Bantu Stephen 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. His ideas were articulated in a series of articles published under the pseudonym Frank Talk.
Raised in a poor Xhosa family, Biko grew up in Ginsberg township in the Eastern Cape. In 1966, he began studying medicine at the University of Natal, where he joined the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). Strongly opposed to the apartheid system of racial segregation and white-minority rule in South Africa, Biko was frustrated that NUSAS and other anti-apartheid groups were dominated by white liberals, rather than by the blacks who were most affected by apartheid. He believed that even when well-intentioned, white liberals failed to comprehend the black experience and often acted in a paternalistic manner. He developed the view that to avoid white domination, black people had to organise independently, and to this end he became a leading figure in the creation of the South African Students' Organisation (SASO) in 1968. Membership was open only to "blacks", a term that Biko used in reference not just to Bantu-speaking Africans but also to Coloureds and Indians. He was careful to keep his movement independent of white liberals, but opposed anti-white racism and had various white friends and lovers. The National Party government were initially supportive, seeing SASO's creation as a victory for apartheid's ethos of racial separatism.
Influenced by Frantz Fanon and the African-American Black Power movement, Biko and his compatriots developed Black Consciousness as SASO's official ideology. The movement campaigned for an end to apartheid and the transition of South Africa toward universal suffrage and a socialist economy. It organised Black Community Programmes (BCPs) and focused on the psychological empowerment of black people. Biko believed that black people needed to rid themselves of any sense of racial inferiority, an idea he expressed by popularizing the slogan "black is beautiful". In 1972, he was involved in founding the Black People's Convention (BPC) to promote Black Consciousness ideas among the wider population. The government came to see Biko as a subversive threat and placed him under a banning order in 1973, severely restricting his activities. He remained politically active, helping organise BCPs such as a healthcare centre and a crèche in the Ginsberg area. During his ban he received repeated anonymous threats, and was detained by state security services on several occasions. Following his arrest in August 1977, Biko was severely beaten by state security officers, resulting in his death. Over 20,000 people attended his funeral.
Biko's fame spread posthumously. He became the subject of numerous songs and works of art, while a 1978 biography by his friend Donald Woods formed the basis for the 1987 film Cry Freedom. During Biko's life, the government alleged that he hated whites, various anti-apartheid activists accused him of sexism, and African racial nationalists criticised his united front with Coloureds and Indians. Nonetheless, Biko became one of the earliest icons of the movement against apartheid, and is regarded as a political martyr and the "Father of Black Consciousness". His political legacy remains a matter of contention.
Early life: 1946–66
Bantu Stephen Biko was born on 18 December 1946, at his grandmother's house in Tarkastad, Eastern Cape. The third child of Mzingaye Mathew Biko and Alice 'Mamcete' Biko, he had an older sister, Bukelwa, an older brother, Khaya, and a younger sister, Nobandile. His parents had married in Whittlesea, where his father worked as a police officer. Mzingaye was transferred to Queenstown, Port Elizabeth, Fort Cox, and finally King William's Town, where he and Alice settled in Ginsberg township. This was a settlement of around 800 families, with every four families sharing a water supply and toilet. Both Bantu African and Coloured people lived in the township, where Xhosa, Afrikaans, and English were all spoken. After resigning from the police force, Mzingaye worked as a clerk in the King William's Town Native Affairs Office, while studying for a law degree by correspondence from the University of South Africa. Alice was employed first in domestic work for local white households, then as a cook at Grey Hospital in King William's Town. According to his sister, it was this observation of his mother's difficult working conditions that resulted in Biko's earliest politicisation.
Biko's given name "Bantu" means "people"; Biko interpreted this in terms of the saying "Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu" ("a person is a person by means of other people"). As a child he was nicknamed "Goofy" and "Xwaku-Xwaku", the latter a reference to his unkempt appearance. He was raised in his family's Anglican Christian faith. In 1950, when Biko was four, his father fell ill, was hospitalised in St. Matthew's Hospital, Keiskammahoek, and died, making the family dependent on his mother's income.
Biko spent two years at St. Andrews Primary School and four at Charles Morgan Higher Primary School, both in Ginsberg. Regarded as a particularly intelligent pupil, he was allowed to skip a year. In 1963 he transferred to the Forbes Grant Secondary School in the township. Biko excelled at maths and English and topped the class in his exams. In 1964 the Ginsberg community offered him a bursary to join his brother Khaya as a student at Lovedale, a prestigious boarding school in Alice, Eastern Cape. 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, then acquitted on appeal. No clear evidence of Steve's connection to Poqo was presented, but he was expelled from Lovedale. Commenting later on this situation, he stated: "I began to develop an attitude which was much more directed at authority than at anything else. I hated authority like hell."
From 1964 to 1965, Biko studied at St. Francis College, a Catholic boarding school in Mariannhill, Natal. The college had a liberal political culture, and Biko developed his political consciousness there. He became particularly interested in the replacement of South Africa's white minoritycolonial government with an administration that represented the country's black majority. Among the anti-colonialist leaders who became Biko's heroes at this time were Algeria's Ahmed Ben Bella and Kenya's Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. He later said that most of the "politicos" in his family were sympathetic to the PAC, which had anti-communist and African racialist ideas. Biko admired what he described as the PAC's "terribly good organisation" and the courage of many of its members, but he remained unconvinced by its racially exclusionary approach, believing that members of all racial groups should unite against the government. In December 1964, he travelled to Zwelitsha for the ulwalukocircumcision ceremony, symbolically marking his transition from boyhood to manhood.
Early student activism: 1966–68
Biko was initially interested in studying law at university, but 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 thought to have better career prospects. He secured a scholarship, and in 1966 entered the "non-European" section of the University of Natal Medical School in Wentworth, a township of Durban. There, he joined what his biographer Xolela Mangcu called "a peculiarly sophisticated and cosmopolitan group of students" from across South Africa; many of them later held prominent roles in the post-apartheid era. The late 1960s was the heyday of radical student politics across the world, as reflected in the protests of 1968, and Biko was eager to involve himself in this environment. Soon after he arrived at the university, he was elected to the Students' Representative Council (SRC).
The university's SRC was affiliated with the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). NUSAS had taken pains to cultivate a multi-racial membership but remained white-dominated because the majority of South Africa's students were from the country's white minority. 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". NUSAS officially opposed apartheid, but it moderated its opposition in order to maintain the support of conservative white students. Biko and several other black African NUSAS members were frustrated when it organised parties in white dormitories, which black Africans were forbidden to enter. 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 walked out of the conference in anger. Biko later related that this event forced him to rethink his belief in the multi-racial approach to political activism:
I realized that for a long time I had been holding onto this whole dogma of nonracism almost like a religion ... But in the course of that debate I began to feel there was a lot lacking in the proponents of the nonracist idea ... they had this problem, you know, of superiority, and they tended to take us for granted and wanted us to accept things that were second-class. They could not see why we could not consider staying in that church, and I began to feel that our understanding of our own situation in this country was not coincidental with that of these liberal whites.
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 decided to hold a December conference to discuss the formation of an independent black student group. The South African Students' Organisation (SASO) was officially launched at a July 1969 conference at the University of the North; there, the group's constitution and basic policy platform were adopted. The group's focus was on the need for contact between centres of black student activity, including through sport, cultural activities, and debating competitions. Though Biko played a substantial role in SASO's creation, he sought a low public profile during its early stages, believing that this would strengthen its second level of leadership, such as his ally Barney Pityana. Nonetheless, he was elected as SASO's first president; Pat Matshaka was elected vice president and Wuila Mashalaba elected secretary. Durban became its de facto headquarters.
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.
Biko developed SASO's ideology of "Black Consciousness" in conversation with other black student leaders. A SASO policy manifesto produced in July 1971 defined this ideology as "an attitude of mind, a way of life. The basic tenet of Black Consciousness is that the Blackman must reject all value systems that seek to make him a foreigner in the country of his birth and reduce his basic human dignity." Black Consciousness centred on psychological empowerment, through combating the feelings of inferiority that most black South Africans exhibited. Biko believed that, as part of the struggle against apartheid and white-minority rule, blacks should affirm their own humanity by regarding themselves as worthy of freedom and its attendant responsibilities. It applied the term "black" not only to Bantu-speaking Africans, but also to Indians and Coloureds. SASO adopted this term over "non-white" because its leadership felt that defining themselves in opposition to white people was not a positive self-description. Biko promoted 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."
Biko presented a paper on "White Racism and Black Consciousness" at an academic conference in the University of Cape Town's Abe Bailey Centre in January 1971. He also expanded on his ideas in a column written for the SASO Newsletter under the pseudonym "Frank Talk". His tenure as president was taken up largely by fundraising activities, and involved travelling around various campuses in South Africa to recruit students and deepen the movement's ideological base. Some of these students censured him for abandoning NUSAS' multi-racial approach; others disapproved of SASO's decision to allow Indian and Coloured students to be members. Biko stepped 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.
SASO decided after a debate to remain non-affiliated with NUSAS, but would nevertheless recognise the larger organisation as the national student body. One of SASO's founding resolutions was to send a representative to each NUSAS conference. In 1970 SASO withdrew its recognition of NUSAS, accusing it of attempting to hinder SASO's growth on various campuses. 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 and felt that their attempts were being rebuffed. The NUSAS leadership regretted the split, but largely refrained from criticising SASO. The government—which regarded multi-racial liberalism as a threat and had banned multi-racial political parties in 1968—was pleased with SASO's emergence, regarding it as a victory of apartheid thinking.
Attitude to liberalism and personal relations
The early focus of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) was on criticising anti-racist white liberals and liberalism itself, accusing it of paternalism and being a "negative influence" on black Africans. In one of his first published articles, Biko stated that 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."
Biko and SASO were openly critical of NUSAS' protests against government policies. Biko argued that NUSAS merely sought to influence the white electorate; in his opinion, this electorate was not legitimate, and protests targeting a particular policy would be ineffective for the ultimate aim of dismantling the apartheid state. SASO regarded student marches, pickets, and strikes to be ineffective and stated it would withdraw from public forms of protest. It deliberately avoided open confrontation with the state until such a point when it had a sufficiently large institutional structure. Instead, SASO's focus was on establishing community projects and spreading Black Consciousness ideas among other black organisations and the wider black community. Despite this policy, in May 1972 it issued the Alice Declaration, in which it called for students to boycott lectures in response to the expulsion of SASO member Abram Onkgopotse Tiro from the University of the North after he made a speech criticising its administration. The Tiro incident convinced the government that SASO was a threat.
In Durban, Biko entered a relationship with a nurse, Nontsikelelo "Ntsiki" Mashalaba; they married at the King William's Town magistrates court in December 1970. Their first child, Nkosinathi, was born in 1971. Biko initially did well in his university studies, but his grades declined as he devoted increasing time to political activism. Six years after starting his degree, he found himself repeating his third year. In 1972, as a result of his poor academic performance, the University of Natal barred him from further study.
