of twelve months.[119]

Response and investigation

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

News of Biko's death soon spread across the world.[120] Many were shocked that the security authorities would kill such a prominent dissident leader.[120] Protest meetings were held in various cities.[121] His funeral service, held on 25 September 1977 at King William's Town's Victoria Stadium, took five hours and was attended by around 20,000 people.[122] The vast majority were black, but a few hundred whites—including Biko friends like Russell and Woods and prominent progressive figures like Helen Suzman, Alex Boraine, and Zach de Beer—also attended.[123] The event was later described as "the first mass political funeral in the country".[124] Biko's coffin had been decorated with a black power fist and the statement "One Azania, One Nation".[125] Biko was buried in the Ginsberg cemetery, King William's Town.[126][127] In 1997 the graveyard was upgraded and renamed the Steve Biko Garden of Remembrance.[126][124]

South Africa's Police Minister, Jimmy Kruger, spoke publicly about Biko's death, initially implying that it had been the result of a hunger strike. This account was challenged by some of Biko's friends, among them Woods, who revealed that Biko had informed them that he would never commit suicide in prison.[128] Kruger later denied having stated that Biko died as a result of a hunger strike.[129] Publicly, he also claimed that Biko had been plotting violence, a claim repeated in the pro-government press.[129] South Africa's attorney general initially stated that no one would be prosecuted for Biko's death.[130] Both domestic and international pressure called for a public inquest to be held, to which the government agreed.[131] The inquest began in Pretoria's Old Synagogue courthouse in November 1977, and lasted for three weeks.[132] The security forces alleged that Biko had sustained his injuries in a scuffle.[133] The presiding magistrate accepted the security forces' account of events and refused to prosecute any of those involved.[134][135][136] 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.[137] 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.[136]

A year after Biko's death, his "Frank Talk" writings were collected and released under the title I Write What I Like.[138] 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.[139]

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission created following the end 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.[135] 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.[135]


"Black Consciousness directs itself to the black man and to his situation, and the black man is subjected to two forces in this country. He is first of all oppressed by an external world through institutionalised machinery and through laws that restrict him from doing certain things, through heavy work conditions, through poor pay, through difficult living conditions, through poor education, these are all external to him. Secondly, and this we regard as the most important, the black man in himself has developed a certain state of alienation, he rejects himself precisely because he attaches the meaning white to all that is good, in other words he equates good with white. This arises out of his living and it arises out of his development from childhood."

— Steve Biko, 1976[140]

The ideas underpinning the Black Consciousness Movement were not created solely by Biko, but developed through lengthy discussions with a number of black students who were rejecting white liberalism.[51] Biko was also influenced by his wide reading of such authors as Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Léopold Sédar Senghor, James Cone, and Paulo Freire.[51] Fanon in particular has been cited as a profound influence over Biko's ideas about liberation.[141] Biko's biographer Xolela Mangcu however cautioned that it would be wrong to reduce Biko's thought to an interpretation of Fanon, and that the impact of "the political and intellectual history of the Eastern Cape" had to be appreciated too.[142]

Biko understood white racism as comprising the totality of South Africa's white power structure.[143] He argued that in apartheid South Africa, white people not only participated in the oppression of black people but were also the main voices in the opposition to that oppression.[144] 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.[144] Biko and his comrades decided not to participate in multi-racial organisations that were dominated by white people and which focused their attention largely on issues facing white students.[144] Instead, they called for an anti-apartheid programme that was controlled by black people.[144]

Biko's politics focused on the politics of psychological empowerment,[145] and both he and the BCM saw their main purpose as combating the feeling of inferiority that most black South Africans experienced.[144] Biko expressed dismay at how "the black man has become a shell, a shadow of man ... bearing the yoke of oppression with sheepish timidity",[146] and stated that "the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed".[146] He believed that blacks needed to affirm their own humanity by overcoming their fears and believing themselves worthy of freedom and its attendant responsibilities.[143] He defined Black Consciousness as "an inward-looking process" that would "infuse people with pride and dignity".[146]

"It becomes more necessary to see the truth as it is if you realise that the only vehicle for change are these people who have lost their personality. The first step therefore is to make the black man come to himself; to pump back life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity, to remind him of his complicity in the crime of allowing himself to be mis-used and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the land of his birth. That is what we mean by an inward-looking process. This is the definition of Black Consciousness."

