Bantu Stephen Biko

Date: Sep 13, 2017

Martyr of the South African anti-apartheid struggle


Martyr of the South African anti-apartheid struggle, Bantu Stephen Biko was a political activist, an author, a founder and the most prominent proponent of the Black Consciousness Movement, a cause for which he died. Born in Tylden on 18 December 1946, he was brought up in Ginsberg, King William's Town and was to become one of the greatest sons of South Africa. He attended primary school in King William's Town and went on to a missionary secondary school in Marianhill, KwaZulu-Natal after being expelled from the former for what was termed 'anti-establishment' behaviour. After completing school, he registered for a degree in medicine at the Black Section of the Medical School of the University of Natal in 1966.

He was the third child of the late Mathew Mzingaye and Alice Nokuzola “Mamcethe” Biko.

Those who knew him say very early in his academic career, Biko showed an insatiable search for knowledge that far exceeded the realm of the medical profession, ending up as one of the most prominent student leaders. Driven by the passion to revolutionise the way black people thought of themselves, he drew on the experiences and the approaches of other black thinkers before him, such as Frantz Fanon and Aime Cesaire, whom he quoted extensively in his writings.

In 1969, Biko met Nontsikelelo Mashalaba in Natal and they got married in 1970. They had two children, Nkosinathi and Samora. Biko also had a son, Hlumelo, with Dr. Mamphela Ramphele.



From an early age Steve Biko showed an interest in anti-Apartheid politics. Through apartheid South Africa, white western culture was presented as good and the cultures of the oppressed communities as barbaric.  History became relevant only in as much as it reflected White people. These were the circumstances under which the Black Consciousness Movement was formed. Biko's conclusion was that the only way to effect fundamental change in the country would be for the oppressed people themselves to take the initiative and to work for their own liberation.

“In rejecting Western values…we are rejecting those things that are not only foreign to us but that seek to destroy the most cherished of our beliefs – that the corner-stone of society is man himself - not just his welfare, not his material wellbeing but just man himself with all his ramifications. We reject the power-based society of the Westerner that seems to be ever concerned with perfecting their technological know-how while losing out on their spiritual dimension. We believe that in the long run the special contribution to the world by Africa will be in this field of human relationships. The great powers of the world may have done wonders in giving the world an industrial and military look, but the great gift still has to come from Africa – giving the world a more human face.” Steve Biko, I Write What I Like

Whilst at medical school Biko was elected to the Student Representative Council (SRC) and became involved with the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). The union was however dominated by white liberals and failed to represent the needs of black students. Biko was a critic of white liberal politics and having being active in the union for some time, resigned in 1969 and together with some of his colleagues founded the South African Students' Organisation (SASO). He was elected the first president of the organization at its inaugural congress held at Turfloop in the same year.

Black Consciousness (BC) as a philosophy started in 1968. The Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) was a mass movement which operated through various organisational forms. The BCM was therefore not a movement that was born all at once in one single occasion. Black Consciousness was the driving force of various organisations. It sought to answer all the concrete demands and broadened the base for the implementation of the programme for liberation. The process started with the birth of SASO.

"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."
Steve Biko: The Quest for a True Humanity, I Write What I Like, 1978.

SASO was involved in providing legal aid and medical clinics, as well as helping to develop cottage industries for disadvantaged black communities. SASO was therefore founded as a call to Black students to refrain from being spectators in a game in which they should be participant. After serving as the organization's President, Biko was elected Publications Director for SASO where he wrote prolifically under the pseudonym, Frank Talk. Biko was also instrumental in the development and formation of a core SASO project – the Black Worker's Project (BWP), co-sponsored by the Black Community Programmes (BCP). The mandate of the BCP was to address the problems of Black workers whose unions were not yet recognized by the law.


In early 1973, The Schlebusch Commission which had been instituted by government to investigate a number of organisations, reported on its findings and the government promptly slapped banning orders on a number of people associated with the Black Consciousness Movement. Biko had been running a leadership training seminar in Port Elizabeth with several BC leaders as part of a national youth leadership development programme sponsored jointly by SASO and BCP when he and a number of the other leaders were held, detained for a while by the security police, before being transported individually to their various places of birth. In March of that year Biko was banned and restricted to King William's Town. There he set up a BCP office where he stood as Branch Executive. It was not long before his banning order was amended to restrict him from any association with the BCP. (Biko was elected Honorary President of the BPC in January 1977.)

Through the banning order he was prevented from writing or saying anything about black consciousness. Despite this, the office that he had established did well, managing to build the Zanempilo Clinic and a crèche, both of which were very popular with the people. He was also instrumental in founding the Zimele Trust Fund in 1975, which assisted political prisoners and their families.

Biko was detained and interrogated four times between August 1975 and September 1977 under Apartheid era anti-terrorism legislation. On 18 August 1977, Biko was arrested while travelling home from a political meeting in Cape Town with his friend Peter Jones. He was detained in Port Elizabeth for 26 days under the Terrorism Act. During their detention Biko and Jones were tortured at the headquarters of the Security Division housed in what was then known as the Sanlam building in Port Elizabeth. It was during this period that Biko sustained a massive brain haemorrhage.

According to testimony given at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1997, "Biko sustained a head injury during interrogation on 7 September 1977, 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 11 September Biko had slipped into a continual, semi-conscious state. It was later reported that the police physician had in fact recommended a transfer to hospital. Biko was, however, transported 1,200 km to Pretoria – a 12-hour journey which he made lying naked in the back of a Land Rover. On 12 September 1977, hours after being transported to Pretoria Central Prison, Biko died from brain damage, alone and on the floor of his cell. He was only 30 years old.

The police first claimed he had starved himself to death while on a hunger strike. They later changed their story to say Biko had hit his head against a wall in a scuffle. Biko was the twentieth person to die in police custody. As a result, a number of newspapers did their own private investigations and learned that Biko died from brain injuries. It was only twenty years later that the police admitted before the TRC that they had killed Biko.

Biko was buried in the Ginsberg cemetery just outside King William's Town on 25 September 1977. His funeral was preceded by a series of memorial services that turned out to be acts of defiance against the country's oppressive regime. Despite police attempts to prevent mourners from travelling to the funeral, thousands of people attended.

The brutal circumstances of Biko's death caused a worldwide outcry and he became a martyr and symbol of black resistance to the oppressive Apartheid regime. There are still many unanswered questions surrounding the death of Biko. Following his death the South African government banned BCM on 19 October 1977 together with a number of individual, especially those Black Consciousness groups closely associated with Biko. The United Nations Security Council responded by finally imposing an arms embargo against South Africa.

Pressure from home and abroad brought about the November 1977 inquest into the cause of his death. On 2 December in the same year, the South African Police were cleared of his death.

Inquest no 573/1977 in the death of Bantu Steve Biko
Counsel's submission on behalf of Biko family


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