Black Consciousness activities and Biko's banning: 1971–77
Black People's Convention
In August 1971, Biko attended a conference on "The Development of the African Community" in Edendale. 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 reservations about the lack of consulation with South Africa's Coloureds or Indians. A. Mayatula became the BPC's first president; Biko did not stand for any leadership positions. The group was formally launched in July 1972 in Pietermaritzburg. By 1973, it had 41 branches and 4000 members, sharing much of its membership with SASO.
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.
While the BPC was primarily political, Black Consciousness activists also established the Black Community Programmes (BCPs) to focus on improving healthcare and education and fostering black economic self-reliance. The BCPs had strong ecumenical links, being part-funded by a program on Christian action, established by the Christian Institute of Southern Africa and the South African Council of Churches. Additional funds came from the Anglo-American Corporation, the International University Exchange Fund, and Scandinavian churches. In 1972, the BCP hired Biko and Bokwe Mafuna, allowing Biko to continue his political and community work. In September 1972, Biko visited Kimberley, where he met the PAC founder and anti-apartheid activist Robert Sobukwe.
Biko's banning order in 1973 prevented him from working officially for the BCPs from which he had previously earned a small stipend, but he helped to set up a new BPC branch in Ginsberg, which held its first meeting in the church of a sympathetic white clergyman, David Russell. Establishing a more permanent headquarters in Leopold Street, the branch served as a base from which to form new BCPs; these included self-help schemes such as classes in literacy, dressmaking and health education. For Biko, community development was part of the process of infusing black people with a sense of pride and dignity. Near King William's Town, a BCP Zanempilo Clinic was established to serve as a healthcare centre catering for rural black people who would not otherwise have access to hospital facilities. He helped to revive the Ginsberg crèche, a daycare for children of working mothers, and establish a Ginsberg education fund to raise bursaries for promising local students. He helped establish Njwaxa Home Industries, a leather goods company providing jobs for local women. In 1975, he co-founded the Zimele Trust, a fund for the families of political prisoners.
Biko endorsed the unification of South Africa's black liberationist groups—among them the BCM, PAC, and African National Congress (ANC)—in order to concentrate their anti-apartheid efforts. To this end, he reached out to leading members of the ANC, PAC, and Unity Movement. His communications with the ANC were largely via Griffiths Mxenge, and plans were being made to smuggle him out of the country to meet Oliver Tambo, a leading ANC figure. Biko's negotiations with the PAC were primarily through intermediaries who exchanged messages between him and Sobukwe; those with the Unity Movement were largely via Fikile Bam.
By 1973, the government regarded Black Consciousness as a threat. It sought to disrupt Biko's activities, and in March 1973 placed a banning order on him. This prevented him from leaving the King William's Town magisterial district, prohibited him from speaking either in public or to more than one person at a time, barred his membership of political organisations, and forbade the media from quoting him. As a result, he returned to Ginsberg, living initially in his mother's house and later in his own residence.
In December 1975, attempting to circumvent the restrictions of the banning order, the BPC declared Biko their honorary president. After Biko and other BCM leaders were banned, a new leadership arose, led by Muntu Myeza and Sathasivian Cooper, who were considered part of the Durban Moment. Myeza and Cooper organised a BCM demonstration to mark Mozambique's independence from Portuguese colonial rule in 1975. Biko disagreed with this action, correctly predicting that the government would use it to crack down on the BCM. The government arrested around 200 BCM activists, nine of whom were brought before the Supreme Court, accused of subversion by intent. The state claimed that Black Consciousness philosophy was likely to cause "racial confrontation" and therefore threatened public safety. Biko was called as a witness for the defence; he sought to refute the state's accusations by outlining the movement's aims and development. Ultimately, the accused were convicted and imprisoned on Robben Island.
In 1973, Biko had 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. His performance on the course was poor; he was absent from several exams and failed his Practical Afrikaans module. The state security services repeatedly sought to intimidate him; he received anonymous threatening phone calls, and gun shots were fired at his house. A group of young men calling themselves 'The Cubans' began guarding him from these attacks. The security services detained him four times, once for 101 days. With the ban preventing him from gaining employment, the strained economic situation impacted his marriage.
During his ban, Biko asked for a meeting with Donald Woods, the white liberal editor of the Daily Dispatch. Under Woods' editorship, the newspaper had published articles criticising apartheid and the white-minority regime and had also given space to the views of various black groups, but not the BCM. Biko hoped to convince Woods to give the movement greater coverage and an outlet for its views. Woods was initially reticent, believing that Biko and the BCM advocated anti-white racism. When he met Biko for the first time, Woods expressed his concern about the anti-white liberal sentiment of Biko's early writings. Biko acknowledged that his earlier "antiliberal" writings were "overkill", but said that he remained committed to the basic message contained within them.
Over the coming years the pair became close friends. 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". Biko also remained friends with another prominent white liberal, Duncan Innes, who served as NUSAS President in 1969; Innes later commented that Biko was "invaluable in helping me to understand black oppression, not only socially and politically, but also psychologically and intellectually". Biko's friendship with these white liberals came under criticism from some members of the BCM.
