Stephen Bantu Biko

Overview of his life and achievements

Essay, 2002

21 Pages, Grade: 2,0

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Table of Contents

List of abbreviations

1 Introduction
1.1 Basic issue and objective of the essay
1.2 Outline of the essay

2 Biko’s background
2.1 Biko’s youth and family
2.2 Biko as a student and the idea of Black Consciousness
2.3 Personal traits of Biko

3 The spreading of Black Consciousness
3.1 International Situation
3.2 SASO and the SA government in the early period
3.3 SASO and the mobilization for conflicts
3.4 Bans, arrests and the decision for violence
3.5 The Soweto Uprise

4 Biko’s death
4.1 Sequence of events leading to death
4.2 Consequences and reactions after Biko’s death

5 Conclusion



List of abbreviations

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

1 Introduction

1.1 Basic issue and objective of the essay

South Africa was 350 years without the best of all bad systems – democracy. During that period colonisation, political and economic suppression, land deprivation, and labour repression brought about by immigrants who came from the northern hemisphere and especially Europe lead to a broken indigenous population, physically and psychologically. The apartheid era 1948-1994 can be seen as the climax of their oppression. In this period a boy called Stephen Bantu Biko grew up. When Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in 1964 and his countermovement ANC curbed, Biko just turned sixteen and one might not have assumed that this young man would become one of the foremost figures in South Africa’s struggle for liberation. Steve Biko became the founder and leader of the Black Consciousness Movement which implied the philosophy that political freedom could only be achieved if blacks stopped feeling inferior to whites. The development of Black Consciousness is considered by many to be the turning point in the demise of apartheid. Biko’s movement came into its own in the mid 1970s, when the liberation movement appeared to be faltering, with many ANC leaders in jail or exile.

The objective of this paper is to give an overview of Biko’s life and achievements. Since his life is strongly related to the development of black consciousness, it presents a big part of the essay, too.

1.2 Outline of the essay

This paper is structured, concluding this introduction, into five main chapters. The second chapter gives background information about Biko’s growing up, his early student days when the idea of Black Consciousness was born, and closes with a brief description of Biko’s personality. Chapter three, which presents the main part of this essay, focuses on the further progress of Black Consciousness. It comprises a short analysis of the international situation, the development and mobilisation of SASO and explains how it came to bans, arrests and finally to the Soweto incidents. Biko’s death is subject of the fourth chapter which is divided into particulars of his death and the consequences as well as international reactions afterwards. Finally, in chapter five a conclusion is given.

2 Biko’s background

2.1 Biko’s youth and family

Stephen Bantu Biko was born on 18 December 1946 in Tarkastad in the Eastern Cape Province. Later on the family moved to Queenstown, to Port Elizabeth and finally to King William’s Town. Steve was the youngest of three children born by Alice Duna ‘Mamcete’ Biko.[1] She was a domestic servant working in the homes of whites. His father Mzingaye, a clerk employed by government, studied for a law degree by correspondence through the University of South Africa, died when Steve was four years old. In literature the family is described as “a family of ordinary means”[2] but also as poor[3], which must not be a contradiction because at that time in South Africa black families in general were poor or even very poor.[4]

Steve’s family significantly called him “Bantu” which means people. This is remarkable since he later on became a person whose life was dedicated to the fight against apartheid and he played a main role in the development of self-esteem and self-confidence of the by the white regime demoralized Africans.[5] Steve’s parents were concerned about their children’s education which was recognized as a means to career and some independence. But a good education at that time was not easy to get. In 1953, one year after Steve began school, the Public Education Act was passed which separated the education of the blacks from the education of the whites in order to deliberately educate blacks at lower standards.[6]

Soon after Steve attended Lovedale (Secondary School) at the age of sixteen in 1963, his older brother was arrested and jailed for nine months as an alleged activist with Poqo, the military wing of the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC).[7] Steve was also arrested but was soon released when an intense interview proved that he had nothing to do with the PAC. However, this incidence led to an immediate reprimand from Lovedale which in turn engendered detestation for authority in Steve.[8] In 1964 he went to Marianhill in Natal and attended a private Roman Catholic school, Saint Francis College. Though Christian values had meaning for him, Biko, who was an articulate youth, resented whites influencing the thinking of the future of Africans.[9] Yet, only until his university years Steve developed a clear political orientation that could give perspective to his early experiences of apartheid’s repressive power.[10]

