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by Ajani Husbands
Updated 9-19-2004

Timeline of Apartheid
Nelson Mandela and other ANC Leaders
Steve Biko
After 10 Years of Democracy

Steve Biko is remembered as a founder and martyr of the South African Black Consciousness Movement.  Entrenched in political activity from birth, Steve Biko gave his life for a South Africa in which Blacks could be free in their own homeland. 

Stephen Bantu Biko was born in King William's Town, Cape Province, South Africa in 1946.  Biko's early political activity eventually found him expelled from his first school at Lovedale for 'anti-establishment' behavior.  His education eventually brought him to the medical school at the University of Natal in Durban.  While here, he became involved with the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), an organization dominated by white liberals and which failed to adequately address the needs of black students.    As a result, Biko founded the South African Students' Organization (SASO) in 1969.  Under Biko's leadership, SASO was involved in providing legal aid, medical clinics, and developing cottage industries for disadvantaged  Black communities. 

In 1972 Biko helped found the Black Peoples Convention (BPC), which worked on social upliftment projects around Durban.  The organization was effective at bringing together over 70 different Black consciousness groups an associations.  Steve Biko was elected president an was promptly expelled from medical school.  By 1973, Steve Biko was banned by the South African apartheid government.  Although the ban restricted him to his home in Kings William's Town, he was still able to continue working for the BPC, and even help set up the Zimele Trust Fund which assisted political prisoners and their families. 

Biko's continued political activities found him detained and interrogated four times between 1975 and 1977.  During one of these organizations, "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."  These overt signs of brain damage went overlooked by the South African authorities, and Steve Biko eventually died from the brain damage, lying on the floor of a cell in the Pretoria Central Prison. 

Steve Biko's death caused an international outcry, and he was instantly lifted to a status of martyrdom and a symbol of Black resistance to the oppressive apartheid regime.  The South African government fought this public appeal to Biko by instantly banning several individuals and organizations that were associated with Steve Biko.  It was not until 1999 (5 years after South Africa's first democratic elections) that the South African government publicly recognized the inhumanity of what was done to Steve Biko.

"The Commission finds that the death in detention of Mr. Stephen Bantu Biko on September 12, 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."
- From the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa report, published by Macmillan, March 1999

Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement

It is undoubtedly true that Steve Biko is the father of the South African Black Consciousness Movement.  In Steve Biko's eyes, Black consciousness sought "to show black people the value of their own standards and outlook... to judge themselves according to these standards and not to be fooled by white society who have whitewashed themselves and made white standards the yardstick by which even black people judge each other."

The basis behind Steve Biko's philosophy was that Blacks could not rely on help or assistance from whites, and should therefore withdraw from any partnerships with white groups.  This logic turned out to be too radical for the ANC and thus caused a visible split between the two organizations.  Although there was reported violence between the two organizations, it is even more important to note the eventual reconciliation that occurred between the two parties.  Before Biko's death, he had been planning to meet Oliver Tambo, the then president of the ANC.  Many believe that it is because of this impending unity between the two groups that the South African government proceeded with its gross negligence of Steve Biko in the hands of the police. 

Though Steve Biko lived a short life, his impact on the South African Black community has been monumental.  Through the Black People's Convention (which Biko helped to found), he was able to directly reach out to the South African Student's Movement, the National Association of Youth Organizations, the Black Worker's Project, and many more organizations.  By the en of 1973, over 41 branches of the BPC were in existence and were fervently spreading the political consciousness of Steve Biko. 

Reflections on Steve Biko

Steve Biko may have been controversial during his time, but his work is still being celebrated by many today.  Nelson Mandela delivered a historic speech praising Steve Biko on the 20th anniversary of Biko's death, and again during the 5th Annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture.  Biko is regarded second only to Mandela in South Africa's political history, and his work cannot be denied as integral to the modern-day development of South Africa.