Stephen Bantu Biko was an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. He founded the Black Consciousness Movement which would empower and mobilize much of the urban black population. Since his death in police custody, he has been called a martyr of the anti-apartheid movement. While living, his writings and activism attempted to empower black people, and he was famous for his slogan “black is beautiful”, which he described as meaning: “man, you are okay as you are, begin to look upon yourself as a human being”.
Scroll on to learn more about Biko's upbringing and the early years that would shape his politics...
Biko, the son of Mathew Mzingaye and Alice Nokuzola Biko, came from humble beginnings. His father served in the police force before landing a job as a government clerk. He died in 1950 while studying towards a law degree through the University of South Africa. Biko was four. From that age, the primary influence in Biko’s life was his mother, Alice, who worked as a domestic servant at Grey Hospital in King William’s Town.
“His mother provided an indominable base of support...She had been too poor and had to work hard too unsparingly to bring up four children after the early loss of her husband in 1950”
- Aelred Stubbs
Biko, the third of four children, had an older sister Bukelwa, an older brother Khaya, and a younger sister, Nobandile. Together, their names comprised a riddle: “Hayi ukuBukeka kweKhaya laBantu aBandileyo” translated into English “ We admire the expanded family”
“He was not just responsible at home. He felt responsible for the community especially for the education of the community. This is because when he passed his junior certificate the community of Ginsberg collected money to send him to school. It was unheard of in Ginsberg, but he passed very well. He later felt so indebted that he set up the Ginsberg Education Fund.”
- Nobandile Biko
In 1963, at the age of 15 years Steve Biko was admitted to Lovedale College, a missionary institution at which Khaya had enrolled a year earlier. Later that year, the two brothers along with 50 other learners were arrested on the suspicion that they were supporters of the outlawed Pan African Congress (PAC) aligned Poqo. Steve was interrogated by the police and despite the lack of evidence that he had any political inclinations, he was subsequently expelled and blacklisted from all government schools. Khaya was imprisoned for being a member of the banned PAC. Thus began Steve Biko’s resentment of authority and, according to Khaya, “the great giant was awakened”. By Steve Biko’s admission, when he was called as a witness for defence in 1976 at the trial of his colleagues in the Black Consciousness Movement, “from that moment on, I hated authority like hell!”
The 1963 incident had a truly profound influence on Biko’s political outlook. He spent considerable time after he was expelled from school delivering food and other supplies to his brother and his comrades in prison. The developments of 1963 were Steve’s baptism by fire that led to the messages from Khaya and others finding resonance on a hitherto carefree and politically indifferent Steve.
“In 1963 they expelled him from school for doing nothing. It was then that the great giant was awakened”
- Khaya Biko
In 1964, Steve Biko was admitted to St Francis College, another missionary school situated in Marianhill, Natal, where he became acutely focused on exploring the contradictions between Christian liberal teachings and the experience of black people. He had felt somewhat let down that the principal and staff of Lovedale College, which aligned itself with a progressive liberal agenda, had responded with impotence to the injustice of 1963. The evidence of this moment of awakening is contained in the correspondence between Biko and his former teacher at Lovedale, Father Aelred Stubbs.
“At the heart of Black Consciousness is the realisation by blacks that the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. If one is free at heart, no man-made chains can bind one to servitude but if one's mind is so manipulated and controlled by the oppressor then there will be nothing the oppressed can do to scare his powerful masters”
- Steve Biko, I Write What I Like
Click on the Steve Biko Foundation logo to continue your journey into Biko's extraordinary life. Take a look at Steve Biko: The Black Consciousness Movement, Steve Biko: The Final Days, and Steve Biko: The Legacy.
— Steve Biko Foundation:
— Nkosinathi Biko , CEO
— Y. Obenewa Amponsah, Director International Partnerships
— Donna Hirschson, Intern
— S. Dibuseng Kolisang, Communications Officer
— Ardon Bar-Hama, Photographer
— Marie Human, Researcher