2.2 Biko as a student and the idea of Black Consciousness

After being excluded from high school for alleged political activism Biko managed to enrol again at St. Francis College, a liberal boarding school in Natal. He graduated in 1966 and then entered the black section of the University of Natal Medical School. There he became involved in the multiracial National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), a moderate group that had long spoken up for the rights of blacks.[11]

Until then Biko’s view was characterized by the idea that interracial cooperation would tear down racial boundaries and lead to a gradual integration of the society and finally to an improvement of the black’s position. Fortunately he was one of the few black students able to experience the functioning of a racially diverse organisation like NUSAS and he soon realised that the equality for interracial cooperation could not be achieved because segregation and inequality had already been an intrinsic part of societies’ structure.[12] Moreover, the NUSAS meetings made him aware that most discussions are lead by (liberal) whites due to the fact that they had a much better education and could articulate more elegant, but had actually no clue about how reality was like for black people. Blacks were listening to their own lives being articulated by whites who had no experience of the reality.[13] Additionally, a swing to the right caused by news in the media, pressure by the parents of white liberal students who didn’t want their children being involved in political actions in opposition of the government’s mentality, left no real channels for black students to express their anti-apartheid feelings.[14]

Disenchanted with NUSAS Biko became in 1968 cofounder and first president of the all-black South African Students' Organization (SASO). Black was defined to include Africans, Coloreds, and Indians. The basic consideration for the separation from any whites was that the apartheid policy had created such structural inequalities in the society that blacks and whites, even when they practise multiracial activities, carried the inequity with them.[15] Only a non-white organisation would make it possible that blacks gain back their self-esteem as well as self-confidence and as a result can tackle their situation properly. Hence, Biko replaced his formerly multiracialism approach with a racially exclusivist approach, which became known as Black Consciousness. The development of black consciousness would overcome the psychological oppression of blacks by whites.

As the president of SASO Biko was able to explain his critical view of white liberals who strived to integrate blacks better in the white system, which in a radical sense meant to help blacks coping better with their given constraints within the society. In 1970 Biko wrote under the alias Frank Talk in a SASO newsletter article (Black Souls in White Skins?) that he is against integration if “[..] by integration you understand a breakthrough into white society by blacks, an assimilation and acceptance of blacks into an already established set of norms and code of behaviour set up by and maintained by whites. [..] I am against the fact that a settler minority should impose an entire system of values on an indigenous people”. Furthermore Biko wrote “If on the other hand by integration you mean there shall be free participation by all members of society, catering for the full expression of the self in a freely changing society as determined by the will of the people, then I am with you”.[16]

2.3 Personal traits of Biko

In his book ‘Biko’ the former journalist and friend of Biko, Donald Woods, gave interesting insights into Biko’s extraordinary personality.[17] He wrote for example that Biko “could enable one to share his vision and he could do so with an economy of words because he seemed to communicate ideas through extraverbal media – almost psychically.”[18] Woods, who had interviewed many prominent personalities in different countries continued, that the only one who came closest to Biko was Robert Kennedy, but the charisma of Biko was not born of circumstances but entirely his own. The leadership style of Biko was also one of his own. Woods resumes, it was “un-pushy, un-self-promotional, yet immediately acknowledged by his peers”[19]. Moreover Biko had “rocklike integrity and a degree of courage that sent one’s regard for the potentialities of the human spirit soaring skyhigh”[20]. Besides, Biko must have had a very good sense of humour and there was no trace of arrogance in him. According to Dr. Trudi Thomas who was quoted in Wood’s book, Biko was “delightful company, full of charm, large and easy and gentle and courteous and humorous … He was no ascetic – he loved life and its good things and imparted this relish. But he thought that everyone should have a fair share.”[21] In fact, Biko had a reputation as a womanizer. He had especially close relationships with two women, his wife Ntsiki and his former fellow student Mamphela.

