Steve Bantu Biko

(18 Dec 1946 – 12 Sept 1977)

30th Anniversary Tribute

“It is better to die – for an idea that is worth living for, than live – for an idea that is not worth dying for”.

This photo of Biko has an uncanny resemblance to that of Kenya’s Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi – who was murdered by the British in 1954 while fighting the British settlers who had disposed Kenyan Africans of their land. Biko was also murdered, by the Racist South African Boers, at the tender age of thirty. Thirty years ago, a young I (only nine years younger than Biko) had a fiery argument with a Boer couple in Scotland when the Soweto Massacre was shown on British television.

The British Government had tried to ban the programme – the first ever television programme the British Government had tried to ban! And the “pro-Black” Boer couple thought the programme should be banned! They also thought the Soweto children should have accepted Apartheid – i.e. “not rioted”. The British Government did not want to annoy the Boer rulers of Racist South Africa because Britain was the biggest investor in Apartheid South Africa (I think 8 billion pounds was invested there by UK plc, with the USA as the next biggest investor).

Stephen Biko was born in King Williams Town and I call on President Mbeki’s ANC government to re-name King Williams Town. I call on them to practice the “African Renaissance” they preach and rename this town “Biko Town” without delay. Steve was also a student at the University of Natal and I call on President Mbeki and the University of Natal authorities to rename it “Biko University” without delay. I call on the South African authorities to re-name every single main street, in every town and city in the Republic of South Africa, “Biko Street”. I’ll go further: I call on Mbeki and the ANC government to re-name the so-called Republic of South Africa itself – and give it its rightful name of “AZANIA”. Then we will know that true independence has arrived in the Boers’ so-called Republic of South Africa – and in Black Africa itself. Then the world will know that we have stopped that old Uncle-Tom shuffling about – and we can start to truly live out the real meaning of a “New African Renaissance” for the twenty-first century.

Yes, even main streets already named after Nelson Mandela should be re-named Biko Street! Steve Biko deserves this honour and pre-eminence because without his Black Conciousness Movement (BCM), the Soweto Uprising of 1976 would never have happened, and if the Soweto Uprising of 1976 had never happened Nelson Mandela would have died in jail, and the Black people of Racist South Africa would have remained in bondage for another generation.

The BCM was born out of the South Africa Students Organisation (SASO) co-founded by Biko in 1968. He became SASO’s first President. The BCM’s philosophy was simple and straight-forward: Black South Africans needed to stop seeing themselves as inferior (even though the Boer’s law told them they were), and White South Africans needed to stop seeing themselves as superior (even though the Boer’s law told them they were). Speaking specifically to Black South Africans, Biko said simply:

“Man, you are okay as you are, begin to look upon yourself as a human being”.

In a Racist South Africa whose law stated that 20 million black citizens were not citizens at all, and that they were officially classified as the fourth-class of humanity in the country (barely up from being homo-erectus!), Biko’s statement that Blacks were “okay” shook the Apartheid system to the core. Remember, this is a Racist Government that was so paranoid about its black people that they banned the story book “Black Beauty” – Sewell’s book about a girl and her horse – because they thought it was about Black people! Or maybe they just feared the phrase “Black Beauty”. Anyhow, Biko adopted the phrase “Black Power” from the Black Panther brothers across the Atlantic and incorporated it into the BCM’s motto.

Once Biko became the honorary President of the Black Peoples Convention, the Racist Boer Government moved fast. He was slapped with a “banning order” in March 1993 – which meant that he could not speak in public, he was not allowed to speak to more than one person at a time, and he was restricted to certain areas where he had to remain (i.e. if the banning order restricted him to an island in the ocean all by himself he had to remain there twenty-four hours). Nevertheless, the well organized BCM was able to play the major role in the Soweto Uprising of 16th June 1976 which, though bloodily put down, like Kenya’s Mau Mau, marked the beginning of the end of white-rule, again like Kenya’s Mau Mau.

The Boer police arrested Steve Bantu Biko on the 18th of August 1977 and tortured him for about four weeks in an effort to break him. On the 11th of September 1977, they dumped the barely conscious Biko into the back of a truck and drove him to Pretoria where he died on 12th September 1977. The Boer Minister of State Security remarked “the death of Steve Biko lives me cold” – meaning it doesn’t matter to him at all.

On the 7th of October 2003, the ANC government (the ANC had opposed Biko, SASO & the BCM throughout the 1970s and 1980s) forgave the five policemen who admitted to killing Biko – leaving Mrs. Biko and much of Black Africa “cold”.

Steve Bantu Biko will forever occupy his place as the pre-eminent martyr of the Azanian Freedom Struggle – the face of the thousands of Africans who fought tanks and bullets with stones and shed their blood for a Free Azania.

In the words of the song and my generations anthem

“Oh, oh, Biko, because, because of Biko”.

