Stephen Bantu Biko was an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. A student leader, he later 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 this iconic figure and his pivotal role in the Black Consciousness Movement...
“Black Consciousness is an attitude of mind and a way of life, the most positive call to emanate from the black world for a long time” - Biko
On completion of his matric at St Francis College, Biko registered for a medical degree at the University of Natal’s Black Section. The University of Natal professed liberalism and was home to some of the leading intellectuals of that tradition. The University of Natal had also become a magnet attracting a number of former black educators, some of the most academically capable members of black society, who had been removed from black colleges by the University Act of 1959. The University of Natal also attracted as law and medical students some of the brightest men and women from various parts of the country and from various political traditions. Their convergence at the University of Natal in the 1960s turned the University into a veritable intellectual hub, characterised by a diverse culture of vibrant political discourse. The University thus became the mainstay of what came to be known as the Durban Moment.
At Natal Biko hit the ground running. He was immediately influenced by, and in turn, influenced this dynamic environment. He was elected to serve on the Student's Representative Council (SRC) of 1966/67, in the year of his admission. Although he initially supported multiracial student groupings, principally the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), a number of voices on campus were radically opposed to NUSAS, through which black students had tried for years to have their voices heard but to no avail. This kind of frustration with white liberalism was not altogether unknown to Steve Biko, who had experienced similar disappointment at Lovedale.
In 1967, Biko participated as an SRC delegate at the annual NUSAS conference held at Rhodes University. A dispute arose at the conference when the host institution prohibited racially mixed accommodation in obedience to the Group Areas Act, one of the laws under apartheid that NUSAS professed to abhor but would not oppose. Instead NUSAS opted to drive on both sides of the road: it condemned Rhodes University officials while cautioning black delegates to act within the limits of the law. For Biko this was another defining moment that struck a raw nerve in him.
Reacting angrily, Biko slated the artificial integration of student politics and rejected liberalism as empty echoes by people who were not committed to rattling the status quo but who skilfully extracted what best suited them “from the exclusive pool of white privileges”. This gave rise to what became known as the Best-able debate: Were white liberals the people best able to define the tempo and texture of black resistance?
This debate had a double thrust. On the one hand, it was aimed at disabusing white society of its superiority complex and challenged the liberal establishment to rethink its presumed role as the mouthpiece of the oppressed. On the other, it was designed as an equally frank critique of black society, targeting its passivity that cast blacks in the role of “spectators” in the course of history. The 7th April 1960 saw the banning of the African National Congress and the Pan African Congress and the imprisonment of the leadership of the liberation movement had created a culture of apathy
“ We have set out on a quest for true humanity, and somewhere on the distant horizon we can see the glittering prize. Let us march forth with courage and determination, drawing strength from our common plight and our brotherhood. In time we shall be in a position to bestow upon South Africa the greatest gift possible - a more human face.”
Biko argued that true liberation was possible only when black people were, themselves, agents of change. In his view, this agency was a function of a new identity and consciousness, which was devoid of the inferiority complex that plagued black society. Only when white and black societies addressed issues of race openly would there be some hope for genuine integration and non-racialism.
At the University Christian Movement (UCM) meeting at Stutterheim in 1968, Biko made further inroads into black student politics by targeting key individuals and harnessing support for an exclusively black movement. In 1969, at the University of the North near Pietersburg, and with students of the University of Natal playing a leading role, African students launched a blacks-only student organisation, the South African Student Organisation (SASO). SASO committed itself to the philosophy of black consciousness. Biko was elected president.
The idea that blacks could define and organise themselves and determine their own destiny through a new political and cultural identity rooted in black consciousness swept through most black campuses, among those who had experienced the frustrations of years of deference to whites. In a short time, SASO became closely identified with 'Black Power' and African humanism and was reinforced by ideas emanating from Diasporan Africa. Successes elsewhere on the continent, which saw a number of countries, achieve independence from their colonial masters also fed into the language of black consciousness.
“ In 1968 we started forming what is now called SASO... which was firmly based on Black Consciousness, the essence of which was for the black man to elevate his own position by positively looking at those value systems that make him distinctively a man in society” - Biko
The Black People’s Convention
By 1971, the influence of SASO had spread well beyond tertiary education campuses. A growing body of people who were part of SASO were also exiting the university system and needed a political home. SASO leaders moved for the establishment of a new wing of their organisation that would embrace broader civil society. The Black People’s Convention (BPC) with just such an aim was launched in 1972. The BPC immediately addressed the problems of black workers, whose unions were not yet recognised by the law. This invariably set the new organisation on a collision path with the security forces. By the end of the year, however, forty-one branches were said to exist. Black church leaders, artists, organised labour and others were becoming increasingly politicised and, despite the banning in 1973 of some of the leading figures in the movement, black consciousness exponents became most outspoken, courageous and provocative in their defiance of white supremacy.
In 1974 nine leaders of SASO and BPC were charged with fomenting unrest. The accused used the seventeen-month trial as a platform to state the case of black consciousness in a trial that became known as the Trial of Ideas. They were found guilty and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment, although acquitted on the main charge of being party to a revolutionary conspiracy.
Their conviction simply strengthened the black consciousness movement. Growing influence led to the formation of the South African Students Movement (SASM), which targeted and organised at high school level. SASM was to play a pivotal role in the student uprisings of 1976.
In 1972, the year of the birth of the BPC, Biko was expelled from medical school. His political activities had taken a toll on his studies. More importantly, however, according to his friend and comrade Barney Pityana, “his own expansive search for knowledge had gone well beyond the field of medicine.” Biko would later go on to study law through the University of South Africa.
Upon leaving university, Biko joined the Durban offices of the Black Community Programmes (BCP), the developmental wing of the Black People Convention, as an employee reporting to Ben Khoapa. The Black Community Programmes engaged in a number of community-based projects and published a yearly called Black Review, which provided an analysis of political trends in the country.
"To understand me correctly you have to say that there were no fears expressed"
When Biko was banned in March 1973, along with Khoapa, Pityana and others, he was deported from Durban to his home town, King William’s Town. Many of the other leaders of SASO, BPC, and BCP were relocated to disparate and isolated locations. Apart from assaulting the capacity of the organisations to function, the bannings were also intended to break the spirit of individual leaders, many of whom would be rendered inactive by the accompanying banning restrictions and thus waste away.
Following his banning, Biko targeted local organic intellectuals whom he engaged with as much vigour as he had engaged the more academic intellectuals at the University of Natal. Only this time, the focus was on giving depth to the practical dimension of BC ideas on development, which had been birthed within SASO and the BPC. He set up the King William’s Town office (No 15 Leopold Street) of the Black Community Programmes office where he stood as Branch Executive. The organisation focused on projects in Health, Education, Job Creation and other areas of community development.
It was not long before his banning order was amended to restrict him from any meaningful association with the BCP. Biko could not meet with more that one person at a time. He could not leave the magisterial area of King William’s Town without permission from the police. He could not participate in public functions nor could he be published or quoted.
These restrictions on him and others in the BCM and their regular arrests, forced the development of a multiplicity of layers of leadership within the organisation in order to increase the buoyancy of the organisation. Notwithstanding the challenges, the local Black Community Programme office did well, managing among other achievements to build and operate Zanempilo Clinic, the most advanced community health centre of its time built without public funding. According to Dr. Ramphele, “it was a statement intended to demonstrate how little, with proper planning and organisation, it takes to deliver the most basic of services to our people.” Dr. Ramphele and Dr. Solombela served as resident doctors at Zanempilo Clinic.
Other projects under Biko’s office included Njwaxa Leatherworks Project, a community crèche and a number of other initiatives. Biko was also instrumental in founding in 1975 the Zimele Trust Fund set up to assist political prisoners and their families. Zimele Trust did not discriminate on the basis of party affiliation. In addition, Biko set up the Ginsberg Educational Trust to assist black students. This trust was also a plough-back to a community that had once assisted him with his own education.
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 Hirscshson, Intern
— S. Dibuseng Kolisang, Communications Officer
— Ardon Bar-Hama, Photographer
— Marie Human, Researcher