Stephen (Steve) Bantu Biko was born in Kingwilliamstown, Cape Province, on 18 December 1946, the third child of his parents. His father died when Steve was four. Biko completed his high school education in Natal at the Roman Catholic Mariannhill. In 1965, he began medical school in the Non-European section of the University of Natal. And it was here that he formed the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) in 1968.
Steve Biko served as the first President of SASO and was later the publicity secretary of the organisation. It has been said that one of the main obscurations of Biko narratives is that Biko’s death has become the centre of his story. From Cry Freedom to Peter Gabriel’s Biko, the story we tell is the aftermath of his death. Steve Biko has become important to us because he died. So all these narratives revolve around the impact of his death. His work with SASO and his articulation of Black Consciousness are often secondary in our imagination to the figure who symbolises state killing in Apartheid South Africa. As Emmett Till became the observable embodiment of thousands of other exceptionally brutal lynchings in the South of the US, Biko became the physical visualisation of many, many unexplained deaths in detention in apartheid South Africa. I certainly agree with Dan Magaziner who argues, that the order of Biko’s life and death, the way in which he lived (and died) – directs what we can and do write about him. Also what we cannot and do not write. His founding of SASO was definitely a crucial step to becoming the Biko of our imagination.
From 1970 he became more and more involved in politics, dropping out of university and getting married along the way. He began to work for Black Community Programmes (BCP) in Durban. But he was banned in 1973… I have always found the apartheid time ‘banning’ laws weird. It is almost as if the law was used to remove people’s humanity… (as if that could ever happen! – *blinks in slavery and colonisation*) You hear of books being banned, types of clothing being banned, words, programs, songs… apartheid South Africa just went ahead and banned whole people. The apartheid government used these banning laws against individuals seen to be political threats. These were for the most part black (or non-white) politicians or organizations. The Suppression of Communism Act, 1950 – which was the main law used to ‘ban’ people, more or less defined ‘Communism’ as disagreeing with the government. Which meant anyone who opposed apartheid would be defined as a communist. A ‘banned person’ could not communicate with more than one person at any time unless at home could not travel to certain areas without government approval, and could not leave the country. A banned person was banned from being a person.
Biko worked for the BCP from home till 1975, when his banning order was extended to prevent him from even doing that. He was detained in 1975, charged several times before his death, but never convicted. On 18 August 1977, he was again detained under section 6 of the Terrorism Act. He was taken to Port Elizabeth, where he was kept naked and manacled, as was revealed at the inquest after his death. He died in detention on 12 September. The cause of death was established as brain damage.
Steve Biko wrote a lot about Black Consciousness and was interviewed about this. But I often wonder how well known Biko would have been had he lived. Had he not been murdered by a State that he called home, maybe we would have been able to answer that question. All we are left with now are his words, his voices and the interpretations of his life on screen and in music.
‘The first step therefore is to make the black man come to himself; to pump back life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity, to remind him of his complicity in the crime of allowing himself to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of his birth. This is what we mean by an inward-looking process. This is the definition of “Black Consciousness”… part of the approach envisaged in bringing about “black consciousness” has to be directed to the past, to seek to rewrite the history of the black man and to produce in it the heroes who form the core of the African background. To the extent that a vast literature about Gandhi in South Africa is accumulating it can be said that the Indian community already has started in this direction. But only scant reference is made to African heroes. A people without a positive history is like a vehicle without an engine.’
‘What Black Consciousness seeks to do is to produce real black people who do not regard themselves as appendages to white society. We do not need to apologise for this because it is true that the white systems have produced through the world a number of people who are not aware that they too are people.’
‘Double consciousness is knowing the particularity of the white world in the face of its enforced claim to universality. Double consciousness is knowing the history offered up to black people—its many interpretations and echoes of white superiority and black inferiority, of white heroism and black cowardice, and even the temporal and geographical location of history’s beginning as a step off of the African continent—is a falsehood that blacks are forced to treat as truth in so many countless ways. Double consciousness, in other words, is knowing a lie while living its contradiction.’
‘We regard our living together not as an unfortunate mishap warranting endless competition among us but as a deliberate act of God to make us a community of brothers and sisters jointly involved in the quest for a composite answer to the varied problems of life. Hence in all we do we always place man first and hence all our action is usually joint community oriented action rather than the individualism.’
‘Instead of involving themselves in an all-out attempt to stamp out racism from their white society, liberals waste a lot of time trying to prove to as many blacks as they can find that they are liberal.’
‘The myth of integration as propounded under the banner of the liberal ideology must be cracked because it makes people believe that something is being achieved when in reality the artificially integrated circles are a soporific to the blacks while salving the consciences of the few guilt-stricken whites.’
‘It is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die.’
‘The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. So as a prelude whites must be made to realise that they are only human, not superior. Same with Blacks. They must be made to realise that they are also human, not inferior.’
The clip below is taken from the film Cry Freedom . Denzel Washington played Biko to perfection. Not, in my opinion a perfect mirror of the man (see above), but the perfect idea of what we imagine Biko to be, an idealist, a man, a father, a lover, a freedom fighter, someone ready to die for an idea. Because that idea was freedom.
Biko, Steve. I write what I like: Selected writings. University of Chicago Press, 2015.
Magaziner, Dan. We write what we like about Steve Biko. Africa is a Country