Dida Halake in Freedom Essays



They had to kill him to prolong the life of apartheid. Nelson Mandela

Commemorating birthdays in the aftermath of a person’s death tends to be a false exercise. At best, it reminds us about an era that will have, almost certainly, vanished. This goes for whatever that era entailed – brutality, or peace; tranquillity or chaos. Then comes the issue of historical effectiveness: what would that person have actually achieved had he seen the world he fought change?

The martyr, to that end, bridges the world that needs changing to the change to come.  Many would regard Steve Biko as one such martyr in the anti-apartheid cause. But the pathway of the martyr after death tends to be the work of others, they who serve a posthumous name or worship at the altar of a legacy.

Biko’s contribution was primarily the notion of Black Consciousness, which he considered “an attitude of the mind and a way of life, the most positive call to emanate from the black world for a long time.”  Gradually, his activities earned the violent ire of authorities.  It began gradually.  The ban in February 1973 was meant to neuter his drive to organise, speak and publicise. It did the opposite.

In 1976, the savage bloodiness of the apartheid regime, in its remorseless effort to curb revolt, saw 170 people, many children, slain.  It had begun with protests by high school students in the township of Soweto to the southwest of Johannesburg.  Their beef with the instructors was simple: why should they be forced to undertake studies in Afrikaans?

Biko’s arrest followed on August 27, after which he was held for 101 days.  In September 1977, he was again arrested at a police roadblock and subjected to a dedicated, torturous thrashing, then taken, stripped and shackled, 750 miles to Pretoria prison hospital via land rover. He died a few hours on arriving.

The inquest in tho his death, publicised in the aftermath as a world historical event, could not repel the element of farce.  The police account was that the death was self-inflicted, occasioned by a hunger strike that enfeebled him.  This was assisted by the conspicuous absence of witness accounts.

Biko’s circle disputed the official version, while the magistrate responsible for steering the 15-day inquest found it impossible to identify a killer despite finding that the “cause or likely cause of Mr. Biko’s death was a head injury, followed by extensive brain injury and other complications including renal failure.”

Jimmy Kruger, the Justice Minister, preferred a crass analysis, claiming that there were “cases when I think to myself: Christ, I don’t know what to do now, I may as well give myself a bang.”[1]  Five members associated with Biko’s death were only identified after the fall of apartheid as part of the workings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

As always, auras of nobility tend to spring up among such figures. There are the ardent supporters in tow, sometimes more star struck than sober; and the keen civil rights supporters eager to point out the terrible flaws in mistreatment. Then come the modern, commercial appropriations of revolutionary ardour: Hollywood with its films; and Google with its commemorative Google Doodle on the occasion of Biko’s 70th birthday.

Former South African newspaper editor David Woods was certainly the main thrust behind Biko’s posthumous veneration, dragging another terrible fate at the hands of a repressive regime into a vast political limelight.  As Woods himself conceded, Biko, even at the time of his death, was not that known among the black masses in the townships, though his “black consciousness” notion found truck with activists.

Woods’ account of Biko, given vent through the Rand Daily Mail and was subsequently given the celluloid treatment by Richard Attenborough in Cry Freedom (1987).  Emotional proximity, and the subsequent work to promote Biko’s name led to the Writers’ Association of South Africa (Wasa) passing a resolution accusing Woods of being an “unscrupulous opportunist”.[2]  Such are the travails of publicising the fallen among supporters.

Biko’s fate has subsequently spawned a weighty literature focused on his bloody demise rather than his intellectual oeuvre.  The “Biko Case” has become a foundational study in medical ethics as how these suffer under an authoritarian government.  One academic has even gone so far as to identify a “torture aesthetic” at play in the use of Biko’s case in the publicising of human rights abuses.[3]

Biko was certainly one of the figures who supplied the anti-apartheid movement with oxygen when it risked being asphyxiated by the security apparatus.  He had been a serial troublemaker during his years in education, expelled from high school, and active with the National Union of South African Students while attending the University of Natal Medical School.

The vehicle he chose to further his protest agenda was through the South African Students’ Organisation, which he co-founded in 1968. The Black Consciousness Movement soon became more than just the aspirations of a rebellious stripling, though it remained, till after his death, less grandly muscular than assumed.

Having died prematurely in incipient revolutionary harness, Biko did not live to see the demise of the hated ideology he fought for. He did not see the release, rehabilitation and even sanctification of Nelson Mandela, who became leader of the Rainbow Nation.

Nor did he see Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, take searing jabs against that nation, using his own brand of ideology to deny the ravages of HIV in South Africa, and antiretroviral drugs to sufferers.  The current near unaccountable President, Jacob Zuma, is even more demagogic.

Revolutions, just as those who launch and implement them, eventually die.  Posterity, however, often supplies a different picture, one where ideas can become canon balls, making the pen a truly dangerous weapon.  That point was not lost on the engineers of apartheid.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark