Early life: 1946–66
Bantu Stephen Biko was born on 18 December 1946, at his grandmother's house in Tarkastad, Eastern Cape. The third child of Mzingaye Mathew Biko and Alice 'Mamcete' Biko, he had an older sister, Bukelwa, an older brother, Khaya, and a younger sister, Nobandile. His parents had married in Whittlesea, where his father worked as a police officer. Mzingaye was transferred to Queenstown, Port Elizabeth, Fort Cox, and finally King William's Town, where he and Alice settled in Ginsberg township. This was a settlement of around 800 families, with every four families sharing a water supply and toilet. Both Bantu African and Coloured people lived in the township, where Xhosa, Afrikaans, and English were all spoken. After resigning from the police force, Mzingaye worked as a clerk in the King William's Town Native Affairs Office, while studying for a law degree by correspondence from the University of South Africa. Alice was employed first in domestic work for local white households, then as a cook at
Grey Hospital in King William's Town. According to his sister, it was this observation of his mother's difficult working conditions that resulted in Biko's earliest politicisation.
Biko was briefly educated at the Lovedale boarding school in Alice.
Biko's given name "Bantu" means "people"; Biko interpreted this in terms of the saying "Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu" ("a person is a person by means of other people"). As a child he was nicknamed "Goofy" and "Xwaku-Xwaku", the latter a reference to his unkempt appearance. He was raised in his family's Anglican Christian faith. In 1950, when Biko was four, his father fell ill, was hospitalised in
St. Matthew's Hospital, Keiskammahoek, and died, making the family dependent on his mother's income.
Biko spent two years at St. Andrews Primary School and four at Charles Morgan Higher Primary School, both in Ginsberg. Regarded as a particularly intelligent pupil, he was allowed to skip a year. In 1963 he transferred to the Forbes Grant Secondary School in the township. Biko excelled at maths and English and topped the class in his exams. In 1964 the Ginsberg community offered him a bursary to join his brother Khaya as a student at Lovedale, a prestigious boarding school in Alice, Eastern Cape. Within three months of Steve's arrival, Khaya was accused of having connections to Poqo, the armed wing of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), an African nationalist group which the government had banned. Both Khaya and Steve were arrested and interrogated by the police; the former was convicted, then acquitted on appeal. No clear evidence of Steve's connection to Poqo was presented, but he was expelled from Lovedale. Commenting later on this situation, he stated: "I began to develop an attitude which was much more directed at authority than at anything else. I hated authority like hell."
From 1964 to 1965, Biko studied at St. Francis College, a Catholic boarding school in Mariannhill, Natal. The college had a liberal political culture, and Biko developed his political consciousness there. He became particularly interested in the replacement of South Africa's white minority colonial government with an administration that represented the country's black majority. Among the anti-colonialist leaders who became Biko's heroes at this time were Algeria's Ahmed Ben Bella and Kenya's Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. He later said that most of the "politicos" in his family were sympathetic to the PAC, which had anti-communist and African racialist ideas. Biko admired what he described as the PAC's "terribly good organisation" and the courage of many of its members, but he remained unconvinced by its racially exclusionary approach, believing that members of all racial groups should unite against the government. In December 1964, he travelled to Zwelitsha for the ulwaluko circumcision ceremony, symbolically marking his transition from boyhood to manhood.
Early student activism: 1966–68
The apartheid system of racial segregation pervaded all areas of life; Biko was committed to its overthrow.
Biko was initially interested in studying law at university, but many of those around him discouraged this, believing that law was too closely intertwined with political activism. Instead they convinced him to choose medicine, a subject thought to have better career prospects. He secured a scholarship, and in 1966 entered the "non-European" section of the University of Natal Medical School in Wentworth, a township of Durban. There, he joined what his biographer Xolela Mangcu called "a peculiarly sophisticated and cosmopolitan group of students" from across South Africa; many of them later held prominent roles in the post-apartheid era. The late 1960s was the heyday of radical student politics across the world, as reflected in the protests of 1968, and Biko was eager to involve himself in this environment. Soon after he arrived at the university, he was elected to the Students' Representative Council (SRC).
