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Steve Bantu Biko: Your memories - 12 September 1977. 

The Black World remembers

The Black World this week marked the 30th anniversary of the killing in police custody of black consciousness leader Steve Bantu Biko by remembering and honouring his significant contribution to the struggle against apartheid.

Only 30 years old when he died, Biko had a profound impact not only on the course of the struggle, but on the political thinking of a generation of activists. Biko´s ideas helped forge the black consciousness movement at a moment when internal resistance to apartheid was being revived. The ideas and organising capacity of Steve Biko contributed much to that revival, helping to give it form and purpose.

Steve Biko´s legacy lives on in many forms. The political work of Biko and his comrades in the 1970s, fuelled by the 1976 student uprisings, gave rise to a generation of young freedom fighters who took up the struggle within the country and outside - many of whom joined the ANC and Umkhonto we Sizwe. The subsequent intensification of the struggle on several fronts, which continued throughout the 1980s, led to the defeat of the apartheid state at the negotiating table.

The impact of Biko´s thoughts on ´black pride´ have also been profound. Like many African leaders before him, Biko recognised the need for blacks to be liberated from notions of inferiority and subservience. Like them, Biko worked through political organisation and social mobilisation to develop the collective confidence and assertiveness of black and African people. It was this confidence which made the democratic breakthrough of 1994 possible, and which - on a continental scale - is now fuelling efforts to regenerate Africa.

Like many of his compatriots, Steve Biko was engaged in struggle from early in life. Born in 1946 in King Williams Town, he was expelled from his first school, Lovedale, in the Eastern Cape for ´anti-establishment´ behaviour. After completing his schooling in the then Natal, he enrolled as a student at the ´Black Section´ of the University of Natal Medical School.

Whilst there, he became involved with the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). Frustrated that the union was dominated by white liberals and failed to represent the needs of black students, Biko and others resigned in 1969 and founded the South African Students´ Organisation (SASO). SASO was involved in providing legal aid and medical clinics, as well as helping to develop cottage industries for disadvantaged black communities.

Biko was one of the founders, in 1972, of the Black Peoples Convention (BPC). The BPC effectively brought together roughly 70 different black consciousness groups and associations, such as the South African Student´s Movement (SASM, the National Association of Youth Organisations (NAYO), and the Black Workers Project (BWP) which supported black workers whose unions were not recognised under the apartheid regime. Biko was elected as the first president of the BPC and was promptly expelled from medical school. He started working full time for the Black Community Programme (BCP) in Durban.

In 1973 Steve Biko was ´banned´ by the apartheid government. Under the ´ban´ Biko was restricted to Kings William´s Town. He was able to continue working for the BPC, helping to set up the Zimele Trust Fund which assisted political prisoners and their families.

Biko was detained and interrogated four times between August 1975 and September 1977 under anti-terrorism legislation. On 21 August 1977 Biko was detained by the Eastern Cape security police and held in Port Elizabeth. From the Walmer police cells he was taken for interrogation at the security police headquarters. On 7 September "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."

By 11 September, Biko had slipped into a continual, semi-conscious state and the police physician 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. A few hours later, on 12 September, alone and still naked, lying on the floor of a cell in the Pretoria Central Prison, Biko died from brain damage.

In a subsequent inquest, the magistrate failed to find anyone responsible, ruling that Biko had died as a result of injuries sustained during a scuffle with security police while in detention. The brutal circumstances of Biko´s death caused a worldwide outcry. The apartheid government banned a number of individuals and organisations, especially those Black Consciousness groups closely associated with Biko. The United Nations Security Council responded by finally imposing an arms embargo against South Africa.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was established in 1996 by the democratic government, found that Biko´s death in detention was a gross human rights violation. The police officers responsible for Biko´s death applied for amnesty during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings which sat in Port Elizabeth in 1997. The applications were unsuccessful.

The political movement that Steve Biko forged belonged to a particular moment in South African history. His vision however remains timeless. In 1973, Biko wrote: "We have set out on a quest for true humanity, and somewhere on the distant horizon we can see the glittering prize. Let us march forth with courage and determination, drawing strength from our common plight and our brotherhood. In time we shall be in a position to bestow upon South Africa the greatest gift possible - a more human face."


