Biko set out to study medicine but never became a doctor. Although he had the opportunity to complete his law studies, he did not pursue that either. While he never set out to become a martyr, that is what Biko became.

Biko was born on 18 December 1946 in the Ginsberg township in the Eastern Cape. As a student leader, and through the BCM, he empowered and mobilised the urban black movement while emphasising his aim to “awaken the people”. Biko stated at the time that, “The black man has become a shell, a shadow of man [who] bears the yoke of oppression with sheepish timidity.” He empowered the black South African population through defining the BCM as an “inward-looking process [to] infuse people with pride and dignity.” It was through this refusal to comply with apartheid’s definition of black inferiority that Biko inspired and encouraged the black youth and changed the political landscape of the 1970s.

Lindy Wilson, who met Biko during his time in the Eastern Cape, accounts for Biko in her biography: “His vitality drew people to him, not only for his sharp intelligence and generous counsel but for his exuberant energy and contagious laugh.” Wilson goes further to praise Biko, not only for his clear thinking and “refreshing political insight” but for his capacity to listen and his ability to place himself among people and not position himself above them. “Biko’s gift of leadership was not that people should follow him in a slavish kind of way, but that suddenly … they discovered themselves and empowered themselves with their own resources,” says Wilson. “He was essentially human but also exceptional,” she adds.

In the early 1970s, Biko was a key figure in The Durban Moment. This refers to a period when the city of Durban became the centre of a new vibrancy in the struggle against the apartheid regime. It was in 1972 that Biko was expelled from the University of Natal’s medical school because of his political activities. Later that year Biko assisted in founding the Black Community Programmes (BCP), self-help groups for black South African communities. In February 1973 Biko was banned by the apartheid government from speaking to more than one person at a time, as well as from speaking in public. Biko was restricted to the King William’s Town district and could not communicate with the media. He then established a branch of the BCP in the Eastern Cape. Together with early leaders of the movement, such as Bennie Khoapa and Barney Pityana, Biko published various journals such as Black Review.

In 1975 Biko began to form grassroots organisations with the core agenda of self-reliance. These organisations included Zanempilo, the Zimele Trust Fund, and the Ginsberg Education Fund. Biko said in public that, “The logical direction is that eventually any white society in this country is going to have to accommodate black thinking.”

Biko, together with the BCM, played a significant role in protests which subsequently led to the Soweto Uprising. On 16 June 1976, students protested in the streets of Soweto against the introduction of Afrikaans as the primary language of study in local schools. This protest was met with fierce police brutality, and 16 June has since been an annual public holiday which seeks to commemorate and remember the youth and the events of this day.

Voices of Liberation, a series of books published by the Human Sciences Research Council tells the stories South African and African liberation activists. The book detailing the life of Steve Biko, written by Dr Derek Hook, includes significant contributions from an associate of Steve Biko, Nkutsoe Motsau, a fellow BCM comrade who served time on Robben Island. Motsau described Biko as a man who was “at home conversing with anyone”. “[Biko] exhibited a genuine urge to connect with others, even when separated by … race, class or social hierarchy,” says Hook. Included in Hook’s book is an excerpt of Steve Biko’s writings titled “Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity”. Here, Biko describes his hope in reaching “some kind of balance – a true humanity where power politics will have no place”. Biko goes further to describe black consciousness as “an attitude of mind and way of life … Its essence is the realisation by the black man of the need to rally together with his brothers around … the blackness of their skin … and to operate as a group to rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude.” He describes how the philosophy of the BCM expresses the determination of the black population “to rise and attain the envisaged self”. Thus, black consciousness encourages the “black man [to] see himself as a being complete in himself,” Biko urges. “Black people – real black people – are those who can manage to hold their heads high in defiance,” he concludes.

“[Biko] suffered a terrible death at the hands of a grotesque and brutal power,” writes Professor Achille Mbembe in Biko’s Testament of Hope. After his arrest on 18 August 1977, Biko was taken to Port Elizabeth where he was kept handcuffed and naked. He was subsequently interrogated and tortured preceding his death in detention in Pretoria on 12 September 1977. Biko’s funeral was attended by over 10 000 people, including many international ambassadors and diplomats.

In February 1978 it was concluded that, due to a lack of evidence, the officers charged with Biko’s murder would not be prosecuted. “In the story of black martyrdom, Biko stands opposite Nelson Mandela, the hero who came up from death and captivity unharmed in body and in mind. Paradoxically, Biko’s death only served to illuminate the permanence of his life further. This is why, for as long as history continues, [Biko] will be with us,” added Professor Mbembe.

Barney Pityana, a fellow publisher of Black Review and friend of Biko, spoke of today’s South African students and their relation to Biko at the inaugural Steve Biko Memorial Lecture in Europe in 2012. In order to emulate Biko and his vision, the youth and students need “to avoid the lure of instant riches” and attain a “critical approach to life and a sense of freedom by which they live their lives”, urges Pityana. “That is what Steve Biko achieved in his lifetime, a life of sacrifice that today shapes the thinking of many for a better world,” says Pityana.

Image: Kirsty Mackay and Hendro van der Merwe

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