The university's SRC was affiliated with the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). NUSAS had taken pains to cultivate a multi-racial membership but remained white-dominated because the majority of South Africa's students were from the country's white minority. As Clive Nettleton, a white NUSAS leader, put it: "the essence of the matter is that NUSAS was founded on white initiative, is financed by white money and reflects the opinions of the majority of its members who are white". NUSAS officially opposed apartheid, but it moderated its opposition in order to maintain the support of conservative white students. Biko and several other black African NUSAS members were frustrated when it organised parties in white dormitories, which black Africans were forbidden to enter. In July 1967, a NUSAS conference was held at Rhodes University in Grahamstown; after the students arrived, they found that dormitory accommodation had been arranged for the white and Indian delegates but not the black Africans, who were told that they could sleep in a local church. Biko and other black African delegates walked out of the conference in anger. Biko later related that this event forced him to rethink his belief in the multi-racial approach to political activism:
I realized that for a long time I had been holding onto this whole dogma of nonracism almost like a religion ... But in the course of that debate I began to feel there was a lot lacking in the proponents of the nonracist idea ... they had this problem, you know, of superiority, and they tended to take us for granted and wanted us to accept things that were second-class. They could not see why we could not consider staying in that church, and I began to feel that our understanding of our own situation in this country was not coincidental with that of these liberal whites.
Founding the South African Students' Organisation: 1968–72
Following the 1968 NUSAS conference in Johannesburg, many of its members attended a July 1968 conference of the University Christian Movement at Stutterheim. There, the black African members decided to hold a December conference to discuss the formation of an independent black student group. The South African Students' Organisation (SASO) was officially launched at a July 1969 conference at the University of the North; there, the group's constitution and basic policy platform were adopted. The group's focus was on the need for contact between centres of black student activity, including through sport, cultural activities, and debating competitions. Though Biko played a substantial role in SASO's creation, he sought a low public profile during its early stages, believing that this would strengthen its second level of leadership, such as his ally Barney Pityana. Nonetheless, he was elected as SASO's first president;
Pat Matshaka was elected vice president and
Wuila Mashalaba elected secretary. Durban became its de facto headquarters.
Like Black Power in the United States, South Africa's "Black Consciousness movement" was grounded in the belief that African-descendant peoples had to overcome the enormous psychological and cultural damage imposed on them by a succession of white racist domains, such as enslavement and colonialism. Drawing upon the writings and speeches of Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, and Malcolm X, advocates of Black Consciousness supported cultural and social activities that promoted a knowledge of black protest history. They actively promoted the establishment of independent, black-owned institutions, and favored radical reforms within school curricula that nurtured a positive black identity for young people.
— Manning Marable and Peniel Joseph
Biko developed SASO's ideology of "Black Consciousness" in conversation with other black student leaders. A SASO policy manifesto produced in July 1971 defined this ideology as "an attitude of mind, a way of life. The basic tenet of Black Consciousness is that the Blackman must reject all value systems that seek to make him a foreigner in the country of his birth and reduce his basic human dignity." Black Consciousness centred on psychological empowerment, through combating the feelings of inferiority that most black South Africans exhibited. Biko believed that, as part of the struggle against apartheid and white-minority rule, blacks should affirm their own humanity by regarding themselves as worthy of freedom and its attendant responsibilities. It applied the term "black" not only to Bantu-speaking Africans, but also to Indians and Coloureds. SASO adopted this term over "non-white" because its leadership felt that defining themselves in opposition to white people was not a positive self-description. Biko promoted the slogan "black is beautiful", explaining that this meant "Man, you are okay as you are. Begin to look upon yourself as a human being."
