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Great Leaders of the Past: Steve Biko
Courtesy of Wikipedia
 

Editor's Note: In this new column we will attempt to shed light on people who did positive things for their people and the communities they represented and more! These will be people some have heard and others some haven't heard..

Steve Bantu Biko (18 December 1946 – 12 September 1977) was a noted anti-apartheid activist in South Africa in the 1960s and early 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. 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". The ANC was very hostile to Biko and to Black Consciousness through the 70s to the mid 90s[Quotation from source requested on talk page to verify interpretation of source] but has now included Biko in the pantheon of struggle heroes, going so far to use his image for campaign posters in South Africa's first non-racial elections, in 1994.

Stephen Bantu Biko was born in King Williams Town, in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. He was a student at the University of Natal.


He was initially involved with the multiracial National Union of South African Students, but after he became convinced that Black, Indian and Coloured students needed an organization of their own, he helped found the South African Students' Organisation (SASO) in 1968, and was elected its first president. SASO evolved into the influential Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). Ntsiki Mashalaba, Biko's wife, was also a prominent thinker within the Black Consciousness Movement. Ntsiki and Biko had two children together: Nkosinathi 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 at the age of two months, and a son, Hlumelo, who was born in 1978, after Biko's death.

In 1972 Biko became honorary president of the Black People's Convention. He was banned during the height of apartheid in March 1973, meaning that he was not allowed to speak to more than one person at a time, was restricted to certain areas, and could not make speeches in public. It was also forbidden to quote anything he said, including speeches or simple conversations. Biko was a Xhosa. In addition to Xhosa, he spoke fluent English and fairly fluent Afrikaans.

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, including a community clinic, Zanempilo, the Zimele Trust Fund (which helped support ex-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.

On 18 August 1977, Biko was arrested at a police roadblock under the Terrorism Act No 83 of 1967. 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 began the 1,200 km drive to Pretoria. 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. He was found to have massive injuries to the head, which many saw as strong evidence that he had been brutally clubbed by his captors. Then journalist and now political leader, Helen Zille, exposed the truth behind Biko's death.

Due to his fame, 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 many hundreds of people, including numerous ambassadors and other diplomats from the United 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, where he campaigned against apartheid and further publicised Biko's life and death, writing many newspaper articles and authoring the book, Biko.

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

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 had admitted to killing Biko who died a year after the Soweto riots which rocked apartheid South Africa, and were applying for amnesty.

On 7 October 2003 the South African Justice Ministry officials announced that the five policemen who were accused of killing Biko would not be prosecuted because of insufficient evidence and the fact that the time limit for prosecution had elapsed.

Biko's name has been honoured at several universities. The main Student Union building of the Oxford Road campus of the University of Manchester 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 UK 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 colored roots.

In 2004, he was voted 13th in the SABC3's Great South Africans.

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 pacifist ANC leaders such as Nelson Mandela after his imprisonment at Robben Island, and Albert Lutuli who were first disciples of Gandhi.


Biko saw the struggle to restore African consciousness as having two stages, "Psychological liberation" and "Physical liberation". The non-violent 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 non-violence may be seen more as a tactic than a personal conviction. Thus Biko's BCM had much in common with other left-wing African nationalist movements of the time, such as Amilcar Cabral's PAIGC and Huey Newton's Black Panther Party.

Please submit any questions or concerns at community@geoclan.com.

"We do not want to be reminded that it is we, the indigenous people, who are poor and exploited in the land of our birth. These are concepts which the Black Consciousness approach wishes to eradicate from the black man's mind before our society is driven to chaos by irresponsible people from Coca-cola and hamburger cultural backgrounds." - Steve Biko

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