Steve Biko - a remarkable person and martyr in South Africa

The prisoner

"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" . - Peter Gabriel: “Biko

On 12 September 1977 Steven Bantu Biko died. His body was emaciated and battered. It was the police who killed him.

On the night before he had been driven from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria, a distance of about 1500 kilometres, in the back of a Land Rover, naked and chained to the floor.

He had been interrogated for some 22 hours in Port Elizabeth and was already near death when it was decided to take him to Pretoria. His body was a mass of bruises and he had severe head wounds when he was packed into that Land Rover for the long journey through the late winter cold.

Biko died of a massive brain haemorrhage caused by the beatings he had received at the hands of the police. They claimed at the time that his death was the result of a hunger strike.

Steve Biko
Steve Biko

Biko's life

“If one is free at heart, no man-made chains can bind one to servitude.” - Steve Biko in “Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity.”

Biko was a South African student leader, having led a break-away group of university students out of the liberal, mostly white, National Union of South African Students (Nusas) to form a black body called the South Africa Students Organisation (Saso).

He had been born in King William's Town in the Eastern Province on 18 December 1946. Biko, after high school, in 1966 entered the medical school of the University of Natal in Durban to begin medical studies. Here he became involved in student politics as a Nusas member, but soon found himself chafing at the liberal paternalism of the white students. He was also convinced that blacks needed to develop self-reliance and to restore their pride in their culture and history.

He therefore led the break-away from Nusas and helped to found Saso in 1968 of which he was elected president in July 1969.

In December 1970 Biko married Ntsiki. He left the medical school in 1972 and began to work for an NGO called the Black Community Programme (BCP) in Durban.

In early March 1973 Biko, along with several other Saso leaders, was banned and restricted to the King William's Town district. Having moved back to his hometown he immediately began setting up an Easter Cape branch of BCP, but at the end of 1975 an extra clause was inserted into his banning order making it illegal for him to work for the BCP.

The following year he was detained under the notorious Section 6 of the Terrorism Act for a period of 101 days during August to December.

Biko's body in the coffin
Biko's body in the coffin
Biko's coffin in a cart drawn by oxen. Photo Bailey's History Acrchive
Biko's coffin in a cart drawn by oxen. Photo Bailey's History Acrchive

The end and the beginning

On 18 August 1977 Biko was again arrested under Section 6 and taken to Port Elizabeth for interrogation.

His subsequent death in Pretoria shocked the country. When he first heard the news of Biko's death, the white editor of the East London Daily Dispatch , Donald Woods, who had met Biko and become a friend, was incredulous: “I know the Nats (the Nationalist Party which instituted apartheid) are mad – but even they aren't so mad as to let him die of anything in detention.” Woods phoned Biko's family to get confirmation and was devastated to hear that it was true – Biko was dead.

Biko was an eloquent speaker, and an attractive personality. He was a thinker of some depth and a writer who could put complex ideas into simple language. He was, in other words, a great communicator. His banning effectively silenced him.

Biko also lived what he preached, not being subservient to anyone.

His coffin was drawn on an ox cart through the streets of King William's Town on its way to the graveyard. The funeral was attended by tens of thousands of mourners from all over the country.

The funeral marked the end of the bodily life of Biko, but his influence is still felt. The apartheid regime created a martyr whose memory will live for as long as people value self-respect and freedom.

As he wrote in 1973: “We have set out on a quest for true humanity, and somewhere on the distant horizon we can see the glittering prize.”

Copyright Notice

The text on this page, unless otherwise indicated, is by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2009

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Comments 47 comments

Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 6 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

A sad ending for an admirable man.


 6 years ago

Tony- You are peeling back the layers of the onion of entreched racism in South Africa by your historical articles. Biko was murdered and noone was ever brought to justice I'm guessing.Humanity turns a deaf ear to injustice until the popular voice is silenced violently. Sad state of affairs to say the least.


sabu singh profile image

sabu singh 6 years ago

Thank you for this interesting Hub of a great man Tony. Wish there were more like him in the world.


MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 6 years ago from South Africa

This episode in our history was so sad and indeed a big mistake. In a way one can understand the merciless behaviour of police officers on duty – they have to get hard criminals out of society and behind bars, without the consent and co-operation of those criminals, and their lives are always in danger, they dare not trust anybody in the environment they are working, and besides frauds they are just doing what the government expect them to do. BUT there is, for sure, a line between mercilessness and cruelty. I can’t remember what happened to those who killed Biko. Wasn’t it him who was thrown out of a window and declared as a case of suicide? Let’s face it, Tony, throughout the history of the human race many-many wrongs were committed in terribly awful ways, and it didn’t end and it will never end. The ‘rules of the game’ merely gets updated, the style of the game becomes a little less barbaric, the loosing team of the past becomes the winning team of the present, and the score keeps everyone always in suspense. My heart goes out to Biko (and his family) who died as a martyr, but also to all martyrs who have died and will die for justice and fairness. As always, an excellent hub!


De Greek profile image

De Greek 6 years ago from UK

How horrible to suffer a police state. To have the actual police do the bidding of any individual or group of individuals as the mood strikes them. Intolerable!


amillar profile image

amillar 6 years ago from Scotland, UK

I've often heard of Steve Biko. Thank you for giving me this bigger picture.


cindyvine profile image

cindyvine 6 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

What happened to him was so, so wrong! Thanks for this Tony!


Joe Badtoe profile image

Joe Badtoe 6 years ago from UK

Biko was indeed a remarkable man. I read a book sometime ago that told the story of Donald Woods, a white South African journalists who was an ally of Biko, it was riveting stuff. Woods, and his wife eventually had to flee the country to avoid the death threats.

Nice concise piece Tony and great read.


Dim Flaxenwick profile image

Dim Flaxenwick 6 years ago from Great Britain

Thank you so much for that. I learned only a little about Biko watching a film called ¨Cry Freedom¨. I´ve never forgotten it,.


always exploring profile image

always exploring 6 years ago from Southern Illinois

Tony,

This article touched me. How could anyone be so cruel?

I hope it,s not like that anymore. I,ll never understand why the white race feels superior. Thank you so much for bringing us stories that sheds light on events in Africa.

Love and Peace


kimh039 profile image

kimh039 6 years ago

thanks again tonymac! Great story and pics. Your voice comes through very clearly.

There are ads on your hub for round trip flights to S. Africa for $929! How are the beaches and your economy? Now that I'm learning so much about S. Africa, I might want to visit.


ocbill profile image

ocbill 6 years ago from hopefully somewhere peaceful and nice

How could people or society collectively be so cruel? To serve and protect had to have had a different meaning in So. Africa., it is embarassing for them. Surely, the criminal policemen were not prosecuted. Police have to much leeway and too much defense.

I read of Biko back in the 80s after hearing a Peter Gabriel song.


nifty@50 profile image

nifty@50 6 years ago

Thanks tonymac, for reminding us of the high price of freedom and our personal liberties, so that we strive to never lose them!


LillyGrillzit profile image

LillyGrillzit 6 years ago from The River Valley, Arkansas

This is a very moving Hub, and once again we see how racism shapes so much of our planet...cannot now, nor will I ever 'get it'? Humans are humans no matter their covering - we all crave and need the same things...sad - sorry for this world's loss...


gusripper profile image

gusripper 6 years ago

Am very far(Greece),but this song "Biko" made me look in AFRICA .The song and the movie can be a hit in the heart of racism.About STEVEN BIKO i think he was more inportand person for human rights than MANDELLA .


Micky Dee profile image

Micky Dee 6 years ago

Tony Brother Man! This is truth and it is bitterly beautiful. This was a true hero. His beatings are etched a little in us. God bless you Tony. None of us are free if one of us is chained.

