Steve Biko

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Steve Biko
Name Steve Biko
Service Political and Human Rights Activist
DOD 12 Sept., 1977

Stephen Bantu Biko was a South African anti-apartheid political activist, born on 18 December 1946 in Ginsberg Township, present-day Eastern Cape province of South Africa. His father was from the Xhosa tribe where Biko means “a person is a person by means of other people.” He was the founder of South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement (BCM).

He attended Brownlee Primary School and Charles Morgan Higher Primary School. In 1964 before he joined Lovedale High School. It was here that he showed his first interest in anti-apartheid politics at Lovedale and was expelled from the school for his views against the apartheid government.

He thereafter attended St. Francis College, a Roman Catholic school in Natal and graduated in 1965. He gained admission into the University of Natal Medical School at Wentworth, Durban (the university’s Black Section) in 1966 to study Medicine.

He was part of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). This union was dominated by white liberals and failed to represent the needs of black students and because of that, he resigned and helped in the founding of the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO), whose agenda included political self-reliance and the unification of university students in “black consciousness.” He was elected its first president and was involved in developing cottage industries for disadvantaged black communities.

Biko became one of the important figures in The Durban Movement in the early 1970s and was once again expelled from the University because of his political activities. He was one of the founders of the Black Peoples Convention (BPC) in 1972, working on social upliftment projects around Durban and was made the honorary president of the group.

The group was made up of associations, such as the South African Student’s Movement (SASM), the National Association of Youth Organisations, and the Black Workers Project.

In February 1973, Steve Biko was banned by the Apartheid government and was forbidden to speak to more than one person at a time nor to speak in public. The ban restricted him to his hometown in the Eastern Cape. He toned down his activities but continued to work for the group.

Irrespective of the repressive tendencies of the apartheid government, Biko and the BCM played a significant role in organizing the protests that culminated in the 1976 Soweto Uprising. In the aftermath of the uprising, which was met with a heavy hand by the security forces, the authorities began to target Biko further.

Due to his activities, Biko was detained and interrogated about four times between August 1975 and September 1977. On 18 August 1977, he was arrested at a police roadblock after which he was taken into custody for interrogation. The interrogation included torture and beatings, sending Biko into a coma. He suffered major head injuries while in police custody at the Walmer Police Station in a suburb of Port Elizabeth.

By 11 September, Biko had slipped into a continual, semi-conscious state and the police physician recommended a transfer to hospital. Biko was, however, transported 1,200 km to Pretoria lying naked in the back of a Land Rover. He died a few hours later, on 12 September, alone and still naked, lying on the floor of a cell in the Pretoria Central Prison from brain damage. While the Police said his death was the result of an extended hunger strike, an autopsy revealed multiple bruises and abrasions which led to brain haemorrhage and his eventual death.

Many saw the nature of his death as strong evidence that he had been brutally beaten by his captors and after a 15-day inquest in 1978, a magistrate judge found that there was not enough evidence to charge the officers with murder, since there were no eyewitnesses. However, on 28 July 1979, the attorney for Biko’s family announced that the South African government had agreed to pay the family R65,000 (then equivalent to $25,000) in compensation for Biko’s death.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission created following the end of minority rule and of apartheid reported that five former members of the South African security forces had admitted to killing Biko and applied for amnesty. On 7 October 2003, the South African justice ministry announced that the five policemen accused of killing Biko would not be prosecuted because the statute of limitations had elapsed and there was not enough evidence.

Biko was buried in the Ginsberg cemetery, King William’s Town and in 1997. The graveyard was later upgraded and renamed the Steve Biko Garden of Remembrance.

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