Every year on 12th September, South Africa commemorates the death of Steve Bantu Biko, who died naked on a mat, on a stone floor prison cell after he was tortured by bloodthirsty apartheid police.
It’s more than 40 years since Steve Biko’s death. Born on 18 December 1946, in Ginsberg, Eastern Cape, Biko died on 12 September 1977 in a police cell in Pretoria. He was arrested on 18 August at a police roadblock near Grahamstown in 1977 for having violated the order restricting him to King William’s Town.
Steve Bantu Biko was with his Coloured friend, Peter Jones, on the day of the arrest. The security services took Biko to the Walmer police station in Port Elizabeth, where he was held naked in a cell with his legs in shackles while Jones lingered in the cell without trial for 533 days, during which he was interrogated.
During Biko’s interrogation on September 6, he was severely beaten by the police, who left him with three brain lesions that resulted in a massive brain haemorrhage. He was also forced to stand and was shackled to the wall.
Afterwards, Dr Ivor Lang was invited to examine him. Lang stated that there was no evidence of injury on Biko. However, a test ran by two other doctors showed that blood cells entered Biko’s spinal fluid.
He was later transported to a prison hospital in Pretoria on the back of a Land Rover – naked and manacled – on 11 September. Biko sadly passed away, alone in the Pretoria cell on the same day.
This year’s commemoration is being held under the theme “The Year of OR Tambo”.
Steve Bantu Biko: In The Media
After his heroic death, Biko’s fame spread posthumously. A 1978 biography by his friend Donald Woods became the basis for the 1987 film Cry Freedom. Woods died in 2001. He was also an anti-apartheid activist.
Lesser-Known Facts About Biko’s Death
- Steve Bantu Biko’s death brought the number of people that died in South African prison in twelve months to 21.
- He was the forty-sixth political detainee that died during interrogation after the laws permitting imprisonment without trial was enacted in 1963.
- His shocking death attracted more global attention and even became symbolic of the abuses of the apartheid system.
- At first, the then police minister, Jimmy Kruger, claimed Biko died as a result of a hunger strike. But he later refuted the claim, he alleged Biko had plotted violence against the government.
- Biko was buried by the Anglican church on 25 September 1977 at King William’s Town’s Victoria Stadium.
- His funeral was attended by over 20,000 people, of which a vast majority were black, then a few hundred whites, including Biko’s friends, such as Russell and Woods, Helen Suzman, Alex Boraine, and Zach de Beer.
- The societal event was later described as “the first mass political funeral in the country”.
- The event pulled foreign diplomats from thirteen nations.
- Biko’s coffin had been decorated with the motifs of a clenched black fist, the African continent, and the statement “One Azania, One Nation”
- He was laid to rest in the cemetery at Ginsberg.
In remembrance of Steve Bantu Biko’s time and legacies, the Commander-in-Chief of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) penned down a tear-jerking tribute in honour of the ‘Father of Balck Consciousness’.
Malema’s tribute reads:
On Tuesday we mark the 40th anniversary of Steve Biko’s death.
Arrested on August 18, 1977, he was held in a cell by bloodthirsty, murderous apartheid police. They stripped him naked, shackled his hands and feet, and interrogated him while beating him beyond recognition.
They then placed his naked body, still shackled and with extensive brain injuries, in the back of a Land Rover and drove more than 1000km from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria. He died there on September 12.
What did Biko do to deserve such a painful and humiliating death?
Biko did not have a standing army outside the borders of South Africa supported by some foreign government. He had not even called on people to take up arms against the apartheid regime.
Why, then, would you kill Biko and do so in so brutal and humiliating a manner? Was he carrying explosives? Did he bomb power stations?
No. They killed Biko because he had an idea: that blacks must be proud.
This idea had already taken tens of thousands of school kids to the streets to challenge the apartheid regime from June 16, 1976.
They took to the streets armed only with their pride.
The response of the mighty apartheid regime was to turn its guns on these unarmed, uniformed school kids, many of whom were minors.
Biko met his death that way because they feared his mind. They wanted to prove to him, and perhaps to themselves, too, that his ideas did not have power.
Biko knew that the oppressor’s greatest fear is not so much that the oppressed carry guns in their hands; rather, it is that they own their minds.
When the oppressed own their minds, it does not matter what kind of terror you impose on them, oppressing them is possible no more.
This is perhaps the reason apartheid could not simply imprison Biko, place him in a cell and negotiate with him later.
Biko would have told them: “You are either alive and proud or you are dead, and when you are dead, you can’t care anyway.”
Forty years later, the idea of black pride is still powerful and relevant.
If you thought Biko was dead, look around: he is not in the grave. He continues to impress on our own generations the need to seek a proud life for black people. When the EFF demanded that the statue of Louis Botha outside Parliament fall, it was a matter of black pride.
When University of Cape Town students demanded that Rhodes must fall, it was a matter of black pride.
When the University of Pretoria and University of the Free State students demanded the fall of Afrikaans, it was a matter of black pride.
When all students demanded free decolonized education in the #FeesMustFall movement, it was a matter of black pride.
The sociocultural damage of anti-black racism is not so much to the actual bodies of black people, but their view of themselves.
The most important chains, Biko told us, were not those that restricted the physical body, such as pass laws. What mattered was the psychological power apartheid held over our people.
When the black elite rule, they do everything in their power to be affirmed by white people. In this capitalist, Eurocentric world, they do everything to gain approval as modernized beings – often to the detriment of black people.
Biko was once asked what he meant by his vision of an egalitarian society.
His answer tells us why things have not transformed since 1994: “There is no running away from the fact that now in South Africa there is such an ill distribution of wealth that any form of political freedom which does not touch on the proper distribution of wealth will be meaningless.
“The whites have locked up within a small minority of themselves the greater proportion of the country’s wealth. If we have a mere change of face of those in governing positions what is likely to happen is that black people will continue to be poor, and you will see a few blacks filtering through into the so-called bourgeoisie. Our society will be run almost as of yesterday.”
Thus, 1994 merely became a change of faces – a change of pigmentation. As a result, “our society [is] run almost as of yesterday”.
Now we realize it is not about black skins ruling. Rather, it is about which black mental attitudes rule.
The economic transformation that whites prefer is one that does not disrupt their way of life.
It is a way of life rooted in three things.
First, that cheap and easily disposable black labor must be available for them. Hence there is no commitment to free, decolonized education for black people.
Second, the colonial settler consciousness dictates that those among them who are rich must keep liquid cash in banks to allow them to take off any time they want.
Hence there is no local investment into labor-absorptive industries such as factories. Even as they fight against land expropriation, once the land is taken they will simply go, as in Zimbabwe.
Third, they culturally belong to Europe. This is in terms of language policy, sports policy and the arts, which is one of the reasons there is no investment in African intellectual productions such as film and music that do not use white bodies and languages.
Here you discover why there is no difference between blacks in the ANC and DA. They are similar in attitude in that they never disrupt this white way of life. Under their watch, the black population will always live on its knees.
As we pause on September 12 to remember what Biko called his “method of death”, let us ponder our own “method of life”. For we are indeed either alive and proud, or we are dead.
To live is, first and foremost, a matter of “self-pride”.