Arrest and death
In 1977, Biko broke his banning order by travelling to Cape Town, hoping to meet 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. Biko drove to the city with his Coloured friend Peter Jones on 17 August, but Alexander refused to meet with Biko, fearing that he was being monitored by the police. Biko and Jones drove back toward King William's Town, but on 18 August they were stopped at a police roadblock near Grahamstown. Biko was arrested for having violated the order restricting him to King William's Town. Unsubstantiated claims have been made that the security services were aware of Biko's trip to Cape Town and that the road block had been erected to catch him. Jones was also arrested at the roadblock; he was subsequently held without trial for 533 days, during which he was interrogated on numerous occasions.
The security services took Biko to the Walmer police station in Port Elizabeth, where he was held naked in a cell with his legs in shackles. On 6 September, he was transferred from Walmer to room 619 of the security police headquarters in the Sanlam Building in central Port Elizabeth, where he was interrogated for 22 hours, handcuffed and in shackles, and chained to a grille. Exactly what happened has never been ascertained, but during the interrogation he was severely beaten by at least one of the ten security police officers. He suffered three brain lesions that resulted in a massive brain haemorrhage on 6 September. Following this incident, Biko's captors forced him to remain standing and shackled to the wall. The police later said that Biko had attacked one of them with a chair, forcing them to subdue him and place him in handcuffs and leg irons.
Biko was examined by a doctor, Ivor Lang, who stated that there was no evidence of injury on Biko. Later scholarship has suggested Biko's injuries must have been obvious. He was then examined by two other doctors who, after a test showed blood cells to have entered Biko's spinal fluid, agreed that he should be transported to a prison hospital in Pretoria. On 11 September, police loaded him into the back of a Land Rover, naked and manacled, and drove him 740 miles (1,190 km) to the hospital. There, Biko died alone in a cell on 12 September 1977. According to an autopsy, an "extensive brain injury" had caused "centralisation of the blood circulation to such an extent that there had been intravasal blood coagulation, acute kidney failure, and uremia". He was the twenty-first person to die in a South African prison in twelve months, and the forty-sixth political detainee to die during interrogation since the government introduced laws permitting imprisonment without trial in 1963.
Response and investigation
News of Biko's death spread quickly across the world, and became symbolic of the abuses of the apartheid system. His death attracted more global attention than he had ever attained during his lifetime. Protest meetings were held in several cities; many were shocked that the security authorities would kill such a prominent dissident leader. Biko's Anglican 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. The vast majority were black, but a few hundred whites also attended, including Biko's friends, such as Russell and Woods, and prominent progressive figures like Helen Suzman, Alex Boraine, and Zach de Beer. Foreign diplomats from thirteen nations were present, as was an Anglican delegation headed by Bishop Desmond Tutu. The event was later described as "the first mass political funeral in the country". Biko's coffin had been decorated with the motifs of a clenched black fist, the African continent, and the statement "One Azania, One Nation"; Azania was the name that many activists wanted South Africa to adopt post-apartheid. Biko was buried in the cemetery at Ginsberg. Two BCM-affiliated artists, Dikobé Ben Martins and Robin Holmes, produced a T-shirt marking the event; the design was banned the following year. Martins also created a commemorative poster for the funeral, the first in a tradition of funeral posters that proved popular throughout the 1980s.
Speaking publicly about Biko's death, the country's police minister Jimmy Kruger initially implied that it had been the result of a hunger strike, a statement he later denied. His account was challenged by some of Biko's friends, including Woods, who said that Biko had told them that he would never kill himself in prison. Publicly, he stated that Biko had been plotting violence, a claim repeated in the pro-government press. South Africa's attorney general initially stated that no one would be prosecuted for Biko's death. Two weeks after the funeral, the government banned all Black Consciousness organisations, including the BCP, which had its assets seized.
Both domestic and international pressure called for a public inquest to be held, to which the government agreed. It began in Pretoria's Old Synagogue courthouse in November 1977, and lasted for three weeks. Both the running of the inquest and the quality of evidence submitted came in for extensive criticism. An observer from the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law stated that the affidavit's statements were "sometimes redundant, sometimes inconsistent, frequently ambiguous"; David Napley described the police investigation of the incident as "perfunctory in the extreme". The security forces alleged that Biko had acted aggressively and had sustained his injuries in a scuffle, in which he had banged his head against the cell wall. The presiding magistrate accepted the security forces' account of events and refused to prosecute any of those involved.
The verdict was treated with scepticism by much of the international media and the U.S. government of President Jimmy Carter. 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. After the inquest, Biko's family brought a civil case against the state; at the advice of their lawyers, they agreed to a settlement of R65,000 (US$78,000) in July 1979. Shortly after the inquest, the South African Medical and Dental Council initiated proceedings against the medical professionals who had been entrusted with Biko's care; eight years later two of the medics were found guilty of improper conduct. The failure of the government-employed doctors to diagnose or treat Biko's injuries has been frequently cited as an example of a repressive state influencing medical practitioners' decisions, and Biko's death as evidence of the need for doctors to serve the needs of patients before those of the state.
After the abolition of apartheid and the establishment of a majority government in 1994, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to investigate past human-rights abuses. The Commission made plans to investigate Biko's death, but his family petitioned against this on the grounds that the Commission could grant amnesty to those responsible, thereby preventing the family's right to justice and redress. In 1996, the Constitutional Court ruled against the family, allowing the investigation to proceed. Five police officers (Harold Snyman, Gideon Nieuwoudt, Ruben Marx, Daantjie Siebert, and Johan Beneke) appeared before the Commission and requested amnesty in return for information about the events surrounding Biko's death. In December 1998, the Commission refused amnesty to the five men; this was because their accounts were conflicting and thus deemed untruthful, and because Biko's killing had no clear political motive, but seemed to have been motivated by "ill-will or spite". In October 2003, South Africa's justice ministry announced that the five policemen would not be prosecuted because the statute of limitations had elapsed and there was insufficient evidence to secure a prosecution.