3 The spreading of Black Consciousness

Biko and his fellows, many of which belong today to South Africa's outstanding black political, civic and business leaders, intellectuals and professionals, were able to convince and get other blacks enthusiastic about their idea that blacks might decide about their own fate. A movement of black consciousness and a new Africanism swept black campuses which attracted those who had experienced the frustrations of the Bantu Education system, of obsequiousness and feelings of inferiority to whites. Reinforced by ideas springing from black America SASO soon became identified with 'Black Power' and African humanism.[22]

3.1 International Situation

Parallel to the movement of black students in South Africa the late 1960s saw students’ uprising and revolts in the international context. In France, workers and students took to the streets in battles against the conservative Gaullist regime. University students in Britain occupied campuses calling for more democracy and student rights. In the US, mass opposition to the war in Vietnam and the Black civil rights and Black power movements reached a climax. This coincided with the foundation of SASO and had for the blacks an effect of confirmation and encouragement to join and identify with SASO.[23]

3.2 SASO and the SA government in the early period

For the Africans the late 1960s were a period of deepened subjugation, untamed exploitation, fear and enforced acquiescence. The African National Congress (ANC) and Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) have been suppressed. The establishment of SASO drew mixed responses. White liberals judged it with reverse racism but the government not only tolerated it but initially even welcomed it. Apartheid government officials mistakenly hailed it as a vindication of their separate development programme (Group Areas Act, Bantu Authorities Act, Bantu Education Act etc.) and thought that Biko was also calling for racial separation.[24] In 1971 SASO was given official status which led to its recognition on all black campuses. But later on when the government recognized that the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) which had its origins and biggest supporters in SASO might become a threat in terms of black power, the government officials were caught in a dilemma situation. They could not refuse permission to join an organisation of the type they had been pushing students to form for a couple of years.[25]

Interestingly, the verbal attacks of Biko on NUSAS in 1967 and 1968 also didn’t show him as a direct antagonist of the racial government since he attacked a group which itself was opposed by the government at that time. This as well saved time to spread the BCM philosophy to a wide community.[26]

3.3 SASO and the mobilization for conflicts

Using the political space given by the black universities and colleges, the founders of SASO prepared, elaborated, and disseminated the policy of BC outward and upward towards black professionals and intellectuals, and downward towards black school students and youth. SASO became involved in a number of community activities with educational, cultural and political issues and SASO’s members always played a creative, energetic and also militant role. In terms of cultural issues SASO and Black Consciousness (BC) provided platforms for art exhibitions, poetry reading and drama and music festivals. Black Consciousness emphasised the educational function of cultural and artistic activity and exploited the political resources of art, theatre, music, dance and culture in general. These social activities have been the spark in the production of ideas and knowledge and enhanced black pride, assertiveness and solidarity beneath blacks. For the first time slogans like “Black is beautiful” and new forms of dressing or the “Afro” hairstyle emerged which were signs of a fundamental change in the black society.[27]

In 1971, discussions lead to the idea of forming a community-oriented sub organisation of SASO which was especially backed by those who had a militant and overtly political attitude. In July 1971 the Black People’s Convention (BPC) was formed with Biko as its honorary president. At this point in time Black Consciousness had rejected collaboration with the institutions of apartheid, and this also included the homeland leaders who believed they could use apartheid-created political platforms for their objectives. As a result the BCM came into conflict with the government and black homeland leaders. Announcing SASO as an oppositional movement to the government would have caused disaster, but leaders of the BCM, like Biko, were fully aware of the impact of the process of conscientization. Self-confident individuals would change the society through their individual activity, for they would understand themselves and their relationship to the society differently. Africans would question their status quo and automatically a revolutionary process would be set off. In fact, around 1973 a combative revolution began within the country.[28]

Hence, SASO played the leading political role in the early 70s. The achievement of SASO and the BC movement was to bring about a mental revolution among black youth, to create a new generation of young people that were proud, self-reliant, determined, and to generate an urban African population psychologically ready for confrontation with white South Africa.[29]

3.4 Bans, arrests and the decision for violence

Shortly after the establishment of the Black Peoples Convention (BPC) eight black consciousness leaders including Biko were banned in 1973 under provisions of the Suppression of Communism Act and others followed who filled up these leadership roles.[30] At that time black consciousness leaders were becoming highly courageous and more confrontational in their outspokenness and defiance of white authority.[31] To be banned meant that the government forbid speaking to more than one person at a time (e.g. making speeches in public), and to be restricted in movements. Moreover it was forbidden to quote anything that a banned person said.[32] All in all more than fifty people were banned and publication of BPC material became complicated. But the government action came too late, for there existed already an inherent impetus and government action only contributed to the process by creating martyrs for the black cause.[33] More militancy and hope for emancipation was generated. A climax was reached in June 1976 when high school students and police clashed violently and fatally, and continuing widespread urban turbulence threatened law and order.[34]

After his ban Biko operated secretly, but was arrested four times over the next years and was held without trial for months at a time.[35] The South African government viewed Steve as a threat to its status quo. Rumours ran of a possible alliance between Steve's organization and the racially integrated African National Congress (ANC).[36] In fact, Biko and the BCM began making contact with the banned PAC and ANC. The BCM came to much the same conclusion that the ANC and PAC had come to years earlier. Freedom is only attainable by means of violence. The BCM’s psychological program had to be supplemented by a program of action and, because of the control imposed by the apartheid state; this appeared – inevitably – to involve violence.[37]

3.5 The Soweto Uprise

Recognizing the danger of the BCM and its organisations the government tried to wipe it out in 1974. After a rally prearranged by SASO and BPC about 5,000 people clashed with the police in Durban, many were injured and arrested. After this incident the home of BC leaders were raided and many were detained across the country. In 1975, thirteen were charged under the Terrorism Act (1967) in which already assumed intentions have been sufficient to commit an offence. Biko was not under the arrested but he offered to give evidence at court on the BCM and was called by the defence in May 1976. His statement became a public statement of the BC philosophy and was widely reported by the press. It was a contributing factor that encouraged many young people and even children in starting demonstration. However, the trial succeeded in sentencing nine of the accused to periods of imprisonment ranging from five to then years. On behalf of the BCM, the imprisoned leaders became martyrs and the conscientization reached a new climax.[38]

Finally, the pronouncement to force black students to learn arithmetic and social studies in Afrikaans became the main cause for the 1976 Soweto uprising. Already receiving substandard education, blacks saw the move to Afrikaans as an additional impediment to their performance. Since Afrikaans was seen as the language of the oppressor there was a strong antipathy towards it. Besides, parents, teachers and pupils favoured English because it was the widespread language of the urban blacks and an international language that was needed for South Africa’s involvement in the global economy.

As an answer Students began challenging their teachers, destroyed textbooks, and began a boycott of classes. Teachers engaged with their students in debates and discussions over national and international political issues, whereby a rapid process of politicization occurred among a group that for the most part had not been politically involved before. The tension increased quickly and was released by several violent actions. A principal’s office was stoned, a teacher was stabbed with a screwdriver, police were beaten and their vehicles burned. On June 16, 15,000 students gathered together and a conflict aroused. The police used tear gas and live bullets against the students who were armed with stones. In the initial confrontation at least two schoolchildren were killed. Estimates for the day range from 25 to 100, but the police effectively prevented an accurate assessment. The deaths then triggered off a retaliatory riot throughout Soweto where symbols of white oppression, cars, and trucks were destroyed and at least two whites were killed. The revolt spread very fast in areas surrounding Johannesburg and Pretoria. Black schools were closed from June 18 until July 22, and during this break the government made a number of concessions to the students. Particularly, the decision that Afrikaans would be a medium of instruction was withdrawn. But by this time, the students, who had seen the effect of their revolt, were demanding the abolition of the Bantu education system. On August 4, 10,000 students tried to march to the police headquarters in Johannesburg but were kept from leaving Soweto by police. Three students were killed by police gunfire, and within days the rioting had spread to urban centres in the Cape. Turbulence continued through the end of 1976, with possibly about 500 - 1000 casualties.[39]