Biko presented a paper on "White Racism and Black Consciousness" at an academic conference in the University of Cape Town's
Abe Bailey Centre in January 1971. He also expanded on his ideas in a column written for the SASO Newsletter under the pseudonym "Frank Talk". His tenure as president was taken up largely by fundraising activities, and involved travelling around various campuses in South Africa to recruit students and deepen the movement's ideological base. Some of these students censured him for abandoning NUSAS' multi-racial approach; others disapproved of SASO's decision to allow Indian and Coloured students to be members. Biko stepped down from the presidency after a year, insisting that it was necessary for a new leadership to emerge and thus avoid any cult of personality forming around him.
SASO decided after a debate to remain non-affiliated with NUSAS, but would nevertheless recognise the larger organisation as the national student body. One of SASO's founding resolutions was to send a representative to each NUSAS conference. In 1970 SASO withdrew its recognition of NUSAS, accusing it of attempting to hinder SASO's growth on various campuses. SASO's split from NUSAS was a traumatic experience for many white liberal youth who had committed themselves to the idea of a multi-racial organisation and felt that their attempts were being rebuffed. The NUSAS leadership regretted the split, but largely refrained from criticising SASO. The government—which regarded multi-racial liberalism as a threat and had banned multi-racial political parties in 1968—was pleased with SASO's emergence, regarding it as a victory of apartheid thinking.
Attitude to liberalism and personal relations
The early focus of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) was on criticising anti-racist white liberals and liberalism itself, accusing it of paternalism and being a "negative influence" on black Africans. In one of his first published articles, Biko stated that although he was "not sneering at the [white] liberals and their involvement" in the anti-apartheid movement, "one has to come to the painful conclusion that the [white] liberal is in fact appeasing his own conscience, or at best is eager to demonstrate his identification with the black people only insofar as it does not sever all ties with his relatives on his side of the colour line."
Biko and SASO were openly critical of NUSAS' protests against government policies. Biko argued that NUSAS merely sought to influence the white electorate; in his opinion, this electorate was not legitimate, and protests targeting a particular policy would be ineffective for the ultimate aim of dismantling the apartheid state. SASO regarded student marches, pickets, and strikes to be ineffective and stated it would withdraw from public forms of protest. It deliberately avoided open confrontation with the state until such a point when it had a sufficiently large institutional structure. Instead, SASO's focus was on establishing community projects and spreading Black Consciousness ideas among other black organisations and the wider black community. Despite this policy, in May 1972 it issued the Alice Declaration, in which it called for students to boycott lectures in response to the expulsion of SASO member Abram Onkgopotse Tiro from the University of the North after he made a speech criticising its administration. The Tiro incident convinced the government that SASO was a threat.
In Durban, Biko entered a relationship with a nurse, Nontsikelelo "Ntsiki" Mashalaba; they married at the King William's Town magistrates court in December 1970. Their first child, Nkosinathi, was born in 1971. Biko initially did well in his university studies, but his grades declined as he devoted increasing time to political activism. Six years after starting his degree, he found himself repeating his third year. In 1972, as a result of his poor academic performance, the University of Natal barred him from further study.
Black Consciousness activities and Biko's banning: 1971–77
Black People's Convention
In August 1971, Biko attended a conference on "The Development of the African Community" in Edendale. There, a resolution was presented calling for the formation of the Black People's Convention (BPC), a vehicle for the promotion of Black Consciousness among the wider population. Biko voted in favour of the group's creation but expressed reservations about the lack of consulation with South Africa's Coloureds or Indians. A. Mayatula became the BPC's first president; Biko did not stand for any leadership positions. The group was formally launched in July 1972 in Pietermaritzburg. By 1973, it had 41 branches and 4000 members, sharing much of its membership with SASO.
My major problem at this moment is a strange kind of guilt. So many friends of mine have been arrested for activities in something that I was most instrumental in starting. A lot of them are blokes I spoke into the movement. And yet I am not with them. One does not think this way in political life of course. Casualties are expected and should be bargained for.
— Steve Biko
While the BPC was primarily political, Black Consciousness activists also established the Black Community Programmes (BCPs) to focus on improving healthcare and education and fostering black economic self-reliance. The BCPs had strong ecumenical links, being part-funded by a program on Christian action, established by the Christian Institute of Southern Africa and the South African Council of Churches. Additional funds came from the Anglo-American Corporation, the International University Exchange Fund, and Scandinavian churches. In 1972, the BCP hired Biko and
Bokwe Mafuna, allowing Biko to continue his political and community work. In September 1972, Biko visited Kimberley, where he met the PAC founder and anti-apartheid activist Robert Sobukwe.
Biko's banning order in 1973 prevented him from working officially for the BCPs from which he had previously earned a small stipend, but he helped to set up a new BPC branch in Ginsberg, which held its first meeting in the church of a sympathetic white clergyman, David Russell. Establishing a more permanent headquarters in Leopold Street, the branch served as a base from which to form new BCPs; these included self-help schemes such as classes in literacy, dressmaking and health education. For Biko, community development was part of the process of infusing black people with a sense of pride and dignity. Near King William's Town, a BCP Zanempilo Clinic was established to serve as a healthcare centre catering for rural black people who would not otherwise have access to hospital facilities. He helped to revive the Ginsberg crèche, a daycare for children of working mothers, and establish a Ginsberg education fund to raise bursaries for promising local students. He helped establish Njwaxa Home Industries, a leather goods company providing jobs for local women. In 1975, he co-founded the Zimele Trust, a fund for the families of political prisoners.
Biko endorsed the unification of South Africa's black liberationist groups—among them the BCM, PAC, and African National Congress (ANC)—in order to concentrate their anti-apartheid efforts. To this end, he reached out to leading members of the ANC, PAC, and
Unity Movement. His communications with the ANC were largely via Griffiths Mxenge, and plans were being made to smuggle him out of the country to meet Oliver Tambo, a leading ANC figure. Biko's negotiations with the PAC were primarily through intermediaries who exchanged messages between him and Sobukwe; those with the Unity Movement were largely via
By 1973, the government regarded Black Consciousness as a threat. It sought to disrupt Biko's activities, and in March 1973 placed a banning order on him. This prevented him from leaving the King William's Town magisterial district, prohibited him from speaking either in public or to more than one person at a time, barred his membership of political organisations, and forbade the media from quoting him. As a result, he returned to Ginsberg, living initially in his mother's house and later in his own residence.
Steve Biko's house in Ginsberg, Eastern Cape
In December 1975, attempting to circumvent the restrictions of the banning order, the BPC declared Biko their honorary president. After Biko and other BCM leaders were banned, a new leadership arose, led by
Muntu Myeza and Sathasivian Cooper, who were considered part of the Durban Moment. Myeza and Cooper organised a BCM demonstration to mark Mozambique's independence from Portuguese colonial rule in 1975. Biko disagreed with this action, correctly predicting that the government would use it to crack down on the BCM. The government arrested around 200 BCM activists, nine of whom were brought before the Supreme Court, accused of subversion by intent. The state claimed that Black Consciousness philosophy was likely to cause "racial confrontation" and therefore threatened public safety. Biko was called as a witness for the defence; he sought to refute the state's accusations by outlining the movement's aims and development. Ultimately, the accused were convicted and imprisoned on Robben Island.
In 1973, Biko had enrolled for a law degree by correspondence from the University of South Africa. He passed several exams, but had not completed the degree at his time of death. His performance on the course was poor; he was absent from several exams and failed his Practical Afrikaans module. The state security services repeatedly sought to intimidate him; he received anonymous threatening phone calls, and gun shots were fired at his house. A group of young men calling themselves 'The Cubans' began guarding him from these attacks. The security services detained him four times, once for 101 days. With the ban preventing him from gaining employment, the strained economic situation impacted his marriage.
