Steve Biko was only 30 when he died, but he is one of the most famous, charismatic and influential of all the heroes of apartheid, in part due to his message of black consciousness, in part due to the circumstances of his untimely death - and in part due to the entertainment world. No one other than Nelson Mandela struck such a chord with artists, singers and filmmakers who shouted his message and death around the world.
Like so many of the other leaders of the liberation struggle, Stephen Bantu Biko was Xhosa, born in King Williamstown in what is now the Eastern Cape on December 18, 1946. He came from humble beginnings, his father, Mathew Mzingaye was a clerk, who died when he was four, his mother, Alice Nokuzola, a maid. Originally educated at Lovedale High School, he was expelled for political activities, but managed to get a scholarship to St Francis College in Natal, going on to study medicine at the multi-racial Wentworth, part of the University of Natal Medical School in Durban.
In 1970, he married student nurse, Ntsiki Mashalaba, with whom he had two children. He later went on to have three other children, one of whom died in infancy, with two other women.
Involved from the first with the fairly moderate NUSAS (National Union Of South African Students), he began to question the role of apartheid on student campuses. He felt that black people were being programmed to see themselves as inferior and white people as superior and that it was essential to change Black Consciousness. It was a message that spread across South Africa and eventually, across the world.
In 1968, he set up and became first president of the all-Black South African Students' Organization (SASO), a movement he felt would help fill the vacuum left while leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe were in prison. This evolved into the Black Conscious Movement (BCM).
In his writings and teachings, he spread the message loud and proud that:
"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."
Quoted in the Boston Globe, 25 October 1977.
The white authorities were getting extremely nervous. Ever since Sharpeville in the early 1960s, the disaffected black youth of South Africa had been keeping up a steady stream of protest against being forced to learn in Afrikaans. Hundreds had died in growing violence. Now along came a young charismatic student leader who told these same students to stand up and wear their black skins with pride. It was message they loved and loved him for preaching.
In 1972, he set up the Black Community Programmes (BCP). It was a step too far. Biko was expelled from the University of Natal ostensibly for poor academic performance, although everyone knew it was because of politics. The following year, he was banned by the apartheid regime, sent back to his hometown, refused permission to move beyond the town's municipal boundaries, to talk to more than one person at a time, or to speak or write in public. It became a crime to quote any of his words, in speech or print.
It didn't stop him and he continued to talk and write, often using the pseudonym Frank Talk. His collected writings were eventually published after his death in 1978 under the title, I Write What I Like (1978, Aelred Stubbs, ed.). Only once was he officially allowed to speak out, as a witness during the BCPSASO trial. The transcript makes for fascinating reading. Meantime, within 'King', he set up a local branch of the BCP and started a whole array of grassroots community projects, Zanempilo clinic (now part of the proposed Liberation Heritage Trail), the Zimele Trust Fund (which offered support to former political prisoners and their families), Njwaxa Leather-Works Project and the Ginsberg Education Fund. He also helped, at a distance, to organise the Soweto Uprisings of 1976. In 1977, he became an honorary president of the BCP.
Repeatedly held and questioned, he was never charged and eventually let go. That all changed abruptly on 18 August 1977. Biko was arrested at a police roadblock in Port Elizabeth, taken to Room 619, where he was interrogated, tortured and beaten for 22 hours, then left handcuffed to a window grill for a day. He sustained a major head injury, resulting in a coma. Eventually, on 11 September, he was loaded naked into the back of a Landrover and driven 1500 km (932 miles) north to Pretoria to a prison with hospital facilities. He died the next day. At first prison authorities tried to claim he died of a hunger strike. The truth only came out after an extraordinary investigation by journalists Helen Zille and Donald Woods of the Rand Daily Mail. He was buried at Ginsberg Cemetery, just outside King Williams Town. Over 10,000 people attended his funeral. This has now been renamed the Steve Biko Garden of Remembrance. Noone has ever been prosecuted for his death.
Donald Wood's extraordinary book, Biko, about his investigation into Biko's death was turned into a major Hollywood movie, Cry Freedom, in 1987, directed by Richard Attenborough and starring Denzel Washington. Star Trek named a ship, the USS Biko, after him, and there are numerous Student Union and other campus buildings named after him around the world. There have been also been poems, plays and TV shows aplenty, while singer/songwriters from Stevie Wonder, Wyclef Jean, Kris Kristofferson, Youssou N'Dour, Simple Minds and many, many others have paid tribute in their music. Best known is probably Peter Gabriel's, Biko.
For more information, see the Steve Biko Foundation.