The ideas of the Black Consciousness Movement were not developed solely by Biko, but through lengthy discussions with other black students who were rejecting white liberalism. Biko was influenced by his reading of authors like Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Léopold Sédar Senghor, James Cone, and Paulo Freire. The Martinique-born Fanon, in particular, has been cited as a profound influence over Biko's ideas about liberation. Biko's biographer Xolela Mangcu 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. Additional influences on Black Consciousness were the United States-based Black Power movement, and forms of Christianity like the activist-oriented black theology.
Black Consciousness and empowerment
Biko rejected the apartheid government's division of South Africa's population into tribal and ethnic groups, instead dividing the population into two categories: the white and the black. He defined blackness as a "mental attitude" rather than a "matter of pigmentation", referring to "blacks" as "those who are by law or tradition politically, economically and socially discriminated against as a group in the South African society" and who identify "themselves as a unit in the struggle towards the realization of their aspirations". In this way, he and the Black Consciousness Movement used "black" in reference not only to Bantu-speaking Africans but also to Coloureds and Indians, which together made up almost 90% of South Africa's population in the 1970s. 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 in South Africa. He argued that those on the "white left" often promoted a class-based analysis as a "defence mechanism... primarily because they want to detach us from anything relating to race. In case it has a rebound effect on them because they are white".
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.
Biko saw white racism in South Africa as the totality of the white power structure. He argued that under apartheid, white people not only participated in the oppression of black people but were also the main voices in opposition to that oppression. 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. He believed white people were able to dominate the anti-apartheid movement because of their access to resources, education, and privilege. He noted that white South Africans were poorly suited to this role because they had not personally experienced the oppression that their black counterparts faced.
Biko and his comrades regarded multi-racial anti-apartheid groups as unwittingly replicating the structure of apartheid because they contained whites in dominant positions of control, and therefore did not participate in these multi-racial organisations. Instead, they called for an anti-apartheid programme that was controlled by black people. Biko nevertheless believed that sympathetic whites had a place in the anti-apartheid struggle; he called on them to reject any concept that they themselves could be spokespeople for the black majority and instead focus their efforts on convincing the wider white community on the inevitability of apartheid's fall. 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." 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".
Biko's approach to activism focused on psychological empowerment, and both he and the BCM saw their main purpose as combating the feeling of inferiority that most black South Africans experienced. Biko expressed dismay at how "the black man has become a shell, a shadow of man ... bearing the yoke of oppression with sheepish timidity", and stated that "the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed". He believed that blacks needed to affirm their own humanity by overcoming their fears and believing themselves worthy of freedom and its attendant responsibilities. He defined Black Consciousness as "an inward-looking process" that would "infuse people with pride and dignity". To promote this, the BCM adopted the slogan "Black is Beautiful".
One of the ways that Biko and the BCM sought to achieve psychological empowerment was through community development. Community projects were seen not only as a way to alleviate poverty in black communities but also as a means of transforming society psychologically, culturally, and economically. They would also help students to learn about the "daily struggles" of ordinary black people and to spread Black Consciousness ideas among the population. Among the projects that SASO set its members to conduct in the holidays were repairs to schools, house-building, and instructions on financial management and agricultural techniques. Healthcare was also a priority, with SASO members focusing on primary and preventative care.
Foreign and domestic relations
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.
Biko opposed any collaboration with the apartheid government, such as the agreements that the Coloured and Indian communities made with the regime. 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. He openly criticised the Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, stating that the latter's co-operation with the South African government "[diluted] the cause" of black liberation. 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 combating racial prejudice and discrimination. He also hoped that foreign countries would boycott South Africa's economy.
Biko believed that while apartheid and white-minority rule continued, "sporadic outbursts" of violence against the white minority were inevitable. He wanted to avoid violence, stating that "if at all possible, we want the revolution to be peaceful and reconciliatory". He noted that views on violence differed widely within the BCM—which contained both pacifists and believers in violent revolution—although the group had agreed to operate peacefully, and unlike the PAC and ANC, had no armed wing.
A staunch anti-imperialist, Biko saw the South African situation as a "microcosm" of the broader "black–white power struggle" which manifests as "the global confrontation between the
In the early hours of the 18th of August 1977, about an hour away from King William’s Town, on the Grahamstown – King William’s Town Road, Peter Jones and Steve Biko ran into a roadblock. They were both driven to the police station. They would both face torture, brutal interrogation and serve time. Biko never walked out alive again.
The arrest of Steve Bantu Biko was a turning point in his life: it marked the beginning of the end of his life and the martyrdom of his political legacy.
In a cruel twist of fate, his arrest fulfilled the prophecy and words he said in an interview conducted by an American businessman months before his death.
The extract, On Death, is ironically the last chapter in his collection of articles – I Write What I Like, was published in The New Republic on the 07th of January 1978.
Biko said then: “You are either alive and proud or you are dead, and when you are dead, you can’t care anyway. And your method of death can itself be a politicizing thing…
“So if you can overcome the personal fear for death, which is a highly irrational thing, you know, then you’re on your way,” he continued.
His words underpin the courage required to carry out the revolutionary work he was carrying out at the time. The reason he was driving around at that time of the day equally required a similar amount of courage and lack of fear.
Biko prophetically highlighted the interconnectedness between tragedy and its possibilities within the South African political context.
