Steve Biko (Born Bantu Stephen Biko; Dec. 18, 1946–Sept. 12, 1977) was one of South Africa’s most significant political activists and a leading founder of South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement. His murder in police detention in 1977 led to his being hailed a martyr of the anti-apartheid struggle. Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s post-Apartheid president who was incarcerated at the notorious Robben Island prison during Biko’s time on the world stage, lionized the activist 20 years after he was killed, calling him “the spark that lit a veld fire across South Africa.”
Fast Facts: Stephen Bantu (Steve) Biko
- Known For: Prominent anti-apartheid activist, writer, founder of Black Consciousness Movement, considered a martyr after his murder in a Pretoria prison
- Also Known As: Bantu Stephen Biko, Steve Biko, Frank Talk (pseudonym)
- Born: Dec. 18, 1946 in King William’s Town, Eastern Cape, South Africa
- Parents: Mzingaye Biko and Nokuzola Macethe Duna
- Died: Sept.12, 1977 in a Pretoria prison cell, South Africa
- Education: Lovedale College, St Francis College, University of Natal Medical School
- Published Works: “I Write What I Like: Selected Writings by Steve Biko,” “The Testimony of Steve Biko”
- Spouses/Partners: Ntsiki Mashalaba, Mamphela Ramphele
- Children: Two
- Notable Quote: “The blacks are tired of standing at the touchlines to witness a game that they should be playing. They want to do things for themselves and all by themselves.”
Early Life and Education
Stephen Bantu Biko was born on Dec. 18, 1946, into a Xhosa family. His father Mzingaye Biko worked as a police officer and later as a clerk in the King William’s Town Native Affairs office. His father achieved part of a university education through the University of South Africa, a distance-learning university, but he died before completing his law degree. After his father’s death, Biko’s mother Nokuzola Macethe Duna supported the family as a cook at Grey’s Hospital.
From an early age, Steve Biko showed an interest in anti-apartheid politics. After being expelled from his first school, Lovedale College in the Eastern Cape, for “anti-establishment” behavior—such as speaking out against apartheid and speaking up for the rights of Black South African citizens—he was transferred to St. Francis College, a Roman Catholic boarding school in Natal. From there he enrolled as a student at the University of Natal Medical School (in the university’s Black Section).
While at medical school, Biko became involved with the National Union of South African Students. The union was dominated by white liberal allies and failed to represent the needs of Black students. Dissatisfied, Biko resigned in 1969 and founded the South African Students’ Organisation. SASO was involved in providing legal aid and medical clinics, as well as helping to develop cottage industries for disadvantaged Black communities.
Black Consciousness Movement
In 1972 Biko was one of the founders of the Black Peoples Convention, working on social upliftment projects around Durban. The BPC effectively brought together roughly 70 different Black consciousness groups and associations, such as the South African Student’s Movement, which later played a significant role in the 1976 uprisings, the National Association of Youth Organisations, and the Black Workers Project, which supported Black workers whose unions were not recognized under the apartheid regime.
In a book first published posthumously in 1978, titled, “I Write What I Like”—which contained Biko’s writings from 1969, when he became the president of the South African Students’ Organization, to 1972, when he was banned from publishing—Biko explained Black consciousness and summed up his own philosophy:
“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 realisation 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.”
Biko was elected as the first president of the BPC and was promptly expelled from medical school. He was expelled, specifically, for his involvement in the BPC. He started working full-time for the Black Community Programme in Durban, which he also helped found.
Banned by the Apartheid Regime
In 1973 Steve Biko was banned by the apartheid government for his writing and speeches denouncing the apartheid system. Under the ban, Biko was restricted to his hometown of Kings William’s Town in the Eastern Cape. He could no longer support the Black Community Programme in Durban, but he was able to continue working for the Black People’s Convention.
During that time, Biko was first visited by Donald Woods, the editor of the East London Daily Dispatch, located in the province of Eastern Cape in South Africa. Woods was not initially a fan of Biko, calling the whole Black Consciousness movement racist. As Woods explained in his book, “Biko,” first published in 1978:
“I had had up to then a negative attitude toward Black Consciousness. As one of a tiny band of white South African liberals, I was totally opposed to race as a factor in political thinking, and totally committed to nonracist policies and philosophies.”
Woods believed—initially—that Black Consciousness was nothing more than apartheid in reverse because it advocated that “Blacks should go their own way,” and essentially divorce themselves not just from White people, but even from White liberal allies in South Africa who wanted to help them. But Woods eventually saw that he was incorrect about Biko’s thinking. Biko believed that Black people needed to embrace their own identity—hence the term “Black Consciousness”—and “set our own table,” in Biko’s words. Later, however, White people could, figuratively, join them at the table, once Black South Africans had established their own sense of identity.
Woods eventually came to see that Black Consciousness “expresses group pride and the determination by all blacks to rise and attain the envisaged self” and that “black groups (were) becoming more conscious of the self. They (were) beginning to rid their minds of the imprisoning notions which are the legacy of the control of their attitudes by whites.”
Woods went on to champion Biko’s cause and become his friend. “It was a friendship that ultimately forced Mr. Woods into exile,” The New York Times noted when Woods’ died in 2001. Woods was not expelled from South Africa because of his friendship with Biko, per se. Woods’ exile was the result of the government’s intolerance of the friendship and support of anti-apartheid ideals, sparked by a meeting Woods arranged with a top South African official.
Woods met with South African Minister of Police James “Jimmy” Kruger to request the easing of Biko’s banning order—a request that was promptly ignored and led to further harassment and arrests of Biko, as well as a harassment campaign against Woods that eventually caused him to flee the country.
