Monday, September 12, 2016

Steve Biko: 18 December 1946 – 12 September 1977

Steve (Stephen Bantu) Biko (18 December 1946 – 12 September 1977), “leader of the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) and pioneer of the Black Consciousness philosophy, died in police custody at the age of thirty. Biko was arrested in the outskirts of Grahamstown on 18 August 1977. During his detention in a Port Elizabeth police cell he had been chained to a grill at night and left to lie in urine-soaked blankets. He had been stripped naked and kept in leg-irons for 48 hours in his cell. A blow in a scuffle with security police led to him suffering brain damage. Realising to a certain extent the seriousness of his condition, the police decided to transfer him to a prison hospital in Pretoria, which was 1133 km away. He died shortly after his arrival there. His death was confirmed by the commissioner of police, General Gert Prinsloo.”

This following is a small portion of an extract from Biko’s giving of evidence in the SASO/BPC [South African Students’ Organisation/Black People’s Convention] trial (1975-76, almost two full years!) of nine student leaders who “were found guilty under the Terrorism Act and sentenced to periods of imprisonment, three for six years and six for five years. The next day they were driven from Pretoria to Cape Town in the back of a police van, and from there taken to Robben Island.” Biko was queried by the defence lawyer, Advocate David Soggot (assistant counsel for Defence), Mr. L. Attwell, assistant counsel for the Prosecution, and the trial judge, Judge Boshoff.

“We try to get blacks in conscientisation to grapple realistically with their problems, to attempt to find solutions to their problems, to develop what one might call an awareness, a physical awareness of their situation, to be able to analyse it, and to provide answers for themselves. The purpose behind it really being to provide some kind of hope; I think the central theme about black society is that it has got elements of a defeated society, people often look like they have given up on the struggle. Like the man who was telling me that he now lives to work, he has given himself to the idea. Now this sense of defeat is basically what we are fighting against; people 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 conscientisation and Black Consciousness.”— Steve Biko: I Write What I Like Selected Writings (University of Chicago Press, 2002; first published in London: The Bowerdean Press, 1978): 114. 

Suggested Reading:  
  • Arnold, Millard, ed. Steve Biko: Black Consciousness in South Africa. New York: Random House, 1978.
  • Gerhart, Gail M. Black Power in South Africa: Evolution of an Ideology. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978. 
  • Gibson, Nigel. “Black Consciousness, 1977-1987: The Dialectics of Liberation in South Africa,” Durban, South Africa: Centre for Civil Society, Research Report 18. 
  • Murray, Martin. South Africa: Time of Agony, Time of Destiny. London: Verso, 1987. 
  • Seekings, Jeremy. The UDF: A History of the United Democratic Front in South Africa, 1983-1991. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2000. 
  • South African Democracy Education Trust, ed. The Road to Democracy in South Africa, Volume 2: 1970-1980. Pretoria: Unisa Press, University of South Africa, 2nd ed., 2010. 
  • Woods, Donald. Biko. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 3rd ed., 1991 (1978).

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