His words not only referred to his own death, but to the death of many young students during the protests against apartheid education in June 1976, and the death of numerous colleagues of his in the Black Consciousness Movement such as his close friend and confidante Mapetla Mohapi.
This lack of fear of death would ultimately lead to his own murder by the security police, unleashing the political and social capital tragedy bestows on political and social movements.
At the time, Biko was serving a ban in King William’s Town and he had restrictions to adhere to.
The conditions of the ban meant he could not speak to more than one person at a time. He could not be quoted.
He was banned from publishing any writing material. He was closely monitored by the Security Police. He could also not leave King William’s Town without special permission.
When he was arrested, he was in breach of the latter. However, they had to be breached because if he didn’t, the system would have won, and that was the very reason the ban was placed on Biko to frustrate him and his work. Therefore, Biko was taking a huge gamble.
It is worth reminding ourselves why he took such a huge gamble. The arrest of Steve Biko is often overlooked.
Hence its significance is hugely glossed over and is often treated as mere footnotes to a much larger narrative.
There are different accounts that explain how Biko got arrested. Some claim, there were spies within the movement that sold him out.
Others claim the roadblock was routine, and others that the policemen were on the lookout for external agitators stoking the ire of the continuing student and youth boycotts in Port Elizabeth.
Those closest to him claimed there were rumours going around that the Boers were planning to assassinate Biko.
His older brother and others urged him to leave and go into exile but Biko refused to leave his movement behind.
His older brother Kaya Biko who got Steve involved with politics admits, “Rumours were doing the rounds in town that the Boers were intent on assassinating Steve”.
“I approached Steve together with my brother-in-law to ask him to leave the country. The man said to us, ‘What kind of a captain will I be if I leave the ship I’m steering, while I see there are faults and it’s going to sink? I’m not leaving the country’.
“There was nothing we could do. That was Steve.”
Whatever the truth is, we will never really know. Speculation is not the objective of this article. There is little doubt that there were some in the Afrikaner Broderbond that wanted Biko dead. He was growing too powerful and the ban on him was not working.
The events of June 1976 and the trial of the Black Consciousness Movement also known as the SASO/ BPC Trial [May 1976] had only added to Biko’s stature: they had unwittingly offered him the stage to project his ideas across the country and internationally, cementing his place as the head of the liberation movement in the absence of the leaders on Robben Island and others under house arrest.
Biko took the trial and transformed it into the Black Consciousness Movement’s version of the Treason Trial and made it what it was for the Congress Alliance in the 1950s.
It is important to understand what happened before Biko and Jones were arrested to clarify why they were on the road at such an early hour and contextualise the arrest and significance of their journey.
Biko traveled the country extensively from time to time, despite his ban, travelling far afield as Cape Town and Durban, and more than once to Johannesburg.
He was forced to travel to Cape Town this time to meet guys from the Western Cape chapter of the Black Consciousness Movement.
There was a rebellion brewing with hardliners criticising his decision to meet American Senator Dick Clark in December 1976.
Clark was in the region, Lesotho to be specific, to attend a meeting of the African Institute. He thought it was important to consult with Biko as an “elder statesmen” of the movement though he was still in his twenties.
The event itself was not unusual. Biko was consulted on a regular basis by representatives of countries far and wide because he was recognised as the leader of the liberation movement in the absence of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe and other senior members of the ANC or PAC who were serving time on Robben Island and were disconnected from politics and current affairs.
However, the militants were not satisfied. They argued that they had on matters of principle refused to meet members of the American government which they viewed as part of the oppressor camp.
They had even gone as far as rejecting a request from US Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young.
When the request was initiated, Biko had just been released from prison and had served a 101 day stretch. He consulted with his comrades who were still in prison.
The memorandum was smuggled in and out of prison by a warder who lived in Ginsberg. This memorandum was presented to Clark and was published in I Write What I Like. It appears under the heading American Policy towards Azania.
Biko was scathing in his criticism of the role of the United States in supporting the apartheid regime. He accused it of collusion in the oppression and exploitation of black people, and even went as far as encouraging it to boycott trading links with South Africa and reexamine its foreign policy.
There was also an additional problem. The hardliners in the Western Cape were not happy with the position papers the BCM had developed as proposals for the African National Congress [ANC] and Pan African Congress [PAC]. They did not think the proposals were radical enough.
They strongly opposed the concept of black communalism as the basis for future economic policy. They were pushing for a socialist/ communist vision for the country.
It is appropriate to clarify at this point that Biko was involved in clandestine negotiations with both the ANC and PAC to bring them together with the BCM and other black political movements to form a united front against apartheid.
The only parties who were not invited were the Bantustan leaders who were seen as sellouts and were complicit in the oppression and exploitation of black people because they had embraced the concept of separate development; therefore, facilitating a fragmentation of the resistance.
You can read more about why he regarded the Bantustan leaders as sellouts in his essay Let’s talk about Bantustans in I Write What I Like.
In this same book, Biko clarified his hopes about the unity of the liberation movement:
“I would like to see groups such as the ANC, PAC and Black Consciousness deciding to form one liberation group. It is only, I think, when black people are so dedicated and so united in their cause that we can affect the greatest results.”
This is why these papers were so important and needed to be sorted out but the chapter in the Western Cape were complicating matters, adding to what was already a complicated process, using intermediaries to negotiate with members like Oliver Tambo who was in exile, and Sobukwe who was on the periphery of the PAC and also politically restricted but still yielding a lot of influence.