"We have set out on a quest for true humanity..,"


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Bob - thanks for commenting. He was in so many ways an admirable man. I often wonder what South African politics would be like now had he lived!

Love and peace

Tony


katiem2 profile image

katiem2 6 years ago from I'm outta here

WOW what an impressive man, and such a tragic end. I learned a valuable bit of history today. Thanks for this tribute to Biko.


mulberry1 profile image

mulberry1 6 years ago

Well, as usual, you've prompted me to learn more. I saw someone mention the movie Cry Freedom, it's not one that I have seen. So, it's going on my list. I knew the Biko was a Martyr of some type related to ending apartheid but that was it...thanks for filling in a few of the blanks.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Brother Sabu - we could indeed benefit from having more people like Biko. Thanks for the visit and the comment.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Martie - we do seem to go around in circles sometimes, don't we? The person who was thrown out of the window was Ahmed Timol, the first 90-day detainee to be killed by the police. He was thrown, if my memory serves me well,. from the 9th floor of what was then John Vorster Square police offices.

And yes, I agree the life of police officers is not an easy one. I think they get too little recognition, too little training and too little pay. And a large factor in this was the way the police were used for work other than really combating crime during the apartheid era, when they were more engaged in "political" work

Thanks for the visit and the comment.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Brother Dimitris - the police state that was the apartheid state was intolerable indeed. The world is a better place now that that hateful policy and practice has ended.

Thanks for the visit and the supportive comment.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Amillar - you are most welcome and thanks for the visit and comment.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Cindy - thanks for the visit and the comment. It was indeed so, so wrong.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Joe - thanks for your kind words. I think the book you refer to might be Donald Woods's own "Asking for Trouble". It's a good read which is especi8ally meaningful to me as he was the first person to take a chance on my writing skills and give me a job as a very junior reporter on the East London Daily Dispatch while he was editor. I learnt a great deal from him

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Dim - thanks for the comment. That was a great movie and did tell something about the times we lived through.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Ruby - the cruelty so often shown in service of an ideology always amazes me too. I feel sometimes powerless before such cruelty. And yes, things are better here now, though like everything there is still much to be done to make things right. I guess it's really a never-ending struggle.

Thanks for the visit and the comment.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Kim - thanks for your kind words. I appreciate that you took the time.

The beaches in South Africa are the best! The economy is doing OK at the moment though the local currency, the Rand, is quite strong against the dollar at the moment and so you might want to wait a little while until the Rand weakens again so you can get more for your bucks!

There is lots to see and do in this wonderful country, so do come!

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

OCBILL - thanks for the visit and the comment. Yes, the police in South Africa back then did have a different understanding of to "serve and protect" - they served and protected the regime and not the people.

Thanks again.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Nifty - the price of freedom is indeed high. "Eternal vigilance" is perhaps the least of it!

Thanks for the visit and the comment.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Lilly - thanks for the lovely comment. It is so sad that we so often see and react to the non-essential and miss the centre. Intolerance in so many ways shapes the world, and we are the poorer for that.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Gusripper - thanks for the comment. Biko was certainly very influential and important in our history, though I don't like to make a judgement on how he rates against Mandela and others! I do think he would have made a huge contribution to our new democracy, had he lived.

Thanks again

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Micky my cycling brother! We are indeed on a "quest for true humanity"! Thanks for the visit and the comment, which I really appreciate.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Katie - thanks for the visit and the comment. He was impressive, and an important thinker. The way he was treated was simply iniquitous!

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Christine - thanks for the kind words. That movie is worth seeing. Glad you found the Hub useful.

Love and peace

Tony


jandee profile image

jandee 5 years ago from Liverpool.U.K

Hello Tony,takes me back through the years -so many murders of the good ones. It is no use screaming but that is how it makes one feel. From Peterloo to Red lion square and a million other places where the knowing and brave are put down like an unwanted animal, thanks for reminding us of the important and honourable ones,best from m.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Maxine - it seems the struggle for humanity goes on and on. Biko is one who needs to be remembered, one who was cruelly cut down before he could make his full contribution to humanity. A continuing tragedy.