— Steve Biko[147]

Biko was not a Marxist and believed that it was oppression based on race, rather than class, which would be the main political motivation for change.[148] A staunch anti-imperialist,[149] he was suspicious of the Soviet Union's motives in supporting African liberation movements, relating that "Russia is as imperialistic as America", although he noted that "in the eyes of the Third World they have a cleaner slate."[150] He also acknowledged that the material assistance provided by the Soviets was "more valuable [to the liberation cause] than [the] speeches and wrist-slapping" provided by Western governments.[151] He was cautious for a post-apartheid South Africa to not get caught up in the imperialist Cold War rivalries of the United States and the Soviet Union.[149] He also hoped for foreign countries to boycott the South African economy.[152]

Biko opposed any collaboration with the apartheid government, whether in the form of Bantustans or Coloured and Indian agreements with the regime.[153] In his view, the Bantustan system was "the greatest single fraud ever invented by white politicians", stating that it was designed to divide the Bantu-speaking African population along tribal lines.[101] He openly criticised the Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, stating that the latter's co-operation with the South African government "dilutes the cause" of black liberation.[154] 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 combating racial prejudice and discrimination.[155]

Biko believed that while apartheid and white-minority rule continued, "sporadic outbursts" of violence against the white minority were inevitable.[156] He personally wanted to avoid violence, stating that "if at all possible, we want the revolution to be peaceful and reconciliatory".[157] He noted that views on the use of violence differed widely within the Black Consciousness Movement—which contained both committed pacifists and those who believed in violent revolution—although the group had agreed to operate peacefully, and unlike the PAC and ANC, had no armed wing.[158]

On a post-apartheid society

Biko envisioned that a future socialist South Africa could become a completely non-racial society, with individuals of all ethnic backgrounds living peacefully together.[153] He believed in the cultural fusing of the best respective experiences of the black and white communities, resulting in the creation of a "joint culture".[159] He did not support guarantees of minority rights, believing that doing so would continue to recognise divisions along racial lines.[160] 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.[161] He had initially believed that one-party states were appropriate for Africa, although changed his view in conversation with Woods, developing a more positive view of multi-party systems.[162] He viewed individual liberty as desirable, but regarded it as a lesser priority than access to food, employment, and social security.[151]

"Black, said Biko, is not a colour; Black is an experience. If you are oppressed, you are Black. In the South African context, this was truly revolutionary. Biko's subsidiary message was that the unity of the oppressed could not be achieved through clandestine armed struggle; it had to be achieved in the open, through a peaceful but militant struggle."

— Mahmood Mamdani[163]

Biko was neither a communist nor capitalist.[149] He has been described as a proponent of African socialism,[148] and called for "a socialist solution that is an authentic expression of black communalism".[150] This idea was derided by some of his Marxist contemporaries, although later found parallels in the ideas of the Mexican Zapatistas.[149] 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.[164] In his view, this would require a move 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.[153] 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.[164] As he put it, if South Africa transitioned to proportional democracy without socialist economic reforms then "it would not change the position of economic oppression of the blacks".[165]

In conversation with Woods, Biko insisted that the Black Consciousness Movement would not degenerate into anti-white racism "because it isn't a negative, hating thing. It's a positive black self-confidence thing involving no hatred of anyone".[94] He acknowledged that a "fringe element" may retain "anti-white bitterness", although added: "we'll do what we can to restrain that, but frankly it's not one of our top priorities or one of our major concerns. Our main concern is the liberation of the blacks".[94] Elsewhere, 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.[153] 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.[153]

