Remembering an Inspiration: Steven Biko (18 December 1946 – 12 September 1977)

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Bantu Stephen Biko (18 December 1946 – 12 September 1977) is an African original whose life and story is firmly resonant with ideals of freedom and civic rights, unashamedly at that. We celebrate him this day.

Biko was a South African anti-apartheid activist. Ideologically an African nationalist and African socialist, he was at the forefront of a grassroots anti-apartheid campaign known as the Black Consciousness Movement during the late 1960s and 1970s.

Raised in a poor Xhosa family, Biko grew up in Ginsberg township in the Eastern Cape. In 1966, he began studying medicine at the University of Natal, where he joined the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). Strongly opposed to the apartheid system of racial segregation and white-minority rule in South Africa, Biko was frustrated that the anti-apartheid movement, including NUSAS, was dominated by white liberals, rather than by the blacks who were most affected by apartheid.

He developed the view that to avoid white domination, black people had to organize independently, and to this end he became a leading figure in the creation of the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) in 1968. Membership was open only to “blacks”, a term that Biko used in reference not just to Bantu-speaking Africans but also to Coloureds and Indians. Although careful to keep his movement independent of white liberals, he was friends with several and opposed anti-white racism. Influenced by Frantz Fanon and the African-American Black Power movement, Biko and his compatriots developed the idea of Black Consciousness, which became SASO’s official ideology.

The movement campaigned for an end to apartheid and the transition of South Africa toward universal suffrage and a socialist economy. It organiszed Black Community Programs (BPCs) and focused on the psychological empowerment of black people. Biko believed that black people needed to rid themselves of any sense of racial inferiority, an idea he expressed by popularizing the slogan “black is beautiful”. In 1972, he was involved in founding the Black People’s Convention (BPC) to promote Black Consciousness ideas among the wider population. The government placed Biko under a banning order in 1973, severely restricting his activities. He remained politically active, helping organize BPCs such as a healthcare centre and a crèche in the Ginsberg area. During his ban he received repeated anonymous threats, and was detained by state security services on several occasions. Following his arrest in August 1977, Biko died shortly after being severely beaten by state security officers and sustaining fatal head injuries. Over 20,000 people attended his funeral. Many of his writings were published posthumously, and his life became the subject of a book, Biko (1978), by his friend Donald Woods, which was the basis for the 1987 film Cry Freedom which starred Denzel Washington.

Biko became one of the earliest icons of the movement against apartheid, and is regarded as a political martyr and the “Father of Black Consciousness”. Discussing Biko’s legacy, Nelson Mandela called him “the spark that lit a veld fire across South Africa”.

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