5. Steven Biko

Stephen Biko (18 December 1946 – 12 September 1977)[1] was an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s.

A student leader, he later founded the Black Consciousness Movement which would empower and mobilize much of the urban black population. Since his death in police custody, he has been called a martyr of the anti-apartheid movement.[4] While living, his writings and activism attempted to empower black people, and he was famous for his slogan “black is beautiful”, which he described as meaning: “man, you are okay as you are, begin to look upon yourself as a human being”.[5]

Despite friction between the African National Congress and Biko throughout the 1970s[Need quotation to verify] the ANC has included Biko in the pantheon of struggle heroes, going as far as using his image for campaign posters in South Africa’s first non-racial elections in 1994.[6]

Early life

Biko was born in King William’s Town, in the present-day Eastern Cape province of South Africa. He studied to be a doctor at the University of Natal Medical School. Biko was a Xhosa. In addition to Xhosa, he spoke fluent English and fairly fluent Afrikaans.

He was initially involved with the multiracial National Union of South African Students, but after he became convinced that Black, Indian and Colouredstudents needed an organization of their own, he helped found the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO), whose agenda included political self-reliance and the unification of university students in a “black consciousness.”[7] In 1968 Biko was elected its first president. SASO evolved into the influentialBlack Consciousness Movement (BCM). Biko was also involved with the World Student Christian Federation.

Biko married Ntsiki Mashalaba in 1970.[8] They had two children together: Nkosinathi, born in 1971, and Samora. He also had two children with Dr Mamphela Ramphele (a prominent activist within the BCM): a daughter, Lerato, born in 1974, who died of pneumonia when she was only two months old, and a son, Hlumelo, who was born in 1978, after Biko’s death.[2] Biko also had a daughter with Lorraine Tabane, named Motlatsi, born in May 1977.[citation needed]

In 1972, Biko was expelled from the University of Natal because of his political activities[7] and he became honorary president of the Black People’s Convention. He was banned by the apartheid regime in February 1973,[9] meaning that he was not allowed to speak to more than one person at a time nor to speak in public, was restricted to the King William’s Town magisterial district, and could not write publicly or speak with the media.[7] It was also forbidden to quote anything he said, including speeches or simple conversations.

When Biko was banned, his movement within the country was restricted to the Eastern Cape, where he was born. After returning there, he formed a number of grassroots organizations based on the notion of self-reliance: Zanempilo, the Zimele Trust Fund (which helped support former political prisoners and their families), Njwaxa Leather-Works Project and the Ginsberg Education Fund.

In spite of the repression of the apartheid government, Biko and the BCM played a significant role in organising the protests which culminated in the Soweto Uprising of 16 June 1976. In the aftermath of the uprising, which was crushed by heavily armed police shooting school children protesting, the authorities began to target Biko further.

Death and aftermath

The Rand Daily Mail story, authored by Zille, that exposed the cover-up of anti-apartheid activist Biko’s death in police custody.

On the 18th of August, 1977, Biko was arrested at a police roadblock under the Terrorism Act No 83 of 1967 and interrogated by officers of the Port Elizabeth security police including Harold Snyman andGideon Nieuwoudt. This interrogation took place in the Police Room 619. The interrogation lasted twenty-two hours and included torture and beatings resulting in a coma.[7] He suffered a major head injury while in police custody, and was chained to a window grille for a day.

On 11 September 1977, police loaded him in the back of a Land Rover, naked and restrained in manacles, and began the 1100 km drive to Pretoria to take him to a prison with hospital facilities. However, he was nearly dead owing to the previous injuries.[10] He died shortly after arrival at the Pretoria prison, on 12 September. The police claimed his death was the result of an extended hunger strike, but an autopsy revealed multiple bruises and abrasions and that he ultimately succumbed to a brain hemorrhage from the massive injuries to the head,[7] which many saw as strong evidence that he had been brutally clubbed by his captors. Then journalist and now political leader, Helen Zille, along with Donald Woods, another journalist, editor and close friend of Biko’s, exposed the truth behind Biko’s death.[11]

Because of his high profile, news of Biko’s death spread quickly, opening many eyes around the world to the brutality of the apartheid regime. His funeral was attended by over 10,000 people, including numerous ambassadors and other diplomats from theUnited States and Western Europe. The liberal white South African journalist Donald Woods, a personal friend of Biko, photographed his injuries in the morgue. Woods was later forced to flee South Africa for England. Donald Woods later campaigned against apartheid and further publicised Biko’s life and death, writing many newspaper articles and authoring the book, Biko.[12] Speaking at a National Party conference following the news of Biko’s death then-minister of police, Jimmy Kruger said, “I am not glad and I am not sorry about Mr. Biko. It leaves me cold (Dit laat my koud). I can say nothing to you … Any person who dies … I shall also be sorry if I die.”

The following year, on 2 February 1978, the Attorney General of the Eastern Cape stated that he would not prosecute any police officers involved in the arrest and detention of Biko. During the trial, it was claimed that Biko’s head injuries were the result of a self-inflicted suicide attempt, not those of any beatings.

The judge ultimately ruled that a murder charge could not be supported partly because there were no witnesses to the killing. Charges of culpable homicide and assault were also considered, but because the killing occurred in 1977, the time limit for prosecution had expired.[13] On 7 October 2003 the South African Justice Ministry officials announced that the five policemen accused of killing Biko would not be prosecuted, because there was insufficient evidence, and because the time limit for prosecution had elapsed.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was created following the end of minority rule and the apartheid system, reported in 1997 that five former members of the South African security forces who had admitted to killing Biko were applying for amnesty. Their application was rejected.

Stephen Biko authored a book titled: I Write What I Like.

Influences and formation of ideology

Like Frantz Fanon, Biko originally studied medicine, and, like Fanon, Biko developed an intense concern for the development of black consciousness as a solution to the existential struggles which shape existence, both as a human and as an African (see Négritude). Biko can thus be seen as a follower of Fanon and Aimé Césaire, in contrast to more multi-racialist ANC leaders such as Nelson Mandela after his imprisonment at Robben Island, and Albert Luthuli who were first disciples of Gandhi.[14][15][16][17]

Biko saw the struggle to restore African consciousness as having two stages, “Psychological liberation” and “Physical liberation”. The nonviolent influence of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. upon Biko is then suspect, as Biko knew that for his struggle to give rise to physical liberation, it was necessary that it exist within the political realities of the apartheid regime, and Biko’s nonviolence may be seen more as a tactic than a personal conviction.[18]

Biko’s relevance in the present

In the present post-Apartheid South Africa, Biko is now revered across the political spectrum despite obvious ideological differences. Many of these people see Biko’s philosophy as irrelevant after 1994. However, in 2004, he was voted 13th in the SABC3’s Great South Africans.

However, many present-day social movements, activists, and academics continue to stress the relevance of Biko’s black consciousness. This includes a strong critique of voting by academic Andile Mngxitama who has said that if Biko were alive today, he would not be supporting any political party, would not even vote, but would be marching with the social movements against government.[19] [20][21]


Apart from Donald Woods’ book called Biko, his name has been honoured at several universities. Locally, the main Student Union buildings of the University of Cape Town are named in his honour and each year a commemorative Steve Biko lecture, open to all students, is delivered on the anniversary of his death. Internationally, the University of Manchester's student union, the Steve Biko Building, on the Oxford road campus, is named in his honour. Ruskin College, Oxford has a Biko House student accommodation. The bar at the University of Bradford was named after Biko until its closure in 2005. Numerous other venues in Students Unions around the United Kingdom also bear his name. The Santa Barbara Student Housing Cooperative has a house named after Steve Biko, themed to provide a safe, respectful space for people of colour. A street in Hounslow, West London, is named “Steve Biko Way”. At the University of California, Santa Cruz, there is a section of dormitories named “Biko House” located in the Oakes College Multicultural Theme Housing. The Steve Biko Institute was founded in Salvador, Brazil to support the education and pride of Black Brazilians.[22] The Pretoria Academic Hospital was renamed the Steve Biko Academic Hospital[23] in 2008. Durban University of Technology has acknowledged Steve Biko’s contribution to South African Society by naming its largest campus after him. A bronze bust of Steve Biko was unveiled in Freedom Square on this campus as a tribute to him. Peter Gabriel and the Hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest each named a song after him in his honour.