Personality and personal life

In his youth, Biko was tall and slender,[166] while during his twenties he was described as being over six foot in height and heavily built.[96] His friends regarded him as "handsome, fearless, a brilliant thinker".[167] Woods described Biko as "an unusually gifted man. His quick brain, superb articulation of ideas and sheer mental force were highly impressive."[97] Biko's friend Trudi Thomas stated that "Steve was brilliant. With him you had a remarkable sense of being in the presence of a great mind".[168] Woods felt that Biko "could enable one to share his vision" with "an economy of words" because "he seemed to communicate ideas through extraverbal media - almost psychically."[169] Biko exhibited what Woods referred to as "a new style of leadership", never proclaiming himself to be a leader and discouraging any cult of personality from growing up around him.[57] Other activists however regarded him as a leader and often deferred to him at meetings.[57]

"The charisma of Steve Biko was entirely his own. He had from an early age the unmistakable bearing and quality of a unique leader. I say unique because his style of leadership was his own - it was un-pushy, un-promotional, yet immediately acknowledged by his peers ... I was thirteen years older than Steve, yet I always had the feeling I was talking to someone older and wiser, and like many others I often sought his advice on all manner of problems."

— Donald Woods[170]

Biko and many others in his activist circle had an antipathy toward luxury items, avoiding ownership of them because most South African blacks could not afford them.[171] He owned few clothes and dressed in a low-key manner.[172] He had a large record collection, however, and although he enjoyed most genres of music he particularly favoured gumba music.[173] He enjoyed parties,[173] and according to his biographer Linda Wilson, he was not "a paragon of virtue" and often drank too much alcohol.[174] Although often critical of the established Christian churches, Biko remained a believer in God and found insight in the Gospel teachings.[175] Woods described Biko as being "not conventionally religious, although he had genuine religious feeling in broad terms".[176] Mangcu similarly noted that Biko was critical of organised religion and denominationalism and that he was "at best an unconventional Christian".[177]

Although the Nationalist government portrayed Biko as a hater of whites,[178] he had a number of close white friends,[178] and both Woods and Wilson insisted that Biko was not a racist.[179] Woods related that Biko "simply wasn't a hater of people", and that he did not even hate prominent National Party politicians like B. J. Vorster and Andries Treurnicht, instead hating merely their ideas.[180]

Biko never addressed questions of gender in his politics.[181] He developed a reputation as a womaniser,[182] a reputation that Woods described as "well earned".[176] He had no racial prejudice regarding the women whom he had sexual relations with, with the latter including white women.[183] At NUSAS, he and his friends competed to see who could have sex with the most female delegates.[183] The NUSAS general secretary Sheila Lapinsky accused him of sexism, to which he responded "Don't worry about my sexism. What about your white racist friends in NUSAS?"[183] Subokwe also admonished him for his womanising, believing that it set a bad example to other activists.[184] Biko married Ntsiki Mashalaba in December 1970,[62] although they had separated and she had begun divorce proceedings by the time of his death.[63] They had two children together: Nkosinathi, born in 1971, and Samora, born in 1975.[63] Biko's wife chose the name Nkosinathi ("The Lord is with us"), while Biko named their second child after the Mozambican revolutionary leader Samora Machel, whom he greatly admired.[176] He also had two children with Mamphela Ramphele, a BCM activist: a daughter, Lerato, born in 1974, who died when she was two months old, and a son, Hlumelo, who was born in 1978, after Biko's death.[63] Biko also had a relationship with a third woman, Lorraine Tabane, resulting in the birth of a daughter named Motlatsi in 1977.[63]

Reception and legacy

Steve Biko statue in East London, Eastern Cape

Biko is regarded as the "father" of the Black Consciousness Movement,[144] with Woods characterising him as the movement's "main guiding founder and inspiration",[57] Ahluwalia and Zegeye referred to him as "an articulate and visionary black South African intellectual and hero".[155] adding that he was one of the most important black political leaders in South Africa prior to the 1994 general election.[144] Opening an anthology on Biko's thought, the academics Manning Marable and Peniel Joseph described Biko as "one of South Africa's greatest fighters—and martyrs—for freedom".[185] They added that Biko's death had "created a vivid symbol of black resistance" to apartheid which "continues to inspire new black activists" over a decade after the transition to majority rule.[186] According to the BBC, Biko is "widely seen as the greatest martyr of the anti-apartheid movement."[187] In a 2004 public vote, he was elected 13th in the SABC3's Great South Africans.[188]

