Stephen Biko (1946 - 1977)

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Stephen Biko

You can blow out a candle
But you can’t blow out a fire
Once the flame begins to catch
The wind will blow it higher
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko...
The eyes of the world are
watching now...

He was “quite simply the greatest man I have ever had the privilege to know,” according to a writer who met and interviewed many world leaders. According to Donald Woods, Stephen Biko “had the most impressive array of qualities and abilities in that sphere of life which determines the fates of most people—politics.”

For a man who died when he was only thirty and never traveled outside his own country, Stephen Biko had a remarkable following; as the editors of Christianity and Crisis said at the time of his death, his face and mind were known across the world. Decades later, he occupies a special place among people struggling for human rights—in history and literature, in film (especially the award-winning Cry Freedom) and song (Peter Gabriel’s “Biko,” quoted above).

Biko became famous as a leader in the struggle to end apartheid and to build a democratic society in South Africa. In death, he joined thousands of black people who, like him, had been victimized by white settlers since foreign settlements in the mid-17th century. Often torn by tribal conflicts and interracial battles, Africans had neither guns nor horses to face the superior technology of white invaders until the end of the 18th century.

Over three centuries, many white people died also in conflicts between white Afrikaners—descendants of early Dutch, German, and Huguenot—and later British—settlers. As the twentieth century began, these two groups fought one another in the Boer War. Shortly afterward, Mohandas Gandhi led an important movement resisting discrimination against Indians, before he returned to his native country and helped to end British rule. Among the recent major figures in South African history are Albert Luthuli, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela, all of whom received the Nobel Prize for Peace. In an historic moment, Mandela was elected president of South Africa in 1994, after spending twenty-seven years in prison, as a member of the African National Congress.

Since 1948, the Nationalist Party had been the party in power, dominated by Afrikaners, who make up 60 percent of the white population in South Africa. In its efforts to perpetuate rule by a white minority, in a country in which eighty percent of the people are black, the Nationalists implemented a number of repressive measures; systematically carried out, these apartheid policies confined blacks to particular regions of the country and denied them basic human rights. Of several major black leaders associated with this terrible period, after the Sharpeville Massacre (1960, which killed 70 Africans, wounded 186 others, and evoked protests from people around the world), Stephen Biko was among the first to die.

It happened in this way. In 1961, in an effort to crush two popular black movements, the Nationalist party banned Mandela’s African National Congress and Robert Sobukwe’s Pan Africanist Congress, then imprisoned the two leaders and their chief lieutenants on Robben Island in Table Bay. After a period of some uncertainty, a young Bantu, Stephen Biko, emerged as a vigorous and popular leader. As the first president of the South African Students’ Organization (SASO) in the 1960s, he had come to understand that “the most powerful weapon in the hands of the oppressor was the mind of the oppressed.” His response to this condition was the founding of the Black Consciousness Movement, which he regarded as “the cultural and political revival of an oppressed people,” with the general goal of liberating black people “first from psychological oppression by themselves through inferiority complex and secondly from the physical oppression accruing out of living in a white racist society,” as a SASO resolution put it.

Stephen BikoBorn in King William’s Town, South Africa, on December 18, 1946, Bantu Stephen Biko (Bee-kaw) attended primary school there and in Lovedale, a famous missionary school for blacks before a student strike led to its being closed down. After a strong academic performance at Marianhill, a Catholic high school in Natal, Biko spent the years 1966 to 1972 at the University of Natal, with plans initially to study medicine. During that period, however, politics intervened, when his contemporaries responded to the unassuming yet firm leadership that would characterize his life from that point on.

Described as “full of charm, large and easy and gentle and courteous and humorous,” Biko was by all accounts a remarkable presence even as a young man, with an impressive command of language, as his speeches and court testimony suggest. “Everyone who met Steve in good will experienced a sort of magnetism,” Dr. Trudi Thomas wrote. “I attribute it to his triumphant, unassailable normality, a touchstone you were welcome to share.”