References in the arts

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  • Benjamin Zephaniah wrote a poem titled “Biko The Greatness”, included in Zephaniah’s 2001 collection, Too Black, Too Strong.
  • "The Compound Arcane" is a poem written in 1975 by Jack Hirschman, subtitled Hommage to Steve Biko, which is published in The Arcanes. This poem is notable by the fact that it was composed prior to Biko’s death, yet already the poet was inspired enough by Biko’s life to recognize him as a martyr.
  • "In Detention" by Chris van Wyk (b. 1957)

Theatre, film and television

  • In 1978, Malcolm Clarke[24] recounted Biko’s story in a documentary called, The Life and Death of Steve Biko.
  • A 1979 play titled The Biko Inquest, written by Norman Fenton and Jon Blair. In 1985, a television adaptation of the original stage play was created, directed by Albert Finney and originally aired in the US through HBO in 1985.[25]
  • In 1987, Richard Attenborough directed the movie Cry Freedom, a biographical drama about Biko starring Denzel Washington and Kevin Kline.
  • In the Disney channel movie The Color of Friendship, Biko’s death is used as a plot turner in breaking the two teens apart.
  • In Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights, while Brian Potter is on Crimetime and is grabbed by a following interviewee he makes a reference to Biko.
  • Within the Star Trek canon, the USS Biko is named in his honour.
  • In the manga and anime Planetes, a presumably co-lateral descendant, James Biko, is the navigator of the Werner von Braun Jupiter Explorer.


Biko has been the subject of many tributes in many different genres of music, including raphip hopjazzreggae and rock

  • In 1978, Peter Hammill on his album The future Now in the song “A motor bike in Afrika” was the first to mention Biko (after his death) in England.
  • The album Song for Biko by South African improviser, composer, and bandleader Johnny Dyani (Johnny Mbizo Dyani) features a composition written by Dyani of the same name.
  • Tom Paxton released the song “The Death of Stephen Biko” on his 1978 album Heroes.
  • Tapper Zukie released the song “Tribute To Steve Biko” on his 1978 album Peace In The Ghetto on the Frontline Records label.[26]
  • Steel Pulse released the song “Biko’s Kindred Lament” on their 1979 album Tribute to the Martyrs.
  • Peter Gabriel recorded his song “Biko" on his 1980 album Peter Gabriel.
  • Sweet Honey in the Rock's 1981 album, Good News, contains tracks titled “Biko” and “Chile Your Waters Run Red Through Soweto”, which compares Biko’s death to that of Chilean musician Victor Jara and was covered by Billy Bragg in 1992.
  • Christy Moore sang a song about Biko called “Biko Drum” which makes several references to the South African hero. The song was written by Wally Page.
  • Biko is referenced in the Public Enemy song “Show ‘Em Whatcha Got” on the album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
  • Randy Stonehill sings about Biko in the song “Stand Like Steel” on his 1989 album Return to Paradise (produced by Mark Heard).[27]
  • The album, Midnight Marauders (1993) by A Tribe Called Quest includes the song “Steve Biko (Stir It Up)” in which Biko is mentioned very briefly during the song, mostly in the 20 second chorus.Phife Dawg raps: “I’m radical with this like the man this song is after”.
  • Beenie Man's 1997 album Many Moods of Moses includes the song “Steve Biko”.
  • German singer Patrice sings about Biko in the song “Jah Jah Deh Deh” which appears on his album How Do You Call It?.
  • Dead Prez's album Let’s Get Free references Steve Biko in the track “I’m a African”.
  • Dave Matthews wrote the song “Cry Freedom” in honour of Biko.[citation needed]
  • Dirty district's song “Steve Biko” is based on the murder of Steve Biko. The song is recorded on their debut album, Pousse Au Crime et Longueurs de Temps.
  • Groundation's song “Silver Tongue Show” references Biko.
  • Simphiwe Dana’s second album is The One Love Movement on Bantu Biko Street.
  • Stevie Wonder mentions the struggle in South Africa and Stephen Biko in a tribute concert to Bob Dylan in his song “Blowing in the Wind”.
  • Willy Porter mentions Biko in his song “The Trees Have Soul”. He sings: “Even Stephen Biko knows, the trees have soul”.
  • Johnny Clegg mentions Steve Biko, Victoria Mxenge and Neil Aggett in his song “Asimbonanga” about Apartheid and Nelson Mandela.
  • Wyclef Jean compares Biko’s horrific events to the ones of Amadou Diallo in his tribute song name “Diallo” on the album The Ecleftic: Two Sides of a Book.
  • Banda Bassotti - Figli Della Stessa Rabbia
  • Lowkey's 2009 album Dear Listener references Steve Biko in the track “I Believe”.
  • Singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson mentions him on the song “Mal Sacate”. Kristofferson sings: “They killed so many heroes / Like Zapata (presente!) and Fonseca (presente!) / and Sandino (presente!) and Guevarra (presente!)/ and sdazSteve Biko (presente!)/ but they can never kill the human spirit in Nicaragua.”
  • Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour mentions Steve Biko in his song “New Africa”.
  • Saul Williams mentions Biko along with other notable figures such as BuddhaBob MarleyJohn LennonKhalil GibranShiva in the song “Coded Language”.
  • Vybz Kartel, in his song “Licensed to Kill”, sings: “Mi wi do di time like Mandela, fi murda di whole a dem like Stephen Biko”.