The process was made even harder after Biko’s intermediary with Sobukwe – Mapetla Mohapi -was murdered by the Security Police in prison.
Biko was also in pursuit of unity talks with the Unity Movement in Cape Town. He wanted to meet with Alexander Neville who was the leading figure of the movement.
Alexander had just returned from Robben Island after serving a ten year stint in prison. He had set up a study group at his home which included members of his own movement and the BCM.
However, he was unhappy because his movement was unable to strike rapport with the Black community. Therefore, he requested his colleague, Nicki Westcott, who had strong connections with the Black Consciousness Movement in Cape Town to facilitate connections.
The two movements set out to forge an alliance through joint action. They had even gone as far as creating joint committees of the BCM, Unity Movement and the ANC to carry out collaborative projects such as the nationwide protest against the granting of independence to the Transkei on 26 October 1976.
ANC members such as Winnie Mandela and Joe Gqabi were involved in the collaboration.
The chapter in the Western Cape felt that the King William’s group had centralised the movement around its resources.
They believed the guys in King William’s Town were better paid because they were right at the heart of the funding.
It was against this backdrop that Biko was forced to travel to Cape Town to address these problems.
He didn’t believe he could address these concerns without physically meeting the Western Cape chapter even if that meant he had to violate his banning order.
The well being of the movement meant more to him than his physical safety because it threatened to curtail the struggle and to Biko that was unthinkable.
Biko as he often reiterated, “It is better to die for an idea that will live, than live for an idea that will die”.
The quote above encapsulates what the movement and struggle meant to Biko. He was prepared to die for it and sacrifice his life. Therefore, there was a lot at stake in this journey.
It was not a reckless game of cat and mouse that he was playing with the system. It was about taking the movement and struggle forwards and securing, ultimately, the liberation of Black people.
Before departing for Cape Town, Biko and Jones met with colleagues at the Zanempilo Clinic, one of the many black community projects founded by the BCM to serve the community, on the 16th of August 1977 to brief them about the meeting.
He left his car with one of the drivers to create the impression that he was around town.
They used a car belonging to Black Community Programmes executive member, Rams Ramokgopa, who was in town from Johannesburg with Hlaku Rachidi and Tom Manthata to discuss the programme of the unity of the liberation groups of South Africa: it had been passed at a resolution at an earlier conference of the movement.
As a result of that meeting, Steve and Peter Jones had to leave for Cape Town. At midnight, the pair slipped away under the cover of darkness.
Peter Jones, or PC as he was known, was a fellow activist from King William’s Town. He was also Steve’s friend.
On the 17th of August, at around 10 AM, they arrived in Cape Town. They went to Jones’ home in Strand, a town outside Cape Town. Biko took a nap while Jones went out to see the people they were supposed to meet.
The people were not aware the pair were in town. There were no mobile phones or pagers around during those days. Public phones were the only means of communication.
Whenever phones were used, the exchanges had to be coded because most were tapped by the Security Police.
Therefore, Biko and Jones mainly had to show up at people’s doors to nullify the security risk and eliminate the potential of spies leaking information about their presence in Cape Town.
Jones made contact with Ronnie Crotz and they went to fetch Johnny Issel who was a leader of the hardliners of the BCM chapter in the Western Cape.
Issel was not at home. Jones left a message with his wife and informed her that Steve was around. Jones proceeded to drop Crotz back at his home and fetched Biko to meet with Alexander.
However, they had to link up with Fikile Bam who was an activist and later became a judge.
Bam, also known as Bra Fiks, had visited Biko at his home in Ginsberg in 1974 after spending a ten year spell on Robben Island and then was restricted to the Transkei.
He had requested Francis Wilson, his former colleague at the University of Cape Town, and now a friend of Biko to pull strings to get him out of Transkei and Biko facilitated the escape.
It was at that ensuing meeting that Biko asked Bams to initiate a meeting with Alexander. So now that meeting was due to happen and Biko and Jones would catch up with the BCM guys later. The meeting with Alexander was a priority.
They were supposed to link up with a guy called Armien Abrams who was a manager of a community based factory set up by the BCM in Cape Town.
It fell under Jones jurisdiction. Both men were always in touch and Abrams was the perfect man to play the go in between.
However, there was confusion if Jones had communicated that they were coming over with Biko. Jones insisted that he did; Abrams denied it.
Bam was staying at a mansion in the suburb of Crawford. It belonged to Ismail Mohomed who was a mathematics professor at UCT. Abrams had been assigned the task of looking after it while he was away.
On the way to the mansion, Jones stopped to make a call to inform them he was on his way with Biko. Jones dropped Biko off at the mansion to ensure Alexander’s house was secure.
However, on Jones’ arrival, Alexander refused to see Biko. Although Biko and Jones had driven eleven hours to meet him, he would not meet them for a few minutes.
Jones had no choice but to return with the bad news. Bam was furious. He called Alexander and informed him he was coming over but couldn’t get into details over the phone.
He left with Biko. They parked at the back of the house. Bam entered and left Biko in his Volkswagen Beetle. They argued for half an hour leaving Biko trapped and a sitting duck in the car.
Eventually, Bam stormed out without securing the vital meeting. Biko was disappointed. He had the highest regards of Alexander and had viewed him as a fearless revolutionary intellectual.
They returned back to the mansion where Jones and Abrams were. Biko insisted on returning immediately to King William’s Town because every minute they away the chances of been discovered increased.
In the early evening of the 17th of August, they hit the road and began the twelve hour journey back. They almost made it.
About an hour from home, the inevitable happened. Biko and Jones were stopped at a roadblock.
