It is hard to believe that it it is over 36 years since the death of Steve Bantu Biko (12th September 1977) a day that brought tears to the eyes of many of us standing against apartheid in South Africa. It is also a reminder of a time when Britain too struggled with its race relations.
Steve Biko was a renowned political activist and a leading founder of South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement. Born in King William’s Town in 1946 in the present day Eastern Cape province, he was an extremely bright student but expelled from Lovedale High School due to his political activities. A further educational opportunity arose when he received a scholarship to attend St. Francis College in Natal, a liberal Catholic boarding school. Biko went on to enroll in University of Natal Medical School and became involved in the NUSAS (National Union Of South African Students), a multiracial politically moderate organization.
At college the young campaigner became involved in the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) but the commitments of political activism led to a decline in his studies leading to his de-registration by university authorities. In 1968, disillusioned with lack of leadership opportunities for black students he established a new all-Black organisation, the South African Students Organization (SASO) adopting a radical doctrine known as “Black Consciousness”.
Biko went on to establish the Black People’s Convention and Black Community Programmes. Threatened by his growing influence, the South African government clamped down heavily on his activities which led to a ban preventing him from conversing with more than one person at a time and from speaking in public. Refusing to be silenced, Biko established an underground publication called Frank Talk.
Biko can be seen here in a rare interview for German TV http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JNmAcgdO2Ck
Oppression of black communities increased with Biko detained under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act which made use of indefinate detention to close down many activists. Biko was repeatedly arrested and imprisoned for 24 days where he was interrogated, starved and brutally beaten. The following report from the BBC (12th Sept, 1977) informed the world of his death:-
The leader of the black consciousness movement in South Africa, Steve Biko, has died in police custody.
The 30-year-old’s death was confirmed by the commissioner of police, General Gert Prinsloo, today.
It is understood Mr Biko died in hospital in Pretoria. The government minister of Justice and Police, James Kruger, stated that Mr Biko had been transferred 740 miles (1,191 km) from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria for medical attention following a seven-day hunger strike.
Mr Biko had been in custody since 18 August when he was arrested and detained under the Terrorism Act. He is the 20th person to die in custody during the past 18 months
A government cover-up followed Biko’s death being labelled as a “hunger strike”. A world-wide outcry ensued after details of his injuries emerged and the persistence of campaigners led to further investigations being carried out. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission South Africa (1999 report) determined that his death was a “gross human rights violation” and concluded the following,
Despite the inquest finding no person responsible for his death, the Commission finds that, in view of the fact that Biko died in the custody of law enforcement officials, the probabilities are that he died as a result of injuries sustained during his detention.”
Biko’s book “I Write What I like” (A Collection Of His Writings)
Today his achievements are celebrated and memory honored through, art, buildings, song and the Steve Biko annual memorial lecture (this lecture from 2012, can be viewed on the following link) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yIQtNot1BeI His life is captured in the 1987 Richard Attenborough film Cry Freedom starring Denzel Washington http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iq4VjE0_AVQ
See also article by Khaya Dlanga, Steve Biko and White Peoples Things http://mg.co.za/article/2013-09-12-00-khaya-dlanga-steve-biko-and-white-peoples-things
Carol Anne Grayson is an independent writer/researcher on global health/human rights and is Executive Producer of the Oscar nominated, Incident in New Baghdad. Carol was awarded the ESRC, Michael Young Prize for Research 2009, and the COTT ‘Action = Life’ Human Rights Award’ for “upholding truth and justice”. The author is also a survivor of US “collateral damage”.