Numerous works have paid homage to Steve Biko, and keep awareness of him alive. These include:

Homage to Steve Biko—Bester, Willie. [28]

Who killed Steve Biko? — Ashton, Tony. [29]

See also


  1. a b "Stephen Bantu Biko"South African history on-line. September 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-20.
  2. a b Mothibeli, Tefo. "Mamphela Ramphele: Academic Giant and Ray of Hope", Financial Mail, Johannesburg, July 7, 2006.
  3. ^ Daley, Suzanne. "The Standards Bearer", NY Times, New York, April 13, 1997.
  4. ^ "Background: Steve Biko: martyr of the anti-apartheid movement". BBC News. 1997-12-08. Retrieved 2007-04-16.
  5. ^ Biko, Steve (1986). I Write What I Like. San Francisco: Harper & Row. pp. 103–104.
  6. ^ See, for instance, Rian Malan’s book My Traitor’s Heart
  7. a b c d e Appiah, Kwame Anthony; Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (1997). [2x 13 The Dictionary of Global Culture]. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 76–77. ISBN 039458581X.
  8. ^ "King William’s Town’s hero: Steve Biko 1946 - 1977". Buffalo City government. Retrieved 2007-09-02.
  9. ^ "Martyr of Hope: A Personal Memoir" by Aelred Stubbs C.R., inBiko, Steve (2002). I Write What I Like. Chicago: Harper & Row. p. 161.
  10. ^ Pillay, Verashni (2007-09-12). "Keeping Steve Biko alive was really hard but we succeeded"News24. Retrieved 2007-09-19.[dead link]
  11. ^ Helen, Zille (September 9 2007). "Steve Biko’s legacy lives on". IOL.co.za.
  12. ^ Blandy, Fran (Dec 31 2007). "SA editor’s escape from apartheid, 30 years on"Mail & Guardian. Retrieved 19 June 2011.
  13. ^ Account of homicide accusations against the police in The Independent (of London)
  14. ^ Stiebel, Lindy (2005). Still beating the drum: critical perspectives on Lewis Nkosi. Rodopi. p. 80.
  15. ^ Kee, Alistair (2006). The rise and demise of black theology. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.
  16. ^ Heinrichs, Ann (2001). Mahatma Gandhi. Gareth Stevens. p. 12.
  17. ^ Lens, Sidney (1963). Africa — awakening giant. Putnam. p. 180.
  18. ^ Wiredu, Kwasi; William E. Abraham, Abiola Irele, Ifeanyi A. Menkiti (2003). Companion to African philosophy. Blackwell Publishing.
  19. ^ "Why Steve Biko wouldn’t vote"Andile Mngxitama. Pambazuka News.
  20. ^ Mngxitama, Andile; Andile Mngxitama, Amanda Alexander, and Nigel C. Gibson (2008). BIKO LIVES! Contesting the Legacies of Steve Biko. Palgrave Macmillan.
  21. ^ "A homemade politics’ Rights, democracy and social movements in South Africa"Matt Birkinshaw. Abahlali baseMjondolo.
  22. ^ Martins, Alejandra (2005-05-25). "Black Brazilians learn from Biko". BBC News. Retrieved 2011-06-19.
  23. ^ Newsbeat. "The Steve Biko Academic Hospital". Pah.org.za. Retrieved 2011-06-19.
  24. ^ [1][dead link]
  25. ^ "The Biko Inquest". IMDb.
  26. ^ "Tapper Zukie - Peace In The Ghetto". Discogs.com. Retrieved 2011-06-19.
  27. ^ "Welcome To Paradise". Nifty-music.com. Retrieved 2011-06-19.
  28. ^ "Homage to Steve Biko". Entertainment.webshots.com. Retrieved 2011-06-19.
  29. ^ "Who Killed Steve Biko?". Tonyashtonart.co.uk. Retrieved 2011-06-19.

Further reading

This post is posted on Sunday 29 April 2012.
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