Steve Bantu Biko

Steve Bantu Biko (December 18, 1946 – September 12, 1977) was a noted anti-apartheid activist in South Africa in the 1960s and early 1970s. A student leader, he later founded the Black Consciousness Movement which would empower and mobilize much of the urban black population. Since his death in police custody, he has been called a martyr of the anti-apartheid movement. While living, his writings and activism attempted to empower blacks, and he was famous for his slogan, “black is beautiful,” which he described as meaning: “man, you are okay as you are, begin to look upon yourself as a human being.” The ANC was very hostile to Biko and to Black Consciousness through the 1970s to the mid 1990s but has now included Biko in the pantheon of the struggle’s heroes, going so far to use his image for campaign posters in South Africa’s first democratic elections, in 1994.

In 1987, Richard Attenborough directed the movie, Cry Freedom, telling Biko’s story (based on Donald Wood’s book), which helped to attract international support for the anti-apartheid struggle. The sheer brutality of how the majority population were treated shocked many, even some who had previously tended to sympathize with the whites on the basis that black Africans could not be expected to run the country as successfully or efficiently as they did. When, following Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, the Apartheid system was replaced by a multi-racial democracy, the euphoria that followed was global. To some degree, Biko’s death helped to make this happen.



Stephen Biko was born in King Williams Town, in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. He was a student at the University of Natal Medical School. He was initially involved with the multiracial National Union of South African Students, but after he became convinced that Black, Indian, and Colored students needed an organization of their own, he helped found the South African Students’ Organization (SASO) in 1968, and was elected its first president. He felt that white skin afforded all members of the race with a privileged life that was impossible to ignore, even in the case of those who openly denounced the government. This is what Steve Biko advocated when he asserted that whites could not truly identify with the cause of blacks because they were granted the ability to ignore oppression and enjoy racial benefits. The SASO evolved into the influential Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). Ntsiki Mashalaba, Biko’s wife, was also a prominent thinker within the Black Consciousness Movement. Ntsiki and Biko had two children together; a daughter, Lerato, born in 1974, who died at the age of two months, and a son, Hlumelo, who was born in 1978, after Biko’s death.

In 1972, Biko became honorary president of the Black People’s Convention. He was banned during the height of apartheid in March 1973, meaning that he was not allowed to speak to more than one person at a time, was restricted to certain areas, and could not make speeches in public. It was also forbidden to quote anything he said, including speeches or simple conversations.

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

In spite of the repression of the apartheid government, Biko and the BCM played a significant role in organizing the protests which culminated in the Soweto Uprising of June 16, 1976. In the aftermath of the uprising, which was crushed by heavily-armed police shooting 700 school children protesting, the authorities began to target Biko further.

Death and aftermath

On August 18, 1977, Biko was arrested at a police roadblock under the Terrorism Act No 83 of 1967. He suffered a major head injury while in police custody, and was chained to a window grille for a full day. On September 11, 1977, police loaded him in the back of a Land Rover, naked, and began the 1 200 km drive to Pretoria. He died shortly after arrival at the Pretoria prison, on September 12. The police claimed his death was the result of an extended hunger strike. He was found to have massive injuries to the head, which many saw as strong evidence that he had been brutally clubbed by his captors. Then journalist and now political leader, Helen Zille, exposed the truth behind Biko’s death.

Due to his fame, news of Biko’s death spread quickly, opening many eyes around the world to the brutality of the apartheid regime. His funeral was attended by many hundreds of people, including numerous ambassadors and other diplomats from the United States and Western Europe. Journalist Donald Woods, a personal friend of Biko, photographed his injuries in the morgue. Woods was later forced to flee South Africa for England, where he campaigned against apartheid and further publicized Biko’s life and death, writing many newspaper articles and authoring the book, Biko.

The following year on February 2, 1978, the Attorney-General of the Eastern Cape stated that he would not prosecute any police involved in the arrest and detention of Biko. During the trial it was claimed that Biko’s head injuries were a self-inflicted suicide attempt, and not the result of any beatings. The judge ultimately ruled that a murder charge could not be supported partly because there were no witnesses to the killing. Charges of culpable homicide and assault were also considered, but because the killing occurred in 1977, the time frame for prosecution had expired.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was created following the end of minority rule and the apartheid system, reported in 1997, five former members of the South African security forces had admitted to killing Biko and were applying for amnesty.

On October 7, 2003, the South African Justice Ministry officials announced that the five policemen who were accused of killing Biko would not be prosecuted because of insufficient evidence and the fact that the time span for prosecution had elapsed.

Influences and formation of ideology

Like Frantz Fanon, Biko originally studied medicine, and also like Fanon, Biko developed an intense concern for the development of black consciousness as a solution to the existential struggles which shape existence, both as a human and as an African (as in Négritude). Biko can thus be seen as a follower of Fanon and Aimé Césaire, in contrast to more pacifist ANC leaders such as Nelson Mandela after his imprisonment at Robben Island, and Albert Lutuli, who were first disciples of Gandhi.

Biko saw the struggle to restore African consciousness as having two stages, “Psychological liberation” and “Physical liberation.” The non-violent influence of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. upon Biko is then suspect, as Biko knew that for his struggle to give rise to physical liberation, it was necessary that it exist within the political realities of the apartheid regime, and Biko’s non-violence may be seen more as a tactic than a personal conviction. Thus, Biko’s BCM had much in common with other left-wing African nationalist movements of the time, such as Amilcar Cabral’s PAIGC and Huey Newton’s Black Panther Party.


To challenge the status quo, Biko felt it was necessary for non-whites to unite. Without reliance on whites, blacks and others would foster their educations and learn to embrace their unique cultures. The black consciousness movement was not about racist notions of superiority, but instead a challenge to a system that had failed to acknowledge the humanity of blacks.

Biko would become a martyr for the cause after his death. He would be commemorated for his dedication to the movement after his questionable death at the hands of South African authorities. He is a legendary figure in the history of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.



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