Despite the harassment, Biko, from King William’s Town, helped set up the Zimele Trust Fund which assisted political prisoners and their families. He was also elected honorary president of the BPC in January 1977.
Detention and Murder
Biko was detained and interrogated four times between August 1975 and September 1977 under Apartheid era anti-terrorism legislation. On Aug. 21, 1977, Biko was detained by the Eastern Cape security police and held in Port Elizabeth. From the Walmer police cells, he was taken for interrogation at the security police headquarters. According to the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa” report, on Sept. 7, 1977:
“Biko sustained a head injury during interrogation, after which he acted strangely and was uncooperative. The doctors who examined him (naked, lying on a mat and manacled to a metal grille) initially disregarded overt signs of neurological injury.“
By Sept.11, Biko had slipped into a continual semi-conscious state and the police physician recommended a transfer to the hospital. Biko was, however, transported nearly 750 miles to Pretoria—a 12-hour journey, which he made lying naked in the back of a Land Rover. A few hours later, on Sept. 12, alone and still naked, lying on the floor of a cell in the Pretoria Central Prison, Biko died from brain damage.
South African Minister of Justice Kruger initially suggested Biko had died of a hunger strike and said that his murder “left him cold.” The hunger strike story was dropped after local and international media pressure, especially from Woods. It was revealed in the inquest that Biko had died of brain damage, but the magistrate failed to find anyone responsible. He ruled that Biko had died as a result of injuries sustained during a scuffle with security police while in detention.
The brutal circumstances of Biko’s murder caused a worldwide outcry and he became a martyr and symbol of Black resistance to the oppressive apartheid regime. As a result, the South African government banned a number of individuals (including Woods) and organizations, especially those Black Consciousness groups closely associated with Biko.
The United Nations Security Council responded by imposing an arms embargo against South Africa. Biko’s family sued the state for damages in 1979 and settled out of court for R65,000 (then equivalent to $25,000). The three doctors connected with Biko’s case were initially exonerated by the South African Medical Disciplinary Committee.
It was not until a second inquiry in 1985, eight years after Biko’s murder, that any action was taken against them. At that time, Dr. Benjamin Tucker who examined Biko before his murder lost his license to practice in South Africa.1 The police officers responsible for Biko’s killing applied for amnesty during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, which sat in Port Elizabeth in 1997, but the application was denied.2 The commission had a very specific purpose:
“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created to investigate gross human rights violations that were perpetrated during the period of the Apartheid regime from 1960 to 1994, including abductions, killings, torture. Its mandate covered both violations by both the state and the liberation movements and allowed the commission to hold special hearings focused on specific sectors, institutions, and individuals. Controversially the TRC was empowered to grant amnesty to perpetrators who confessed their crimes truthfully and completely to the commission.
(The commission) was comprised of seventeen commissioners: nine men and eight women. Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu chaired the commission. The commissioners were supported by approximately 300 staff members, divided into three committees (Human Rights Violations Committee, Amnesty Committee, and Reparations and Rehabilitation Committee).”3
Biko’s family did not ask the Commission to make a finding on his murder. The “Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa” report, published by Macmillan in March 1999, said of Biko’s murder:
“The Commission finds that the death in detention of Mr Stephen Bantu Biko on 12 September 1977 was a gross human rights violation. Magistrate Marthinus Prins found that the members of the SAP were not implicated in his death. The magistrate’s finding contributed to the creation of a culture of impunity in the SAP. 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.”
Woods went on to write a biography of Biko, published in 1978, simply titled, “Biko.” In 1987, Biko’s story was chronicled in the film “Cry Freedom,” which was based on Woods’ book. The hit song “Biko,” by Peter Gabriel, honoring Steve Biko’s legacy, came out in 1980. Of note, Sir Richard Attenborough (director of “Cry Freedom”), and Peter Gabriel—White men—have had perhaps the most influence and control in the widespread telling of Biko’s story, and have also profited from it. Perhaps in part because of that fact, Biko is not as well remembered in the Black community as more famous South African heroes such as Mandela and Tutu. But Biko remains a model and hero in the struggle for autonomy and self-determination for people around the world. His writings, work, and tragic murder were all historically crucial to the momentum and success of the South African anti-apartheid movement.
In 1997, at the 20th anniversary of Biko’s murder, then-South African President Mandela memorialized Biko, calling him “a proud representative of the re-awakening of a people” and adding:
“History called upon Steve Biko at a time when the political pulse of our people had been rendered faint by banning, imprisonment, exile, murder and banishment….While Steve Biko espoused, inspired, and promoted black pride, he never made blackness a fetish. At the end of the day, as he himself pointed out, accepting one’s blackness is a critical starting point: an important foundation for engaging in struggle.”
- Biko, Steve. I Write What I Like. Bowerdean Press, 1978.
- “Cry Freedom.” IMDb, IMDb.com, 6 Nov. 1987.
- “Donald James Woods.” Donald James Woods | South African History Online, sahistory.org.
- Mangcu, Xolela. Biko, A Biography. Tafelberg, 2012.
- Sahoboss. “Stephen Bantu Biko.” South African History Online, 4 Dec. 2017.
- “Steve Biko: The Philosophy of Black Consciousness.” Black Star News, 20 Feb. 2020.
- Swarns, Rachel L. “Donald Woods, 67, Editor and Apartheid Foe.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Aug. 2001.
- Woods, Donald. Biko. Paddington Press, 1978.