Biko also came to be closely associated with 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'."[189] Posthumously however, Biko has not received the same level of attention as Fanon.[189]

Woods held the view that Biko had filled the vacuum within the country's African nationalist movement that arose in the late 1960s following the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and the banning of Sobukwe.[57] Following Biko's death, the BC movement declined in influence as the ANC emerged as a resurgent force in anti-apartheid politics.[190] This brought about a shift in focus from the BCM's community organising to wider mass mobilisation, including attempts to follow Tambo's call to make South Africa "ungovernable". This involved increasing violence and clashes between rival anti-apartheid groups.[191] Followers of Biko's ideas re-organised as the Azanian People's Organisation (AZAPO), although this subsequently split into the Socialist Party of Azania and the Black People's Convention.[192] A number of figures associated with the ANC denigrated Biko during the 1980s.[193] For instance, members of the ANC-affiliated United Democratic Front assembled outside Biko's Ginsberg home shouting U-Steve Biko, I-CIA!, an allegation that Biko was a spy for the United States' Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). These demonstrations resulted in clashes with Biko supporters from AZAPO.[194]

Peter Gabriel performing his tribute "Biko" in 2011

Biko's family established the Steve Biko Foundation in the 1990s.[195] They obtained funding from the Ford Foundation to establish the Steve Biko Centre in Ginsberg.[195] The Foundation also launched the annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture in 2000, each of which showcased another black intellectual.[196] The first speaker was Njabulo Ndebele, who was followed in subsequent years by Zakes Mda, Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, and Mandela.[197] Mandela praised Biko as "the spark that lit a veld fire across South Africa",[198] adding that the Nationalist government "had to kill him to prolong the life of apartheid."[199]

Following the end of apartheid and the establishment of an ANC government after 1994, the latter was accused of appropriating his legacy. In 2002, AZAPO issued a statement declaring that "Biko was not a neutral, apolitical and mythical icon" and that the ANC was "scandalously" using Biko's image to legitimise their "weak" government.[200] On the anniversary of Biko's death in 2015, delegations from both the ANC and the Economic Freedom Fighters independently visited his grave.[201] In March 2017, the South African President Jacob Zuma laid a wreath at Biko's grave to mark Human Rights Day.[202]

The English singer-songwriter Peter Gabriel released "Biko" in tribute to him, which became a hit single in 1980.[203] Various groups around the world have been named after Biko. In 2008, the Pretoria Academic Hospital was renamed the Steve Biko Hospital in 2008.[204] In Salvador, Bahia in Brazil, a Steve Biko Institute was established to promote educational attainment among poor Afro-Brazilians.[205] In 2012, the Google Cultural Institute published an online archive containing documents and photographs owned by the Steve Biko Foundation.[206] On 18 December 2016, Google marked Biko's seventieth birthday with a commemorative Google Doodle.[207]