They were asked by the police to step out and open the boot. Jones attempted to open the boot but he couldn’t. The only person who could was Rams Ramokgopa and he was back at Zanempilo.
According to reports by Dr Xolela Mangcu and others, the car had been in an accident and there was a dent just above the left tail-light that caused the boot to jam.
Jones invited the cops to try but they also failed. Apparently, the cops were accusing Jones of been a terrorist who was on his way to see Steve Biko. Unbeknown to them, the man they were talking of was with them.
The senior officer – Colonel Alf Oosthuizen – gave orders to clear the roadblock and drive the two guys to the closest police station in Grahamstown.
The Colonel drove Rams’ car with Biko sitting beside him and Jones took a ride with the other officers.
At the police station the car was thoroughly searched. Not even the ashtray avoided close scrutiny. They found Jones’ wallet which had a few Rands and his identity document so they knew who he was.
To make the situation easy for Jones because Biko knew he would not talk on the basis of principle and would most likely be tortured to obtain the information, he admitted, “I am Bantu Steve Biko”.
The cops were shocked. It never crossed their mind that they were with the Biko they were talking about.
Biko and Jones were separated. Biko was taken to Walmer Police Station in Port Elizabeth while Jones was also taken to a prison in the same city, Algoa Police Station, but 250 km apart.
It was the last time the two friends would see each other.
Jones would spend a few years locked up. In less than a month, Steve Biko would be murdered and denied the unity that he cherished and pursued even when he knew that it could result in a lengthy prison sentence or cost him his life.
What was his motivation? Biko like most true revolutionaries like Thomas Sankara and Che Guevara was guided by great feelings of love. Love for his fellow men. Love for his society. Love for his country. Love for freedom.
It was this love that drove Biko to sacrifice all he had, career and family, for the ultimate price. His mission: The Quest of a True Humanity, which you can check out on Sister Nadine’s WordPress page: Iamgoodhope, encapsulates Biko’s ultimate goal.
He wanted to restore the true humanity of those who had been oppressed and exploited because of the colour of their skin, and also those who were damaged, and had lost their humanity through, actively or passively, supporting the apartheid system.
Biko’s has often been portrayed as the romantic and fearless leader but rarely is there a mention of how he had actively committed class suicide a theory pushed by Amilcar Cabral.
Biko sacrificed his career and any privileges his class and education would have entitled him so that he could work with the poor and underprivileged.
Those who supported apartheid were rewarded; those who opposed were stripped of their rights, their jobs, their voices, the right to earn and a whole lot of other rewards.
By dedicating his time and life to developing projects like the Zanempilo Clinic and other community based projects run under the banner of Black Community Programmes, Biko had bridged the gap between the intelligentsia and the majority which he had diagnosed as a hindrance to the liberation struggle and accurately pointed out, “The separation of the black intelligentsia from the rest of the black society is a disadvantage to black people as a whole”.
Biko illustrated in this short analysis that he was a visionary and he understood that to bridge this gap, the black intelligentsia had to commit class suicide and work with the rest of the black people.
The failure of the current regime to bridge this gap has resulted in the rise of the technocrats and the big chief or big man syndrome which has resulted in high levels of corruption and the blurring between private and public interests.
Even at this early age, Biko displayed a level of maturity that all of our post independence presidents have lacked.
His organisational abilities were exceptional: he created organisations that were not reliant on him but were able to operate through having different people changing leadership on a regular basis.
The murder of Biko left a gaping hole in the body politic of South Africa. The liberation movement lost the one man who had the ability to unify black people in solidarity.
The years of political violence between the black liberation movements in the eighties illustrates how Biko’s leadership was sorely missed.
It was as if he had recognised, long before, that the fragmentation of the resistance would one day become violent and he had sought to unify the movement before the violence erupted.
More than that, South Africa lost a fearless revolutionary intellectual who led by example, and who had a genuine liberation ideology – Black Consciousness – that sought to free the minds of the people.
That no other leader after Biko ever attempted to free the minds of the people, bears testament to the depth and greatness of Biko’s gift and style of leadership.
His greatest realisation was that “The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”.
And it was through the decolonising of the mind that the people would ultimately be set free as he argues in his essay Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity.
Biko understood that tyrants are not going to hand over power because they have sudden pangs of guilt but they will only do it when black people exert pressure on them and force them to concede power through internal or external agitation [or both].
Hence his message reminds us today that we must continually stand against oppression as he often reminded us that, “We must accept that the limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress”.
Biko’s words remind us that we are complicit in any situation where we find ourselves oppressed or exploited because most of us endure it sheepishly because we are too afraid to speak up and lose our rewards from the system.
Therefore, those who cherish freedom and liberation, like Biko and others who died in the liberation of South Africa, have to “overcome the personal fear for death”.
It is only when we are able to transcend the fear of death that we will find ourselves on the way.
It is not enough to be scholars of the Black Consciousness text, but we must embrace it’s spirit and live like Biko, following in his example and selfless sacrifice, and those other fearless revolutionary intellectuals who were prepared to commit class suicide and bridge the gap between the intelligentsia and the rest of the black people to move the goals of the struggle forward..
Filed under Great African Leaders, Revolutionaries, Steve Bantu Biko, Under The Spotlight
Tagged as Africa, African Leaders, Apartheid South Africa, Black Consciousness, Black Consciousness Movement, Death of a revolutionary, I Write What I Like, Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, South Africa, Steve Bantu Biko, Steve Biko, Winnie Mandela