Biko: first liberate the mind

It’s been 40 years since 12 September 1977, when Bantu Stephen Biko died in police detention at the age of 30. He is a pioneer of the Black Consciousness philosophy.

Stephen Biko Steve Biko liberate the mind
Stephen Biko is a pioneer of the Black Consciousness philosophy. (Image: South African History Online)

On 12 September 1977, Stephen Bantu Biko died in police detention at the age of 30, 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 133km away. He died shortly after his arrival there.”

Biko’s death – for which the authorities denied responsibility – drew worldwide condemnation of the repressive laws and practices of apartheid South Africa.

It also significantly altered the political landscape in the country, helping to inspire a generation of young black South Africans to commit themselves to the struggle against apartheid under the catchphrase “liberation before education”.

Biko became not just a hero of South Africa’s liberation struggle, but a universal symbol of resistance against oppression, with his memory praised in films, books and songs – including Peter Gabriel’s haunting 1980 song Biko:

    • “You can blow out a candle
    • But you can’t blow out a fire.
    • Once the flames begin to catch
    • The wind will blow it higher.”

After South Africa’s transition to democracy in 1994, the policemen responsible for Biko’s death applied for amnesty to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. According to SA History Online, while they admitted beating Steve Biko severely, and lying about the date of his death, they still maintained that his death was accidental.

“The security policemen were denied amnesty because, according to the commission, Biko’s death was not politically motivated. Biko’s family objected to the TRC hearing, fearing that its amnesty policy would rob them of their right to justice.”

Symbol of hope

Undoubtedly the most articulate spokesperson for black South Africans during the early 1970s, he was able to pinpoint the crux of their experience at the time – their own feelings of inferiority and self-hate.

“In popular culture, he [remains] a very powerful symbol of hope … an icon of change,” Biko’s son Nkosinathi once said. “He helped to articulate our understanding, our own identity that continues to resonate in young South Africans to this day.

“His ideas have a real influence well beyond the political field, in cultural organisations, in research organisations and in churches.”

“Steve Biko is on T-shirts, in music, in the newspapers,” Kopano Ratele, a researcher with the University of South Africa’s Institute of Social and Health Sciences, told AFP in 2008.

“People who were teenagers or in their 20s in the 1970s still remember Biko with nostalgia, and they credit him for giving them a sense of pride in themselves.”

Revival of an oppressed people

In 1968, while studying at the University of Natal, Biko established the South African Students Organisation (SASO) which, under his leadership, adopted the radical new pro-black doctrine that would become known as Black Consciousness – defined by Biko as the “cultural and political revival of an oppressed people”.

By 1971, the Black Consciousness Movement had grown into a formidable force in South Africa, and Biko sought to move beyond a purely student organisation with the establishment of the Black People’s Convention (BPC).

Despite being banned by the government and restricted to King William’s Town, his birthplace, in 1973, Biko continued to promote the cause of Black Consciousness, establishing an Eastern Cape branch of the BPC and through this organising literacy classes and health education programmes.


According to SA History Online, the wave of strikes during and after the 1976 Soweto students’ uprising “demonstrated, to a large extent, the influence Biko exerted on South African socio-political life.

“Although he did not directly take part in the Soweto riots, the influence of Black Consciousness ideas spurred students to fight an unjust system, particularly after they were compelled to accept Afrikaans as a language for use in schools.

“In the wake of the urban revolt of 1976 and with the prospects of national revolution becoming increasingly real, security police detained Biko, the outspoken student leader, on August 18th.

“At this time Biko had begun studying law by mail through the University of South Africa. He was 30 years old and was reportedly extremely fit when arrested.”

Biko’s funeral, held on 25 September, was attended by diplomats from 13 Western countries, and well over 10 000 South Africans from every corner of the country – with police roadblocks prevented thousands more from attending.

At the end of the day, Steve Biko was buried “in a muddy plot beside the railroad tracks after a marathon funeral that was as much a protest rally against the white minority government’s racial policies as it was a commemoration of the country’s foremost young black leader.”

Sources: South African History Online and the Steve Biko Foundation.

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