The month of September is sadly quite a busy month when it comes to African martyrs: many of our martyrs were either born or assassinated that month, Ruben Um Nyobe, Agostinho Neto, Steve Biko, Amilcar Cabral, Kwame Nkrumah, Gamal Abdel Nasser, to name just a few. Today, I have decided to talk about Steve Biko.
Stephen (Steve) Bantu Biko was born on 18 December 1946 in Ginsberg township, in present-day Eastern Cape, in South Africa. Biko was the third of 4 children, and belonged to the Xhosa ethnic group. He was orphaned at the tender age of 4, after his father passing. As a child, he attended Brownlee Primary School and Charles Morgan Higher Primary School. He was sent to Lovedale High School in 1964, a prestigious boarding school in Alice, Eastern Cape, where his older brother Khaya had previously been studying. During the apartheid era, with no freedom of association protection for non-white South Africans, Biko would often get expelled from school for his political views. He was influenced by Frantz Fanon‘s and Aime Cesaire‘s works, and like Fanon, he first started as a medical doctor, before turning to politics.
Steve Biko was not alone in forging the Black Consciousness Movement. He was nevertheless its most prominent leader, who with others, guided the movement of student discontent into a political force unprecedented in the history of South Africa. Can you imagine that: all alone they created a force that scared the apartheid regime, and started it on its end. Biko and his peers were responding to developments that emerged at the height of the hideous apartheid regime. This culminated with the Soweto uprising of 1976.
The Black Consciousness movement argued that blacks had to overcome the feelings of inferiority instilled into them by 300 years of domination, the “oppression within“, before they could deal with whites as equals. “It [BC] seeks to infuse the black community with a new-found pride in themselves, their efforts, their value systems, their culture, their religion and their outlook to life,” Biko explained in 1971.
Steve Biko was a very charismatic, tall, handsome, and articulate man. Once asked by a judge “Why do you call yourself black, when your skin is brown?” Biko replied “Why do you call yourself white, when you are actually pink?” – he bore himself with rare confidence that showed no hint of any “oppression within.” Remember his famous phrase “Black is Beautiful“, which was an inspiration to the civil rights movement in the USA, and to many other movements across the globe.
In order for Black People to achieve their freedom being political and economical, Steve Biko believed that they should rally together; hence he said: “The realization by the Black man of the need to rally together with his brothers around the cause of their oppression – the blackness of their skin – and to operate as a group in order to rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude.”
Biko understood that the system we are facing is not just a matter of laws and policies that suppresses us, he knew that the system seeks to undermine our thinking, ideas, values and beliefs, thus he said: “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”
On 18 August 1977, Steve Biko was arrested at a police roadblock under the Terrorism Act No 83 of 1967 and interrogated by officers of the Port Elizabeth security police including Harold Snyman and Gideon Nieuwoudt. This interrogation took place in the Police Room 619 of the Sanlam Building in Port Elizabeth. The interrogation lasted twenty-two hours and included torture and beatings resulting in a coma. He suffered a major head injury while in police custody at the Walmer Police Station, in a suburb of Port Elizabeth, and was chained to a window grille for a day. On 11 September 1977, police loaded him in the back of a Land Rover, naked and restrained in manacles, and began the 1100 km drive to Pretoria to take him to a prison with hospital facilities. He died shortly after arrival at the Pretoria prison, on 12 September. The police claimed (and the apartheid government) his death was the result of an extended hunger strike, but an autopsy revealed multiple bruises and abrasions and that he ultimately succumbed to a brain hemorrhage from the massive injuries to the head, which many saw as strong evidence that he had been brutally clubbed by his captors.
Biko believed in the unity of the oppressed, he also knew we should constantly educate each other on what is happening in our society. Today, Biko’s views could be applied to almost every society where there are oppressed people, oppressed by unfair laws, unfair economics that favors extreme greed, forced into poverty, and dehumanization.
I watched the movie Cry Freedom which talked about Biko’s life, and also about his journalist friend Donald Woods who published the pictures of Biko’s beaten body after his death, thus showing to the entire world that he had been brutally murdered by the South African police. I do recommend it, the main actor is none other than Denzel Washington. To learn more about Biko, you could read his own book I Write What I Like, or the autobiographic book Biko by Donald Woods. In 1980 the singer Peter Gabriel had a world hit titled Biko, in which he sang: “You can blow out a candle/ But you can’t blow out a fire/ Once the flames begin to catch/ The wind will blow it higher.” Let us all, keep the fire of Steve Biko. Enjoy this rare video of Steve Biko talking!