Biko became a close friend of white liberal activist Donald Woods, who wrote a book about Biko after his death.
During his ban, Biko asked for a meeting with Donald Woods, the white liberal editor of the Daily Dispatch. Under Woods' editorship, the newspaper had published articles criticising apartheid and the white-minority regime and had also given space to the views of various black groups, but not the BCM. Biko hoped to convince Woods to give the movement greater coverage and an outlet for its views. Woods was initially reticent, believing that Biko and the BCM advocated anti-white racism. When he met Biko for the first time, Woods expressed his concern about the anti-white liberal sentiment of Biko's early writings. Biko acknowledged that his earlier "antiliberal" writings were "overkill", but said that he remained committed to the basic message contained within them.
Over the coming years the pair became close friends. Woods later related that, although he continued to have concerns about "the unavoidably racist aspects of Black Consciousness", it was "both a revelation and education" to socialise with blacks who had "psychologically emancipated attitudes". Biko also remained friends with another prominent white liberal, Duncan Innes, who served as NUSAS President in 1969; Innes later commented that Biko was "invaluable in helping me to understand black oppression, not only socially and politically, but also psychologically and intellectually". Biko's friendship with these white liberals came under criticism from some members of the BCM.
Arrest and death
In 1977, Biko broke his banning order by travelling to Cape Town, hoping to meet Unity Movement leader Neville Alexander and deal with growing dissent in the Western Cape branch of the BCM, which was dominated by Marxists like
Johnny Issel. Biko drove to the city with his Coloured friend Peter Jones on 17 August, but Alexander refused to meet with Biko, fearing that he was being monitored by the police. Biko and Jones drove back toward King William's Town, but on 18 August they were stopped at a police roadblock near Grahamstown. Biko was arrested for having violated the order restricting him to King William's Town. Unsubstantiated claims have been made that the security services were aware of Biko's trip to Cape Town and that the road block had been erected to catch him. Jones was also arrested at the roadblock; he was subsequently held without trial for 533 days, during which he was interrogated on numerous occasions.
The security services took Biko to the Walmer police station in Port Elizabeth, where he was held naked in a cell with his legs in shackles. On 6 September, he was transferred from Walmer to room 619 of the security police headquarters in the Sanlam Building in central Port Elizabeth, where he was interrogated for 22 hours, handcuffed and in shackles, and chained to a grille. Exactly what happened has never been ascertained, but during the interrogation he was severely beaten by at least one of the ten security police officers. He suffered three brain lesions that resulted in a massive brain haemorrhage on 6 September. Following this incident, Biko's captors forced him to remain standing and shackled to the wall. The police later said that Biko had attacked one of them with a chair, forcing them to subdue him and place him in handcuffs and leg irons.
Biko was examined by a doctor, Ivor Lang, who stated that there was no evidence of injury on Biko. Later scholarship has suggested Biko's injuries must have been obvious. He was then examined by two other doctors who, after a test showed blood cells to have entered Biko's spinal fluid, agreed that he should be transported to a prison hospital in Pretoria. On 11 September, police loaded him into the back of a Land Rover, naked and manacled, and drove him 740 miles (1,190 km) to the hospital. There, Biko died alone in a cell on 12 September 1977. According to an autopsy, an "extensive brain injury" had caused "centralisation of the blood circulation to such an extent that there had been intravasal blood coagulation, acute kidney failure, and uremia". He was the twenty-first person to die in a South African prison in twelve months, and the forty-sixth political detainee to die during interrogation since the government introduced laws permitting imprisonment without trial in 1963.
