Biko at the Apartheid Museum

23 January 2008

Just over 30 years ago, on 12 September 1977, Stephen Bantu Biko died in police detention at the age of 31, leaving behind him a fundamentally altered political landscape and a liberating mirror for the black men and women of South Africa.

The pioneer of the Black Consciousness philosophy was arrested on the outskirts of the Eastern Cape town of Grahamstown on 18 August 1977, and taken to apartheid security police headquarters in Port Elizabeth where, according to South African History Online, he “was beaten so severely that damage to his brain was caused.

“Realising to a certain extent the seriousness of his condition, the police decided to transfer him to a prison hospital in Pretoria, which was 1 133 kilometres away. He died shortly after his arrival there.”

To commemorate the 30th anniversary of his death, the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg has put together an excellent exhibition on Biko. Through about 50 panels filled with text and graphics, the viewer can read the words of Biko, taken from his book I Write What I Like.

But there are also many other things to read about the man, and how he died a lonely death at the hands of the brutal security police. There is unique footage of Biko from a 1977 BBC interview; and then minister of police Jimmy Kruger’s infamous comment after Biko’s death:

“I am not glad and I am not sorry about Mr Biko. His death leaves me cold. I can say nothing to you. Any person who dies . I shall also be sorry if I die .” Kruger said, laughing at his own joke.

There is also footage of Kruger. Initially, the security police said that the cause of death was a hunger strike. Several months later, when it was acknowledged that Biko had died of brain damage, Kruger said dispassionately: “A man can damage his brain many ways. I have also felt like banging my head against a brick wall many times, but realising now, with the Biko autopsy, that may be fatal, I haven’t done it.”

Born in King William’s Town
Bantu Steve Biko was born in King William’s Town in 1948, a tall, handsome man with a charismatic personality. He was a founder member of the South African Students’ Organisation, from which the Black Consciousness Movement developed, with the slogan “Black is beautiful”.

Biko said in his book: “When you say ‘Black is beautiful’ you are saying, ‘Man, you are okay as you are; begin to look upon yourself as a human being.'”

A number of umbrella organisations were formed, one of which was the Black People’s Convention, which played a role in the Soweto riots of 1976.

In 1973, Biko was banned and confined to Eastern Cape. After the riots he was arrested repeatedly; by his final arrest on 18 August 1977 he had been in and out of jail frequently, including spending 101 days in solitary confinement.

He was held naked and manacled at the Walmer police station in Port Elizabeth, says human rights advocate George Bizos in No One to Blame. On the morning of 6 September he was taken to the security police offices in the Sanlam Building and interrogated until 6pm, when he was again handcuffed and shackled.

Long journey to Pretoria
Biko was examined and transferred to the prison hospital; he was given a lumbar puncture, which revealed blood in his spinal fluid. It was decided to transfer him to Pretoria, a 1 133 kilometre journey that took 11 hours, with Biko lying naked in the back of the Land Rover. He died on 12 September 1977 in the Pretoria prison hospital later that night. He was just 31 years old.

His death caused a worldwide outcry which temporarily stopped the deaths in detention, but they resumed a year to two later. In all, 115 people died in prison between 1963 and 1990.

Biko’s wife, Ntsiki, says of his death in detention: “I think Steve expected to die in the hands of the security police. I think all of us expected it. But Steve was prepared to sacrifice his life for the black cause. He felt his work was so important that even if he died it would be worth it.”

And Biko himself said of dying: “You are either alive and proud or you are dead, and when you are dead, you don’t care anyway. And your method of death can be a politicising thing.”

Behind the icon
The exhibition traces Biko’s birth and education, his spells inside jail, his relationships, and his death in detention.

There is a section, right at the top end of the exhibition, which, says curator Emilia Potenza, attempts to record details of others who died in detention. A video broadcasts images of them and their families, and any other details that researchers have managed to accumulate.

Says Potenza: “It is an extraordinary story which moves beyond the icon on a T-shirt to what’s behind that icon.”

Besides the repeated recordings of Biko and Kruger, the constant refrain of Peter Gabriel’s song, simply entitled Biko, first released in 1980, echoes hauntingly around the museum.

The exhibition was put together at the request of the Department of Education, with assistance from the Steve Biko Foundation. It makes use of many original photographs, documents and audio-visual clips, and draws on interviews with a range of his contemporaries.

It will travel around the country and go overseas, says Christopher Till, the museum’s director. “The Biko story is one that needs to be told. His philosophy has won over the minds of many. Many of the BC [Black Consciousness] ideas have triumphed.”

The apartheid state, says Bizos, considered Biko dangerous “not because he had ever taken part in violent activities, but because of his formidable intellect.”

The exhibition will run until the end of June 2008. The Apartheid Museum is on the corner of Northway and Gold Reef roads, Ormonde. It is open from Tuesdays to Sundays from 10am to 5pm.

Source: City of Johannesburg