Steve Biko Foundation


Bantu Steve Biko was born in King William´s Town on the 18 th December 1946, the third child of the late Mathew Mzingaye and Alice Nokuzola “Mamcethe” Biko. He attended primary school in King William´s Town and secondary school at Marianhill, a missionary school situated in a town of the same name in KwaZulu-Natal.
        Steve Biko went on to register for a degree in medicine at the Black Section of the Medical School of the University of Natal in 1966. Very early in his academic program Biko showed an expansive search for knowledge that far exceeded the realm of the medical profession, ending up as one of the most prominent student leaders. In 1968, Biko and 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 1969. This organization was borne out of the frustrations Black students encountered within the liberal and multi-racial NUSAS. In the eyes of Biko and his colleagues, NUSAS showed signs of an organization unwilling to adopt radical policy positions and comfortable with playing safe politics. The questions that triggered the formation of SASO became known as the ‘best able debate´ – are white liberals best able to define the texture and tempo of resistance?
       SASO was founded therefore as a call to Black students to refrain from being spectators in a game in which they should be participant. Maintaining working relationships with other student organizations, SASO´s primary engagement was to address the inferiority complex that was the mainstay of passiveness within the ranks of Black students. It was not long before it became the most formidable political force spreading to campuses across the country and beyond. After serving as the organizations President Biko was elected Publications Director for SASO where he wrote prolifically under the pseudonym, Frank Talk.
       With the seeds of Black Consciousness having been sown outside of student campuses, Biko and his colleagues argued for a broader based black political organization in the country. Opinion was canvassed and finally, in July 1972, the Black People´s Convention (BPC) was founded and inaugurated in December of the same year.
       Inspired by Biko´s growing legacy the youth of the country at high school level mobilized themselves in a movement that became known as the South African Students Movement (SASM). This movement played a pivotal role in the 1976 Soweto Uprisings, which accelerated the course of the liberation struggle. The National Association of Youth Organizations was also formed in order to cater for the youth more generally.
       Biko was instrumental in the development and formation of a core SASO project – the Black Worker´s Project (BWP), which was co-sponsored by the Black Community Programs (BCP) for which Biko worked at the time. The BCP addressed the problems of Black workers whose unions were not yet recognized by the law. After being expelled from Medical School in 1972 Biko joined the BCP at their Durban offices. The BCP engaged in a number of community-based projects and published a yearly called the Black Review, which provided an analysis of political trends in the country.
       In March of 1973 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. Despite this the office that he had established did well managing amongst other achievements to build the Zanempilo Clinic and a crèche, both of which were very popular with the people.
       As an example of his resolve and indestructible black pride Biko was also instrumental in the founding of the Zimele Trust Fund in 1975, which was set up to assist political prisoners and their families. This he achieved in spite of the inconveniences and restrictions placed on him by his own banning order. He continued his hard work by setting up the Ginsberg Educational Trust to assist black students. In January 1997 the BCP unanimously elected Biko Honorary President in recognition of his momentous contribution to the liberation struggle.
       In his short but remarkable life Biko was frequently harassed and detained under the country´s notorious security legislation. This interrogation culminated in his arrest, together with his colleague and comrade Peter Cyril Jones, at a Police roadblock outside of King William´s Town on the 18 th August 1977. Biko and Jones had in fact been to Cape Town, despite the banning order, to lend their weight to efforts to get all political organizations fighting for liberation to agree on a broader program of co-operation. Both were detained under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act. Biko´s quest for black unity would eventually cost him his life.
       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 massive brain hemorrhage. On the 11 th of September 1977 Biko was transported to Pretoria central prison – a twelve-hour journey, naked, without medical escort, in the back of a police Land Rover. Biko died on the floor of an empty cell in Pretoria Central Prison on the 12 th of September. It was in this way that South Africa was robbed of one of its foremost political thinkers.


1946 – 18 December, Bantu Steve Biko is born in Tarkastad. He is brought up in Ginsberg, King Williams Town and he attends the Charles Morgan Primary School and the Forbes Grant secondary school. He joins his elder brother Khaya at Lovedale Institution and is expelled because of his brother´s political activities. He moves on to attend St. Francis College in Marianhill in what was Natal.