When officials forced him to leave the university in 1972, Biko was already the acknowledged leader of the South African Students Organization and the Black Community Programs. As a full-time organizer, he publicized the Black Consciousness movement that he had initiated. Within the year, however, he was banned from Durban, where he had been working, and returned to his hometown to work in the same program until he was placed under further restrictions in 1975. Although he traveled extensively after that, he had to do so secretly, protected by an increasing number of followers and admirers, both black militants and white supporters.

For a man who had braved so much, at such terrible risk, the end was swift and brutal. Arrested on September 6, 1977, Stephen Biko was taken by police to a building in Port Elizabeth, Cape Province, where they bound his hands and feet to a grille and interrogated him for twenty-two hours; during that period, he was beaten so fiercely about the head that he fell into a coma and died six days later.

Two weeks later, 20,000 people traveled from all over South Africa to King William’s Town to attend Biko’s funeral; others were arrested, tear-gassed, and beaten by police in their attempts to join the crowd of mourners. At an inquiry into the causes of his death—in spite of convincing evidence, photographs and testimony to the contrary—the magistrate at the hearing took only one minute to rule that Stephen Biko had died of injuries endured during a scuffle. In a remarkable account of this and other events in Biko’s life, Donald Woods, a white journalist, provided transcripts of Biko’s trials, including the inquiry after his death; smuggled out of the country, then completed after the author and his family escaped into exile, the book—and a subsequent film based upon it—gave Biko’s story to the world.

Prosecuted many times during his short life for minor offenses (a common fate of activists under seige by the white political police), Stephen Biko won the respect even of those who carried out the laws perpetuating apartheid in the courtrooms and jails of his country. Among many testimonies, his eloquent defense of nine young blacks prosecuted by the country’s Supreme Court in 1976 is perhaps the best known. There, as on previous occasions, he turned the courtroom into a forum for black grievances against a repressive and racist government, while at the same time defending Black Consciousness as a constructive rather than a destructive philosophy.

According to many accounts, Biko consistently separated the Nationalist mentality that subjugated him from the individuals caught up in the system. Such behavior reflected the strength and subtlety of his character, evident in many settings, as well as the strong religious influences that echoed in his speeches, interviews, and occasional writings. Not surprisingly, several tributes at the time of his death emphasized his importance not only as a political theorist, but also as a lay theologian.

Although reared an Anglican and educated in church-related schools, Biko saw African Christianity as a colonial inheritance, a product of and symbol of imperial Europe; “the mainline churches were hardly influenced by the black fact,” he said. For that reason, he regarded the questioning attitude of black theology in the late 1960s as its most important contribution, challenging “not Christianity itself, but its Western package, in order to discover what the Christian faith means for our continent.”

Black theology provided an opportunity “to bring back God” to black people, to the truth and reality of their situation. Black-consciousness theology was a means for Black Africans to reclaim what was rightfully theirs. In this way, Biko belongs to a special company of martyrs whose leadership contributed to a religious awakening accompanying other recent movements for social change around the world.

Dr. Michael True, reprinted with permission, from People Power: 50 Peacemakers and their Communities. Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 2007.

Selected material by Stephen Biko
  • I Write What I Like.  Originally published in 1978, containing writings from 1969-1972.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
  • “Steve Biko Speaks: Our Strategy for Liberation,” Christianity and Crisis, January 16, 1978, 329-32.
  • The Challenge of Black Theology in South Africa. Basil Moore, ed. Atlanta: John Knox Press (1973), 1974.
Selected material about Stephen Biko
  • Woods, Donald. Biko. New York: Paddington Press, Ltd., 1978.
  • American Friends Service Committee. South Africa: Challenge and Hope. Lyle Tatum, Rev. ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 1987.
  • Wilmore, Gayraud S. “Steve Biko, Martyr,” Christianity and Crisis. October 17, 1977, 239-40.
  • Bios   ( 24 )
    Inspirational noteworthy figures in the history of nonviolence, peace, and social justice
  • Groups   ( 24 )
    Groups and organizations that have played significant roles in nonviolent movements
  • Concepts   ( 18 )
    Important concepts related to peace and nonviolence, especially in regards to nonviolent action
  • Movements   ( 26 )
    Movements and historical events where nonviolent action was used entirely or in large part
fuga mobilya