Response and investigation
News of Biko's death spread quickly across the world, and became symbolic of the abuses of the apartheid system. His death attracted more global attention than he had ever attained during his lifetime. Protest meetings were held in several cities; many were shocked that the security authorities would kill such a prominent dissident leader. Biko's Anglican funeral service, held on 25 September 1977 at King William's Town's Victoria Stadium, took five hours and was attended by around 20,000 people. The vast majority were black, but a few hundred whites also attended, including Biko's friends, such as Russell and Woods, and prominent progressive figures like Helen Suzman, Alex Boraine, and Zach de Beer. Foreign diplomats from thirteen nations were present, as was an Anglican delegation headed by Bishop Desmond Tutu. The event was later described as "the first mass political funeral in the country". Biko's coffin had been decorated with the motifs of a clenched black fist, the African continent, and the statement "One Azania, One Nation"; Azania was the name that many activists wanted South Africa to adopt post-apartheid. Biko was buried in the cemetery at Ginsberg. Two BCM-affiliated artists,
Dikobé Ben Martins and
Robin Holmes, produced a T-shirt marking the event; the design was banned the following year. Martins also created a commemorative poster for the funeral, the first in a tradition of funeral posters that proved popular throughout the 1980s.
Biko's coffin featured the motif of a clenched black fist. Many in the Black Consciousness Movement used this fist as a symbol.
Speaking publicly about Biko's death, the country's police minister Jimmy Kruger initially implied that it had been the result of a hunger strike, a statement he later denied. His account was challenged by some of Biko's friends, including Woods, who said that Biko had told them that he would never kill himself in prison. Publicly, he stated that Biko had been plotting violence, a claim repeated in the pro-government press. South Africa's attorney general initially stated that no one would be prosecuted for Biko's death. Two weeks after the funeral, the government banned all Black Consciousness organisations, including the BCP, which had its assets seized.
Both domestic and international pressure called for a public inquest to be held, to which the government agreed. It began in Pretoria's Old Synagogue courthouse in November 1977, and lasted for three weeks. Both the running of the inquest and the quality of evidence submitted came in for extensive criticism. An observer from the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law stated that the affidavit's statements were "sometimes redundant, sometimes inconsistent, frequently ambiguous"; David Napley described the police investigation of the incident as "perfunctory in the extreme". The security forces alleged that Biko had acted aggressively and had sustained his injuries in a scuffle, in which he had banged his head against the cell wall. The presiding magistrate accepted the security forces' account of events and refused to prosecute any of those involved.
The verdict was treated with scepticism by much of the international media and the U.S. government of President Jimmy Carter. On 2 February 1978, based on the evidence given at the inquest, the attorney general of the Eastern Cape stated that he would not prosecute the officers. After the inquest, Biko's family brought a civil case against the state; at the advice of their lawyers, they agreed to a settlement of R65,000 (US$78,000) in July 1979. Shortly after the inquest, the
South African Medical and Dental Council initiated proceedings against the medical professionals who had been entrusted with Biko's care; eight years later two of the medics were found guilty of improper conduct. The failure of the government-employed doctors to diagnose or treat Biko's injuries has been frequently cited as an example of a repressive state influencing medical practitioners' decisions, and Biko's death as evidence of the need for doctors to serve the needs of patients before those of the state.
After the abolition of apartheid and the establishment of a majority government in 1994, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to investigate past human-rights abuses. The Commission made plans to investigate Biko's death, but his family petitioned against this on the grounds that the Commission could grant amnesty to those responsible, thereby preventing the family's right to justice and redress. In 1996, the Constitutional Court ruled against the family, allowing the investigation to proceed. Five police officers (Harold Snyman, Gideon Nieuwoudt, Ruben Marx, Daantjie Siebert, and Johan Beneke) appeared before the Commission and requested amnesty in return for information about the events surrounding Biko's death. In December 1998, the Commission refused amnesty to the five men; this was because their accounts were conflicting and thus deemed untruthful, and because Biko's killing had no clear political motive, but seemed to have been motivated by "ill-will or spite". In October 2003, South Africa's justice ministry announced that the five policemen would not be prosecuted because the statute of limitations had elapsed and there was insufficient evidence to secure a prosecution.