1966 (age 19) – Attends the University of Natal (Non-European section) at Wentworth as a medical student.

1969 (age 22) – forms the South Africa Student´s Organisation (SASO) and is elected as its first president. Also forms the Black People´s Convention (BPC).

1972 (age 25) – helps form and works for Black Community Programmes (BCP) and the university discontinues his medical studies.

1973 (age 26) – banned and restricted to King William´s Town for five years. Not allowed to work for any political organizations, not allowed to be published or quoted.

1974 (age 27) – Arrested and discharged a number of times. On occasions charged and acquitted.

1975 (age 28) – Founds Zimele Trust Fund and Ginsberg Educational Trust. Is detained and held for 137 days without charge or trial.

1976 (age 29) – Elected as Honorary President of BPC. Subpoenaed to give testimony in the SASO-BPC trial. Detained in solitary confinement for 101 days.

1977 (age 30) – Arrested in March, detained and then released. Arrested again in July, charged, acquitted. Arrested again on the 18 August.

12 September, dies in police custody.

25 September, funeral.

14 November to 2 December, inquest into his death.

© Copyright 2006, Steve Biko Foundation

A selection of your poems and memories:

One man´s dream,
Another´s vision,
One man´s hope,
Another´s mission.

You stood up when we all cowered,
Fought against the highest powers.
A man who perished for his brothers,
An example to all others,

Who pray to God for men like him,
To fight our wars and hope they win.

If here today, where would you lead us?
For we still cry, but they don´t heed us.

The skin we wear is still our burden,
In our own land, we still are servants.

If you´re still up there watching us,
Reaching down and touching us,

Show us now which way to go,
And may your wisdom guide us home.

by Vulindlela Moyo, Wollongong, Australia


The have maimed,
They have killed,
They have stopped you.

But did not stop us,
They did not kill the Dream,
You did not die in vain.

Dear Biko, rejoice on your journey,
We are victorious,
Cry not, sing for joy.

We won the men in Black,
We won the baton and guns,
We won the walls of the dark room,

Comerade Biko,we are still winning,
They are now losing,
Liberty is here at last.

by OBIOHA GODSPOWER, Auchi, Nigeria


Biko-isme : Steve Biko, martyr de la Concience noire disait ... 



Piere Prêche

Astre fugitif de la lutte de libération des Noirs d’Afrique du sud et du monde, Steve Biko naquît en 1946 dans un township de la province du Cap et mourut des suites des tortures et traitements inhumains infligés par la police terroriste du régime d’apartheid. Coïncidence ? Le fondateur du mouvement de la Conscience noire rendit son dernier souffle un 12 septembre 1977 soit le même jour que son père Mzimkhayi qui avait lui aussi péri tué par un policier blanc le 12 septembre 1951 lors d’un rassemblement de militants.


La vie de Steve Biko a été écrite, chantée, immortalisée par le Biko de Peter Gabriel ou par le film Cry Freedom qui révélé à l’époque une étoile montante du cinéma en la personne de Denzel Washington. Si la résistance héroïque de Biko est connue, son parcours de rebelle à l’ordre raciste et ségrégationniste commença dès l’école secondaire où il s’était fait exclure pour attitude anti-establishment. Certes avec un père et un frère impliqués dans la cause antiraciste il avait de qui tenir.


Steve Biko créa le premier syndicat étudiant exclusivement noir en 1969, le South African Students Organisation (SASO) et innova dans le combat de libération en se focalisant sur la dimension psychologique, la conscience des Noirs, seule instance à partir de laquelle un processus révolutionnaire émergerait selon lui. Pour cette raison il se coupa des libéraux blancs anti-apartheid, pour s’investir dans la fédération des efforts des Noirs eux-mêmes et entre eux. Une attitude et stratégie qui le distinguaient nettement d’autres partis engagés dans la lutte de libération comme l’ANC. C’est dans ce contexte qu´il produisit une philosophie politique, une approche de la Conscience noire qui reste encore actuelle, et adaptable à des environnements sociopolitiques différents.


