Knowledge Session: Who Was Steve Biko?

Know­ledge Ses­sion: Who was Steve Biko

Steve Biko was one of South Africa’s most sig­ni­fic­ant polit­ic­al act­iv­ists and a lead­ing founder of South Africa’s Black Con­scious­ness Move­ment. His death in police deten­tion in 1977 led to his being hailed as a mar­tyr of the anti-Apartheid struggle.

An Early Life
From an early age Steve Biko showed an interest in anti-Apartheid polit­ics. After being expelled from his first school, Lovedale, in the East­ern Cape for ‘anti-estab­lish­ment’ beha­vi­or, he was trans­ferred to a Roman Cath­ol­ic board­ing school in Nat­al. From there he enrolled as a stu­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of Nat­al Med­ic­al School (in the uni­versity’s Black Sec­tion). Whilst at med­ic­al school Biko became involved with the Nation­al Uni­on of South Afric­an Stu­dents (NUSAS). But the uni­on was dom­in­ated by white lib­er­als and failed to rep­res­ent the needs of black stu­dents, so Biko 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 and Black Consciousness
In 1972 Biko was one of the founders of the Black Peoples Con­ven­tion (BPC) work­ing on social uplift­ment pro­jects around Durb­an. The BPC effect­ively brought togeth­er roughly 70 dif­fer­ent black con­scious­ness groups and asso­ci­ations, such as the South Afric­an Stu­dent’s Move­ment (SASM), which played a sig­ni­fic­ant role in the 1976 upris­ings, the Nation­al Asso­ci­ation of Youth Organ­isa­tions, and the Black Work­ers Pro­ject which sup­por­ted black work­ers whose uni­ons were not recog­nized under the Apartheid régime. 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 which he also helped found.

Banned by the Apartheid Régime
In 1973 Steve Biko was ‘banned’ by the Apartheid gov­ern­ment. Under the ‘ban’ Biko was restric­ted to his home town of Kings Wil­li­am’s Town in the East­ern Cape – he could no longer sup­port the BCP in Durb­an, but was able to con­tin­ue work­ing for the BPC – he helped set up the Zimele Trust Fund which assisted polit­ic­al pris­on­ers and their fam­il­ies. (Biko was elec­ted Hon­or­ary Pres­id­ent of the BPC in Janu­ary 1977.)

Biko Dies in Detention
Biko was detained and inter­rog­ated four times between August 1975 and Septem­ber 1977 under Apartheid era 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.

The Apartheid Gov­ern­ment’s Response
The South Afric­an Min­is­ter of Justice, James (Jimmy) Kruger ini­tially sug­ges­ted Biko had died of a hun­ger-strike and said that his death “left him cold”. The hun­ger strike story was dropped after loc­al and inter­na­tion­al media pres­sure, espe­cially from Don­ald Woods, the edit­or of the East Lon­don Daily Dis­patch. It was revealed in the inquest that Biko had died of brain dam­age, but the magis­trate failed to find any­one respons­ible, rul­ing that Biko had died as a res­ult of injur­ies sus­tained dur­ing a scuffle with secur­ity police whilst in detention.

An Anti-Apartheid Martyr
The bru­tal cir­cum­stances of Biko’s death caused a world­wide out­cry and he became a mar­tyr and sym­bol of black res­ist­ance to the oppress­ive Apartheid régime. As a res­ult, the South Afric­an gov­ern­ment banned a num­ber of indi­vidu­als (includ­ing Don­ald Woods) and organ­iz­a­tions, espe­cially those Black Con­scious­ness groups closely asso­ci­ated with Biko. The United Nations Secur­ity Coun­cil respon­ded by finally impos­ing an arms embargo against South Africa.

Biko’s fam­ily sued the state for dam­ages in 1979 and settled out of court for R65,000 (then equi­val­ent to $25,000).

The three doc­tors con­nec­ted with Biko’s case were ini­tially exon­er­ated by the South Afric­an Med­ic­al Dis­cip­lin­ary Com­mit­tee. It was not until a second enquiry in 1985, eight years after Biko’s death, that any action was taken against them. 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 Biko fam­ily did not ask the Com­mis­sion to make a find­ing on his death.

“The Com­mis­sion finds that the death in deten­tion of Mr Steph­en Bantu Biko on 12 Septem­ber 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.”


The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.

Rishma Dhaliwal

Edit­or / PR Con­sult­ant at No Bounds
Rishma Dhali­w­al has extens­ive exper­i­ence study­ing and work­ing in the music and media industry. Hav­ing writ­ten a thes­is on how Hip Hop acts as a social move­ment, she has spent years research­ing and con­nect­ing with artists who use the art form as a tool for bring­ing a voice to the voice­less. Cur­rently work­ing in TV, Rishma brings her PR and media know­ledge to I am Hip Hop and oth­er pro­jects by No Bounds.

About Rishma Dhaliwal

Rishma Dhaliwal has extensive experience studying and working in the music and media industry. Having written a thesis on how Hip Hop acts as a social movement, she has spent years researching and connecting with artists who use the art form as a tool for bringing a voice to the voiceless. Currently working in TV, Rishma brings her PR and media knowledge to I am Hip Hop and other projects by No Bounds.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *