Steve Biko (aka Stephen Bantu Biko)
December 18, 1946 – September 12, 1977
Nationality: South African
Steven Biko was born to Xhosa parents in what was then King William’s Town and is now the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. His father, Mzingaye Biko, supported the family as a police officer before becoming a clerk in the local Native Affairs office. The elder Biko also studied towards a law degree at the University of South Africa. Unfortunately, he never completed his law degree as he died unexpectedly when Biko was four years old. Biko’s mother, Nokuzola Macethe, assumed the role of provider and found work as a cook at a hospital which allowed her to raise Biko and his siblings by herself.
As a child, Biko attended Charles Morgan Higher Primary School where teachers and friends regarded him as being playful and sometimes mischievous. Yet, he also shined as an intelligent student which resulted in him skipping a grade. He also tutored classmates who were struggling with their school work. Biko went on to attend Forbes Grant for high school and continued to do well with his studies, especially math and English. Upon completing a certificate at the age of 16, Biko enrolled at Lovedale College, a high school, where his older brother Khaya was also a student.
Khaya was actively involved on campus as an athlete and student activist having become a member of the local Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) branch. During Biko’s first year at Lovedale, Khaya was arrested for allegedly being a member or affiliate of PAC’s armed wing. Khaya was charged and sentenced to two years in prison with 15 months of the sentence suspended. Before this, Khaya had tried to get Biko interested in politics but he had remained mostly apolitical. Biko was arrested with his brother though he was released without receiving any jail time.
Biko returned to Lovedale to resume his studies but the school was experiencing some unrest due to student protests. After attending Lovedale for only three months, the school expelled him for allegedly engaging in student activism which involved protesting apartheid and violations of the rights of Black South Africans. The experience with the police and Lovedale changed Biko’s views of apartheid’s White power structure and motivated him to become politically active.
Khaya was prohibited from re-enrolling at Lovedale and was unable to gain admittance at any other school. But he appealed to various schools to ensure that Biko would be able to continue his education. Biko was finally accepted at St. Francis College from which he graduated in 1966.
Upon enrolling in the Black section of the University of Natal Medical School, Biko joined the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). The NUSAS was a moderate multiracial group with a stated mission of advocating for the rights of Black students. But Biko became disenchanted with the organization as the group was dominated by White students who comprised the majority of the school’s population. Things came to a head when Biko and other Black students attended a NUSAS conference where they were given separate but inferior lodgings and were made to feel as though their concerns were not a priority for the other members.
Biko and the other Black students walked out of the conference in protest. Biko used this time to travel and explore the creation of an all-Black student group. These experiences led to Biko co-founding the South African Students’ Organization (SASO). The SASO aimed to fight back against apartheid by providing legal assistance, healthcare, and economic development to empower Black communities.
Early sparks of South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement began on college campuses and Biko became a major figure. In opposition to the indignities of apartheid, Black consciousness promoted an ideology of Black solidarity, pride, and independence. This led to Biko co-founding the Black People’s Convention (BPC) which brought together various Black consciousness groups.
Murder & Aftermath
Coming soon on 10/19
Coming soon on 10/19
Steve Biko’s involvement with the BPC led to him once again being expelled, this time from medical school. In 1973, he was outlawed by the government for speaking out against apartheid in his writings and speeches. The banning was meant to restrict Biko’s movement and stifle his growing influence by confining him to his hometown. Despite these obstacles, Biko continued his work.
Donald Woods, the editor of the East London Daily Dispatch began visiting Biko during this time and came to better understand him and the philosophy of Black consciousness. The experience prompted Woods to appeal to the government on Biko’s behalf to ease the restrictions. But instead of leniency, the harassment against Biko increased and Woods also became a target which eventually forced him to leave the country.
In just two years, Biko was arrested and interrogated on four occasions with each period of detainment lasting for several months. On August 18, 1977, while traveling with another activist, the two were stopped at a roadblock by the Eastern Cape security police. Biko was arrested for the last time and jailed in Port Elizabeth. On September 7, he was transported from his cell to security police headquarters for interrogation during which he sustained a brain injury. Observers noticed that he was acting differently, doctors were called to examine him but they ignored his injuries.
On September 11, when Biko became semi-conscious and began frothing at the mouth, doctors finally recommended his transfer to a hospital. But instead of being taken to a nearby hospital, Biko was placed naked in the back of a Land Rover and taken on a 12-hour 750-mile drive to a prison hospital in Pretoria. Biko survived the journey but died a few hours later on September 12, lying on the floor of a prison cell, naked and alone.
Steve Biko’s death helped to further galvanize the anti-apartheid movement. Dignitaries from other countries traveled to South Africa to pay their respects. His funeral was attended by an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people with many more turned away by armed police roadblocks. Some witnesses stated that people had been physically attacked and some women raped by police while attempting to travel to the funeral. Despite the events leading up to the funeral and the tensions of the day, the funeral became a political rally with passionate speeches and attendees shouting “Power” during the burial.
The South African Minister of Justice initially denied that Biko had been harmed while in custody and instead told the public during a disrespectful address that he had died from a hunger strike. But the nature and severity of Biko’s injuries made it obvious that his death had been a result of violence which made murder more likely. Biko’s activism, murder, and what was now appearing to be an attempted coverup resulted in him being viewed as a martyr in the anti-apartheid movement.
National outrage, international pressure, and Woods led the government to back off from its initial claims. An inquest found that Biko had died from brain damage but no officers were held responsible as it was ruled the injuries occurred during a fight between Biko and the police. In 1997, during the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, five former officers were identified as having been involved in Biko’s death. They confessed to the murder and appealed for amnesty but their request was denied.
Multiple doctors had attended Biko while he was imprisoned and contributed to the delay in getting him much-needed medical treatment. Through multiple assessments, his injuries and changes in condition had been downplayed or outright ignored. Despite doctors being present at the first facility, Biko did not receive medical treatment until after his 12-hour transfer to the other prison hospital. Three doctors worked on Biko’s autopsy report and claimed there were no abnormal findings. This was despite the report including details that indicated Biko had been restrained and also suffered brain injuries.
The doctors who attended Biko claimed to have been acting on orders from the police. An investigation found the claims to be false but recommended that no action be taken against the doctors. Three reviews by the Medical Council were opened in the early 1980s and the doctors were found innocent in the first two. The third review found the doctors guilty but one had his three-month suspended sentence overturned and the other only received a warning.
It was later revealed that South African government officials, the police, medical establishment, media, and other factions of apartheid society worked together in an attempt to cover up the true circumstances of Biko’s death. When riots broke out around the country the government responded by launching a crackdown on people and organizations that were supportive of and/or associated with Biko. Almost 20 such organizations were outlawed after his death. Biko’s family filed a suit against the government which was settled out of court and the United Nations Security Council began an arms embargo against South Africa.
Steve Biko was survived by his wife, Ntsiki Mashalaba, and their children as well as one or two children from other relationships (sources vary).
- Biography.com Editors, ed. 2021. “Steve Biko.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. March 11, 2021. https://www.biography.com/activist/steve-biko.
- Boddy-Evans, Alistair. 2020. “Biography of Stephen Bantu (Steve) Biko, Anti-Apartheid Activist.” ThoughtCo. Dotdash. December 5, 2020. https://www.thoughtco.com/stephen-bantu-steve-biko-44575.
- Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia, ed. 2021. “Steve Biko.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. September 8, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Steve-Biko.
- Elnaiem , Mohammed. 2020. “The Death of Steve Biko, Revisited.” JSTOR Daily. ITHAKA. September 17, 2020. https://daily.jstor.org/the-death-of-steve-biko-revisited/.
- “Stephen Bantu Biko.” n.d. South African History Online. Accessed October 7, 2021. https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/stephen-bantu-biko.
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- Apartheid in South Africa
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