Charismatique et éloquent, Biko le militant, l’ancien étudiant de l’école de médecine disait :



  • "Les Noirs sont fatigués de rester sur la touche à regarder un jeu auquel ils ne pourraient jouer. Ils veulent faire les choses pour eux-mêmes et par eux-mêmes touts seuls" Cf. Letter to SRC Presidents, I Write What I Like, 1978



  • "La conscience noire est une attitude de l’esprit et une façon de vivre, la plus positive appelée à émaner du monde noir pour longtemps. Son essence est la réalisation par l’Homme noir du besoin de s’unir avec ses frères autour de la cause de leur oppression -la noirceur de leur couleur- et d’agir en groupe pour se débarrasser des chaînes qui les attachent à la servitude perpétuelle.". Cf. The Quest for a True Humanity, I Write What I Like, 1978



  • "Nous n’avons pas besoin qu’on nous rappelle que c’est nous, le peuple indigènes, qui sommes pauvres et exploités sur la terre de notre naissance. Ce sont de tels concepts que la démarche de la Conscience noire veut éradiquer de l’esprit de l’homme noir avant que notre société ne soit entraînée au chaos par des personnes irresponsables au bagage culturel fait de coca-cola et de hamburger." Cf. The Quest for a True Humanity, I Write What I Like, 1978



  • "Homme noir tu es dans ton droit / Homme noir tu es chez toi". Slogan de l’organisation SASO



  • "En prélude, les Blancs doivent être amenés à réaliser qu’ils sont aussi humains, pas supérieurs. De même pour les Noirs. Ils doivent être amenés à réaliser qu’ils sont humains, pas inférieurs". Selon le Boston Globe, 25 octobre 1977



  • "On est soit vivant et fier soit mort, et quand on est mort on ne s’en fait plus" Cf. On Death I Write What I Like, 1978


  • "La plus puissante arme de l’oppresseur c’est l’esprit de l’oppressé". Speech in Cape Town, 1971



  • "Le principe de base de la Conscience noire est que le Noir doit rejeter tous les systèmes de valeurs qui tendent à faire de lui un étranger dans son pays de naissance et à réduire sa dignité humaine de base." De "Steve Biko’s evidence given at the SASO/BPC trial, 03 mai 1976.



  • "Etre un Noir n’est pas une question de pigmentation- Etre noir est le reflet d’une attitude mentale". The definition of Black Consciousness I Write What I Like, 1978



  • "Il devient plus nécessaire de voir la vérité comme elle est si on réalise que le seul véhicule du changement ce sont ces gens qui ont perdu leur personnalité. La première étape cela dit est de faire revenir l’homme noir à lui-même, d’injecter de nouveau de la vie dans sa carapace vide, de lui infuser fierté et dignité, de lui rappeler sa complicité dans le crime en acceptant de se faire utiliser et par ce fait en laissant le règne suprême du mal dans son pays de naissance." Cf. We Blacks, I Write What I Like, 1978



  • "Simplement en nous définissant comme noirs vous avez commencé le chemin vers l’émancipation, vous vous êtes engagés à lutter contre toutes les forces qui visent à utiliser votre négrité comme un cachet qui vous marque comme un être servile." Cf. The definition of Black Consciousness I Write What I Like, 1978


Le jeune homme de 30 ans que la brutalité afrikaner arracha à son people est resté très populaire et son héritage de fierté nationale, noire, a contribué à forger l’Afrique du Sud telle qu’elle est aujourd’hui, en servant par ailleurs de référence constante de dévouement et de lutte sincère contre le racisme.

Les accents fanoniens de Biko sont assez identifiables même si on n’insinue pas qu’il se soit inspiré de son frère de lutte, nègre emblématique, penseur martiniquais et révolutionnaire. Il est à remarquer que les deux, Fanon et Biko, issus de formation en médecine ont perçu avec acuité la dimension pathologique du problème noir. Complexe de supériorité du Blanc et d’infériorité du Noir. La Conscience noire qui de ce point de vue au moins demeure entière à l’ordre du jour avait entrepris cette thérapie voulant toucher l’attitude mentale par laquelle le Noir souscrit sinon reproduit ses asservissements. Une approche par l’attitude mentale qui probablement fait défaut dans la compréhension contemporaine des comportements quelques peu régressifs et inconséquents que beaucoup d’Africains, les élites singulièrement, démontrent avec une inquiétante stabilité.

Un héritage à fructifier.

Merci Biko.



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