Meanwhile Biko had become a significant spokesperson for the BCM and diplomats, academics, politicians and journalists from all over the world strived to get in contact with Biko. Immediately after his custody in 1976, he submitted a memorandum to the chair of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee for Africa that discussed “American Policy towards Azania”. In January 1977, he met with a delegate from the Australian embassy; he had a long discussion with a representative of the Canadian Institute for Christian Studies, and at the beginning of 1977 he was interviewed by a European journalist.[40] Already earlier, Biko made contact and later on friends with the white newspaper editor Donald Woods who helped Biko to increase the coverage of BCM.[41]

4 Biko’s death

Steve Biko died on the 12th of September 1977. His tragic death while in the custody of the white regime can be understood as a ‘pattern’ of the way lots of other suppressed blacks came to death at that time. Indeed, 20 persons died in detention in the preceding eighteen months[42].

4.1 Sequence of events leading to death

On the evening of 18 Aug. 1977, Steve and a fellow activist, Peter Jones, were stopped by police in Grahamstown and finally charged under South Africa's Terrorism Act[43].With no due process of law or contact with a lawyer they stayed in separate cells in a prison near Port Elizabeth. Steve's first 20 days of prison meant being chained to a bedpost while naked.He only left the cell for police interrogations.During one or more of the interrogations, he was severely beaten.[44] What exactly killed him remains unclear but very probably head blows which shifted the inside of his brain were the cause of death.[45]

Literature backs the following sequence of events. The district surgeon, Dr. Ivor Lang, was called by Colonel Goosen, head of the security police in the Eastern Cape, to examine Biko for a suspected stroke. Even though he examined symptoms of nervous disorder and several wounds, he reported to have found no evidence of any abnormality or pathology on the patient. After several examinations by different doctors in the next days, actually finding out that he was in a serious condition, Biko was only returned to the police cells again. There he was left lying on a mat on a cement floor without medical attention. On September 11 Colonel Goosen had Dr. Tucker (Dr. Lang’s superior) visit the prisoner. Tucker found Biko to be unresponsive, glossy-eyed, and hyperventilating. Dr. Tucker suggested that Biko be transported to a provincial hospital in Port Elizabeth, but Colonel Goosen rejected to allow this for security reasons. Surrendering to the wishes of the security police, Tucker gave his consent for Biko to be transferred by motor vehicle 750 miles to the Pretoria Central Prison. Biko, semi-comatose and unclothed was put in the back of a Land Rover and driven unaccompanied by any medical personnel, and without any medical record, to the Central Prison of Pretoria. There an intravenous drip and a vitamin injection, was administered but on September 12, 1977, Biko died unattended on the ground of his cell. A post mortem revealed cerebral haemorrhage and severe brain damage.[46]

4.2 Consequences and reactions after Biko’s death

Biko's death provoked intense rage both within South Africa, and around the world. The South African regime was already under international inspection because of the Soweto uprising in 1976, just one year before Biko's death. Then Justice Minister of South Africa, Jimmy Kruger, announced that Biko had died because of a hunger strike. But International indignation at the regime's repressive nature increased as the particulars of Biko's death came to light. The autopsy revealed the cause of death as a blow (or blows) to the head.[47] James Thomas Kruger, Minister of the police can be said was ultimately responsible for Biko’s death. He supported the murderous tendencies of his security police that shaped the atmosphere within which the tortures were possible.[48]

The international scandal helped focus the world on the Apartheid policies of the South African government. As a consequence South Africa's security laws were condemned and the West's decided to support the UN Security Council vote to ban mandatory arms sales to South Africa. Biko's death made him a martyr in the history of black resistance to white hegemony. Moreover it inflamed huge black opposition and inspired further dedication to the struggle for freedom.[49]

At the time of his death, Biko had a wife and three children for which he left a letter that stated in one part: “I've devoted my life to see equality for blacks, and at the same time, I've denied the needs of my family.Please understand that I take these actions, not out of selfishness or arrogance, but to preserve a South Africa worth living in for blacks and whites.”[50]

5 Conclusion

Although it took 17 years after Biko’s death until South Africa became a democratically governed state, this paper showed that Steve Biko was one of the main persons who directed South Africa to overcome oppression and inequality. His conviction that there must be a solution for a better South Africa combined with courage, intelligent analysis of the political and social situation, leadership qualities and finally self-sacrifice lead to the black consciousness movement that was needed to effectively lay claim to what was the legitimate right of the Africans – freedom and equality.

