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Stephen Biko: South African Martyr for Black Consciousness and Political Prisoners

September 12, 2007

The sense of defeat is what we are fighting against. People must not just give in to the hardship of life. Peoplestevebiko.jpg must develop a hope. People must develop some form of security to be together to look at their problems, and people must, in this way, build up their humanity. This is the point about Black Consciousness.” — Stephen Bantu Biko

Thirty years ago today, South African activist Stephen Biko (14 Dec 1946 – 12 Sept 1977) died from beatings while being interrogated by the South African police after 26 days of detention. In life, Biko had been a leader of the Black Consciousness Movement. In death, he confirmed the brutality and injustice of apartheid rule in South Africa that culminated in its overthrow little more than a decade later.

Because Biko was killed at such a young age, it is not entirely clear what form his struggle against apartheid has taken. He was strongly influenced by the revolutionary Frantz Fanon, and like Fanon, believed that the psychological liberation of the Black Consciousness movement would eventual yield physical liberation that could entail violence. On the other hand, Biko’s activities and methods at the time of his death were steeped in Gandhian non-violence.

What is clear is that in his short life Biko galvanized the anti-apartheid struggle. Biko was raised in the Anglican church and educated at a Catholic school. He entered the political struggle against apartheid as a student at the the University of Natal School of Medicine, helping to found the South African Students Organization, which evolved into the influential Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). In 1973, Biko was “banned” by the South African government, which meant that his travel was severely restricted, he was not allowed to speak to more than one person at a time, could not make speeches in public, and it became illegal to quote anything he said, including speeches or simple conversations.

Despite (or perhaps because) of these outrageous restrictions, Biko and the BCM continued to play a significant role in the anti-apartheid struggle. Biko formed a number of grassroots organizations such as clinics and community trust funds that emphasized pride and self-reliance, and continued to organize protests and demonstrations that culminated in the Soweto Uprising in which thousands of black school children marched out school in protest of a policy that compelled them to be taught exclusively in English or Afrikaans, the languages of the white ruling class. The South African police reacted with wanton violence, firing indiscriminately into the rally, killing hundreds of the children, precipitating an international outcry against the regime.

In the aftermath of the Soweto Uprising, Biko faced even more intense repression from the police. He was arrested on 18 August 2007. It was determined that Biko died of brain injuries sustained on 7 or 8 September, but despite these injuries, was shackled in leg irons for days in his cell, lying naked in his urine on a mat. When, days later, it was finally determined he needed medical attention, he was not treated at a nearby hospital, but transported, still naked and in shackles, to a prison hospital in Pretoria nearly 750 miles away, where he died shortly after arrival.

The South African government initially tried to claim his death was a suicide. When international pressure led by Biko’s friend, white journalist Donald Woods, forced the regime to investigate, a judge refused to support a murder charge on the grounds that their were no witnesses. After white minority rule was ended, the Truth and Reconciliation committee announced in 1997 that 5 former members of the South African security forces had confessed to Biko’s killing and were applying for amnesty.

Biko’s legacy, it seems to me, is rich and complex. He remains a hero in the ongoing struggle of Africans to throw off the intellectual, emotional and spiritual vestiges of colonial oppression. His martyrdom also reminds us that we must be ever vigilant against the potential excesses of state power, and are compelled to take up the cause of political prisoners everywhere.

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