Thanks for the comment.

Love and peace

Tony


McHamlet profile image

McHamlet 5 years ago

Always good to remind us of those who died so others could live. Painful to read but a service nevertheless.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

McHamlet - thanks for stopping by. I belieive that Biko should never be forgotten, both for what he believed in and for how and why he died. Thanks again for the supportive comment.

Love and peace

Tony


nerita 5 years ago

hi tony, wat were the health and human rights implications of steve bikos death, im doing an assignment on this. any help would be apreciated


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Nerita - thanks for stopping by. If you would like me to answer you please send me an email through the link "Contact tonymac04" above. I could help with info for you assignment.

Thanks for stopping by.

Love and peace

Tony


jandee profile image

jandee 5 years ago from Liverpool.U.K

Tony just read again ! Raises blood pressure to read of 'State execution' It is still going on in almost every country......M


ixwa profile image

ixwa 5 years ago

Heitha again Tony: Speaking of Biko, he wrote the following: "The claim by Whites of monopoly on comfort and security has always been so exclusive that blacks see whites as the major obstacle in their progress towards peace, prosperity and a sane society. Through its association with all these negative aspects, whiteness has thus been soiled beyond recognition. At best, therefore, blacks see whiteness as a concept that warrants being despised, hated, destroyed and replaced by an inspiration with more human content in it. At worst, blacks envy white society for the comfort it has usurped and the center of this envy is the wish - nay, the secret determination in the innermost minds of most blacks who think like this, to kick whites off those comfortable garden chairs that one sees as he rides in a bus, out of town, and to claim them for themselves. ... There are those Whites who will completely disclaim responsibility for the country's inhumanity to the Black man. These are the people who are governed by logic for [four and-a-half] years but by fear at election time. The Nationalist Party has perhaps many more English votes than one imagines. All Whites collectively recognize in it a strong strong bastion against the highly played-up swart gevaar(Black peril). One must not underestimate the deeply embedded fear of the black man so prevalent in White society. Whites know only too well what exactly they have been doing to blacks and logically find reason for the Black man to angry. Their state of insecurity, however, does not outweigh their greed for power and wealth, hence, they brace themselves to react against this rage rather than to dispel it with open-mindedness and fair play This interaction between fear and the reaction then sets on a vicious cycle that multiplies both fear and reaction. This is what makes meaningful coalition between black and White totally impossible. Also, this is what makes Whites at as a group and hence become culpable as a group." Steven Bantu Biko in his book "I Write What I Like". It seems to me that the present ANC government and their Cadre have not learnt much from Biko; anyway, they were out of the country when he made this statements. What Biko was saying and seeing, is what African people and most poor Whites in the country are seeing and experiencing from the Black-led government. How then should we learn from the lessons of the past if we forget them today and repeat them to each other with impunity, today? This paradox and conundrum needs to be kept "real" to give the present "poor' South Africans a chance to make a better and dynamic society. What Biko wrote and said, is still with us today. Thank for writing about Biko- that was a Man's Man...


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Maxine - pour another glass of red and take it easy, you deserve it! These things are too horrible and they do go on and on, it would seem. I frequently wonder what Biko would have made of things in the South Africa of today? See Ixwa's comment here.

Thanks so much for stopping by.

Love and peace

Tony


justamber profile image

justamber 5 years ago

Thanks for sharing Bikos story. Voted it up and will be following you. I enjoyed reading this.


Greenheart profile image

Greenheart 4 years ago from Cambridge

Thank-you for this.It was good to read. I live in

Cambrridge, UK. But was born in Cape Town. And my dad was very active in the anti-apartheid movement. Long live Biko's spirit!. Gavin


jeanihess profile image

jeanihess 4 years ago from Cape Town South Africa

Steve was a great man!

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