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Steve Biko: Remembering South Africa’s Black Liberation Hero

Steve Biko, who spent most of his young life organizing against Apartheid South Africa, died while in police custody 38 years ago Saturday in circumstances reminiscent of the racial police brutality that has set in motion today’s Black civil rights movement in the U.S.

While apartheid laws kept the vast majority of Black people from accessing higher education, Biko attended medical school where he founded the South African Students’ Organization in 1969, an exclusively students of color group to fight apartheid through Black organizing and consciousness-raising. The SOSA was a conscious break from the multiracial student organization National Union of South African Students, which many resented for only having white men in leadership positions.


The new group meant to specifically address the needs and grievances of non-white students, classified as African, Indian, or “Colored” under Apartheid Law. RELATED: Celebrating African Thinkers, Revolutionaries, Artists The move was seen as controversial for suggesting a turn to “militancy” and “alienating” white liberal allies. Biko contested this in a presidential address to SOSA, saying, “It seems sometimes that it is a crime for the non-white students to think for themselves. The idea of everything being done for the blacks is an old one and all liberals take pride in it; but once the black students want to do things for themselves suddenly they are regarded as becoming ‘militant.’”

Biko’s student organization was part of the larger Black Consciousness Movement, which grew out of a power vacuum left behind after the government systematically persecuted, jailed, banned or exiled the majority of the anti-Apartheid leaders of the time. The new Black Consciousness Movement was made up of Black workers and youth who vehemently organized against Apartheid with other Black liberation movements that played at the time as sources of pride and inspiration, like the Mozambique Liberation Front that defeated Portuguese colonialism, and the Black Power movement in the U.S. The politics of Biko, proclaimed by many as the father of the Black Consciousness Movement, wasn’t premised on uprooting white people from South Africa.

However, he did question if coexistence in the country was possible. “One wonders if the interests of Blacks and whites in this country have not become so mutually exclusive as to remove the possibility of there being room for all of us,” Biko wrote. This led him to think that the place for white supporters in Black liberation required firstly to “remove [the white man] from our table, strip the table of all trappings put on it by him, decorate it in true African style, settle down and then ask him to join us on our own terms if he liked.”

The Black Consciousness Movement culminated in Soweto Uprising, when high school student protests broke out in 1976 against Bantu education, which according to one student “is designed to make us slaves in the country of our birth.” The two-year uprising spread to Black townships across the country, killing an estimated 176 people, including schoolchildren. As the father of the movement, Biko became an immediate target for government repression, which led to his eventual death at the age of 30 while in police custody on Sept. 12, 1977.

Biko’s death was highly controversial after it came to light that he died from severe brain damage suffered while in police custody, two weeks after officials had claimed his death was a result of a hunger strike. A policeman who eventually confessed to being complicit in beating Biko to death never faced any criminal action. In the wake of Biko’s death 17 groups associated with the Black Consciousness Movement were declared illegal by the South African government, but his legacy and philosophy of resistance continued to inspire leaders in the African National Congress and anti-racism activists up to this day.

On the 20th anniversary of his death in 1997, Black Liberation hero Nelson Mandela said: “One of the greatest legacies of the struggle that Biko waged – and for which he died – was the explosion of pride among the victims of apartheid. The value that black consciousness placed on culture reverberated across our land; in our prisons; and amongst the communities in exile. Our people, who were once enjoined to look to Europe and America for creative sustenance, turned their eyes to Africa.”

Mandela added that “He encouraged fearless and open debate, inspiring oppressed people to recognise their own worth, take joy in their own humanity, and recognise – as equals – the humanity of others.” Africanhistory.com-Racerelations.com-NelsonMandela.org-South African History Online By teleSUR / bh-CM Tags Stephen Biko

Biko died in police custody in 1977 and was the founder of the Black Consciousness Movement.

1977 File photo shows Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) founder Steve Bantu Biko. Picture: AFP.
  • September 12, 1977: Anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko dies in police custody

    South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko died of a brain haemorrhage three weeks after being arrested and interrogated under the Terrorism Act.

    • Anti-apartheid campaigner Steve Biko

      Last updated: 11 September 2015, 23:25 BST

      Leading anti-apartheid figure Steve Biko died in police custody on this day in 1977 – sparking outrage across South Africa and the world.

      Biko was 30 years old when he died in police custody. The high-profile activist and former medical student had been active in the anti-apartheid movement since the 1960s, setting up and becoming president of the South African Students’ Organisation (which later evolved into the Black Consciousness Movement). In 1972, he was expelled from his university because of his political activities, and a year later was banned by the government from writing or speaking publicly, and restricted to his home town.

      He was arrested under the Terrorism Act on August 18, 1977, and interrogated by police in Port Elizabeth for 22 hours. Tortured and beaten, he suffered a major head injury which resulted in a coma. On September 11 he was transferred, naked and shackled, in a police van to Pretoria prison, over 600 miles away. He died shortly after arriving at the prison’s hospital the following day – the 20th person to die in South African police custody in 18 months.

      The police claimed that Biko died during a hunger strike – but an autopsy revealed that his death was caused by a brain haemorrhage, the result of massive injuries to the head, and that he had been covered in multiple bruises and abrasions. An inquest held into his death in November 1977 cleared the police of any wrongdoing.

      Mourners surround Biko's coffin in his home in the black township of Ginsberg, South Africa. A mirror on the raised lid of the coffin reflects the gold-robed body.

      The South African newspaper editor Donald Woods, who was a close friend of Biko’s, led the campaign to expose the cover-up over his death. He was placed under a five-year ban as a result, but escaped with his family to London, where he became an active anti-apartheid spokesman and campaigner. His books about the life and death of Steve Biko were adapted into the acclaimed 1987 film Cry Freedom.

      The Truth and Reconciliation Commission – set up by the ANC-led government and led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu – denied amnesty to the five policemen accused of killing Steve Biko in 1999. In 2003, it was announced that they would not be prosecuted due to insufficient evidence and because the 20-year time limit for prosecution had elapsed.

      On the 20th anniversary of Biko’s death, President Nelson Mandela paid homage to the man he called “one of the greatest sons of our nation”.

      “It is the dictate of history to bring to the fore the kind of leaders who seize the moment, who cohere the wishes and aspirations of the oppressed,” he said. “Such was Steve Biko, a fitting product of his time; a proud representative of the re-awakening of a people.”

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