See also



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  3. ^ a b Wilson 2012, p. 18.
  4. ^ a b Wilson 2012, p. 19.
  5. ^ a b Wilson 2012, p. 20.
  6. ^ Mangcu 2014, p. 235.
  7. ^ Wilson 2012, pp. 20, 22.
  8. ^ Smit 1995, p. 18; Mangcu 2014, p. 88.
  9. ^ Wilson 2012, p. 19; Mangcu 2014, p. 88.
  10. ^ Smit 1995, p. 18; Wilson 2012, p. 20.
  11. ^ Mangcu 2014, p. 32.
  12. ^ Wilson 2012, p. 19; Mangcu 2014, p. 89.
  13. ^ Woods 1978, p. 96.
  14. ^ Smit 1995, p. 18; Wilson 2012, p. 19; Mangcu 2014, p. 88.
  15. ^ Woods 1978, p. 49; Smit 1995, p. 18; Mangcu 2014, pp. 97–98.
  16. ^ Mangcu 2014, p. 98.
  17. ^ Smit 1995, p. 18; Wilson 2012, p. 22; Mangcu 2014, pp. 100–101.
  18. ^ Mangcu 2014, p. 102.
  19. ^ Wilson 2012, p. 23; Mangcu 2014, pp. 104–105.
  20. ^ Smit 1995, p. 18; Wilson 2012, pp. 23, 27; Mangcu 2014, p. 106.
  21. ^ Smit 1995, p. 18; Wilson 2012, p. 23; Mangcu 2014, p. 107.
  22. ^ Wilson 2012, p. 23.
  23. ^ Woods 1978, p. 49; Smit 1995, p. 18; Wilson 2012, pp. 24, 27; Mangcu 2014, p. 108.
  24. ^ Mangcu 2014, pp. 109–110.
  25. ^ a b Wilson 2012, p. 25.
  26. ^ Wilson 2012, p. 27.
  27. ^ Mangcu 2014, pp. 111–112.
  28. ^ a b Smit 1995, p. 18; Wilson 2012, p. 28.
  29. ^ Smit 1995, p. 18; Woods 1978, p. 49; Wilson 2012, pp. 28–29; Mangcu 2014, p. 113.
  30. ^ Mangcu 2014, p. 115.
  31. ^ Mangcu 2014, p. 116.
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Ahluwalia, Pal; Zegeye, Abebe (2001). "Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko: Towards Liberation". Social Identities. 7 (3): 455–469. doi:10.1080/13504630120087262. 
Bernstein, Hilda (1978). No. 46 - Steve Biko. London: International Defence and Aid Fund. ISBN 978-0-904759-21-1. 
Mamdani, Mahmood (2012). "A Tribute to Steve Biko". Transformation: Critical Perspectives on Southern Africa. 80. pp. 76–79. 
Mandela, Nelson (2014). "A Tribute to Stephen Bantu Biko". In Xolela Mangcu. Biko: A Life. London and New York: I. B. Tauris. pp. 7–9. ISBN 978-1-78076-785-7. 
Mangcu, Xolela (2014). Biko: A Life. London and New York: I. B. Tauris. ISBN 978-1-78076-785-7. 
Marable, Manning; Joseph, Peniel (2008). "Series Editors' Preface: Steve Biko and the International Context of Black Consciousness". Biko Lives! Contesting the Legacies of Steve Biko. Andile Mngxitama, Amanda Alexander, and Nigel C. Gibson (eds.). New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. vii–x. ISBN 978-0-230-60519-0. 
Mngxitama, Andile; Alexander, Amanda; Gibson, Nigel (2008). "Biko Lives". Biko Lives! Contesting the Legacies of Steve Biko. Andile Mngxitama, Amanda Alexander, and Nigel C. Gibson (eds.). New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 1–20. ISBN 978-0-230-60519-0. 
Smit, B. F. (1995). "Biko, Bantu Stephen (Steve)". In E. J. Verwey. New Dictionary of South African Biography. HSRC Press. pp. 18–21. ISBN 978-0-7969-1648-8. 
Woods, Donald (1978). Biko. New York and London: Paddington Press. ISBN 0-8050-1899-9. 
Wilson, Lindy (2012). Steve Biko. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press. ISBN 978-0-8214-4441-2. 

Further reading

Biko, Stephen Bantu (1984). Arnold Millard, ed. The Testimony of Steve Biko. Panther Books, Granada Publ. 
Biko, Steve (1987). Aelred Stubbs, ed. I Write What I Like: A Selection of His Writings. Heinemann. ISBN 978-0-435-90598-9. 
Goodwin, June; Schiff, Ben (13 November 1995). "Who Killed Steve Biko?: Exhuming Truth in South Africa". The Nation. New York: The Nation Company. 261 (16): 565–568. ISSN 0027-8378. 
Hill, Shannen L. (2015). Biko's Ghost: The Iconography of Black Consciousness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 

External links