His work and the work of his colleagues enabled social unrests like Soweto that were necessarily to get attention from the outside world and to put pressure on the governments policy internationally. In the end economically and financial considerations, as so often, might have played a huge role when the corrupt regime released Mandela from jail and finally threw the towel.

Remarkably not until 1997, on the twentieth anniversary of Steve Biko's death, Nelson Mandela (then President) unveiled a huge bronze statue in the city where he was prosecuted and imprisoned. The gesture acquired great national significance in South Africa, as it was the first official acknowledgement of Mr Biko's importance in the liberation struggle.[51] Today in 2002, the struggle goes on, although on a different level. Biko laid the foundation for reconstruction and development, for humanity and for tackling and overcoming ignorance and poverty.


Biko, Steve, 1972. Black Souls in White Skins?, in: Biko, Steve, I write what I like. 1978. New York: Harper & Row.

Juckes, Tim, 1995. Opposition in South Africa. Westport: Greenwood Publishing.

Wilson, Lindy, 1992. Bantu Stephen Biko: A Life, in: Pityana, Barney, et al., Bounds of Possibility. New Jersey: Zed Books.

Woods, Donald, 1978. Biko. Edinburgh: Paddington Press.



Biko – a song by Peter Gabriel

September '77

Port Elizabeth weather fine

It was business as usual

In police room 619

Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko

Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko

Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja

-The man is dead

When I try to sleep at night

I can only dream in red
The outside world is black and white

With only one colour dead
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko

Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko

Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja

-The man is dead

You can blow out a candle

But you can't blow out a fire

Once the flames begin to catch

The wind will blow it higher

Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko

Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja

-The man is dead

And the eyes of the world are

watching now

watching now


[1] Lindy Wilson (1992), p.17-18.

[2] Tim Juckes (1995), p.118.

[3] Lindy Wilson (1992), p.19.

[4] Segregation and Apartheid lead to extremely low living standards for blacks.


[6] Tim Juckes (1995), p.119.

[7] Tim Juckes (1995), p.120.

[8] Lindy Wilson (1992), p.19.


[10] Tim Juckes (1995), p.121.


[12] Tim Juckes (1995), p.123-125.

[13] Lindy Wilson (1992), p.23.


[15] Tim Juckes (1995), p. 127.

[16] Steve Biko (1972), p. 24.

[17] Donald Woods (1978)

[18] Donald Woods (1978), p. 60.

[19] Donald Woods (1978), p. 60.

[20] Donald Woods (1978), p. 61.

[21] Donald Woods (1978), p. 65-66.




[25] Tim Juckes (1995), p. 132.

[26] Tim Juckes (1995), p. 136.


[28] Tim Juckes (1995), p. 139-140 + 142.


[30] Tim Juckes (1995), p. 143-144.



[33] Tim Juckes (1995), p. 144.




[37] Tim Juckes (1995), p. 144-145.

[38] Tim Juckes (1995), p. 146-147.

[39] Tim Juckes (1995), p. 147-150.

[40] Tim Juckes (1995), p. 151.

[41] Tim Juckes (1995), p. 145.


[43] This Act allowed for the indefinite detention, for the purposes of interrogation, of any person suspected to be a terrorist, or to be in possession of information regarding activities of terrorists.





[48] Donald Woods (1978), p. 9.



[51] , published December 8, 1997

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Stephen Bantu Biko
Overview of his life and achievements
Stellenbosch Universitiy
The South African economy and developmental problems
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Stephen Bantu Biko (Steven Biko) key words: apartheid, African National Congress (ANC), Black Consciousness Movement, PAC, SASO, slavery, political and economic suppression, The objective of this paper is to give an overview of Biko's life and achievements. Since his life is strongly related to the development of black consciousness, it presents a big part of the essay, too.
Stephen, Bantu, Biko, South, African
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Marc Dominick (Author), 2002, Stephen Bantu Biko, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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