Steve Bantu Biko, a political activist and writer, is regarded as the father of the Black Consciousness movement in the Union of South Africa. Biko’s short 30-year life was consumed with the development of an acute awareness of the evils of apartheid, the social system under which non-whites lived in South Africa.
Apartheid is based on the idea of institutionalised separate development for blacks and whites. To paraphrase Biko, he was able to outgrow the things the system had taught him. One of his unique characteristics may be summed up in the title of an edited collection of his writings, “I Write What I Like”.
Much of what Biko “liked to write,” not surprisingly, dealt with the definition of black consciousness and setting it out as an approach to combating white racism in South Africa. Indeed the very phrase “I write what I like” was boldly used as a heading to begin many of his political essays.
One such essay was accompanied by the by-line “Frank Talk,” an aptly chosen pseudonym.
Biko can be seen as a follower of Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, in contrast to more multi-racialist ANC leaders such as Nelson Mandela after his imprisonment at Robben Island and Albert Luthuli who were first disciples of Mahatma Gandhi.
He was born in King Williamstown, Cape Province, South Africa, on December 18, 1946. He was the second son (third child) of Mzimgayi Biko. Raised and educated in a Christian home, Biko eventually became a student at Wentworth, a White medical school in Durban.
There in 1968 he formed SASO (South African Students’ Organisation), an activist group seeking equal rights for South African black people. Expelled from Wentworth in 1972 (the stated cause being poor academic performance), Biko devoted his time to activist activities. His concept of black consciousness continued to develop as he next went to work for BCP (Black Community Programmes). By 1973 his political activities had caused him to be banned from Durban and restricted to his hometown.
Back in King Williamstown, undaunted, he set up a new branch of BCP — only to have it banned there as well. Still, Biko continued to work for black consciousness. This led to repeated detentions and caused him to be placed in security over and over again. Yet he was never charged.
In 1977 he became honorary president of the Black People’s Convention he had founded in 1972. His appointment was to be for a period of five years, but nine months later he died of brain damage after being beaten by police officers while in detention.
A magnetic, eloquent, tall and large-proportioned person, Biko inspired love and loyalty. In 1970 he married Ntsiki Mashalaba, then a nursing student in Durban.
His mother courageously supported her son’s activities, welcomed him home during the years of restriction, helped protect him from the inquiring eyes of government security forces, and provided a Christian (Anglican) home environment for his children.
Biko’s death echoed around the world — an irony, given the repeated attempts made to silence him while he lived. As a leader of South African blacks, Biko is likened in importance to others such as Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe who preceded him.
Like Biko, their influence was during the post-1948 years — that is, after the African National Congress began to gain support throughout the nation in the interest of black liberation. Mandela and Sobukwe, too, were repeatedly banned and imprisoned. In fact, it was while they were in detention in the 1960s that Biko formed SASO to fill the “vacuum in South African politics’ that they had left.
Biko’s “Black Consciousness” was a call to black young people to dissociate white control and black fear in South Africa and to adopt an attitude of psychological self-reliance in the struggle for liberation from white rule. The proponents of Black Consciousness urged blacks to withdraw from multiracial organisations. The resulting formation of the all-black SASO alienated some white liberal students — particularly those who belonged to NUSA (National Union of South African Students). These students’ idealism was given a jolt by SASO’s assertion of an independent black struggle.
The concept of Black Consciousness has been preserved in Biko’s writings and in transcripts taken in the BPC-SASO trial at which Biko was called to testify, allowing him to break a three-year imposed silence. This trial was the only opportunity Biko had to speak out after 1973 when his travel, public speaking and writing for publication had been banned.
The trial also turned out to be the last time Biko was heard from before his death in Port Elizabeth on September 12, 1977. The South African government disclaimed any responsibility in Biko’s death and official pronouncements about its circumstances revolve around talk of a hunger strike while others cite evidence of beatings.
Twenty years later, in 1997, five former police officers acknowledged responsibility for his death of a brain haemorrhage. The officers made their confession to South Africa’s Truth Commission, which has the power to grant amnesty to individuals willing to reveal their role in the violence against anti-apartheid activists.
The effect of Biko’s death, seen by many as symbolic of black South Africa suffering under apartheid and the most widely publicised dramatisation of the apartheid system in operation, added impetus to Black Consciousness — the very movement that repeated bannings and restrictions by government officials sought to quell. The idea of Black Consciousness is thought by many to have uplifted and inspired South African black people and to have given direction to their lives.
To Biko, black psychological self-reliance was the path to social equality. His vision of the future for South African blacks was one “looking forward to a non-racial, just and egalitarian society in which colour, creed, and race shall form no point of reference.”
Many hoped Biko’s dream would become reality when apartheid was disbanded and in 1994, ANC leader Nelson Mandela was elected president of the country.