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Steve Biko, a Liberation Warrior Tortured and Killed by Apartheid South African Police


Steve Biko

“Black is beautiful,” reads Google’s note on its Steve Biko Birthday commemorative Doodle. The note continues, “Steve Biko knew this fully well, and fought to spread this message across South Africa at the height of the apartheid movement in the 1960s and 1970s.” Born in South Africa’s Ginsberg Township in the Eastern Cape Province, Biko became a larger than life anti-apartheid activist who had achieved unimaginable feats by the time he died at thirty. His death was embroiled in mystery and cover-ups and Nelson Mandela did not mince his words about it. Mandela said of Biko, “They had to kill him to prolong the life of apartheid.”

Bantu Stephen Biko was born to Mzingayi Matthew Biko, a government clerk and Alice Biko, a domestic worker. The young Xhosa boy, Stephen Biko attended Brownlee Primary School and later learnt at Lovedale High School where he was expelled for his political views. He had to complete his studies at St Francis College, a Catholic institution. Biko was to then go for medical studies at the University of Natal Medical School in Durban where his true revolutionary colours started showing. Here, he helped found the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) which showed his passion for black consciousness as was reflected in the organization’s agenda.

He spearheaded South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement and helped establish the Black People’s Convention in 1972. Biko was to be expelled from the University of Natal in 1972 for his activism and by February 1973, he had been banned altogether by the apartheid government. His role in the struggle became more subdued but that did not stop him from establishing organisations like Zimele Trust Fund to help political prisoners and their families in the Eastern Cape. He also organized protests which resulted in the 1976 Soweto Uprising where 170 people, mainly children were killed by the police. The South African government started targeting activists like Biko.

In the late 70s, Steve Biko was arrested and detained four times. However, the controversial arrest of August 1977 became the pinnacle of the attacks on Biko’s liberty resulting in a tragic ending that robbed South Africa and the world of a great visionary. Steve had been arrested at a police road block, “stripped and manacled for 20 days” at the headquarters of the Security Police in Port Elizabeth. He was then taken to Pretoria where he died shortly after arriving on the 12th of September, 1977. The Police claimed he had been on a prolonged hunger strike but the people would not be fooled. The judiciary, after a 15 day inquest, found that it was impossible to charge anyone for Biko’s murder since no evidence by eye witnesses had been presented. In 1999, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission denied amnesty to the police officers who had been in charge when Biko died. They had failed to tell the truth and prove the political motive as required by the Commission. They were now claiming Biko had attempted to attack one of his interrogators and had accidentally hit a wall as they tried to restrain him. However, this did not explain how a man struggling to hold on to his consciousness was then chained to a metal gate in a standing position for two days before the 600 mile journey to Pretoria. In 2003, the South African government said the police officers would not be prosecuted, arguing for finality to the matter. What the world will remember from the whole matter is that: a South African liberation hero was killed and the racist murderers got away with it.

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Years after his death, what Biko predicted seems to be true for contemporary South Africa. He said, “I think there is no running away from the fact that now in South Africa there is such an ill distribution of wealth that any form of political freedom which doesn’t touch on the proper distribution of wealth will be meaningless. If we have a mere change of face of those in governing positions what is likely to happen is that black people will continue to be poor, and you will see a few blacks filtering through into the so called bourgeoisie. Our society will be run almost as of yesterday.”

The late veteran’s statement rings true to the struggle of the blacks in post-colonial Africa. Again quoting from him, “Black man, you are on your own.” The African’s struggle continues but at least its realities are now guided by what heroes like Stephen Bantu Biko went through. Here was a true African warrior.

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