Biko – apartheid’s martyr
The name of Nelson Mandela will forever remain iconic in the struggle waged against apartheid in South Africa.
But there have been hundreds of others who gave their lives in the battle to bring racial equality in the predominantly black nation and to rid it of a most oppressive and demeaning form of Government. One such individual was the late Stephen Biko
Bantu Stephen Biko was born on December 18, 1946, in King William’s Town, South Africa, in what is now the Eastern Cape province. He was the third of five children of Mzingaye Biko and Nokuzola Macethe Duna,
Politically active at a young age, Biko was expelled from high school for his activism, and subsequently enrolled at St. Francis College in the Mariannhill area of KwaZulu-Natal. After graduating from St. Francis in 1966, Biko began attending the University of Natal Medical School, where he became active with the National Union of South African Students, a multiracial organization advocating for the improvement of black citizens’ rights.
In 1968, Biko co-founded the South African Students’ Organization (SASO), an all-black student organization focusing on the resistance of apartheid, and subsequently spearheaded the newly started Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) in South Africa.
Biko became SASO’s president in 1969. Three years later, in 1972, he was expelled from the University of Natal due to his political activism. That same year, Biko co-founded another black activist group, the Black People’s Convention, and became the group’s leader. This group would become the central organization for the BCM, which continued to gain traction throughout the nation during the 1970s.
In 1970, Biko married Ntsiki Mashalaba. The couple later had two children together: sons Nkosinathi and Samora. Biko also had two children with Mamphela Ramphele, an active member of the Black Consciousness Movement: daughter Lerato, who was born in 1974 and died of pneumonia at 2 months old, and son Hlumelo, born in 1978. Additionally, Biko had a child with Lorraine Tabane in 1977, a daughter named Motlatsi.
In 1973, Biko was banned by the apartheid regime; he was forbidden to write or speak publicly, to talk with media representatives or to speak to more than one person at a time, among other restrictions. As a result, the associations, movements and public statements of SASA members were halted. Working undercover thereafter, Biko created the Zimele Trust Fund to aid political prisoners and their families in the mid-1970s.
Undaunted by the restrictions, Biko continued organising protests.
At Soweto, a squalid township south west of Johannesburg, high school students protested at the use of Afrikaans as the language of instruction. It culminated in scenes that shocked the world with 170 people, mainly children, being gunned down by the police. As the international community united in condemnation, the South African government targeted Black Consciousness activists.
Biko was arrested on August 27, 1976 and held in solitary confinement for 101 days before being released. Indeed, during the late 1970s, Biko was arrested four times and detained for several months at a time.
Finally, On 18 August 1977, Biko was arrested at a police roadblock and interrogated by the Port Elizabeth security police. The interrogation took place in Police Room 619 of the Sanlam Building in Port Elizabeth. The 22-hour interrogation included torture and beatings, sending Biko into a coma. He suffered a major head injury while in police custody at the Walmer Police Station in a suburb of Port Elizabeth, and was chained to a window grille for a day.
On 11 September 1977, police loaded him into the back of a Land Rover, naked and manacled, for a 1,100-kilometre (680 mi) drive to Pretoria, where there was a prison that had hospital facilities. He was nearly dead from his injuries, and died shortly after he arrived at the Pretoria prison on 12 September. Police said his death was the result of an extended hunger strike, but an autopsy revealed multiple bruises and abrasions and found that he succumbed to a brain hemorrhage from massive head injuries.
Many saw this as strong evidence that he had been brutally beaten by his captors. Donald Woods, a journalist and editor who had been a close friend of Biko’s, exposed the truth behind Biko’s death, along with Helen Zille, who became the leader of the Democratic Alliance political party.
Because of his high profile, news of Biko’s death spread quickly, publicizing the repressive nature of the apartheid government. His funeral was attended by over 20,000 people, including numerous ambassadors and other diplomats from the United States and Western Europe.
It is believed the mourners would have numbered many more if police had not turned many away at scores of roadblocks around King William’s Town. Police blocked all the routes into the town, and thousands were turned away by the heavily armed officials. Convoys in the major cities were stopped even before they set out for the funeral.
People from the Transvaal who managed to get through had to pass through seven roadblocks before arriving in King William’s Town.
One of the speakers at the funeral, Dr Nthato Motlana, who flew from Johannesburg after he was blocked off when attempting to travel by road, said at the funeral that he had watched as black policemen hauled mourners off the buses in Soweto and assaulted them with truncheons. The physician said he had treated 30 of the mourners, some for fractured skulls, and said he had witnesses who would testify that a number of young women were raped.
Yet, the authorities could not hide or dampen the significance of the occasion,
Donald Woods, who had photographed his injuries in the morgue as proof of police abuse, was later forced to flee South Africa for England. Woods campaigned against apartheid and further publicised Biko’s life and death, writing many newspaper articles about him as well as a book titled Biko, which was later made into the film Cry Freedom.
Nelson Mandela said of Biko: “They had to kill him to prolong the life of apartheid.”
While it was Mandela who was freed to lead South Africa and reconcile the country after the fall of apartheid, many still see Biko as an icon of the struggle for majority rule.
In paying tribute to him in 2002 Mandela said: “He was the spark that lit a veld fire across South Africa. His message to the youth and students was simple and clear: Black is Beautiful! Be proud of your Blackness! And with that he inspired our youth to shed themselves of the sense of inferiority they were born into as a result of more than three hundred years of white rule.”