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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: La mort de Steve Biko, premier clou du cercueil de l’apartheid

by Pierre Barbancey

Steve Biko, the First Nail in Apartheid’s Coffin

Translated Sunday 1 October 2017, by Jane Swingler

The leader of the Black Consciousness Movement died on 12 September 1977, after being tortured by the apartheid regime. His fight has spread endlessly through the South African townships and, on a wider scale, across the whole African continent.

Steve Biko addresses the members of the South-African Student Organization (Saso), during a conference at the Université of Natal, in Durban, South Africa, in July 1971.

Photo: John Reader/The Life Images Collection/Getty Images

In the pantheon of heroes in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, Steve Biko holds a unique but essential place. This remarkable voice, this free spirit, this charismatic and upstanding man challenged the followers of the white racist order. He paid with his life, quite literally dying at the expert hands of the guardians of the temple of “separate development”. It was the 12 September, forty years ago and he was only just 30 years old, yet his black consciousness has spread endlessly through the South African townships and, on a wider scale, across the whole continent. This has never changed. In 1994, as newly-elected president of the rainbow nation, Nelson Mandela, in his inimitable way, was to affirm: “Biko was the first nail in apartheid’s coffin.”

Steve Biko was born on 18 December 1946, in the township of Ginsburg, in what was formerly the Eastern Province, now the Eastern Cape. He enrolled at the University of Natal to do medicine, in the “non-European” department, as demanded by apartheid. He then became a member of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) but felt stifled. The leadership of the union, while being opposed to apartheid, was made up only of whites and it was clear to him that their actions were limited. In Steve Biko’s opinion, black, mixed race and Indian students needed their own organisation, capable of taking their own interests into account. Thus, in 1969, was born the South African Students Organisation (SASO), the embryo of what would become the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), which Biko would come to symbolise, defining it in this way: “The Black Consciousness Movement is a state of mind and a way of life, the most positive call to emanate from the black world for a long time.”

His commitment rapidly brought him to the attention of apartheid’s henchmen. He was expelled from the University of Natal in 1972. The following year, he was banned from speaking in public and even from talking to more than one person at a time! He paid no heed and continued to travel around the South African townships and villages, to win over the black community to his cause. That he managed to do this was especially remarkable in the 1960s, which were often dubbed “the silent sixties”. The racist regime’s clampdown following the Sharpeville massacre on 21 March 1960 was such that most of the large anti-apartheid organisations, like the ANC, the PAC or the South African Communist Party, were prohibited and their leaders imprisoned.

Developing a Sense of Black Pride

The aim of the BCM philosophy was to urge black people to take it upon themselves to be free of the chains of oppression and to strive for this freedom. They should develop a sense of pride in being black and grow in confidence in order to construct their own future. In this way, it was an awakening that was as much cultural as it was social and political. However, contrary to some Africanist movements in South Africa, Biko, like the ANC, called for the setting-up of a non-racial society. Many student members of the BCM subsequently ended up as teachers in Soweto and were on the front line when, in 1976, the revolt blew up in this township where they refused to teach in Afrikaans, the language of those in power. It was a revolt that was quashed in the most bloody way.

Despite the danger, Steve Biko travelled around even more. That is how he arrived in the Cape on 17 August 1977 but left the following day without meeting his contacts because of a security risk. He was arrested on the road and taken to the Port Elizabeth Police HQ, where he was tortured. On 6 September, despite days of beatings, the apartheid thugs unleashed another frenzied attack and smashed his head against his cell walls. In spite of his injuries and evident brain damage, he was kept restrained in an upright position. It was not until 11 September that he was taken naked, on the flatbed of a truck, on a 12 hour journey to the prison hospital in Pretoria. He died on 12 September 1977.

The apartheid regime would never acknowledge its part in this murder, initially attributing the death to a hunger strike before launching an investigation which found no one responsible! It would be necessary to wait for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was set up after the fall of apartheid, for the police to confess to their monstrous act. Thousands of shocked people attended Steve Biko’s funeral at King William’s Town, where today there is a foundation which bears his name. International outrage was such that the UN Security Council took the decision to extend the arms embargo agreed in 1963. As Steve Biko said, “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”


Memories in Film and Song

Steve Biko inspired some 20 songs around the world. In his piece entitled “Diallo”, Wyclef Jean, the American rapper of Haitian heritage, compared the murder of the leader of the BCM to that of a young African migrant in New York in 1999. Peter Gabriel also immortalised his memory in a song, “Biko”, which was also an appeal against racism. But it is perhaps the cinema which will have helped to perpetuate Steve Biko’s struggle, notably in Europe. In his film “Cry Freedom”, shot in Zimbabwe in 1987, when apartheid was still raging, the director Richard Attenborough told the true story of the friendship, cemented during a reporting assignment, between Donald Woods, a white journalist and Biko, played by Denzel Washington.

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