Bantu Stephen Biko (1946-1977) was a South African anti-apartheid activist, more famous in death than in life. In the late 1960s, he helped found the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) and the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), which led to the Soweto uprising in 1976. He died in police custody a year later at age 30.
By 1973 he had been banned by the government. That meant he was
“no longer allowed to speak to more than one person at a time or speak in public, had to stay in his home region, and could not write publicly or speak with the media.”
He continued to work behind the scenes as the heart of SASO.
Biko believed in nonviolence as taught by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. He said Whites saw themselves as more than human while Blacks saw themselves as less than human. Until Blacks recovered their dignity and sense of self-worth, they would never be free:
“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”
He saw a future South Africa where race no longer mattered, but in the meantime, because Blacks were being kept down because of their skin colour, they had to come together because of their skin colour. Unlike Nelson Mandela, he believed in all-Black political movements. White liberals said that was racist.
That bit about “had to stay in his home region” is what led to his death.
On August 18th 1977, a friend of his was driving him outside of his home region. The police stopped them and started working over his friend, trying to find out where Biko was! Biko could not take it anymore and said:
“I am Bantu Steve Biko.”
He had been in prison several times before, twice under the Terrorist Act.
A month later, the newspapers said he had died in prison of a suicide. That was later changed to dying because of a “scuffle”.
In fact, he had been tortured and beaten so badly that the prison sent him to the hospital – to a prison hospital over 1,000km away! For 12 hours he laid in the back of the police van, naked, his hands and feet in chains, without medical attention. He died the next day, September 12th.
A government inquest concluded:
“On the available evidence the death cannot be attributed to any act or omission amounting to criminal offense on the part of any person.”
At his funeral, 15,000 came, the largest public event in Black South Africa up to that time. An Anglican priest named Desmond Tutu, not yet world-famous, gave the eulogy:
“Oh, God, where are you? Oh, God, do you really care? How could you let this happen to us? … God, do you really love us?”
Tutu compared Biko to another young man who was killed by the authorities, who died so that other men might be free: Christ.
“We are experiencing the birth pangs of a new South Africa, where all of us, black and white, shall walk tall.”
– Abagond, 2015.
Update (December 18th 2016): Today’s Google Doodle is for Steve Biko!
Sources: Mainly The Root (2014) , “Martyrs” (1996) edited by Susan Bergman.
- Nelson Mandela
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
- The term “terrorist”
- internalized racism
- Freddie Gray – death by police van
- Sandra Bland – died in police custody of a “suicide”