1975 - 1976

Steve Biko: Final Days

Steve Biko Foundation

“Its better to die for an idea that will live, than live for an idea that will die”
- Steve Biko

In January 1977, the Black People’s Convention unanimously elected Biko Honorary President in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the liberation struggle. Not only had he been instrumental in the development of a new political force in South Africa, he had built what Aelred Stubbs described as “a showcase for community development.”

" I would describe and I have described myself to people who ask as a freedom fighter"

- Biko

In August 1977, Steve Biko undertook his last trip in the quest for freedom.  For three years, he had been driving unity discussions between the major political forces namely the African National Congress, the Pan African Congress and the New Unity Movement. By 1977, he had already held direct talks with the President of the PAC, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, a person who he held in very high regard.

Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, founder of the Pan African Congress (PAC) and first president 1959-1963.

On 17 August 1977, Biko and his colleague Peter Jones set out on a trip to Cape Town for the purpose of holding unity discussions with the New Unity Movement leader, Neville Alexander. They were arrested on his way back, in Grahamstown, at a roadblock headed by Lieutenant Oosthuizen. They were later delivered to Port Elizabeth’s notorious security branch.

Peter Jones

The Port Elizabeth special branch had close ties with senior Apartheid agents such as Johan Coetzee and the Vlakplaas unit. One such agent was apartheid’s “super-spy” Craig Williamson, who had infiltrated the Swedish-based International University Exchange Fund (IUEF), under the leadership of Lars Gunar Eriksson, to become the Deputy Director. Williamson had been recruited into Intelligence while on “national service” in the army. His previous involvement in liberal politics as NUSAS Vice President as well as his subsequent facilitation of escape routes for exiles, gave him just enough political traction to be cleared into the IUEF, despite the discomfort of some in the liberation movement. 

"The reality is that Biko’s detention and death was at a time when he was secretly going to leave the country to meet Tambo. That was bad news.”

-Craig Williamson, in an interview with Tor Sellstrom, Swedish diplomat and author of 'Sweden and the Liberation in Southern Africa' 

The IUEF was instrumental in providing assistance to various organisations in Southern Africa including the BCM, the PAC and the ANC. By his own admission, Williamson’s primary strategy was to terminate support for the Black Consciousness Movement because the organisation was “a problem internally”. He was also tasked with infiltrating the ANC and monitoring international support for the liberation movement. In his capacity as IUEF Deputy Director, Williamson was privy to intelligence regarding unity talks between Biko and the Acting President of the African National Congress, Oliver Tambo. Facilitated by Ranwedzi Nengwekhulu and Thabo Mbeki (former President of the Republic of South Africa), the first meeting was planned for September 1976 to coincide with the tenth anniversary celebrations of Botswana’s independence. When the meeting failed, an attempt was made to hold it in Maseru in May 1977. When that, too, did not materialise, a final attempt was made to have the meeting in Botswana in the first week of September 1977. 

O.R. Tambo, President of African National Congress (ANC) 1969-1985
Ranwezi Harry Nengwekhulu

The September 1977 meeting would have included Biko, Tambo and Oluf Palme, who had lost as Swedish Prime Minister in the elections of 1976, choosing instead to focus his energy on Southern Africa.  Biko was to be sprung into Botswana to meet with these leaders and then immediately brought back home. The meeting was to be facilitated by the IUEF.


"In a bid for change we have to take off our coats, be prepared to lose our comfort and security, our jobs and positions of prestige and our families... A struggle without casualties is no struggle." 

- Biko, The Quest for a True Humanity

Biko was arrested on 18 August 1977, two weeks before the scheduled date for the meeting. Oluf Palme was later assassinated.

In Port Elizabeth, the torture of Biko took place in the security police headquarters at the Sanlam Building in Room 619. From the outside, this building looks like any other office block. However, whether by luck or labour, the noise of the traffic from the elevated freeway that runs a few meters in front of the building muffled out any telltale signs that this was a torture chamber. By 11 September 1977, he had been tortured so severely at the Sanlam Building that he had to be transferred to a prison hospital. That night Captains Siebert and Wilken and Detective Sergeant Niewoudt drove Biko over 1000 km from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria Maximum Prison, lying in the back of a police Land Rover naked, dying and without a medical escort. He died on 12 September.

Sanlam Building
Sanlam Building Room 619
Sanlam Building in Port Elizabeth to C-Max Prison in Pretoria
Biko's Coffin

"It is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die."

- Biko

Biko's Body

"In the three years that I grew to know him, my conviction never wavered that this was the most important political leader in the entire country and quite simply the greatest man I ever had the privilege to know"

- Donald Woods, Editor of the Daily Dispatch in East London

Mrs Alice 'Mamcete' Biko, Mrs Ntsiki Biko and son, Samora-age 2-at Biko's funeral
The Oxcart in Which Steve Biko was Taken to His Final Resting Place

"History, from time to time, brings to the fore the kind of leaders who seize the moment, who cohere the wishes and aspirations of the oppressed. Such was Steve Biko, a fitting product of his time; a proud representative of the reawakening of a people." 

- Nelson Mandela

Note From Civil Rights Activist Andrew Young on Biko's Death
Credits: Story

Steve Biko Foundation:
Nkosinathi Biko, CEO
Y. Obenewa Amponsah, Director International Partnerships
Donna Hirschson, Intern
S. Dibuseng Kolisang, Communications Officer
Ardon Bar-Hama
Marie Human

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions (listed below) who have supplied the content.
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