I would like to share with you some quotes by Steve Biko himself. When I read Biko’s words, I realize that he was a true African leader who wanted good for all; he was really ahead of his time. I have also added, at the end, a documentary ‘The Return of Biko‘ by Jeff Ogola. Enjoy!
“The greatest weapon in the hand of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”Speech in Cape Town, 1971
“It is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die.”
“At the time of his death, Biko had a wife and three children for which he left a letter that stated in one part: “I’ve devoted my life to see equality for blacks, and at the same time, I’ve denied the needs of my family. Please understand that I take these actions, not out of selfishness or arrogance, but to preserve a South Africa worth living in for blacks and whites.”
“The basic tenet of black consciousness is thatthe black man must reject all value systems that seek to make him a foreigner in the country of his birth and reduce his basic human dignity.”From Steve Biko’s evidence given at the SASO/BPC trial, 3 May 1976
“In time, we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africathe greatest possible gift – a more human face.“
“Merely by describing yourself as black you have started on a road towards emancipation, you have committed yourself to fight against all forces that seek to use your blackness as a stamp that marks you out as a subservient being.”The Definition of Black Consciousness, I Write What I Like, 1978.
“Black man, you are on your own.”Slogan coined by Steve Biko for the South African Student’s Organization, SASO.
“We do not want to be reminded that it is we, the indigenous people, who are poor and exploited in the land of our birth. These are concepts which the Black Consciousness approach wishes to eradicate from the black man’s mind before our society is driven to chaos by irresponsible people from Coca-cola and hamburger cultural backgrounds.”The Quest for a True Humanity, I Write What I Like, 1978.
“It becomes more necessary to see the truth as it is if you realize thatthe 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 misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of his birth.“We Blacks, I Write What I Like, 1978.
“You are either alive and proud or you are dead, and when you are dead, you can’t care anyway.”On Death, I Write What I Like, 1978
“Black Consciousness is an attitude of the mind and a way of life, the most positive call to emanate from the black world for a long time. Its essence is 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 to rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude.“The Quest for a True Humanity, I Write What I Like, 1978.
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!
The Soweto massacre or Soweto uprisings also known as June 16, were some of the biggest massacre of the apartheid regime in South Africa, mostly because it showed police repression against kids. On June 16, 1976, Black high school children in Soweto protested against the Afrikaans medium decreeof 1974 which forced the schools to use Afrikaans as one of the main languages in schools (50-50 with English): Afrikaans was to be used to teach mathematics, arithmetic, etc… In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, many people preferred English as the school language, the commerce language, etc, because of the violence attached with Afrikaans which was the language of the oppressor.
On June 16, 1976, over 20,000 school children took part in protests which left over 700 dead (the official numbers say 176, but we all know that this number could not be further from the truth). On that bright morning, 10,000 – 20,000 black students walked from their schools to Orlando stadium for a peaceful rally against the use of Afrikaans, the oppressor’s language, in school. The protest had been carefully planned by the Soweto Students’ Representative Council’s (SSRC) Action Committee, with support from the Black Consciousness Movement, and teachers from Soweto. The students were marching and they found out that police had barricaded the road along the intended route. The leader of the SSRC action committee then asked the crowd not to provoke the police, and the march went on on a different route, eventually ending up near Orlando High School. The students were marching, singing, and waving placards with slogans such as, “Down with Afrikaans“, “Viva Azania“, and “If we must do Afrikaans, Vorster must do Zulu.”
One officer shot and fired his gun causing panic and chaos. Students started screaming and running, as more gunshots were being fired, and the police let out their dogs on children who responded by stoning the dogs. The police then began to shoot directly at the children. One of the first students to be shot dead was 13-year-oldHector Pieterson, who became the symbol of the Soweto uprisings. The picture of his dead body being carried away by another student while his sister ran beside them in tears, was captured by news photographer Sam Nzima, and made it worldwide. The police patrolled the streets throughout the night as the students came under intense attack. Emergency clinics were swamped with injured and bloody children. The police requested the hospitals to provide a list of all victims with bullet wounds, but the doctors refused to create the list, and recorded bullet wounds as abscesses. On the 17th of June, 1,500 heavily armed police officers were deployed to Soweto carrying automatic rifles, stun guns, and carbines. They were driving in armored vehicles with helicopters, while the South African army was ordered on standby… for repression onto school children.
In the end, the Soweto uprising established the leading role of African National Congress (ANC) against the apartheid regime; it marked the turning point in the opposition to white rule in South Africa. Formerly, the struggle had been fought outside South Africa, in neighboring countries (Rhodesia – Zimbabwe, South-West Africa – Namibia, and Angola), but from that moment forward, the struggle became internal as well as external.
June 16th is now celebrated in South Africa as a public holiday. Enjoy this quick collage about the events of June 16th, and please remember to commemorate the lives of innocent children killed on this day in South Africa, children whose future were ended too early. Don’t forget to check out these articles on BBC, Libcom.org, South Africa Info, and watch the video on Independent Lens on PBS.